September 3, 2013
A difficult conversation
Before creating the human being, according to a Midrash, God consulted the angels of heaven. The Angel of Peace argued, “Don’t create him! He will bring war into Your world!” The Angel of Compassion countered, “He will do kindness, create him!” The Angel of Justice offered, “Create him! He will do what’s right.” The Angel of Truth argued, “He will fill the world with lies, don’t create him!” What did God do? God buried truth in the earth and created the human being.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth. We can’t tolerate truth — especially truth about ourselves — our failures and our limitations. We bind ourselves in layers of evasion and self-deception to avoid truth. But once a year, Jewish tradition forces us to unearth and face the truth. And it uses the most powerful psychological solvent available — it confronts us with death.
We are a passionately life-affirming culture. To protect a human life, any Jewish ritual is suspended. We say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) over every glass of wine. But on these holidays, we actually rehearse death. On Yom Kippur, we deny the body — fasting (which for Jews is a form of death), abstaining from sexual intimacy, removing our jewelry and finery, our fashionable clothes and our polished, comfortable shoes to don a kitel — a death shroud. We literally wear what we’ll be buried in one day. It is cleansing. In the face of our mortality all the rationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and I am forced to see who and what I really am.
Philosopher Franz Rosenzweig taught that on Yom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see life through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, what in my life matters? What is real? What is important? What is valuable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the obsessions and worries that waste my soul and sap my strength? This is the beginning of teshuvah, the turning of the Jewish soul.
We are one. We share a very small planet. We share a common destiny. But all year, I forget this truth and act as if my success can only be bought with your failure. The attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” — what is called “the standard of Sodom” by the Talmud — is the path of oblivion, a form of spiritual death. Sin in the world is what cancer is to a body — one cell going its own way without regard to its place in an organic whole. Unchecked, it destroys the whole. Our lives and our fate cannot be separated.
Looking squarely into death, I come to realize what I have done. And so I confess aloud: I have sinned. I have squandered the opportunities of this past year. I have misused the gifts and blessings allotted me. I have failed to reach beyond the needs and desires of the self. I reached downward this year, not upward.
The great Maimonides taught that on these holidays we are to regard ourselves as half-sinful and half-righteous. Our next decision determines all. There is a balance between the evil and the good within us. It is a paradox: To see the self as completely evil is to accept moral despair, to closes the door on the possibility of moral growth. We would give up and retreat into our selfishness. To see the self as completely good is to overlook all the brokenness, and deny all the failures of character. So we maintain a dual vision: We can see the real self in all its flaws. And we can also see the ideal self to which we aspire. Most importantly, our fate is yet undetermined. Our character is yet an open question. We are not stuck. Maimonides vigorously resisted any notion of determinism. We are the accumulation of our choices, he taught, and therefore we stand this holiday utterly naked in our responsibility. The first question in the Torah was God’s inquiry of the hiding Adam: “Where are you?” And ever since, we have struggled to respond.
I would offer a small gloss: My brother is a psychologist who worked extensively with obese clients. He revealed to me a great spiritual truth: No one loses 100 pounds. You lose 2 pounds, then 2 more, then 2 more. So imagine this year that you are 51 percent evil and 49 percent good. All we ask is a 2 percent improvement. Can you find 2 percent more time to devote to family, to community, to the world? Could you afford to give 2 percent more to charity? Can you become 2 percent more considerate, kinder? Can you grow in wisdom, but 2 percent this year? That’s all the holiday asks.
“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist, “to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But once a year, confronting the truth of our limited days liberates us from the bondage of illusions and excuses, so that we can begin the new year with renewed strength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. May the new year bring many blessings.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.