Erev Yom Kippur 5778
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Art Garfunkel just published a new memoir. So of course I have been thinking about my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs. There was a time in my life when my favorite song was “The Boxer.” Its depth and meaning suffused my soul with young adult angst. And then, there was the mystery of the missing verse.
Yes, that illusive verse, that rumor held, was the final straw that led to the demise of the greatest duo of all time. On the original single and album versions there is that haunting flute solo, (pause for flute). But with the Concert In Central Park, the veil lifted and revealed some of the truest, most depressing words ever written:
Now the years are rolling by me
They are rocking evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I'll be
But that's not unusual
No, it isn't strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are
More or less the same
(Invite everyone to sing La La La...)
If changes upon changes leave us more or less the same why do we come here each Yom Kippur, year after year, hoping, praying, dreaming to be better. To be different. Why is it that people, including every one of us, never seem to change?
Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar in Jerusalem posits four ways of thinking about this question. Why people do not change?
First - That’s just who I am. - I hate myself when I use this to explain my behavior. I was born this way (the nature argument) or, my upbringing made me this way (the nurture argument). In the 12th Century, the RaMBaM, Moses Maimonides wrote his code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah. The first two laws in the laws of repentance tackle the issue of nature versus nurture:
With regard to all the traits: a person has some from the beginning of his conception, in accordance with his bodily nature. Some are appropriate to a person's nature and will [therefore] be acquired more easily than other traits. Some traits he does not have from birth. He may have learned them from others, or turned to them on his own. This may have come as a result of his own thoughts, or because he heard that this was a proper trait for him, which he ought to attain. [Therefore,] he accustomed himself to it until it became a part of himself.”
This sounds as depressing as Paul Simon’s lyrics. We are born with or learn or take on negative characteristics. It is easy to say: “That’s just who I am.” But, what responsibility do we have if these things are embedded within us?
The television show E.R. answered this question for me. George Clooney’s character, Dr. Doug Ross, blames his father for all his negative traits. The womanizing, the difficulty forming lasting relationships, lack of impulse control. Clooney lays into his father on a bridge overlooking the Chicago river. At the end of the tirade establishing his father as the cause for all his issues, his father looks at him and says (and I paraphrase): Your first 18 years were my responsibility. Since then it is on you. You do not like who you are, be a grown up and find the strength to change.
Ah - were it only that easy. Our habits are deeply engrained in our being. Even if the will to change is strong, we may need help and support. Maybe that is why we gather as a community on Yom Kippur; to find that support.
Second - We are fixed and immutable. Here I am going to stick closely to Rabbi Held’s teaching. He refers to the verse in Deuteronomy when Moses says to the Israelites: “I was standing between you and God at Sinai that day.” The Hebrew used for the word “I” is - אנכי,(Anochi) not the simpler and more common אני. In fact, אנכי usually occurs when God speaks in the 1st person as in the 10 commandments! אנכי I am Adonai your God.
Rabbi Held points out that Chassidic tradition teaches that from his ego Moses’ uses the word אנכי as if to say: “I am on par with God.” From this perspective, in order to leave behind our negatives, we have to be willing to let go of who we think we are and let go of the stories we think define us.
Rabbi Held teaches that the Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi of Berdychiv would have the same conversation with himself each night. “Tomorrow I am going to behave differently, better.” One of his students overheard Reb Levi repeat this each night. Finally he approached the Rebbi: “Master, you said that last night.” the Berdychiver replied: “Yes, but tonight I mean it.” We want to change. Usually we do not. But we can. We are capable of change.
Third: We see freedom as a right. - When it comes to Liberty and Justice For All, freedom is a right. When it comes to our personal behavior we do not have the right to act anyway we please. For most of our history, Judaism extolled the blessing of free will. Judaism also taught that with free will comes responsibility for our choices and accepting the consequences that result.
The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught: “Free will should implant in man [sic]... a continuous awareness of maximal responsibility… without even a moment’s inattentiveness!... It is a positive commandment to be conscious of the existence of free choice which makes man [sic] responsible for his actions... One is forbidden to take one’s mind off the principle of free choice, for it was not given to man [sic] only from without or by tradition; it is also something in the nature of self-discovery and must always remain part of the self—the knowledge that man [sic] can create worlds and destroy them.”
How to cultivate responsibility? Start slowly. Look at the ice-cream case. Decide what you would like and walk away. Ice-cream does not do it for you? Pick something that does and work your way up from there.
Fourth and finally, We are reluctant to delve deeply into ourselves. - we know that everybody recites each of the על חייט (Al Cheit) confessions even if we did not commit that sin, just in case we did, and it is certain someone in our community did. “The ways we have wronged You by hardening our hearts...through gossip and rumor...through violence and abuse, through dishonesty in business...by losing self control”
Conducting business honestly may be easier than not losing self control, but both represent deeper parts of ourselves that need repair, that need healing.
If you have a crack in the foundation of your house, you can seal it. It is not hard. Even I can do it! But, chances are that another crack will open if you do not find the cause of the crack. Sealing the crack is like changing a behavior. Preventing other negative behaviors from replacing it requires a deeper inquiry into who you are. Fixing the manifestations only allows other manifestations to surface. We need to go deeper into ourselves to find what is broken and mend it.
Another example: We talk about people who quit smoking eating more. This is based in reality. The presenting addiction, smoking, is replaced by a seemingly more benign addiction, eating. But, as most recovering addicts will tell you, they are still addicts.
Making deep and lasting changes requires courage. Looking into our own abyss is scary and we risk getting lost. We know that courage does not equal being fearless. Courage is about how one deals with the fear. Again, perhaps we join together on Yom Kippur to support each other in facing our fears. When asked how do two people find their way out of a forest, the Kotsker, Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk answered, “Join hands and find the way together.”
Looking into ourselves, we ask “Who am I?” If you know the answer, your ego, your אנכי is getting in the way. The proper answer, the liberating answer, to “Who am I?” - “I’m not sure.” Uncertainty, combined with curiosity and a desire to be better drives us deeper to really change. And then, once you repair that level of depth, the curiosity and desire to be better drive you deeper to a new place of “I’m not sure.” and you find something else needing change.
Another time the Kotsker was asked: “What does it mean to really take awe of God seriously.” He replied: “Working on myself. It is a great sin to see yourself as a finished product.”
When a student asked: “Who is a good Jew?” He answered: “Anyone who wants to be.” The student asked: “Who would not like to be a good Jew?” The Kotsker answered: “Someone who thinks he already is.”
This Yom Kippur may we face ourselves. May we go deep. Let us hold each others’ hands as we find our way together. May we be blessed that after changes upon changes we are no longer more or less the same.