Larry was spending a lazy summer afternoon with his three young children when he had a sudden, massive seizure. His son called 911, then watched as his bigger-than-life dad was loaded into an ambulance. After several weeks and innumerable tests later, doctors simply don't know exactly why this happened to an otherwise ordinarily healthy 46-year-old man. And worse, as a result, they don't know how to treat it, or whether it will ever happen again.
In the meantime, what are the medical establishment's best recommendations to this very shaken man, who now needs somehow to stand up, return home, and try to lead his family? Pretty straightforward: get regular sleep, get regular exercise, eat healthier food.
This time, he's actually doing it. He's changed his work schedule, he is going to the gym regularly, he is eating much more carefully -- all those things which are generally thought to lead to good health. And he wishes, more than anything, that he had made these changes on his own, without the terrifying seizure to grab his attention.
Can we make real changes without extreme pain? It is far easier to convince ourselves that nothing is at risk than to engage in the incremental daily drudgery of building a healthier life. We can far more easily choose to believe that perpetual sleep deprivation, overeating, and lack of exercise are things we can endure, that they are just part of a busy life, that we'll somehow tough it out, that we'll rest on the weekend or on vacation. We hope that our bodies can sustain these constant stressors. And on Yom Kippur, as the Neilah service comes to a close, we beg the Almighty for a healthy year.
Does our behavior dare the Almighty to keep us healthy, against the odds we ourselves create?
Our Yom Kippur prayers are sincere, but they may ring a bit hollow. We not only leave it up to God to make us healthy -- we keep testing His omnipotence by living less and less healthful lives. Our behavior literally dares the Almighty to keep us healthy, against the odds we ourselves create.
Cataclysms can also "surprise" us in the middle of our own unhealthy behaviors in other areas of life. In the late '90s, my good friend bragged of her husband's early successes investing their entire net worth in technology stocks. After the "tech bubble" burst, they were wiped out; her subsequent prayers for financial sustenance were loud and clear. But while the speculation was going well, her family was not saving or securing any of their assets.
Far from the "save a third, spend a third, spend a third on housing" that my parents grew up with (and which allowed them to retire and live independently without ever having earned a six-figure income), more "modern" types put all their eggs in one risky basket and keep their fingers crossed. The proliferation of bestsellers preaching basic financial principles (diversify investments, make saving a habit, live on less than you earn) reflects that in money matters, as in health, many people simply hope things will work out without ordinary reasonable effort on their part -- at least until the first bankruptcy. And when risky plans go badly, they cry out to the Almighty to send wealth. Feed our families, because we haven't set aside enough to feed them ourselves.
The prayers are sincere, but the penitents approach the Almighty on quicksand.
Is the weak behavior/wake-up call cycle inevitable? Must the seizure come, must the stock market crash, before we cry out to the Almighty and vow to do better next year? What if instead we begin the necessary changes in our own behavior before the consequences of our behavior literally seize us -- and pray for continued good health and good fortune with our own renewed commitment to action?
What if instead of "let me please be healthy," the Yom Kippur prayer is "God, I am doing everything within my power to take care of my body; please bless my efforts with good health."
Instead of "send us money," what would it feel like to pray, after making ordinarily prudent efforts to earn and save, "Please bless our efforts with abundance"?
There is time left before Yom Kippur, and we still have the chance to change our Yom Kippur prayers from "Give me what I don't deserve" to "Bless what I'm trying to accomplish."
This is not easy. Catastrophes are big motivators. Larry's unexpected seizure has given him the urgency necessary to get back on a solid health program -- something he had wanted to do for years. The stock market "adjustment" changed many peoples' risk tolerance. Crises do indeed bring about sweeping change. Urgent matters demand immediate reaction and response.
Truly important matters -- health, family, our relationship with God -- can often seem less pressing. They get buried under the urgency of emergencies: I can start exercising tomorrow or next week but I need to meet this deadline today. To move forward on non-urgent but important goals requires initiative, pro-activity, commitment.
Many people say some kind of daily prayer. Taking a small, positive step toward our chosen goals each day can also be a kind of prayer. As you eat a healthier breakfast in the morning, every morning, you are asking the Almighty to keep you healthy. As you set aside a portion of your income for a rainy day, with every paycheck, you are asking for sustenance. As you show Him what you care about, you are building your relationship with God.
This year, as Yom Kippur approaches, we still have the chance to let our lives be our prayers. As we move through the days which remain before the Day of Judgment, we can tell the Almighty what we really want by taking small but consistent steps toward it. We can pursue health; we can pursue financial security; we can pursue good relationships with the people we care about; we can improve our relationship with God every day. As we make these efforts, as we prioritize the things which really matter to us, we reveal to the Almighty our heart's truest desires. Our Yom Kippur prayers could be the culmination of a daily practice of building the life we want to be blessed with.
If we can bring about quality improvements in our lives without the impetus of a cataclysmic event, we might not need the crisis. By seizing change today, we might avoid the seizure tomorrow. By "walking the walk," we can invite the Almighty to bless our existing efforts, and grant our prayers, rather than daring the Almighty to make a radical change in our lives, where a cataclysmic event might be necessary to do that. Our prayers are stronger when our lives reflect our prayers. May the Almighty inscribe us for life with the strength to make our lives better, little by little - without the radical changes that come through sudden, overwhelming pain.