To Just Sit: A Spiritual Mindfulness Message on Yom Kippur Afternoon

Were you able to find a seat ok?  You may have noticed that when you enter this early part of the Yom Kippur afternoon service, it’s easy to find a place to sit!  Nestled between the crowds of Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur morning, and the crowds that will soon arrive for Yizkor and Neilah, this afternoon service tends to be our quieter moment of the day.  And yet, here you are.  Perhaps you are drawn here because your family has always made Yom Kippur a full-day experience.  Perhaps you need a place to wait out the fast.  Perhaps you are avoiding slicing tomatoes back at your house, where your family is preparing to host a break-fast. And perhaps you are here, to soak up every last potential opportunity, for introspection on Yom Kippur.

I’d like to consider with you, the role of introspection, in these hours of Yom Kippur, and beyond.  What does it mean, to sit in reflection?  We just heard the fantastic tale of the prophet Jonah.  After trying to flee God by boarding a ship, only to be thrown overboard into the mouth of a big fish and then spewed onto dry land… and after Jonah sees and rejects the compassion God shows to the people of Nineveh after they repent, Jonah is not at his best.  Jonah leaves for a place just outside of the city, finds some shade, and Jonah sits in a booth–a sukkah.  Vayeshev–he sits.

We, too, need to sit.  If we want to focus on our conduct, our relationships, our priorities, the lives we are leading, we need to set aside regular time to reflect on our conduct, pay attention to our relationships, concentrate on our priorities, notice the lives we are leading.  Such introspection, is our way to clarify our intentions, and bring into alignment our actions with our values.

Harry Kraemer is a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and is the former chairman and CEO of Baxter International, a multibillion dollar health-care company.  Harry, a father of five, is trained in mathematics, economics, finance and accounting.  Yet as quantitative as he is in his thinking, what is the number one tool he teaches his MBA students?  Self-Reflection.  In his book, From Values to Action, Harry shares his daily practice of Self-reflection.

At the end of each day, after the business is complete and the children are tucked in bed, Harry sits still. He asks himself: What did I say I was going to do today, and what did I actually do?  If what I did was different than what I planned, then what were the reasons?  What went well and what did not?  How did I treat people?  Am I proud of the way I lived this day?  If I had the day to live over again, what would I do differently?  And finally, what did I learn today that will have an impact on how I live the next day, the next week, and going forward?  Often, Harry writes about his responses in a journal.  At least 15 minutes a day he contemplates, tunes out the external noise, and sharpens his focus on the internal voice, that speaks of what matters most.  From this daily contemplation, Harry rises more grateful, and more committed to his values.

The lesson of the prophet Jonah and of Harry Kraemer, challenges me. My sense is that it challenges many of us, because the mandate to sit and reflect, counters what has become the idolatry of our lives: Multi-tasking.  To set aside time for reflection, we need to admit that our minds can only do one thing well at a time.

Here is a shocking reminder, of the need to focus on one thing at a time: According to some reports, distracted driving, such as texting while operating a vehicle, is the leading cause of crashes and near-crashes.  The quick and simple act of checking a message, is more multi-tasking than our human minds can achieve.  We can only do one thing well at a time.

I saw this reality of singular-tasking up close this year, when I had the opportunity to watch as a young child had an IV port, inserted into her hand.  This is a painful procedure, so CHOP provides a social worker to help ease the child through the process.  What was the magic this social worker brought into the emergency room?  An ipad with a Hello Kitty puzzle video game.  I watched as this child played the game, totally distracted from her fear and from her physical pain.  She barely flinched when the IV went into her hand.  When the social-worker turned off the game, the girl looked down at her hand and said, “Oh, what’s that!?”

So if we can’t safely text while we drive, and we don’t acutely feel the IV pain if properly distracted, then how can you and I be mindful of the purpose of our lives, unless we devote time for contemplation?

We can only be fully present for one thing at a time.  If we are serious about bringing our actions, into alignment with our values, we need to set aside the time for regular, ongoing spiritual practice– prayer, or meditation, or journaling– that we might reflect and become more intentional.

This morning, I shared with you the Jewish tradition of Mussar, the regular study of character traits, the contemplation of habits, and the practice of change.  Vital to the process of transformation is the introspection–paying attention –what do I seek to change?  Jewish tradition offers many spiritual practices that open us to understand our hindrances and our aspirations, to becoming the best versions of ourselves.

One such spiritual practice: Accounting of the Soul.  Heshbon ha-nefesh is the accounting we are called to do each Yom Kippur.  Heshbon, the same word for paying the bill in an Israeli restaurant, serves as a metaphor for accounting in our day of atonement.  But what if it weren’t a metaphor?  What if we actually were to keep books– keep an account of how our soul is doing, all year long?  Would a regular record help to guard us from walking through life in oblivion, or mindlessness, or just without clear intention?  Heshbon ha-nefesh, or, journaling, could offer a meaningful process for contemplation.

A second spiritual practice:  Mindfulness meditation. In Hebrew, nefesh mean breath and it also means life.  By sitting and noticing the breath , we notice our lives.  For some, meditation is literally sitting–sitting meditation has become a meaningful way to prepare for our Shabbat service on Friday evenings in our RS Jewish meditation sessions.  For others it’s walking, special breathing, contemplation with music such as the organ music we will soon hear, or focus on a guided meditation or image.

One common image in Jewish meditation is celebrated right here in our sanctuary in the opening words of Psalm 16, inscribed on the pendentives of our sacred space:   Shviti Adonai lenegdi tamid, I set God before me always.  I seek to never lose sight of what is most important.  I am awake to God’s presence.  Whether you perceive God as something of holiness, perspective, sacred relationship, a sense that you are a part of something greater than yourself, or if you perceive God as something entirely different—however you perceive God, set that before you.  Bring God’s presence into consciousness.  In contemplation, look at that image of Shviti.  For a few moments, allow the image to release you from the distractions of life’s chaos, global concerns, your to-do-list.  Release, and just pay attention to your breath.

Perhaps you have never tried this before.  Consider setting aside 15 minutes for contemplation—whether it’s at the end of the day, upon first waking up, or upon finishing your first cup of coffee, whether it’s literally sitting or taking a walk… devote time– to breathe and reflect.

A final spiritual practice I’ll suggest: Prayer.  How often, if you hurt someone’s feelings, do you say, I’m sorry–that was inadvertent.  How often when you harm someone else’s interests do you say, I’m sorry–that wasn’t conscious.  It’s a good thing that our wrongdoings are not intentional.  Yet, wouldn’t we like to act with more intention?  With more consciousness?  In our beautiful weekly Shabbat evening service, we encounter the truth that we are not alone in our spiritual paths.  We pray with a community that surrounds us in the pews, and we hear and recite the wisdom of generations present and generations past.  The ancient and contemporary words of prayer teach us compassion, teach us justice, teach us connectedness, joy and gratitude.  Our Shabbat service offers a meaningful path to intention.

The prophet Jonah leaves for a place just outside of the city, finds some shade, and sits in a sukkah.  Vayeshev–he sits.

So here you are on Yom Kippur afternoon.  An entire year’s strategic plan of spiritual and ethical growth, may be too much to chart in one afternoon.

Perhaps, instead, we are here to set an intention for the year, an intention for a practice of spiritual growth.  Knowing I cannot reflect while I race through life, this year, how can I carve out the time for regular and ongoing self-reflection?  How might I devote myself to a spiritual practice that will help me become the best version of myself?

Self-reflection time is not selfish.  Singular-tasking is not indulgent.  May we seek to understand this profound truth: we can only be fully present for one thing at a time.  This year, may we find some shade, to sit.