Rabbi SaraLeya Farewell Drosh

Yom Kippur 5775 RSL’s Farewell Drosh: Transitions, Loss, Lessons of the December Years

“Shma Koleinu, al tashlikheinu l’eit zikna….
Hear our voice. Don’t cast me away as I age…
Kikhlot kokeinu al ta’azveinu”…
As my strength wanes, don’t abandon me.” [From the S’lihot liturgy]

Beginning at age 60, close to my own calendar age now, my beloved rebbe and teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, began to look toward the last 1/4 of his life, wanting to thrive and continue to grow and serve in his eldering years, and not to be left in a place of isolation and seeming-uselessness, just waiting to die.

And so he conceived of a program called From Age-ing to Sage-ing – by which one could embrace true spiritual eldering, reaping the harvest of a life’s wisdom and continuing to deepen in the interior journey, for as we become elders, our journey focuses more and more inward.

We know that the Torah works in cycles of 7 – 7 days of creation and so 7 days in the week. This year we complete a cycle of 7 years enter the shmita year of allowing the land to go fallow, of remission of debt, of release.

So, Reb Zalman began to look at a human life in cycles of 7 years. Winter takes us from 0-21as we move from infancy, through adolescence into early adult hood. Spring starting with age 22 brings us to career, psychological growth, partnering, family life in all its blessed configurations. Summer and age 43 brings us to the fullness of our mission, expressing our unique selves and the first glimmers of aging. And then 7 X 9 = 63, completes the summer years. With our 63rd birthday we enter our autumn, October through December, and begin to feel the urgency to leave our mark, to make these final 21+ years truly count. As we cross this threshold, we experience shifts in our capacities and health – not all negative, for sure! We actively ponder what our life has meant and how our living will have made a difference.

I entered my October this June. I have been especially grateful that during the year of his death, Reb Zalman and Sara Davidson published The December Project, a slim volume that brings us the wisdom he culled from his last decades, helping us learn how to bring the wisdom acquired by consciously confronting our dying to enrichen and enliven, particularly, the autumn of our lives.

However, we do not have to wait until age 63 or 70 or 82 to bring the awareness both of the continual recreation and renewal of life in each moment (ha-mehadeish b’tuvo b’khol yom tamid) and of our continuously dying in each moment into our living.

The visceral awareness of mortality, particularly, is what YK is about as we have the next 23 hours to deeply examine our lives, set intentions, make amends, and, of course, to experience forgiveness. For this one day each year, we consciously live in November and December, admitting to ourselves that we might not be here next Yom Kippur. So we ask the tough questions. We confront the unfinished business we must take care of. Our lives depend on this. One of the sadnesses of pastoral counseling is witnessing the regrets of the dying.

5774 for me was a time of transitions, loss and IY”H the opening to new possibilities.

Just 10 months ago, circumstances at my day job, which I perceived as a Divine interference in “my” agenda for “my” life, led me to step back from my leadership with you. What has helped me most to let go of something so precious, is my deep emuna – faith – that all is for a purpose and all is part of the unfolding of the Divine Intention for me, for us.

And then as the Cosmic Mind chuckled, even the demands of that job have overwhelmed my nervous system, and, especially since my Mom died in February, I have been hit hard by my own physical vulnerability.

We all stand here, tonight, perched on the precipice…. just like the goat who will be sent over the edge into the wilderness bearing all our imperfections tomorrow morning….just like the Cohein Gadol, the High Priest who risks death to enter the Holy of Holies.

You who have become so precious to me during these past 6+ years, the shepherding of this magnificent community, are all in, kivyiakhol, as-it-were, G!d’s hands – as if I ever could have thought it was really me doing the work…. I have had to let go and trust, not only for myself but on your behalf, too. Knowing that with every gate we walk through, another will open for us!

And our task is to stop, and wonder and ask the hard questions – what is the meaning of this transition? What am I to glean (the hitlamdut inner learning) that Ibrahim spoke about 2nd day Rosh Hashanah. What is the meaning of my “needing” to leave you to new leadership? What is the meaning of this transition to each of us? My medical patients always ask me “why” this is happening to them – and as an allopathic practitioner, I gently let her know I can help her understand what is happening but not why. In spiritual community we are not afraid to ask those tough “why” questions. In spiritual practice we open ourselves to the answers.

What is the meaning of illness and what are the lessons to learn from symptoms and circumstances that “interfere” in what “I” think I should be doing?

All questions completely appropriate to this shmita year – a completed cycle of 7, a time for rest, renewal, and release. This is the 7th and likely final Yamim Noraim that we will be together in this configuration with me up here on the bima with this holy vibratory merkava (chariot).
I bless us all that we make this shmita a time for allowing the fallowness, the regeneration, the remission, the renewal to truly be a Shabbat LaAdonai – a time of ceasing and slowing down dedicated to the Infinite, the Ein Sof – just as the Torah asks us to do… a time of abeyance, of cancellation-of-debt, a time of absolution in our spiritual relationship to Hashem, each other, and our selves.

My dear teacher and college, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of one of my other Berkeley spiritual homes, Congregation Beth Israel, brought modern Israeli poetry to us last Shabbat, to connect shmita with our teshuva, our return to essence – the task of this season.

The Hebrew work, shmita, means in contemporary usage, to loosen, detach, allow-to-fall-off, release, drop, fling away – as well as lie fallow and remit.

A poem from a business entrepreneur in Israel, Hillel Milo:

Do not wait a lifetime
In order to release
A starting stance for releasing
Hands loosened to the side of the body
Palms open and limp
And they release


In closing, I will invite you to stand with me to enact this poem and to allow the vacated spaces to then fill with joy, connection, tranquility, equanimity, awe, reconciliation, openness, forgiveness.
Release whatever you will and fill with whatever you need.

Stand in body or spirit, allow your arms to hang loosely from your shoulder joints, arms limp, palms open. Let all negativity cascade off (Hatred, Jealousy, Tension, Humiliation, War, Insensitivity, Guilt) fear, worry, need to control (you each know what you are releasing)… Breathe again and be open to energies of healing and of holiness filling your being to overflowing.

May we all be written and sealed into the Book of Good Living, Hayim Tovim, a life in which the desires of our hearts are fully aligned with the desires of the One Heart; a life of grace, health, strong connection, loving, sweetness and exactly the right measure of challenge to keep us awake and on the path. Let us all bring consciousness of the December work into our daily living. Let us know and experience each moment as the most precious and perfect.

I love you, Community of Wise Hearted Souls.
My blessing to you and your new leadership that the next phase of Chochmat HaLev be even more filled with light and wisdom and growth and connection and love.

Rabbi SaraLeya Schley
Yom Kippur, 10 Tishre 5775