Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Nitzavim/Vayelech – Lost and Found

Many years ago, I listened to an interview with neuroscientist Colin Ellard, who wrote a book called You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall. He explained that when we get lost, we tend to make two mistakes. First, we do not stop. Instead, we tend to speed up, often in the wrong direction. Panic induces us to undo the mistake, only to end up compounding it.

On Yom Kippur, one of the confessions reads, “For the sins which we have committed by running to do evil.” I have often wondered – why run? Why not leisurely evil? Anyone who has ever been on a diet understands. There is half a box of cookies; you don’t wish to waste them. If you eat them very fast, it doesn’t count. There is an impulse to do things we suspect to be unwise quickly, so it can be behind us. When we are lost, we do the same thing. Let’s solve this, fast. But that is the wrong approach. We need to stop.

The second problem Ellard discussed was we don’t appreciate that we are lost. Appreciate in two senses: first, know that you are in fact lost. Admit and accept it. Also, savor being lost – remember that some of life’s most remarkable experiences come from losing one’s way. Travelers know that the mistakes and unintended side roads often yield the most remarkable adventures.

Those are good rules for being lost in life as well. Stopping is scary, like the cartoon character who runs off the cliff — as long as his legs keep moving, he stays up; but the moment he stops, he falls like a stone. We make poor investments and throw good money after bad because we are afraid to stop. We get into arguments and double down because we are afraid to stop. When you are lost in life, stop. Take a moment and a breath and a prayer.

This week is a double portion in the Torah. In the first, Nitzavim, we read: “You stand here today.” Stop before you go into the land. Israel’s fear has led them to rebel, complain, and panic. Now, before they enter the land, it is time to pause and appreciate the need to change direction. The second portion is Vayelech, when we are instructed to go forward. Moses has explained where the Israelites came from; having paused and learned they — and we — are ready to move.

The High Holy Days begin in a week. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have the chance to stop and admit that in our lives we are lost. Then we can reset our spiritual GPS and begin anew.