Friday, September 23, 2011

Focus on good rather than sin for a moment / Yom Kippur

Some of us are getting teshuvah-weary -- weeks of soul-searching and facing our moral failings. Teshuvah (repentance) is hard work, and certainly a good, long look into the moral mirror helps. By the time the sun sets on Yom Kippur we will have thoroughly explored the crevices of our souls and embark on multiple confessions of sins we didn’t commit, along with those we did. Our prayers on the High Holy Days help us identity only our deficits. But our holiday liturgy is one-sided.

Certainly focusing on our sins and failings is one path to improvement. But it’s not the only way to become the best version of ourselves we can become. There is much good in each of us. There is much we have done in the past year that speaks well for us in heaven and on earth. Building on our strengths and moral accomplishments is a fine way to improve in the coming year, and a good balance to the confessionals on Yom Kippur.

Think back over the past year. What did you do that makes you especially proud? (It’s perfectly fine to be proud of being a mensch.) Did you go out of your way to help someone in a way that made difference in their life? Were you able to be patient and kind to someone who normally pushes your every button? Were you especially generous with your time or resources on behalf of a great cause? Did you do something as a child, parent, grandparent, or friend that you feel is remarkable for you? Did you fulfill a commitment you thought you might not be able to fulfill?

What you did once last year, you can do twice or thrice this coming year.

The goal is improvement. Perfection has never been a Jewish goal. We’re human -- sometimes delightfully so, and sometimes tragically so. But we are human nonetheless. We do good and we miss the boat. That is in the nature of our biology, and some of the traits we might not like in ourselves evolved over time to assure our survival. But Torah tells us two things to help us channel our natures and our energies positively: First, we have free will. We can decide whether to follow our biological inclinations or moderate them. Second, we are created b’tzelem Elohim (on the model of God).

There are many interpretations of what it means to be the tzelem Elohim (image of God). We generally agree that it means we should be “godly.” But what does “godly” mean? Our Sages struggled to understand it and offer us two perspectives.

The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a) wants to help us in our attempt at self-improvement and tells us that imitating God means doing what God does: clothe the naked (God clothes Adam and Eve), visit the sick (God visits Abraham after his circumcision), comfort the bereaved (God blesses Isaac after Abraham died), and bury the dead (God buries Moses). These are concrete behaviors, acts of chesed (loving kindness) on behalf of others. What concrete godlike acts have you performed this past year? I’ll bet there are plenty you don’t even remember.

The midrash Sifrei Devarim (Parshat Ekev, #13) tells us that being godly means developing the character of God as expressed in the Thirteen Attributes of Exodus 34:6-7 -- and especially the traits of compassion and kindness. What godlike traits have you exemplified in the past year?

Your goodness can be your model for the coming year. What you did last year, you can build on this coming year. Little by little, we move toward our potential and become the best versions of ourselves we can be.

If you’re still in doubt that perfection is not a Jewish value, here’s something more to consider. For the Rabbis, as for Torah, God does not claim perfection. Rather, God models the struggle for self-improvement, the key to which is self-control. Yes, even God is struggling with self-control. The Talmud (Berakhot 7a) shares a teaching of R. Yochanan in the name of R. Yose: Every day God prays, “May it be My will that My compassion will conquer My anger, and that My compassion will overcome My [sterner] attributes, and that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of [strict] judgment [and forgive].”

Imagine yourself reciting this prayer each day. Indeed, try it! Here it is, reworked for our use: “Today may I exert my free will so that my compassion conquers my anger, and my compassion overcomes my other attributes, and I treat every person I meet with compassion, and for their sake I avoid being judgmental.”

In the coming year, lead with your goodness. May we all enjoy a year of abundant blessing, and may we all be a blessing to all those around us. Shanah tovah u’metukah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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