Peter J. Rubinstein | September 4, 2013
These High Holidays test our mettle. Their traditional essence demands an excruciating and potentially brutal process of self-appraisal and evaluation with full honesty and absolutely no excuses.
The tradition calls it heshbon ha-nefesh, soul-searching, and gives us the entire month of Elul leading to this day to fully take our own measure, to be genuine in our assessment and to alter our conduct.
Admittedly, taking account has been a uniquely melancholy process for me this year. I don’t know all the reasons. In some measure, I presume it is linked to this being my last High Holidays with you as senior rabbi. Coming to the finish line after half a century of congregational service is sweet and exciting and unsettling. I suppose it will be naturally disquieting for me to step aside from the life work of being a congregational rabbi, which has been my passion.
My sons are also here this evening: my older one a New Yorker, my younger one in from California, and he has brought our firstborn grandson, about whom many of you know since I announced his birth four years ago from the pulpit at Yom Kippur. It’s been at least that long since my family has been together for these holidays. Though my grandson Gabe has watched our services by live streaming, tomorrow will be the first time that he and I will be together at children’s services.
I am fully aware of the passage of time and think about legacy, both standing in front of my sons as their father and in front of you as your rabbi. And probably for some of you, the passage of time and legacy is on your minds at this time as well.
So this Rosh HaShanah is different for me and is different in other ways for you. So tonight, knowing all that has happened, let’s step out and take a close look at ourselves. Let us ask:
Are we truth-tellers?
In Judaism, we have a tradition of writing ethical wills. Prompted by a deep desire to bequeath our aspirations to our descendants, we want them to know the ideals and ethical guidelines by which we yearn they should live. These ethical wills are personal reflections refracted through the prism of the parents’ lives.
Ethical wills can be a glorious conveyance from generation to generation. But I note that they incorporate a fair measure of prevarication, a level of parental arrogance. They do not tell the entire story. I have not read a single published ethical will that includes a parent’s admission of their own wrong-doing, failures or faults or weakness or even ways in which they acted abhorrently.
We parents are typically completely comfortable and expert in telling our children what to do without narrating for them even a measure of our own imperfections and struggles, without agonizing over the ways in which we felt and had been inept as children, and as teenagers, and even into our adult lives.
We find it so difficult to share the disturbing sides of our lives, whether with friends, our children, and perhaps especially, our spouses. Instead, we wear the masks of strength, control, and unerring achievement. We want to appear perfect.
Parental arrogance, which touts our own laudatory image and builds impervious fences against awareness of our weaknesses and struggles and mistakes, is inherently unfair and unhelpful for our children. How can we tell them of our lofty aspirations for them without recounting, not necessarily with all the details, at least a bit of the ways or times when we missed the marks we now assume for them? It would do us well to be truth tellers.
And if you need encouragement to do so, take a look at our people’s ultimate ethical will, the Hebrew Scriptures. The wonderful thing about the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, is its unabashed and ongoing repetition of human fallibility.
Within its core, the Bible tells stories of great people doing terrible things, engaging in abysmally improper behavior, and continuously missing the ethical high ground.
Consider that upon his wife Sarah’s demand, Abraham did not stand his ground in protecting Hagar, the mother of his firstborn son Ishmael. He was willing to let Ishmael die along with Hagar in the desert, as he was soon willing to murder his younger son Isaac on Mount Moriah upon the perceived expectation of God. Abraham could have done much better in protecting his children, as he had attempted to do on behalf of complete strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham could not even be trusted to protect his beloved wife Sarah. Twice Abraham compromised Sarah’s sexual integrity by passing her off as his sister rather than his wife and making her complicit in the charade in order to save his own life. Abraham often exemplified weak character. It would certainly have been difficult to have Abraham as a father or husband or even as a friend.
And our ancestor Jacob was not much better. He schemed to trick his father, Isaac, to steal what properly belonged to his twin brother, Esau, in one of the first recorded episodes of egregious family dysfunction.
And our hero Moses sent his wife and sons away so he could focus on his mission. One commentary asks, “As sometimes happens with leaders, have Moses’ official duties caused him to neglect his family and to lose his capacity for intimacy?” Moses is no model of a caring family man.
And the legendary King David, affirmed as the progenitor of the Messiah to come, out of lust for Bat-Sheva and in order to have her for himself, arranged for the killing of his trusted general and friend Uriah who was the husband of Bat-Sheva, with whom David had already committed adultery.
Oh, our Tanach is filled with stories, some of which are too tawdry to teach our children in Religious School.
These stories about human frailty and moral depravity are about us, too. Other religious traditions may tell stories of saints. We have no saints, just people like you and me struggling to survive, aspiring to do good and often behaving badly. We know that great people tarnish their ethical records with abysmally bad behavior and episodic mistakes for which they may eventually be ashamed but can never undo. We need to be truth tellers, at least to ourselves, if we are to change our ways.
Every year on the Confirmation class retreat, our tenth-graders, many of whom have known each other since nursery school, are given an opportunity in the safety of confidentiality to reveal their masks, the ways in which they behave that are out of sync with who they know themselves to be.
We all wear masks. We wear a mask to hide our self-perceived faults and weakness: the mask of certainty when we are shaken, the mask of gregariousness when we might be shy, the mask of humor when we’re hurting, the mask of a victim when we’re not.
We wear masks with friends, classmates, business associates, and even spouses, concerned that for them to know the truth about us would be for them to think less of us. Not all masks are destructive or wrong, and some of them may be essential and indispensable if we are to make it through. But to be unaware of them is treacherous and dishonest.
The nineteenth-century Swedish theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “There comes a midnight hour when all people must unmask.” These days are, for us, the midnight hour, the time to take honest account, and to confess what we know about ourselves, at least to ourselves, and hopefully to those about whom we care the most. We who are not perfect, or blameless, or faultless, love our children always. When they fall short of our aspirations, we will not love them any less.
Last week, a friend wrote to his circle of friends, “Plan well and think about the things you wish to change about yourself and your world. Dig deep. Be honest with yourself. Find a confidant (or two if you’re lucky) and talk about it… This is the time of year to plan your Ten Days of Awe. Some of us need more than ten (God knows) but ten is what we get so make the most of it.”
Let us be truth-tellers.
And let us be tender.
Abraham Heschel, a pivotal Jewish thinker of the twentieth century, died in 1972 at age 65. He was not old by today’s standards, yet his fabulous shock of white hair and signature beard provided an aura of wise elderliness. Reflecting on his life, Heschel said, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I’m old, I admire kind people.”
In this meritocratic society of ours, we’ve become enamored by the measurable standards of success. We talked about it a great deal as we made our way through the financial downturn that struck us on Rosh HaShanah eve in 2008. The survival of our spirit depended on chesbon ha-nefesh, a reappraisal, and we were compelled to affirm that our self-worth was not equal to our net worth.
We held onto immutable, eternal values that anchored us even as economic waves crashed over us. As Jews and as a congregation, we grasped with full might the love of our family, the strength of our community, and the power of our faith, along with the historical truth that walls could fall but life would continue, that hope would triumph over desolation and kindness will be victorious over greed. That is what kept us alive and vital and optimistic.
As John Gardner said, “You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character.” Good character shuns arrogance, has no place for haughtiness, and no tolerance for conceit.
The Torah was well-aware of the inclination to arrogance, especially when we are materially successful. It is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “When you have eaten your fill and built fine, magnificent houses and your possessions have multiplied beyond your imagination and your money increased beyond your wildest dreams and you have prospered in every way, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget that it was God who freed you from bondage.” (Deut. 8:12–14)
Should you need it, our tradition even provides a checklist for indications of arrogance, including that you do good deeds and give to tzedakah only for public notice and to further your own reputation, that you shun public association with those of lesser financial means or reputation out of concern for your own public image, that you never believe you have done wrong, and that you assume your success has depended only on you. These are indications of arrogance.
We have a choice in this, and it is a matter of deliberate intention, perhaps best indicated by an old Cherokee legend I most recently read in Peter Georgescu’s The Constant Choice.
The story has it that a Native American grandfather told his grandchildren, “A terrible fight is going on inside me between two wolves—the wolf of fear, anger, arrogance, and greed, and the wolf of courage, kindness, humility, and love.” He continued, “This fight that is going on inside of me is also going on inside of you and inside of every person.” One child asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the fight?” He quietly replied, “The one you feed.”
Georgescu’s thesis is that people can “align themselves with good through daily choice,” and the better we know ourselves, the more capable we are to make better choices in our lives.
Tenderness and humility are a choice we make. We don’t need to be in love to be tender. Tenderness prompts us to be forgiving. Tenderness helps us treat people decently, even if we’re just passing them on the street.
Tenderness presumes the godliness of each person’s being. It makes us kinder, more wistful and wondrous, gentler and more gracious and compassionate.
Tenderness permits us to resonate with the longing and dreams, hurt and love of others. It compels us to soothe their pain, comfort their hurt, wipe their tears, hug them in their loneliness and permit the loveliness of syncopated life rhythms. And above all, tenderness permits the telling of stories, the confession of wrongdoing, and the mitigation of aloneness.
Incipient tenderness and good will, which I long to embrace, allows me to understand at times what others are unwilling to say. You know more about people by their eyes which are always honest than by their words which are often failing. A person’s face tells their entire story before they utter a word.
Tenderness permits us to give the benefit of doubt to our children and to abandon harsh critique of which we are so readily capable with our spouses.
Kind and tender people make this world sing. They make my life joyful. They make everything I do lovely. And they make this synagogue exquisite.
I long for the continued flow of tenderness within me and I will work for it. Above all I ache to be forgiving more than critical, and relish kindness before judgment. And if it grows into love, then I’ll let it be.
Finally, let us be grateful.
In an interview just ten days before he died, Abraham Heschel exhorted us, “Remember…to build life as if it were a work of art.”
This brings me back to where I began. We take account of ourselves and our legacy. What is it that we leave in our wake? For myself I hope it will be that I told the truth, that I cultivated an instinct of tenderness, which is born within all of us, that I fed the wolf of good.
And I would want it to be said that I was grateful for the opportunity God gave me to live the life I do. Let’s look around. Really look around you. Within your arm’s reach may be the children who carry your life blood, or the spouse who still takes your breath away; perhaps a friend who is close enough to become your confessor and you to be his or hers, a person with whom you share your joys, and your sorrows as well, a person who just makes your life better.
Let’s take account and not take for granted the remarkable gifts we have.
Here we are in the midst of this incredible community that matters to us in this amazing hall, which, though not our home sanctuary, is the place we make our home for these hours and days.
And we are citizens in this extraordinary city, which bustles with the delectable mix of cultures and peoples and races and religions in which we are free to follow our dreams, get along, embrace our faith, speak our minds, and live openly as Jews without fear.
And we are given the right to pursue a life worth living.
Life is full of possibilities with our frailties and blessings, our failures and victories, our disappointments and our ambitions. How can we not be grateful for the gifts God placed within our reach? And it is for more than health and happiness and love and family for which we need give thanks.
Should we not be grateful for the gifts we assume to be of our own making? With some level of conceit, we believe that we gave root to our own intelligence, work ethic, or our personal drive to work hard and aspirations. We believe that the credit is ours for our ability to master knowledge faster than others or retain information longer than others.
We believe we are responsible for our own good character, but we are the inheritors of so much that preceded us. These gifts are built into our DNA, formed in the culture of our families, built on the ethics of our people, dependent on being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. Much of our success is a matter of good luck and chance and environment, for all of which I give to credit to forces beyond me that I know as God. And for that I’m grateful to my core.
Along with the psalmist, I believe כִּי-חַסְדְּךָ, גָּדוֹל עָלָי—“You, God, have been extraordinarily kind to me.” (Ps 86:13)
For me, among my great gifts are my family and you. It is my parents who have passed and my children who are here, and my brothers, and my wife. It is my faith and my people. It is my friends and my colleagues. It is my visions and aspirations and hopes and longing to be even better.
And finally, I am grateful for myself, with all that has been implanted into me and for which I take absolutely no credit. Each of us has been given the gift of ourselves, each with our opportunity to mold this Creation and to make a great difference, even if it is only within the intimate cluster of the people with whom we live and work. What incredible benevolence has been extended to us: the ability to be truth-tellers, to be sensitively tender and humble! You see, we can build this world as we build our lives. What a gift!
Let us be grateful for it all, yes, even including new chapters and the right to change our ways, and the intention and commitment to begin this year differently. We now again have the chance to do that. An amazing gift has been put within our reach. So let us make the best of it.
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