“Vayehi Chen – And it was So”, Rabbi Stacy Schlein, Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776

Rosh Hashanah 2015 Renew My Soul Rabbi Stacy Schlein

September 14, 2015

Vayehi Chen – And it was So

            “At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of the Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters – God said: Let there be light! And there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3) Soon thereafter, God says “Let there be a dome amid the waters, and let it separate waters from waters!… Va-yehi chen – It was so.” (Genesis 1:6-7) God continues by saying, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered to one place, and let the dry land be seen! Va-yehi chen – It was so. (Genesis 1:9)[1]

            Can you imagine? All God needs to do is say something and then – Vayehi Chen – It was so. That sounds amazing. Perhaps I should try it out. “At the beginning of Rabbi Schlein’s sermon Rabbi Block complimented her.” Well, maybe this does work (pause) and the parking lot construction was done. Is it done? No? Or maybe it does not work that way. If we think carefully about the words that were spoken don’t forget it was not about God instructing someone else to do something this time, it was about God speaking and following God’s own words. Before God created anything else, God created a mindset. (Pause)

            Near the beginning, when Rabbi Stacy was in fourth grade, and after she had mastered the recorder, she attempted to play the violin. Darkness and despair descended on her home, she could not glide her bow gracefully over the strings – the sound was painful and piercing. And Stacy said, “I am terrible! I can’t do music.” Va-yehi Chen – It was so. Soon thereafter, her violin instructor said, “Let there be music!” Little Stacy took a deep breath, squinted her eyes and attempted to glide the bow gracefully over the strings. And she and her teacher said, “Stacy is terrible at violin. She can’t do music.” Vayehi Chen –It was so. There was evening, there was morning – the last day I played violin.

            I share this story compared to the story of creation to highlight the power of our words. In The Torah, God declares something what will be and Va-yehi Chen – It was so. In my violin story, I said something negative and Va-yehi Chen – It was so. We sometimes forget the power of our own words. We forget that we can create and destroy things so simply. In my case, not only did I let my words destroy my ability to play violin, it modified my mindset towards music. From that painful piercing attempt to play violin, I told myself, “I can’t do music.” Vayehi chen – It was so.

            When I would sing in a group I would either try to hide behind someone or do the “watermelon lip-sync trick” where you mouth the word watermelon, which matches up really well with almost anything you sing. I would say to myself, “I don’t know how to sing with others.” Va-yehi Chen – It was so. “I can’t hear when I am off key.” – Va-yehi Chen – It was so.

            As it turns out, there are scientific studies supporting Va-yehi Chen – It was So. One of the most prominent people researching this subject is Dr. Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. As she says, “there are two types of mindsets – a fixed mindset – where people believe that their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success – without effort. (She points out that) they’re wrong. She also explains that “someone with a growth mindset, believes that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. (People with a growth mindset) have a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”[2]

            Perhaps you have seen some white and green bumper stickers with the word, YET? Using the phrase “yet” is a wonderfully easy way to convert almost any “fixed mindset” statement into a “growth mindset” statement. This concept is being promoted by Laurel School as a reminder to foster a growth mindset. Whenever students say something negative like, “I can’t do math.” The teachers, staff, parents and friends add one small word, “yet” leaving the possibility open. This one little word makes a huge difference.

            My outlook on music started to change once I started rabbinical school. During our first year, we spent a lot of time singing with our cantorial classmates. For the first time, it felt like my ears opened. I was exposed to a wide range of voices and styles and something clicked. Finally, I could hear it. My voice would generally move in a direction that I intended or at least I could find someone to match my voice with when we sang together. It was amazing. Slowly but surely I could hear more and more, but that still small voice – the one that I created – the one that said, “You can’t do music” – would not go away.

            Fast forward to last year. I shared my tales of musical misery with our 5th, 6th and 7th Grade Students one Sunday morning during services highlighting how much power our words have over our thoughts. One of our amazing students said, “Wait, I don’t understand? Why didn’t you just keep playing the recorder?” So I quickly responded, “Because I did not know you when I was in fourth grade.” After the discussion, I did wonder why on earth I never considered continuing playing the recorder. Although it did not motivate me to pick up my plastic recorder again, it did motivate me to change my musical mindset and try playing that guitar I bought so long ago. It was time to change my story. It was time to stop being afraid!

            This summer Alan Goodis, a young, talented Jewish musician from Chicago introduced me to his version of a song that created a picture in my mind and enabled me to be able to articulate how I could overcome this fear. We sang it last night at the teen service.

Kol HaOlam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meod

V’ha-ikar lo le-fached k’lal.

We will walk the narrow bridge without fear so we can live. (2x)

There was something in the way that Alan sings his version of this song that really captures the hidden message behind the words. Previously when I heard Shlomo Carlbach’s version of this song, I thought of a flimsy, unstable bridge, dangling hundreds of feet in the air over a deep ravine– one false step and the bridge would crumble below. The Carlbach version was meant to be a mantra. If you sing it enough times you start to believe the words and won’t be afraid – a perfect example of a growth mindset. But there was something different when Alan sang his version. The bridge was no longer a flimsy dangerous place. Instead in my mind I visualized all of the people who could help me along the way.

I realized that there are a lot of people who are my bridge. Some, who I would expect, like Cantor Kathy – who randomly puts microphones or cowbells in front of me, hugs me, smiles and says, “Sing!” Or Rob Ross our Temple Arts Director who gives me small manageable hurdles to overcome – just play this one song on guitar “you don’t even have to look at anyone”, and my husband Jeremy Sosin who calls me out kindly when I start getting a fixed mindset again. But there are also people who have helped me who I could not have anticipated would have been such an important guide when we first met. Like my guitar teacher who, at the age of three, along with two of his preschool buddies, piled on top of me during Shabbat Sing. I could never have imagined that he would become such an incredibly talented musician, and a masterful guitar teacher – thank you Josh Sebo.

So, I am going to try this one more time. It was a new beginning, when Rabbi Stacy acknowledged that she was afraid. She would no longer allow herself to have a fixed mindset. She said, “Today I will sing and play guitar – although maybe not at the same time – YET.” She heard the music and it was good. The families at The Renew My Soul Service thought deeply about their fears and fixed mindsets and made a decision to experiment, to grow. There was evening and there was morning a new day – a new year – Va-yehi Chen – It will be so!


[1] Translation of Genesis 1 verses 1-9 from The Five Books of Moses by Everett Fox by Schocken Books 1983.

[2] Dr. Carol Dweck http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html