The article below has been adapted from a Rosh Hashanah sermon delivered to mark the Jewish New Year 5772:
This – sermon – is – six – words – long.
Well, it’s actually 2,048 words long but it’s about the power of capturing the profound in the concise, about encapsulating nothing less than the fullness of one’s entire life experience in just six simple words.
Think it can’t be done?
Chef Mario Batali’s six-word autobiography reads “Brought it to a boil, often!”
Comedian Jon Stewart’s memoir proclaims “Well, I thought it was funny.”
And a nine-year-old with a terminal illness captured her brief existence by writing, “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.”
Almost makes Twitter and its 140-character limit look unnecessarily generous, yes?!
A literary folktale holds that the six-word genre was born when Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to create a story of this length. His response? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Some call this brief tale Hemingway’s best work while others dismiss it as mere urban legend. Either way, the six-word narrative soon arrived on the literary scene and it’s been here to stay ever since [recently given a boost by an online story telling journal, Smith Magazine — www.smithmag.net].
“I still make coffee for two,” writes Zak Nelson, not the elderly widow one might expect but rather a newly single 20-something with a caffeine addiction.
“Was rebellious teen. Now raising one,” writes a woman named Michelle.
“I’m my mother and I’m fine,” confesses K. Bertrand cheerfully.
Perhaps these brief autobiographies don’t tell us the full story, but they certainly tell us enough.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly magical about the number six, although it is interesting to note how many significant axioms and expressions fit this quaint paradigm. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad [which translates as “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”], the central creed of Jewish belief, manages to convey the ethical monotheism that is at the heart of our tradition in just a few short words.
This synagogue’s tagline, “The Jewish Center of our lives,” also distils the essence of our community and the significance we hope it will hold for each of us to one brief sentence fragment. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan made history in just six words during his speech at the Brandenburg Gate when he uttered the now iconic: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Six words have the power to change the course of human history.
So why my newfound obsession with the six-word narrative? This literary form may be charming and clever, expedient and absolutely in-keeping with the zeitgeist of short medium communication ushered in by Facebook and Twitter, but that’s not why I suddenly find it so compelling. Rather, I think that the six-word narrative can be a powerful tool in helping us work towards teshuvah, the spiritual return that is at the heart of the High Holiday season. Six words may have the power to change the course of human history. More importantly, they have the power to change the course of our own lives.
Rabbi Shamai Kanter, the now retired rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Rochester, New York, tells the story of biking one summer in a section of rural countryside when he suddenly passed a large sign outside the local church with an unusual message. “If you are headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns,” the billboard proclaimed and this message has stuck with me ever since.
Teshuvah is often thought of as turning back from undesirable things — bad habits or patterns of behavior, broken relationships or interpersonal dynamics, spiritual apathy or distance, a feeling of God’s absence. But I prefer to think of teshuvah as a turning towards rather than a turning away — making that sacred U-turn back in the direction of wholeness and blessing, to the place where we are our best and most fully actualized selves and accordingly attract the best and most fully actualized parts of others.
Teshuvah is returning to our center, our core, the place from which we derive joy and meaning, satisfaction and connectedness. To rediscover that place, particularly if we have not been there in quite some time, can take a good bit of work.
One of my favorite metaphors for teshuvah comes from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, family physician and author of the wonderful book “Kitchen Table Wisdom.” Remen describes teshuvah through the words of a colleague who explains his efforts to stay grounded and true to himself, to find his spiritual center, with the image of musicians in an orchestra beginning to tune their individual instruments moments before the concert begins. The conductor may ask the oboist to sound an “A” and initially there is cacophony and chaos as the various parts of the ensemble try to align themselves with this one note. But as the orchestra moves closer and closer in tune the clamor diminishes, and when all instruments play in perfect pitch together there is a moment of deep relief and of homecoming.
“This is how it feels to me,” Remen quotes her colleague as saying. “I am always tuning my orchestra. Somewhere deep inside there is a sound that is mine alone, and I struggle daily to hear it and tune my life to it. Sometimes there are people and situations that help me to hear my note more clearly; other times, people and situations make it harder to hear. A lot depends on my commitment to listening and my intention to stay coherent with this note. It is only when my life is tuned to my note that I can play life’s mysterious and holy music without tainting it with my own discordance, my own bitterness, resentment, agenda, and fears.”
How very good it feels when we are living in harmony with this one special note! The High Holidays — with their time for reflection and introspection, family and community — can serve for us as a giant tuning fork, helping us to recalibrate to that one place that is all our own, the unique note from which our fullness and our strength flows. The words of the machzor (prayer-book), the music of our liturgy, the themes of these sacred days, the strength that comes from being near our loved ones and our community, the sense of time’s passing and another year gone by — all of these combine to sound that initial A, helping us to push aside cacophony and chaos and move us instead towards teshuvah — return to our own spiritual center.
Teshuvah is about better connecting with others and during the 10 days between now and Yom Kippur we will try to repair strained relationships, to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us. But perhaps most importantly teshuvah is about better connecting with ourselves. Once we re-claim our spiritual core we will be better equipped to confront the complexities and challenges of our lives with all the best parts of ourselves.
So how do we begin this process of teshuvah, of reclaiming our one special note? This is where I believe the six-word memoir can perhaps begin to help us.
I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Micah Peltz, whose words and ideas helped form pieces of this sermon, and I am especially grateful to his congregants at Temple Beth Shalom in Cherry Hill. Some years ago, after Rabbi Peltz also gave a sermon inspired by the six-word narrative, he challenged members of his community to write their own short autobiographies as part of an exercise designed to help individuals reflect on their lives and ultimately move towards teshuvah.
To write any memoir — but especially one characterized by such economy of words — requires a person to think deeply about who she is at her core, to consider the very questions that are at the heart of true return. What pieces of one’s life would a six-word memoir capture? What questions might it raise? How would these words reflect one’s family and one’s relationships? One’s work and one’s passions? One’s connection to community and to the Jewish people?
To write a memoir one must reflect on his past — Where did I come from and how did I get here? — and perhaps, also, to imagine his future — What will come next for me? What are the hopes and dreams I have yet to still realize? Above all, to write a memoir one must be reflective about her present: What meaning do I find in life? How do I relate to the important people in my world? Who do I most wish to be? These, of course, are also the questions that can help us make the sacred U-turn that is teshuvah.
I would like to share with you some of the Temple Beth Shalom memoirs and I imagine you will be as moved by them as I was:
“Born in hope after unimaginable horror.”
“Standing for Israel, first and always.”
“British, American, but overall, a Jew.”
“Daughter, wife, mother. Blessed times three.”
“Good health, family and friends. L’chaim!”
“College romance, marriage, children, grandchildren. Alone.”
Many display optimism and courage in the face of adversity:
“Abused. Working to make others better.”
“Unexpected life. Unexpected loss. Changing expectations.”
“Learning to live, preparing to die.”
And many present personal mantras or maxims for good living:
“Do not break the unbroken chain.”
“The Golden Rule says it all.”
“Attempting daily to understand myself better.”
Reading these memoirs, I think we can begin to hear the one special note to which each of these individuals is best tuned. We can start to see the spiritual center that gives each life purpose and meaning.
I would like to close with a story, my most favorite one — in fact — about teshuvah and how best to achieve it. It comes from the midrashic collection Pesikta Rabbati and tells of a king who had a son he loved very much. When the son was a young man, he ran away from home. He traveled further and further from his father’s kingdom and had many experiences and discovered many new things. But after a while, he began to miss home.
His friends said to him, “Go back, for surely your father misses you a great deal.”
But the son replied, “I have gone too far and do not have the strength to travel the whole way home by myself.”
So he sent his father a note and the reply came back immediately. His father wrote, “Come back as far as your strength will take you, and wherever that place is, I will meet you.”
It can be quite hard to find our way back home, to make the U-Turn, to rediscover our one special note, to reach that place of wholeness and blessing where we are our best and most fully actualized selves and accordingly attract the best and most fully actualized parts of others. Luckily, however, we do not have to travel the distance entirely on our own. Our friends and family, our community, our tradition, and our God are all there to help us along the way.
I conclude with six final words to help us all get started on the process of teshuvah: There’s no time like the present!
Shana Tova U’metukah — a very good and sweet new year to all!
Post Script: At the conclusion of her sermon, Rabbi Tucker invited congregants to compose their own six-word memoirs.
“I have been touched and inspired by the submissions received as I’m sure you will be,” she noted when she presented them in a subsequent sermon. “I share with you the memoirs of this community, the words that give our lives meaning, purpose, and direction, that help to tell the story of our trials, celebrations, and journeys. May these short messages continue to motivate us, to center us, and to help us to work towards being our very best selves.”
Among the submissions:
“I had challenges, and overcame them.”
“Passion, beauty, laughter, love above all.”
“Chance favors prepared minds and hearts.”
“Lifetime searching for me. Maybe found.”
“Feminism, Judaism, family. Combine, stir. Oy.”
“Ancient scroll speaks for the silenced.”
“Can’t wipe off same dust twice.”
“My story: Writer, editor, professor, fablungit.”
“Always wanting more . . . somehow never enough.”
“Working to make the world better.”
“Bimah fright; parasha smooth; whadda rush!”
“Another chance to get it right.”
“Blessed. Loving husband/children. Professional satisfaction.” — Marsha Tucker [the rabbi’s mother].
Editor’s note: The rabbi said that she wouldn’t ask others to do what she wouldn’t do herself, so she included her own six-word memoir:
“Who says women can’t be rabbis?”
About the Author: Annie Tucker was raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, one of two children of a cardiologist father and accountant mother. A graduate of Penn, where she majored in psychology and Jewish studies, Tucker received a master’s in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001. She was ordained in 2006.
“Judaism has always been a core value in our home and both my parents and my brother have been extraordinarily supportive of my religious journey,” says Tucker, the associate rabbi at the Jewish Center of Princeton. “I tend to think about my becoming a rabbi more in those terms — an evolving process over time rather than in terms of one epiphany moment, although there were definitely some very strong influences along the way — my family, my synagogue, a Jewish overnight camp that I attended for many years, etc.”
Asked to elaborate on her six-word memoir — “who says women can’t be rabbis?” — Tucker says she has “not personally experienced much resistance or discrimination. But there are still parts of the Jewish world that do not ordain women as rabbis or afford them equal access to ritual participation. Even in more liberal communities, the job market also remains difficult for women, especially those seeking senior or solo rabbi positions (as opposed to assistant/associate roles).”