Stepping Into Your Self
Rosh Hhashanah, 5780 / September 30-October 1, 2019
By Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Shanah Tovah, everyone. It is wonderful to see us all together, the Midway Family, and may we all be blessed with a New Year of Prosperity, Health, and above all, Peace.
Several men are in the locker room of a golf club, cleaning up after eighteen holes in the hot sun. A cell phone on a bench rings and a man engages the hands-free speaker function and begins to talk. Everyone in the room stops to listen.
He says: Hello
She says: Honey, it's me. Are you at the club?
He says: Yes.
She says: I'm at the mall now and found this beautiful leather coat. It's only $1,300. Is it okay if I buy it?
He says: Sure, go ahead if you like it that much.
She says: I also stopped by the Mercedes dealership and saw the new AMG C 63S sedan. I really liked it.
He says: How much?
She says: $75,000
He says: Okay, but for that price, I want it with all the options.
She says: Great. And one more thing. The house we wanted last year is back on the market at a reduced price. They're asking only $2.3 million.
He says: Well, go ahead and give them an offer, but start at $2 million.
She says: Okay, I'll see you later. I love you.
He says: Bye. I love you too.
The man ends the conversation, looks up, and all the other men in the locker room are looking at him in astonishment. Then he smiles and asks: Anyone know whose cell phone this is?
Every now and then, people say. Be yourself. I think that is, in general, good advice. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish poet and playwright, is purported to have said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” That, too, is fairly sound advice. But suppose you were to wake up one day and realize that you don’t particularly care for the person you’ve become? Should you still strive to be yourself or should you strive to make some changes and be the person you think you ought to be?
Felicity Huffman, one of the stars of the comedy-drama “Desperate Housewives,” is one of the 51 people who got caught in a college admissions scheme that has brought shame to her and to her family. She admitted to paying $15,000 to boost her older daughter’s SAT scores in order to increase her chances of admission into a good university. “Good university,” by the way, has since been identified as places like Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.
This is about as clear an example of cheating as there is. Why would a parent do something like this? The predominant reason given in the media was anxiety over their children’s future and whether the parents had done enough for their children. Who among us, so many parents in this room, hasn’t wondered whether we have done enough for our children?
Should I have gotten her that math tutor in the eighth grade?
Should I have encouraged him to take a couple more AP courses?
Should I have discouraged her from taking so many AP courses?
Should I have made him go to that therapist for his social anxieties?
It’s not easy being a parent.
I mention Felicity Huffman because I commend her for having come around, for having done the right thing—admitting her guilt and accepting her punishment, which includes 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, and 250 hours of community service. That sounds like a fair punishment, but the real punishment was not the sentence given by the judge, but the question posed to her from the daughter she wanted to help, who asked her mother why she didn’t believe in her, capping that question with a more damning statement: “I don’t know who you are anymore.” Perhaps Felicity realized that she had become someone she didn’t want to be.
When parents take over their children’s lives, becoming their CAOs—their Chief Advancement Officers—completing their homework, writing their essays, and challenging the school every time they perceive a given grade to be unfair—they do a great disservice to their children. And this may sound a tad harsh: the disservice committed is preventing a child from either succeeding or failing on their own. There is nothing sweeter than a success achieved by one’s own independent efforts, and as for failure, parents have a critical role to play when it comes to failure. We are able to teach our kids to never confuse failure with tragedy. We’ve all learned that lesson, in many cases the hard way, but it’s true. And it’s a lesson best learned at a younger rather than an older age. To rid children’s lives of failure is to deny them an important learning experience. And if you say, not without reason, that it’s not what you know but who you know, I will counter that by saying that the who-you-know will probably open some doors for you, but ultimately it’s the what-you-know that keeps you in the room. There has to be a good deal of correspondence between what the public sees on the outside of a person and what is actually going on within the inside of a person.
L’olam yehei adam yerei shamayim b’seter uvegalui
People should always be yerei shamayim,
(something like people who act always with reverence for heaven, whatever that means)
in public and in private.
This is a truth found in our prayer books and our mahzorim, recited every single morning. It’s an ideal, to be sure, because everyone has a public life that is a little different from their private life. I would assume as much and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with a public face that is so out-of-whack with one’s private life that the two clash in what can only amount to a tragic and fatal collision.
I think very sadly about how hard it must have been for Robin Williams, a brilliant comedian and actor, to be Robin Williams. Or Kate Spade, the fashion designer, to be Kate Spade. Or Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, to be Anthony Bourdain. When they ended their lives, as all three did, we were shocked. We suddenly learned that their private persona was at serious odds with their public persona. They had so much to live for, they were all so talented, they were all so bright and creative, yet they could not synch their public and private lives? They were not the people they really wanted to be.
There is an old midrash about Yom Kippur (really it’s about this entire season of repentance) which I have always found a bit forced, but over the years, come to appreciate. It’s a midrash in which an analogy is drawn between Yom Kippur and another Jewish holiday, but one that on the surface would seem the least likely candidate for an appropriate analogy, and that is Purim. The midrash essentially draws this comparison on the basis of an alternative name for Yom Kippur (a Day of Atonement) which would be Yom Kippurim (a Day of Atonements). And so the midrash goes—Yom Kippur is really (and now I’m going to translate): Yom (a day), k’ (like), Purim (Purim). And how exactly is Yom Kippur like Purim? It is like Purim in a number of respects, but for our purposes, they are both days of wearing masks. On Purim, we wear the masks of Esther and Mordechai, and on Yom Kippur we wear the masks of someone we are not. We put on our masks, or in other words, we enter this whole season of teshuvah in disguise, failing to see within ourselves all the stuff that is making us believe or act in ways that do not truly reflect just how talented, just how blessed, just how loveable we really are. In our heart of hearts, we all know what we need to change, and we even come close to admitting what it is we need to change, but ultimately, change is hard. To change means having to concentrate and invest in ourselves and what happens if we fail?
This resistance to change seems to be universal. And you know who resists change most vehemently? Addicts. Addiction is a serious problem in our nation. If you are, or you know anyone who is addicted to drugs or opioids, you need or you need to get someone else help. It’s a matter of life or death. The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that every day in our nation, 130 people die of drug overdose. These people have become something they are not; their addiction is preventing them from being who they truly are. There is a way to break the habit, which entails both an alternative drug therapy and a 12-Step program. The 12-Step program, I think, is a particularly effective program for those courageous enough to follow it. And the thought occurred to me that if it works on the addicts, maybe it would work on any of us who need to change, but no matter how many times we make the commitment, the resolution, the pledge, somehow we end up drifting. Could it be that we are addicted to our own bad habits and negative attitudes?
I don’t know how many of you attend a 12-Step program, and I’m not asking you to tell me, but if you do go, I want to commend you and honor you for seeing within yourself a need that the 12-Steps addresses, and for you having the courage and discipline to change. There are 12-Step programs for alcohol addiction, drug addiction, gambling addiction, food addiction, and I wish there was one more 12-Step program for attitude addiction, devoted to all of us who are trying to kick those aspects of ourselves that are, let’s say, unlovable. It’s those personality traits that make us jealous, envious, resentful, arrogant, dismissive, condescending, temperamental, vengeful, spiteful, loud, self-righteous, petty, stingy, lazy, bigoted... I could keep going but while in the presence of a fundamentally loveable crowd such as this one, there is no need. We each know our weaknesses, we each know our shortcomings and how difficult it is to extirpate them from our character. And that’s where the 12-Step program comes in because woven within the 12-Steps is this definite world view which compels us to take the steps that move us to change.
Step #1: Admit that you are powerless over your addiction.
Step #2: Accept into your life a power greater than yourself.
Step #3: turn your life over to that power.
I need not go into all 12-Steps because the first three actually tell us something that our Jewish heritage has been telling us for 2500 years:
L’olam yehei adam yerei shamayim b’seter uvegalui
People should always be yerei shamayim (live in awe of Heaven)
in public and in private.
The 12-Step program, whether it is framed within a context of spirituality or secularism, will always remind you that you can’t do it alone, that you have to find a power greater than yourself to help you make the changes you need to make. For us, as Jews, that power is the power of yirat shamayim, living in reverence of and with reverence for heaven.
The yirei shamayim walk this world not as the king of beasts, but as guests of God in a world of His creations—the mountains and the valleys, the oceans and the heavens, the planets and the stars. They see themselves as guests in God’s home and because they are guests, they behave as guests, with a large degree of reserve and respect for the world in which they find themselves.
The yirei shamayim do see themselves as the very pinnacle of material creation. As the Psalmist puts it, “You have made humanity just a tad shy of angelic” (Psalm 8:6). The yirei shamayim can look at the crooks, the murderers, the dictators, the terrorists, and still claim that with all of its faults, human life is outstanding. And because humanity has been so marvelously crafted by God, one dare not think of harming oneself, no more than one might think of destroying the work of a Michelangelo or a Picasso, though in this case, the artist is God. That creates an urgency to synch your public face with your private face.
The yirei shamayim not only believe that they must do what is right and good and moral, but they believe that they are every year, or possibly every moment, held accountable for their every action. In other words, they are not lone actors in this world. They are partners with God—subordinate partners to be sure, but partners nonetheless—and they had better toe the line when it comes to their responsibilities in this world.
Yirei shamayim are not arrogant, for arrogance would be a sin. But yirei shamayim are confident, as creations of God, that they are worthy of love—the love of others and the love with which they ought to treat themselves. I want to let you know that we are all worthy of love. And we’re loveable not because we’re perfect—who is perfect anyway?—but we are loveable because we are the most extraordinary of all creations on earth. And until we find life elsewhere in our universe, we are the most extraordinary creations within the universe, to be loved by others, and to be worthy of self-love as well.
V’ahavta l’reiakha kamokhah
Love your neighbor as yourself… (Leviticus 19:18)
Love yourself! But that returns us to our initial question: Do you love yourself? And what happens if you don’t, if you have become someone you really don’t want to be?
Whatever it is within yourself that you don’t love, you can get rid of. But you’re going to have to admit that you are powerless, and that there does exist within this universe a power greater than you, and that this power is capable of operating within you if you let it, and with that power operating within you, you can make just about any change you put your mind to. You have to become one of the yerei shamayim, operators in life who act only with great reverence of and for Heaven, and you have to do it in public and in private. Not easy, but doable.
Does the possibility of a long-term period of concerted effort scare you? Don’t let it scare you. Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. They lived together, east of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children, and struggling to stay alive. After years of struggle, when their children were grown, the dog had died, the mortgage was paid, they decided to travel and see the world. They journeyed from one corner of the earth to the next. In the course of their journeys, they happened upon the entrance to the Garden of Eden, the old neighborhood, now guarded by the cherubim, angels, bearing an eternally turning, flaming sword. They considered whether or not it was possible to return to it. Suddenly, the cherubim disappeared, the eternally turning, flaming sword vanished into thin air; the path into the Garden opened and a marvelously rich voice filled the air: “Eve, Adam—if you really want to return, you are free to enter.” Adam and Eve immediately recognized the voice as the voice of God. God had not spoken to them since their exile and now God spoke again, this time with an invitation to return to paradise. But the two had forgotten what paradise was like, and so far as they were on vacation, they wanted to know what they could expect should they devoted their limited time to a trip to Eden. So this is where God had to become a travel agent, to explain the better features of Eden. “The Garden is paradise,” God responded. “In the garden there is no work, no struggle, no toil, no pain, no suffering. In the Garden there is no self-consciousness, no moral dilemmas, and no challenges. Day after day, life goes on, uneventful, no surprises, everything is perfectly controlled. It is an endless life of ease.” Eve turned to Adam and Adam to Eve, whereupon Eve said, “Our lives together have been all about the challenges we’ve met, the successes we’ve achieved, and the failures we’ve overcome. It has been the crises that we have endured, without running away from them, hiding from them, that have made us the humans we are today.” And Adam, reflecting on Eve’s response and God’s description of paradise, concluded, “It sounds like a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” The two turned their backs on paradise, and as Eve and Adam continued on their journey having refused even an hour or two in Eden, one could hear that deep, resonant voice again say, “Good choice.” (After a tale by Rabbi Ed Feinstein).
If you were to think back on some of the most memorable moments in your life, aside from those times when the One Arm Bandit smiled generously upon you in Vegas, the moments we appreciate the most are very often connected to extended periods of sacrifice. These are periods in our lives when we kept late hours, concentrated on just a few goals, exerted ourselves mentally and physically, and accomplished what we needed to accomplish either on our own or with a trusted team. We shortchange ourselves when we think that what we have coming to us we can get for free. And what we get for free, when we get it, is not appreciated, for after all, we exerted no effort in obtaining it. Change is difficult, but if you really want to change, the difficulties are what make the whole process worthwhile.
One last thought. We believe in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. We also believe in the God of Sarah, the God Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah. There is only one God, but each of our ancestors had their own unique relationship with God. Their God is not going to help you. Only your God is going to help you, and your God is the God that you establish an intimate relationship with. It’s your God who will be your higher power.
Be yourself, but be the self that is fashioned by God. Don’t be the self fashioned by resentment, hatred or jealousy, drugs, alcohol or gambling or an unhealthy solicitousness for your children. Be the self in private that everyone loves in public, and if you fail, that’s no sin. The only sin is to think that change is impossible… And also answering someone else’s cell phone pretending to be someone you are not.
Shanah Tovah, everyone.