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Week 3: Perspective & Invitation to S'lichot 

09/06/2020 09:00:38 AM

Sep6

Rabbi Scott Nagel

17 Elul 5780 / 6 September 2020

Do you remember that old movie, Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray? It came out in 1993, 27 years ago – the same year I graduated High School. :) Our boys are getting older, and Rabbi Randi Nagel and I decided to introduce them to the classics, so we started weekly family movie nights this past summer. Let me explain what our understanding of the classics are: Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Happy Gilmore, Independence Day, Pretty in Pink, Better Off Dead, Real Genius, City Slickers, Sister Act, Caddyshack, Meatballs, Police Academy, Gremlins, Goonies, and Groundhog Day. (Please let me know if we missed any of the other “greats!”)

I remembered Groundhog Day as a laughter-filled romp through what would happen if you found yourself waking up in the same place, with the same people, stuck to the same block in the same town, knowing that no matter what you did, you would be waking up in that same place again the next day. The day repeated itself over and over. 

I had completely forgotten the despair at the heart of the film. I had forgotten the way it not only asks, what if you had the same day to do all over again, but what happens when you are stuck somewhere you do not want to be and you cannot change it? What happens when days bleed into days into more days? 

I think I forgot the despair because when I watched it as a newly graduated high school student about to go off to college, I felt like I had nothing but time and endless opportunity and possibility. After all, if we had nothing but time, we would like to think we would get to the place Murray ultimately does – that of finding meaningful ways to spend that time – much faster. We would savor every moment, learn more, do more, give more, celebrate more. But as it turns out, that is not an easy journey at all. 

That is why we have the entire month of Elul to prepare for the coming High Holy Days and practice spending our time in meaningful ways. It is also why at the end of the month, when our time in the year of 5780 is running out, as the mood becomes more urgent, we add specific prayers called s’lichot asking for forgiveness and helping us to forgive ourselves as we prepare for the New Year. 

These s’lichot prayers are typically recited from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. That first S’lichot Service on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah is usually a nice gathering of the community. On that Saturday night this year, Congregation Beth Ahabah will be hosting a S’lichot Movie Discussion and Study Session on Zoom in lieu of our regular service. This event is free and open to the entire community and will be held on Saturday Sept 12 at 7:00pm. The link to register can be found here: https://www.bethahabah.org/event/slichot-movie-discussion-and-study-online.html 

The movie we will be discussing in the context of s’lichot is, you guessed it, Groundhog Day. Everyone is asked to watch the movie on their own (even if you have seen it before) prior to the event. 

Why, you may ask? 

Well, during this pandemic it seems that many of us are experiencing symptoms of Groundhog Day ourselves. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings all look the same. It is easy to feel as though we are caught in a loop and moving nowhere. 

My own father missed Thursday Torah Study many times throughout the summer simply because everything was so similar from day to day that he lost track of what day it actually was! 

Groundhog Day. 

The sameness can be numbing. Life can feel like a grim endurance test instead of an exciting adventure and opportunity. 

Harold Ramis, the film’s director, speaking in an interview on the 15th anniversary of the film, said that within days of its release in 1993 there was a gathering of Jews outside the theater holding signs that read: “Are you living the same day over and over again?” 

This is the real question we should be asking ourselves the month of Elul. Judaism gives us another chance over and over, every day, to do it differently until we get it right. We get many chances to do it differently, again and again. But it is up to us to make the more conscious choice. 

Bill Murray, in his character of Phil Connors, asks us another question for this time of year, “Could you perfect yourself if you had to live one day over and over?” 

Ramis said that, for him, the key to Groundhog Day is learning to have the insight, courage and energy to make changes when you come to those moments when “you are about to make that same-old, same-old mistake again. We face those changes every day, large and small, every single day. If you change one little thing, one little behavior, then everything might change.” 

For Phil, its starts with a real Cheshbon Ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. It is only when Philip looks inward that he is able to move forward, it is only when he is willing to ask for forgiveness, and forgive himself, that he makes progress. After completing s’lichot, Phil can start real change and real living and be the man he truly wants to be. He gets to a point where he realizes that his ego, his cynicism, and the overall self-presence that he has created, have all been his undoing. All the problems in life that he was complaining about at the beginning of the film weren't only the fault of others, but of himself as well. 

So, while stuck in this endless time loop, he decides to enlighten himself by going out of his mundane routine. He slowly realizes that what makes life worth living is not what you get from it, but what you put into it. He takes up the piano. He reads poetry. He helps the locals in matters great and small. He also discovers that there are some things he cannot change, that he cannot be God. The homeless man whom Phil scorns at the beginning of the film becomes an obsession of his at the end because he dies every Groundhog Day. Phil tries to save him, but he never can. 

The mundane repetition only stops when Phil blesses the day he has just lived. As Jews, we should start each day while we are still in bed with the recitation of Modeh/Modah Ani

Modeh/modah ani l’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, she-hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla, rabbah emunatecha. 
I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust. 

This simple statement is anything but simple. It means we are open to the miracle of the new day with all of its possibilities, difference and newness from the last. You gave me another chance, even though I might not always deserve it. And You trust and have faith in me to use this day well. 

May we find the strength in these last few weeks of Elul to say s’lichot and do t’shuvah – to seek forgiveness, especially from ourselves. May we pull ourselves out of the endless repetition of days and may our daily changes and the counting of our blessings lead us to who we want to be tomorrow. 

L’shanah Tovah, 

Rabbi Scott M. Nagel 
The Sophia and Nathan Gumenick Senior Rabbi 

Thu, December 3 2020 17 Kislev 5781