By Rabbi Robin Sparr.
When I first came to TEMV, a member mentioned she felt a sermon was only successful if it gave her something to think about, and something to do. Throughout these High Holy Days, I’ve made sure to include a specific call to action in each sermon. I thank the many of you who signed postcards addressed to the Speaker of the House last week regarding our country’s immigration policies; if you did not have an opportunity to do so, there are still additional postcards at the sign-in table, and I would be happy to post them for you.
Tomorrow I will ask you to take action again, in support of those facing food insecurity. But tonight, at Kol Nidrei, as we engage in an accounting of our souls, I invite you to take action for yourself.
Rabbi David Wolpe reminds us, “Yom Kippur asks us to acknowledge the brevity of life, the reality of others, the seriousness of having a soul and the beauty of standing honestly and aspirationally before God.”
An acquaintance, Rabbi Sara Berman, who is a rabbi and chaplain, and also a uniquely transparent and courageous person, posted in an online chat group this past summer: “Working on my next book. About my mom. I realize that we sometimes only know snippets of people – when they worked, when they were a parent, when they were sick… but we forget to see the WHOLE person. Hoping to incorporate different parts of her into a fuller picture. Any memories/ thoughts would be appreciated.”
In my work, I am sometimes gifted with the holy obligation of shepherding a family through a funeral. In those moments of meeting with them to prepare a eulogy, often for a person I’ve never met, I and they see glimpses of their loved one that are brand new, sometimes humorous or sad, occasionally shocking, frequently deeply revelatory.
Our tradition offers us many names for the Eternal, names that express the Holy One’s many and varied, and sometimes conflicting, attributes—Sovereign, Merciful, Healer, Source of life, Righteous, Parent, Creator, just to name a few.
We, too, have many names, given by our parents, or by our children, bestowed upon us by our accomplishments, or our misdeeds, by our friends and lovers, and even by our rivals or our enemies. But none of our names represents the fullness of who we are.
We present ourselves situationally—perhaps when with our parents, we are obedient and respectful, striving to convey the person they wish us to be, and the fulfillment of their dreams. With our children, we might offer our strength and protection; with friends, our compassion and humor; with coworkers, our competence and reliability, with trusted lovers or our very closest friends, our innermost hearts.
Just as when viewing a dodecahedron, a 12-sided die, at any given moment, only one, or perhaps just a few, of our faces are visible, but others remain hidden, just out of sight, and our solidity obscures deeper meanings and facts about us.
Why do we not simply reveal ourselves, at all times, in all our flawed splendor? Because sometimes we must gird ourselves for protection from criticism or trauma, which makes sense in certain situations, such as in professional spaces or time spent with those who do not wish us well. And, anyway, we are entitled to privacy, to our inner world, to keeping secrets for ourselves. Certainly, we can no more walk about with our truest selves completely unguarded than we might walk naked through the supermarket.
But how do we balance, and even integrate, our inner selves , and our many aspects, with the selves we put on display?
In our digital age, we, governed by social media, are more compelled than ever before to present a certain image to the world. On Facebook or Instagram, we record and project our triumphs and joys, showing the world the very best version of ourselves and our lives. We even use filters to smooth our wrinkles, brighten our eyes, and make us appear a bit better than we really are.
R’ David Wolpe writes, “In the age of social media, we have all become more skilled at presenting ourselves as people that we are not. This makes the High Holidays that much more important; it is the time when we rediscover and evaluate who we are; not an avatar or image, not a curated self, but raw, real, messy, flawed and noble all at once”
When we go about, wrapped in our layers of self-protection, what don’t our children see? What do our bosses or colleagues miss? How are we different with the stranger in the queue than we are with our closest loved ones?
What do we give up when we reveal ourselves, in our messy, flawed and noble truth? Well, we give up a layer of our armor, but we ALSO relinquish a veil that separates us from others, and even from our own selves. Most critically, when we fail to reveal our authentic selves, we miss the opportunity for that most important, vital, life-affirming blessing – the opportunity for genuine human, soul-to-soul connection. The chance to experience real empathy, to let another person into our little world, and to be let in to theirs.
And, ironically, who are we the MOST authentic with? I would posit some of us are most authentic with people we are unlikely to ever see again—there is nothing to be gained or lost, no burden of expectations or obligation to meet.
We want to be seen, and to be known, to feel we are “a part of”, to feel we are included. Too often our fear or anxiety prevents us from connecting—and we stare into space in the elevator or on the train. There’s even a German phrase for this phenomenon—wie luft behandeln—“to be looked at as through air.” To open ourselves to small moments of connection is to open the door to feeling a part of the network of humanity.
Several years ago, two University of British Columbia researchers investigated whether short conversations with strangers could lift moods. Their experiment involved having subjects buy beverage in a busy coffee shop and either get in and out, or strike up a conversation with the cashier. Those who were assigned to chat left in a better mood, and even a greater sense of belonging in their community.
Of course, not all of us are extroverts, and perhaps we don’t want to engage with every person we see. But have you ever found that a brief exchange at the grocery store, or in line at the bank, or greeting the vendors you see on a regular basis, makes you, and them, feel a little less burdened, a little lighter?
A couple of weeks ago I went looking for parking in the theatre district and ended up in a pricey garage that brought me out to the Ritz Carlton entrance. As I stepped out into the street, I glanced at the doorman’s face, and remarked, “Didn’t you used to be at the Arlington location?” He was surprised and flattered to be remembered—he told me he’d left Back Bay a decade ago, but has been with Ritz for 33 years all together – and this led to a lengthy and enjoyable conversation and reminiscence about the old, now sold, hotel and its staff and bygone-era culture. It was a very warm and sweet exchange, and that precious little moment, that short conversation, seemed to make his day, and mine.
From the poet laureate of Santa Cruz County, California, Danusha Lameris:
“I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the blowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Of course, these surface interactions don’t necessarily reveal our deepest selves. That’s something we save for those closest to us – but we too often miss the mark in this realm, and fail to show our authentic selves even when it is safe for us to do so. We hesitate to expose our faults and failings, to share our hopes and dreams, along with our various bits of brokenness. And yet, it is our flaws that give us humanity and deep beauty. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Rabbi Wolpe shared recently a story, “The Hidden Image,” which I would share with you:
Do you know the legend of the angels and the Divine Image? A group of angels heard that God intended to create human beings in God’s own likeness, and they thought human beings unworthy. So they plotted to hide the Image. One proposed a mountaintop, but another angel pointed out that human beings climb, and would discover it. Another suggested the bottom of the ocean, but here, too, there was a flaw in the plan—human beings are naturally curious about the world, and would descend and find the Image even at the ocean’s floor.
Finally, the shrewdest angel proposed that the Image be hidden within human beings themselves, because it is the last place they would be likely to look. And so it was.
Judaism teaches us to foil the angelic plan. We must look for the Divine Image within ourselves, and within others. There are mysteries on the mountaintop, and secrets in the ocean, but the greatest treasure is found inside the human heart.
Today, we spend our day in teshuva, repenting the things we’ve done, or failed to do. Let us engage in teshuvot for the facets of ourselves we keep hidden or fail to express. For the loving words left unsaid. For the tear unshed. For the encouragement withheld. For the masks we wear, and the weeds and walls we allow to grow up around our hearts. May we find the inner strength to engender deeper trust with those we love, so that they can see ALL of us, and we can then be fully present with, and fully known, to them. Let us not hide from ourselves, or from one another. May we find the path to integrating our disparate, contradictory, messy parts into a whole that allows us to express our most authentic self and achieve shleymut, wholeness, leading to true shalom, peace within ourselves and in our world.
© 2019 Rabbi Robin Sparr. May not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.