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The Power of Discomfort

Yom Kippur Morning 5775

Many of you may be familiar with the name Michael Sam.  A Defensive Back for the University of Missouri football team, Sam publicly announced in February of this past year that he was gay.  Sam received an outpouring of support, as he became one of the most prominent sports figures to date to come out publicly about his sexuality.

Several months later, in May of this past year, Michael Sam, along with hundreds of other hopeful college athletes, sat in anticipation as NFL teams determined their futures at the annual NFL Draft.  The draft, over time, has become a major television event, broadcast on ESPN and attracting over 45 million viewers.

One by one executives from NFL teams selected players, with the screen every so often panning to Michael Sam, anxiously awaiting a phone call from one of the 32 NFL teams.

And then, with the 249th pick in the draft, the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam.  ESPN broadcast the moment when Sam received the call.  His tears upon hearing the news, surrounding by his family, his boyfriend, and his friends, overcome with emotion and happiness for this young man.  Sam then turned to his boyfriend, and in front of millions of television viewers, embraced his boyfriend and kissed him on national tv.

The next day, many Americans criticized ESPN for airing the kiss between Sam and his boyfriend, complaining that it made them uncomfortable.  Amy Kushnir, a Dallas newscaster, went on the air
and said that she didn’t want Sam’s kiss “in her face” and that Sam and his boyfriend should “get a room” before she walked off the set.

Ok, you might say to yourself, that’s what one might expect from a broadcaster deep in the heart of Texas – no offense to any of our friends here this morning from the great state of Texas. But even those who support gay marriage spoke about how the kiss made them uncomfortable.

A woman named Lorie Burch, an attorney and LGBT equality advocate, wrote anarticle on the Huffington Post sharing how watching Michael Sam kiss his boyfriend made her uncomfortable.

Many supported Michael Sam in principle, but there was a discomfort with his sexuality in practice.

Do I think, despite the fact that it made so many Americans uncomfortable, ESPN should have broadcast that moment on national TV? Absolutely.

Moments of discomfort are what enable us to grow as human beings, to learn new things about ourselves – our fears, anxieties, and challenges.  There is a true power in discomfort.

In the summer of 1994, I was a quiet, shy, fairly geeky fourteen year old, returning for my second summer at Camp Yavneh, a pluralistic Jewish camp in the deep woods of New Hampshire.  I had decided to bring my guitar to camp that year – I figured if anything was going to make me even slightly cool that summer, it would be sitting on the hill on Saturday afternoons strumming my six string to an adoring audience.  In actuality, for the first few weeks of the summer, the guitar sat in the case gathering dust in my bunk,as I was too nervous to actually play in front of anyone.

Then came the night of the camp talent show – and my friends encouraged me to perform. I remember the moment so vividly – I chose the Beatles “Here There and Everywhere,” and with its high notes and challenging chords was definitely not written for a fifteen year old’s ever changing screechy voice.  I walked up on stage with my guitar, and placed the notes to the song on my lap.The sweat began dripping down my face.  My legs started shaking nervously, causing the sheet music to fly from my lap down into the audience.

The ten seconds it took to hand the sheet back to me felt like an hour of eyes staring right through me –it was totally quiet.  I’m pretty sure I made it through the entire song, but it may have been the worst rendition of “Here There and Everywhere” known to man. If you think it sounded like an uncomfortable moment, it was.  Yet if I hadn’t gotten up there that night to try, filled with anxiety and fear,

I may have never opened up that guitar case.  It was surely a turning point in my life.  I do, however, to this day really dislike playing that song on guitar!

I ask-How many of you have been in a similar situation- Maybe not one that bad-One which you entered with a sense of doubt, inadequacy, or fear?

Are you a person who embraces moments of discomfort?

Or do you try to avoid them?

I recently watched a TED talk, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks, by a man named Marc Chesley.  Marc is an attorney and Chief Technology officer at a company called Infusionsoft, which helps small businesses succeed using technology.  In his talk, entitled, “The Power of Discomfort,” Chesley argues that being in uncomfortable situations are good for us.  Actually, really good for us.

Discomfort helps us to grow and to learn new things about ourselves.

Think about the holiday of Yom Kippur, for example.  Today is the ultimate day of discomfort!  Yom Uncomfortable! And yet it is the most widely attended day of the Hebrew calendar in synagogues across the world.  Think about it – Physically we are uncomfortable.

Many of us are fasting, depriving our body of its normal nutrients, in order to, according to Leviticus chapter 16, afflict our souls over the course of 25 hours.  Traditionally Jews are not supposed to wear any clothing that is considered “comfortable,” so many Jews do not wear items considered luxurious, such as leather shoes and belts.

We stand for long stretches of the service, especially during Ne’ilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur, finding that strength to remain upright despite the physical weakness and discomfort. Almost all of our most challenging, complex, and confusing Jewish prayers are found in the High Holy Day Machzor.  The Kol Nidre prayer, which Cantor Blum chanted so beautifully last night, poses major moral difficulties, with the underlying message that essentially everything we say from the previous year can be annulled with this ancient legal formula.  And the melody itself, it is haunting, dark,and designed to stir us as we enter in to the Day of Atonement.

The prayers we chant today, on Yom Kippur,many of them are challenging and problematic for us.  Avinu Malkeinu – our Father, our King, stirs images of a male God sitting high upon a throne, preparing to judge each of us as we plead forgiveness and beat our chests to atone for our actions of the past year.

The Un’taneh Tokef prayer, with the words,“Who shall live and who shall die,” torments many of us, sending uncomfortable chills through our souls, as this poem presents a God who determines the fate of every one of us year after year.

And the blast of the shofar – while for many of us this is the highlight of the High Holy Days, and we here are blessed with unbelievable shofar blowers, the sounds of the blast itself can be quite uncomfortable.  As Rabbi Laura Metzger writes about the shofar, “The sounds of the shofar are odd, squawky, uneven. The bleating, blasting, burping shofar gives a most haunting sound.”

And then, to top it all of, we are expected to call all of the people that we wronged over the past year and make amends.  If you have done this you know its theultimate discomfort, to pick up that phone, to dial the number of someone that perhaps you haven’t spoken to in weeks, months, or even years, as each time the phone rings the anxiety builds, and as that person answers,we must muster the courage to speak, to confront our actions, to apologize.

As Rabbi Danny Zemel writes, “On Yom Kippur we stand spiritually naked before our creator, and before ourselves.  It is the moment of no hiding.”

And despite all of that, all of the emotional, spiritual, and physical discomfort, more people come to synagogue on Yom Kippur than any other day of the Jewish year!I find it no coincidence – there is a real and deep power in making ourselves uncomfortable for a day.

In discomfort we grow.  Today is different from every other service the rest of the year.  Weekly Shabbat services, in contrast, are all about comfort, focusing on rest, nourishment, joy – the prayers, the melodies are beautiful, so for an hour a week we feel at peace. But not today – today we come to be uncomfortable, to look deep into the spiritual mirror, as challenging as that may be, to ask ourselves what we believe and then to challenge it – such is the power and possibility of discomfort. Yom Kippur, however, is just one day a year.

In Chesley’s Ted talk, he advocates that every day we seek out at least one moment of discomfort.  He explains that it is good for us to do this because it disrupts our fixed beliefs about things.  We have an ego, he says, and that ego tells us to stay safe, that voice speaks all of our fears, our anxieties, and our challenges. Once we identify what makes us uncomfortable, we can then break free of our comfort zone, embrace moments of discomfort.

As I think about Chesley’s charge in his Ted Talk, to seek out a moment of discomfort each and every day, my initial reaction is, “are you kidding me?  That sounds like too an onerous task.” Pre-kids and pre-full time job maybe, back then I sought out adventure all the time.

The bigger the challenge, the more nervous I felt beforehand, the more I loved it because I did feel that I had learned something about myself and what I was capable of.I’ll never forget, for example, signing up for a bike trip in Bolivia on a stretch of highway that UNESCO deemed the most dangerous road in the world, to challenge what I thought I was physically capable of doing.

Or, just several years ago, marching down Broadway in New York City with fellow Rabbinical students, including Rabbi Prosnit’s son, Jonathan, facing starting at us, people yelling at us, to support the creation of a mosque just blocks from Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan,to act for justice and not just talk about it.

I find it much harder to seek out those kind of moments these days.

Perhaps in one sense, being younger, I was still forming my identity – and each of those moments of discomfort, those challenges that I took on, certainly shaped who I am today.
And now being a little older, perhaps I have gotten comfortable in who I am – those experiences are key pieces of my narrative, but they are growing ever distant.

Life has filled up with a full time job, a family, extended family, friends, birthday parties and housework on the weekends, nights are about cleaning up after dinner, a quick read of the newspaper, making to-do lists, spending some time with my partner, and that’s a pretty full week.

When I do have free time, I now like to fill it with the things I already know I love – going out for a good dinner, playing with the boys, getting out for a run, reading a book, enjoying a real cup of coffee, or attempting to solve the Sunday Crossword.

I have become fairly comfortable if I’m honest with myself – in who I am, in accepting my weaknesses, knowing what I’m pretty good at – it doesnt mean I dont struggle or ask questions, or seek out new opinions, but really challenging myself, really seeking out moments of discomfort each and every day, it is hard and it feels like there is little time for it.  I need to seek out the strength to do it.

The task of this holiday, this day of Awe, is to seek out those moments of challenge and anxiety – Individuals of all ages has the potential for growth – it is why we return here to this sanctuary every year for Yom discomfort – we must believe that there is potential for change.

I can’t drop everything and run off to South America for two months, but I can seek out and recognize opportunities in my daily life.  To set up a lunch someone I’ve drifted from, to try something new, to volunteer more, to reach out and strike up a conversation with a stranger, to make my voice heard when the situation demands it, unlock a passion that has been lying dormant.

For each of us that list is different. Such is the power of this day – Yom Kippur asserts that there is a palpable power in discomfort, it speaks to the deep core of the human condition. If it is so important to us today, then we ask ourselves, how can I find opportunities to challenge myself throughout the year.

Doing anything only once a year yields little result – most of us probably will not walk out of here much different than when we walked in. But seeking out opportunities for growth throughout the year, even just seemingly minor ones, we can walk in here next year different from how we are today.

Moments of discomfort can enable us to “re-create” ourselves year after year. It takes drive, it requires time, it takes strength – which is why when we feel stuck, when we don’t even know how to break free from our comfort, we have our prayerbook to help us get us started. I conclude this morning with a prayer from the Mishkan T’filah Prayerbook.

There are copies for each of you to take with you as you leave – I invite you to turn to it when you need it.

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,
the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,
the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us
the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us
from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by
half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary
is not the border of living
and the walls of Your temples are not shelters
from the winds of truth, justice and reality.

Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.