Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018

Tonight, we enter Asarah Y’mei Teshuvah, the ten day period of repentance which continues until next Wednesday night, when we gather for our Ne’ilah service which closes Yom Kippur. As we begin our marathon of self-reflection, atonement, repentance, and forgiveness, I wanted to offer you a few words of encouragement.

The first, and most important thing that I want to tell you is that atonement and repentance are not synonyms for self-flagellation. Repentance is not about beating yourself up. When I was studying in Tel Aviv, which has a strong graffiti culture, one of my favorite pieces to see around the city said, simply, “Atah rak benadam”: you’re only human.

Repentance IS about recognizing the areas where you need to focus on healing and improving.

The most important, and most difficult, aspect of self-reflection is that it be honest. That requires breaking through a lot of the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are. It’s only natural that we develop narratives about ourselves that help us to get through life. Every one of us has done something that we deeply regret. Every one of us has been seriously injured – physically, spiritually, emotionally – and sometimes it’s easier to pretend that those things didn’t bother us as much as they did. To protect ourselves from constant pain, we may build up psychic armor – a kind of protective layer that, while it helps us get through life, also comes at the cost of making us numb – removing us from the beauty and wonder of the world. Rami Shapiro, in his Alternative Aleinu, encourages us to “shake off the stiffness that keeps us from the subtle graces of Life and the supple gestures of Love.”

When we engage in self-reflection without grounding it in love, we have a tendency towards the self-critical. We expect perfection. Especially in the age of social media, we have the ability to cultivate the image we present to the world. And even though we know that our public persona does not fully represent who we actually are, we still compare ourselves to other people’s carefully cultivated public personas. We look at the lives that other people are living and wonder what our lives would have been like if we had made other decisions. We can get so caught up in definitions of success that are at odds with what would actually make us feel happy and fulfilled that we can doubt whether we’ve made the right choices.

During the High Holy Days, we’re supposed to look back at our actions with regret, and commit to making better choices in the future. But it’s really easy to get bogged down in that feeling of regret. What if I’d gone to a different college? What if I’d chosen a different major? What if I’d kept that job? What could I have been? Who would I have been?

I grew up in Montclair, an artsy town outside of Manhattan, with people who are now rock stars, and critically acclaimed filmmakers, and journalists. I went to college with someone who was just inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I think that they are all doing very cool things, and sometimes, yes, I wonder what would have become of me if I’d tried to make it in that world.
Within my own field, I know people who are rabbis at huge synagogues in big cities – people who give high holy day sermons to thousands of people. I have colleagues who have major Hollywood celebrities as congregants. And I have colleagues whose rabbinates have received a lot of press attention.

And, yes, jealousy is totally natural. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t catch myself unfavorably comparing myself to another person. “Why am I not doing that?”

There is a famous story told about the Chasidic master, Rebbe Zusha. His disciples gathered around him as he lay on his deathbed, weeping. “Rebbe, why are you crying? A person as righteous as you will surely merit great reward in heaven!”

“I’m afraid!” Zusha replied. “I know that God won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you more like King David?’ But suppose that God asks, ‘Why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ What will I say then?”

We have a very limited picture of what it means to be “successful.” It can be incredibly hard for us to recognize different models of success. At various points during my life, I’ve had to recalibrate my vision of success. I knew from early on that I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college. And that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the best rabbinical school for me. And that I wouldn’t have been fulfilled being a rabbi at a huge synagogue. But there is always lingering doubt about whether “I’m getting it right.”

There’s a reason that not every college is an Ivy League college, and it’s not because Ivy League colleges are so exclusive. It’s because an Ivy League education isn’t the best education for every person. For some, college itself isn’t the best option!

The trick is to remind yourself that the “better” life that you’re picturing is an incomplete imagining. The idea that the grass is greener on the other side is false. We know that intellectually, but that doesn’t mean we don’t constantly need to remind ourselves of this fact. When we imagine being a well-known artist – even famous, we picture ourselves as successful and wealthy as Tom Cruise, or Meryl Streep, or Will Smith.

Rarely do we picture the day-to-day life of a working artist. We got a good example of this last week with the viral story in which the actor Geoffrey Owens, best known for his role of Elvin on The Cosby Show, was photographed at work at Trader Joe’s grocery store. Owens is still active in film and theater, but he has nowhere near the profile that he had twenty-five years ago, and so he worked at Trader Joe’s, which provided him with a reliable source of income, a flexible schedule that permitted him to take acting and directing jobs, and health insurance. That’s the reality of being a working actor. You couldn’t make a movie with only big stars. Films and TV shows need character actors – talented artists who bring depth to their work, but don’t have the same name recognition. I was fortunate during my childhood to know a few successful character actors – and they had to work very hard to persevere in the business. They took voiceover gigs, and commercials, and teaching positions. But they never lost sight of the work being worth it. When you’re committed to doing something that you love, you find ways to make it work.

In her book, The Happiness Project, one of Gretchen Rubin’s foundational principles for finding happiness is, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, don’t overlook what’s working in a never-ending search for something better. If you, like me, have ever been a procrastinating perfectionist, you have put off doing things for fear that they won’t turn out perfectly – and then rushed to get something – anything – together at the last minute. It is far better to give yourself leeway – to let yourself be OK with not being completely satisfied. An end-of-semester motto at Bryn Mawr College, my wife’s alma mater, is “done is good.” Perfect may be great, but better to be able to set down your tools and be OK with the quality of the work that you’ve put in. One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from Lorne Michaels, head of Saturday Night Live: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”

This is a major theme of the High Holy Days. You’re never fully prepared for what life can throw at you. The late Rabbi Alan Lew’s book about this season is titled, This is Real, and You are Completely Unprepared.

Teshuvah, the Hebrew word typically translated as repentance, has at its root the word “return.” Where we want to be is not so far off from where we are. What we are striving for is to return to our truest selves.

As we embark on this journey of self-reflection, striving to avoid “grass is greener” syndrome, I ask you to keep in mind the commentary offered by Robert Fulghum, author of, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”: “The grass is greenest where it is watered.”

Nurture that which you already have – that which is good. You can find happiness right where you are.

Published in Rabbi Jake's Sermons on September 15, 2018