Return To Our Selves
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Kol Nidrei, 5778
Like many of us, most of us, I’d guess, my refrigerator is covered with various calendars, lists, and little comics. But, it’s especially covered by pictures, and mostly by pictures of my kids. And, pretty much all of those are pictures from when they were younger, and smaller. And, I’m probably not the only one here who’s heard the theory that we keep these pictures of our kids when they were young, long after they’re no longer that small, so that now that they’re older, we can remember when they were younger, and cuter. So that we don’t kill them.
I was reminded of this by, of all things, a teaching by Rabbi Chaim Shlomo Halevi of Kasani, also known as the Shemuah Tova. He tells the story of a king who had a loyal servant with a family, much beloved by the king. One of this servants’ family members was so dear to the King, that the king actually had his image engraved on his throne. And, if anyone from that servant’s family displeased the king, and found themselves in danger of judgment, they would shout out to the king, “just look at that form carved on your throne, and you will be filled with compassion because of your love for us.” Like those faded photographs on our refrigerators, the carving on the king’s throne reminded him of the younger, maybe better version of his loved ones. And, that memory made the King, like us, kinder, gentler, and more merciful.
What the English translation of that lovely story can’t capture is that it uses a somewhat rare Hebrew word for “engraved.” When it says that the servant’s family member’s image was engraved on the throne, is uses the word “toke’a.” That word is awfully close to the word “tekiah,” the word which describes the sound of the shofar. In other words, Rabbi Chaim is teaching us, the shofar is like that engraved image, or like the photos on our fridge. It’s really meant as a reminder to God. A reminder of our younger, purer selves. A reminder of who we used to be and, hopefully, who we could possibly be again, one day. We may not merit forgiveness and redemption right now. But doesn’t that cute, innocent baby deserve it?
Judaism teaches that each and every one of us was, at one time, perfect. Each morning we pray, “Elohai Neshama she’natata be, tohora he—my God, the soul which you have given me is pure.” We believe that the soul which we were given, which resides as a holy spark inside each and every one of us, is perfect and pure, and incorruptible. When we’re young, when we were born, we essentially had nothing other than that soul, and so we, too, were perfect and pure. But, it doesn’t last long. No one remains pure, or perfect, forever. Almost from the very beginning, our natural instincts, our lesser angels, or greater demons if you will, and the world around us, start pushing and pulling us in different directions. As soon as we can learn anything, we start learning ways to go wrong. Not only that — I’m not suggesting that everything that we learn, and everything that we do, and therefore everything that we become, is terrible. There’s plenty of good in there, as well. But, we know that sweet, cherubic baby will become a petulant, self-absorbed, obnoxious teenager, at some point. And I’m not talking about my kids, or about yours. I’m talking about me, and about you. About all of us.
These Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, are the time of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance,” but the word comes from the root “to return.” Teshuvah isn’t just apologizing, and it’s not really even about self-improvement. It’s about returning. And, by definition, we can only return to where we were, or to who we were. We were, each of us, maybe long ago, so good, and so pure, and so holy. We can be, again.
Take a moment, and see if we can remember what we were like when we were younger. Can we remember the sheer, endless, unadulterated joy which could be ours simply by means of a bubble wand or a garden hose on a sunny day? When’s the last time any of us felt that kind of joy? Can we remember the fiery, burning, all-consuming passion of our early teenage years, when we first started encountering unfairness and injustice in the world around us? That uncompromising, unreasonable, unmovable certainty that the world wasn’t right, and that the adults around us were too complacent, or too blind to see it, and that we, and we alone, had to wake them up, or make it right ourselves, or somehow fix it? It’s so easy to look back at these earlier versions of ourselves with a kind of dismissive nostalgia. Oh sure, it was nice, and maybe age-appropriate, but it was so childish. So unrealistic. The simplicity and clarity of those early days pretty much inevitably gives way to the realities of adulthood. And, that’s probably necessary, and in many ways that’s a good thing. But, maybe not in all ways. Maybe, tonight of all nights, we should be looking back at our younger, purer selves with envy and longing, and maybe with some hope. Hope that, somehow, we can return to that version of ourselves.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the Sefat Emet, has another word for that pure soul with which each of us was born. He calls it the nikudah penimah, the inner point. The tiny spark of holiness, the tiny fragment of divinity, which lies at the heart of every single person. It’s possible to cover up that spark of holy purity within us. It’s possible, layer upon layer, to stifle it with worldliness, with rationalizations, with excuses, with exhaustion and frustration, and with resignation. It’s possible to cover it so completely that it becomes fully and utterly invisible. But, it’s not possible to kill it. It’s not possible to snuff it out. No matter how hard we try, no matter how thoroughly we may bury it, it remains inside of us, a tiny spark of burning holiness. Waiting. If we want to set it free, if we want to see it within ourselves again, we have to start peeling away that which covers it up so effectively. That’s sounds nice, but what does it mean? How can we actually achieve it?
Many of you know that, for a few years now, I’ve been engaging with the world of Spiritual Practice. It’s a fancy sounding term, and it might be off-putting to some. But, all that it really means is that I’ve been trying to find various ways — meditation, inspiring texts, introspection, and so on — to look inward, and to try to be honest about what I see. And, to ask myself whether I like what I see. Or, maybe a bit more accurately, to try to identify the parts of what I find inside which I do like, and those which I don’t. And, to try to be thoughtful and deliberate about asking myself what I have to do, and whether I’m willing to do it, if I want to strengthen those better, holier qualities, and try to move away from the lesser ones. It’s not, as you might guess, always a pleasant process. But it’s one I’ve come to value.
One of the gifts which this world of practice has brought to me is a greater willingness to do more immediate, ongoing self-evaluation, and self-criticism. To step back, just after some interaction, and ask myself what I think about it. Knowing that each one of us suffers from these accumulated, holiness-stifling layers, it also gives me permission to be a bit more gentle with myself when I fall short. Basically, no one is perfect, and no one reacts perfectly all of the time.
Like every single person here, I’m often presented with frustrating situations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Rabbi of a congregation, a manager in a business, a teacher, a clerk at a store, or pretty much anything else — we’re all going to, probably fairly regularly, deal with someone who, deliberately or not, is making our lives difficult. And, sometimes I react to that difficulty, and to that difficult person, with frustration and anger. But, sometimes, more often when I remember to be committed to trying, I can react with kindness, and with love, and with grace. Sometimes I lash out — and, by the way, quiet, seemingly thoughtful responses can sometimes be nothing more than angry lashing out in disguise. Sometimes, I can transcend the seemingly endless supply of pettiness within me, and treat that person as I would want to be treated. To assume that they must be acting with some combination of conviction, pain, confusion, and holiness, and to react accordingly.
I’m pretty sure that, if we could measure such a thing, I’d find that these past few years of Spiritual Practice have help me respond more often than I otherwise would have with kindness. But, what I’m sure about, as I’ve watched myself during this time, is that when I do respond with kindness, as opposed to with anger and pettiness, I like myself more. I admire the person I am when I react with kindness more than I do the other version of myself. I’d want to be with that kind person more than I’d want to be with the petty version of myself, and I know that I would rather be that kind person. Not only because it feels so much nicer, which it does. But also, because it feels so much more honest. It feels like who I really am, or at least, who I am meant to be.
I completely acknowledge that all of these various reactions are mine. I can’t disown any of them, and I’m not trying to. It’s all me. But, when I can manage to bring out that better version of myself, especially in difficult situations, it feels like I am in some way returning. It feels like I have not only found a better version of myself, but a truer version. When I say that this is who I feel I am meant to be, I don’t say that lightly. I believe that, like each and every one of us, I was given a pure soul. Giving voice to that soul feels like a homecoming. A return. Teshuvah.
It’s not easy. It’s really not. Although I take full responsibility for my own actions and reactions, I also have to acknowledge that the world in which we live does sometimes seem to conspire to make this kind of holy living very difficult. I can’t look at the news, or scan through my Facebook feed without encountering vitriolic anger. Although I try never to look at the comments section of anything anymore, if I do I know that I’m going to see a seemingly endless string of ad hominem nastiness and name-calling. I know that people are much more likely to huddle together around grievances and anger, than we are around joy and gratitude. And, we all know that the rumor mill seems to be much more effective at spreading the former, rather than the latter.
I know that my own sense of worry and insecurity makes it easy for me to dismiss the greater pain of others, especially when I don’t really know them. I know that the way that the supposed leaders we see all around us speak and act can bring out the worst in me. And, I fear that I am, at least some of the time, among those leaders. We live in a world which doesn’t seem to value, or reward, or reinforce, or compel kindness. Or justice. Or love. And, so, it takes constant, dedicated work to rise above it. It’s among the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. But, I’m committed to trying.
I’m committed to trying to be kind, and to help those who hurt, wherever I might encounter them, and to lead with empathy. I’m committed to trying to remember the person I thought I was when I was younger, and to remember the kind of person that the childhood version of me believed I would one day become. Can we remember who we thought we were? Can we remember who we planned on being? Can we admit, at least to ourselves, that we aren’t. That we haven’t become, at least not fully, who we knew we could be, and what we knew we had to be? Can we imagine what our truest selves would say about what they see in the mirror, and can we let that drive us to teshuva? I’m committed to working, even through my failures, at being the better, truer version of myself. And, I’m strengthened by realizing that, with every little success and victory, I reinforce my awareness that my nikudah penima, my inner point, my holy spark, remains intact. Still hidden. But, pure.
In The Book of Words, Rabbi Larry Kushner creatively retranslates common Hebrew words. And, his translation of teshuvah is “coming home.” Using that interpretation, he then offers this teaching, modified from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook:
Through Returning Home all things are reunited with God… Returning Home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness, without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light… It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator, to be illumined by the light of life. This is the mystical meaning of the light of the Messiah, the manifestation of the soul of the universe, by whose illumination the world will return to the source of its being, and the light of God will be manifest on it.
May we all remember the children in those photographs. May we remember who we were, when we were them. May we return home to ourselves, by remembering and finding that holy spark within. Hashiveinu Adonai elecha, v’nashuva. Help us return to You, Adonai, and we will return. Call us back, with the sound of your shofar.