The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Yom Kippur Drashah – Sept. 19 2018

The ten days of teshuvah, of repentence, which culminate in Yom Kippur, are a time when we feel called upon to be tougher on ourselves than we are during the rest of the year. We feel called to cut through all our layers of excuses, all the ways in which we rationalize our behavior, and challenge ourselves to do better. We human beings have a tendency to judge others harshly, even as we go easy on ourselves. At this time of year, we try to turn the tables on ourselves and take a hard look at our own behavior.

But sometimes the sin that we have to atone for during these days is exactly the opposite:  not that we have been too easy on ourselves, but that we have expected too much of ourselves. When we are stuck in our lives, when we feel stagnant, when we feel that we’re not growing, sometimes it’s because we ask too little of ourselves. But just as often – or maybe even more often – it’s because we have raised the bar so high that we are paralyzed by our own sense of inadequacy. We feel trapped because we are holding ourselves to a standard that we cannot meet. For the sin of trying to be superhuman, when what’s really asked of us is to be human.

Modern culture places staggering demands on us, and we internalize those demands more than we realize. Individualism, which is the core creed of modern culture, is, at a basic level, a commitment to personal freedom, to the right to choose our own path, including our own mistakes. But modern individualism has evolved into something more than that, something much more demanding. It has turned into a set of beliefs about what personal freedom can and should be able to achieve, an expectation that, by making the right choices, we should be able to create a life of something close to individual perfection.

Researchers have discovered that spending a lot of time on Facebook and other social media, looking at how other people package and present their lives, can cause people to become depressed about their own lives. It can lead to a deep dissatisfaction with oneself. The reason is that social media cultivates and feeds an unrealistic view of what our lives should look like. It plugs right into our contemporary fantasies of what it means to have one’s act together. People portray themselves on social media taking perfect vacations, serving and enjoying perfect meals, nurturing perfect families, enjoying a perfect balance between work and leisure, living perfect lives. They present themselves that way, I guess, because they feel that they are expected to, even though they know that their real life doesn’t actually look or feel like that. But then, when the same people look at other people’s online self-portrayals – portrayals of other people doing exactly the same thing, living perfectly sculpted fantasy lives – they imagine that those other people’s lives actually do look like that, that the picture that those other people paint of themselves is true to life, that it’s actually possible to have one’s act together in that way. And so they feel dissatisfied with their own lives.

It’s all based on the notion that the goal of life is to have our act perfectly together as individuals, that we can and ought to use our personal freedom to create a life of individual excellence, a life that is a kind of virtuoso performance, like that of dance soloist, whose every step is perfect and balanced – something like the service of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest on Yom Kippur. It’s the expectation that, if we are really good at living, we can meld career and family, work and leisure, personal time and quality time, friendship and ambition, home and community, personal growth and social responsibility, all into a perfect work of art. That is what modern individualism has morphed into. It teaches that to be an ideal individual is to be a whole, complete creation in oneself, that life is a great solo opportunity in which – if we are really good at it – the whole thing fits together perfectly. It’s not just social media that creates that expectation. That fantasy pervades our culture in general.

And so often people walk around feeling guilty, not because they have actually hurt someone, but because their life is less than the perfect work of art that they imagine it is supposed to be. That is the kind of guilt that – instead of spurring us to grow and do better – tends to paralyze us. It paralyzes us because it is based on an impossible ideal.

I’m guessing that some of the guilt that we bring with us to Yom Kippur is guilt about not living up to that ideal of individual wholeness, balance and perfection, the ideal of being totally in control. If so, then the failure that we really need to atone for is not that we have been unable to live up to that ideal, but that we have let ourselves be taken in and paralyzed by a fantasy. Because the truth is that, if we spent less time and energy trying to be whole and perfect in ourselves, we could do more to make God’s world whole. If we spent less time worrying about our own broken edges, our imperfectly sculpted selves, we would be able to do more good in the world, to heal more of the brokenness around us.

There is a beautiful teaching about that in the Pesikta d’Rav Kahanah, a collection of Rabbinic midrashim that is about fifteen hundred years old. The text from the Pesikta begins: “Rabbi Abba bar Yudan said: What disqualifies a sacrificial animal from the Temple service – being less than perfectly intact – is exactly what most qualifies a human being to serve God, as it is written in Psalm 51: ‘Lev nishbar v’nidkeh Elohim lo yivzeh – God will never reject a broken heart.’ Rabbi Alexandri said: If a human artisan comes to work with broken tools, it is considered a disgrace, But not so for the Holy One. All of God’s work is with broken tools, as it is written ‘Karov Adonai l’nish-b’rei lev – God is close to those whose hearts are broken.'”

The point of that midrash is that, to do God’s work in this world, we have to be less than whole. God’s work can be done only with broken tools. It is only by giving up the illusion that we can, or ought to try to make our lives a perfect work of art, in which we, the artist, are always in command, always in control, always right, never embarrassed, never inadequate – it is only by giving up that fantasy of personal wholeness and perfection that we can help to make God’s world more whole, more perfect.

I think that perhaps the most powerful story in all of Jewish literature about that lesson is the story of the prophet Jonah – Yonah in Hebrew – which we will read this afternoon at minchah, in the book that bears his name.

Yonah, as the book presents him to us, is a man who aspires to a self-contained perfection. Yonah needs to be on top of things. He hates to be wrong. He can’t stand to be embarrassed. That is why the mission that God gives him puts him in such a bind. God calls on Yonah to go to Nineveh, an archetypal place of evil, and try to save the city it by declaring to its people that their city is about to be destroyed because of their sins.

What is the bind? It’s that the only way that Yonah can succeed in his mission of saving the city is to be proven wrong. If Yonah’s declaration that Nineveh will be destroyed turns out to be correct – that is, if the city actually is destroyed – then Yonah will have failed, because he will have been unable to turn the people to repentance.  If, on the other hand, he succeeds in turning the people to repentance and saving the city, then his original message that the city would be destroyed will have turned out to be wrong, and he will be embarrassed. He will be revealed as someone who is not in complete control. In other words, the only that Yonah can succeed in doing God’s work is by being a broken tool.

Now this might not seem like such a terrible dilemma, but to Yonah it is unbearable. The worst possible thing, to him, is to be wrong, to be less than entirely on top of things. He says as much later in the story when he explains to God why he did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place. He says that it was because he knew that God is merciful, and would not carry out the decree. And when God relented, as Yonah knew he would, Yonah would look like a false prophet, or at best a fool. And that humiliation was something that Yonah just could not bear.

So Yonah runs away from God’command. He flees to Yafo, and boards a ship to Tarshish, which probably meant Spain, at the opposite end of the great sea, the farthest west that one could go. But the real direction in which Yonah goes is not west, but down. Yonah went down to Yafo, the book tells us, and then down into the ship. That downward trajectory is so true to life. Because when we become so self-absorbed that being right, that living up to some idealized image of self-contained perfection, seems more important to us than anything else, then that is exactly where we do go: down, further and further into our own isolation.

The book goes on: “The Lord cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great storm came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up. In their fear, the sailors cried out, each to his own god, and they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make it lighter for them.” The sailors were not afraid to ask for help, to confess that this was out of their hands, that they were not in control, and at the same time to do what was in their control – to make the ship lighter. They were not afraid to hope.

And what was Yonah doing? He was down in his cabin in the bottom of the ship, all alone, asleep, as the storm raged. Yonah, at this moment in the story, is the loneliest figure that I can imagine. He knows that he was wrong. He knows that this is his fault. But he cannot imagine any way to fix it. He thinks: Who would ever forgive me for having caused all this, for being such a fool, for not getting it right the first time? How can I ever live this down?  For Yonah, the hardest thing to bear is the fact of his own limitations. Stumbling – getting the steps wrong – is the worst of sins. And now that he has stumbled, the only thing that he can think of is his own humiliation, his own despair.

So Yonah is all alone. He is all alone for the same reason that he ran away in the first place: because he cannot bear the thought of being less than whole, less than perfect.

Finally, the sailors bring Yonah up on deck, and the book goes on: “The men said to one another, ‘let us draw lots to find out on whose account this misfortune has come upon us.’ They drew lots and the lot indicated Yonah.” Having no other option, Yonah tells the sailors his story. They ask him how they can repair the situation. Yonah answers, “Heave me overboard and the sea will calm down for you, for I know that this terrible storm has come upon you because of me.”

The sailors don’t want to do it. They don’t want to believe that the only way out of this situation is for Yonah to drown. Even though they know now that the storm is his fault, they also know that he is a fellow human being, and they want to treat him as a fellow human being. But Yonah will not let them.

Doesn’t Yonah know that there is such a thing as forgiveness, such a thing as mercy and compassion, even for himself? The irony is that we know that Yonah knows that God is merciful.  That is exactly why he ran away in the first place – because he was afraid that God would forgive the people of Nineveh and make him look like a fool.  But if he is so aware of God’s desire to forgive, how can he not know that god would forgive him too, if he just asked.

But Yonah won’t ask. And the reason why he won’t ask is the same reason why he ran away in the first place – because, for him, there is literally nothing worse than being wrong. He would rather die than have to say that he was wrong. From the very beginning of the story, what Yonah has really been running away from is the fact of his own humanness, the fact of his own incompleteness, the fact that, sometimes being human – human in the best sense – means not being right, not being in control. That is what Yonah is running away from now as well – to the point that he must run away from life itself.

In desperation, the sailors do as Yonah says and throw him overboard. As they do, Yonah must think that this is the end. But it isn’t, because God won’t let Yonah run away from life so easily. The narrator goes on: “The Lord assigned a huge fish to swallow Yonah, and Yonah remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.” Even though Yonah will not grant himself a second chance, God will not let him get away.

And then we come to the key moment in the story. After three days of absolute silence, absolute despair, in the belly of the fish, it finally dawns on Yonah that he doesn’t have to die. He didn’t have to get it right the first time. We are all fools sometimes. Stumbling can be okay as long as we just keep trying to do the right thing. Why?  Because the real dance that we are called upon to participate in in this world is not a solo dance, not one where we have to get the steps just right or the whole thing fails. It’s not about our own performance. The true dance of life is like a circle dance at a wedding, in which everybody, with all their limitations, joins in and does the best that they can, a dance that is beautiful and joyful exactly for that reason, because no one needs to be a perfect dancer – in fact no one even aspires to be a perfect dancer – but instead each one fills in for the other’s weakness. The dance that God calls us to be a part of is not one in which human imperfections are disqualifying, but one in which our flaws are a requirement. It is the broken edges of our individuality that make the whole thing work, that hold the whole thing together. They bind us to each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each one filling in the other’s gaps.

Atonement – at-onement- does not mean that we have to be perfect. It means that, when we stumble, we have to get up and rejoin that dance. We have to try to be at-one again with those around us.

I think that, after three days of utter silence in the belly of the fish, that’s what Yonah finally realizes. Because, when Yonah finally does speak up, what comes out of his mouth is not a mournful wail or a plea for release from the darkness where he finds himself, but something much more basic, a song of joy and thanksgiving. It is as if Yonah already has been released, even though he is still in the belly of the fish. He feels free at last because he finally understands that it was never about him. He feels redeemed because he sees at last that being a human being is not the problem, but the solution. God’s work in this world requires broken tools. It requires people who understand that it is not about us as individuals. It is about the love between us and among us, which helps to create a larger wholeness.

The fish spits Yonah out, the book tells us, and he finds himself back on dry land. Having gotten his second chance, he sets out to do the job that he was supposed to do in the first place.

And he does it. Yonah goes to Nineveh and announces to the people that their city is about to be destroyed because of all their evil deeds. And then, just as Yonah had predicted, just as he had dreaded, he winds up having to eat his words. The people of Nineveh are so moved by what Yonah has said that they repent. They commit to change. And so God spares them.

Then, after witnessing what the people of Nineveh have learned, Yonah promptly forgets everything that he has learned, and goes back to being the same self-absorbed lonely figure that he was at the beginning of the story.

Suddenly Yonah doesn’t care about all the good that he has done. He doesn’t care that he has saved all those thousands of people from being punished. All that he cares about is that his original prophecy turned out to be wrong, that he came off – or imagines that he came off – looking less than totally in charge. He had told them that their city was going to be destroyed, and it wasn’t destroyed. So he feels embarrassed and humiliated, and, again, he wants to die.

Yonah needs to learn all over again what he learned in the belly of the fish, just as we all need to relearn, over and over, what really matters most in life. Otherwise we wouldn’t need Yom Kippur to come back around each year.

And so God teaches him again. As Yonah sits, all alone, on a hilltop overlooking Nineveh, God tries to make Yonah understand, once again, that sometimes doing the work that we are called upon to do in this world means having to give up the illusion that we can be in charge, that we can perform a perfect solo. The point is not to be right. The point is to be compassionate, to care, to love, to forgive – even to forgive ourselves – which means embracing our own broken edges. That is atonement, at-onement.

God puts that lesson to Yonah in the form of a question:  God asks him – in slightly different words – Yonah, which do you believe is more important:  to save the lives of 600,000 people – which is what you just did – or to be right?  Think hard, Yonah. Which is more important: to have gotten your solo perfect, or to have made the contribution that only you could make to the larger dance of human life and love? – because, Yonah, only broken tools can do that job.

God puts the question to Yonah, and the story ends there. We don’t hear Yonah’s answer. But the rabbis who composed our Yom Kippur mahzor couldn’t let the story end there. They needed to hear Yonah’s answer, and so they added a little appendix to the book. They put into Yonah’s mouth a beautiful prayer that they lifted from the prophet Micah, a prayer that hints at some of Yonah’s own experience. It begins, “Who is like you, God, who bears our failings and overlooks our errors …” And it goes on, “God will once again have mercy, and will cast his people’s sins into the depths of the sea.” It’s a prayer of joy and gratefulness in some ways like the prayer that Yonah had already offered in the belly of the fish.

The point, I think, is that, just as we – like Yonah – need to learn the same lessons over and over again, we can and we do relearn those lessons. That is why Yom Kippur is a day – not just of deep solemnity and seriousness – but also of great joy and lightness. Why does Yom Kippur come every year? The cynical answer is that, no matter how many times we learn what matters in this life, we keep forgetting. But there’s an alternative answer, a more hopeful answer: Yom Kippur comes every year because, no matter how many times we forget what’s really important, we still have the capacity to relearn it. No matter how many times we’re taken in by the illusion that the key to living a good life is our own mastery, our own personal wholeness and completeness, we have the ability to learn anew what being human really means. We can learn again that what God really asks of us is to get up and join that great, beautiful and joyful circle dance, the dance of flawed, clumsy human beings doing our best to be God’s broken tools, doing our best to make God’s world more whole through love and compassion, and in the process finding our own wholeness in each other. Like Yonah, we just have to be reminded. That’s what Yom Kippur is for.

May we carry the message of this day throughout the year, and may that message help to make our lives a blessing.