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Rosh Hashanah - 5776

posted Sep 14, 2015, 12:36 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Oct 2, 2015, 7:27 AM ]

Seven weeks ago, just after Tish’a B’Av, I wrote a homily about Shabbat Nahamu, the 1st Sabbath of Consolation that comes after the 3 week period of collective mourning on the Jewish calendar. In that message, I prayed that on that Sabbath, we would each find in ourselves that sense of self-worth that does not need external validation.

I sent that message to my daughter, Yvonne, and she replied, in part with this:

Isaac and I went backpacking two weekends ago, and the weather was rather nasty in the alpine zone (where the last 1/3 or so of the mileage was). We both agreed it was too dangerous to continue, and decided not to try for the summit. We were going to try to hike 3 peaks (all close together), and ended up hiking none. Nevertheless, there were stunningly gorgeous views, a lovely weekend with my only (and awesome) brother, and much-needed outdoor exercise. Even so, I couldn't help feeling like we had "failed," and there was something wrong with me that we hadn't climbed to the top. When I told people about our adventure (which was quite a tale), I felt like I constantly had to justify why we hadn't continued, as if I wasn't a worthy hiker unless I summit every peak I attempt. 

I think learning to re-calibrate the scale of success and failure has been one of the hardest and most important tasks of my last decade.

As we corresponded more, the dialog became deeper and more profound, to the point where I asked if she would help with, or even write in its entirety, the drash for Rosh Hashannah. What follows is her response.

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Recently, I attended a yoga class with a particularly wonderful teacher. We were given the chance to set an intention before class began – anything we chose to focus on for the next hour of our practice. In case we wanted an intention but could not think of one, our teacher offered one of her own. “I am here. I am enough.” I often have my own ideas about what I want to get out of an hour of yoga, but those words rolled over in my head. I could not stop thinking about them, and yet I could not quite internalize them. For all the years of working toward goals, sacrificing sleep to achieve, and reaching for what seems barely attainable, it was an uncomfortable thought to consider that simply being could be enough.  Nonetheless, this thought stayed with me for weeks after – each time I used hateful words toward myself  -  “How did you waste so much time?!? Why did you eat that?!? Can’t you just get your work done?!?” – I stopped myself, and considered if it was possible that I could be enough.

It is particularly difficult for me on the Yamim Nora’im – the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, to understand the powerful words of my yoga teacher. On these High Holidays, we are challenged to not accept – rather, we are challenged to be better, to strive for something more. We are asked to reflect, to take ownership, and to change.  Jewish tradition teaches that on the Days of Awe, we engage in “cheshbon nefesh.” Not a static acceptance of ourselves, but an active process of self-reflection, aimed at change and improvement. In Hebrew, the word “cheshbon” means “a receipt” or “an account,” so a “cheshbon nefesh” is an accounting for our soul. Just as a receipt represents a transaction of exchanging goods and services, so too a cheshbon nefesh represents a transaction of confessing wrongdoings in exchange for forgiveness.

What do we mean by this? This transaction may simply be reading aloud a list, as it is in the Al Chet or the Ashamnu that we read on Yom Kippur. In these tefillot (prayers), we publicly acknowledge wrongdoings as a community. The language here is plural – we have sinned, we have erred. This, however, is insufficient for a true cheshbon nefesh. Certainly we must recognize our collective errors – our world discriminates, we live comfortably on the backs of those who struggle to survive – and it is a powerful and humbling task to state our sins aloud, and to hear ourselves say those words. But an accounting of the soul – a real cheshbon nefesh – as Judaism understands it, is much more than this public, communal listing of wrongdoing. Alan Morinis, author of Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, suggests that a true cheshbon nefesh is enacted through the recognition and acceptance of the qualities we see in ourselves. The transaction, then, in the kind of cheshbon nefesh required of us on the Yamim Nora'im, is one in which we exchange recognition of our own faults for acceptance of them. We confess – state aloud – our shortcomings, and, in doing so, accept these unsavory pieces of our personality and behavior.

Self-reflection is not an easy task. It is a task for which we leave little time in our hectic, time-pressured lives. The ping of a text message or jingle of an email notification penetrates our daily existence, giving us constant tasks to focus on, and endless needs to fill. Finding time to truly reflect requires a concerted, disciplined effort. The High Holidays are meant to provide us this circumscribed time in which we are charged with self-reflection and self-improvement. Absent from our machzor, however, is a structure that guides us through this process.

The musar movement (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-musar-movement/) in Judaism gives one method of conducting this self-reflection. Scholars and rabbis in the musar movement note that the challenge of a person is to be balanced – each one of us has many dimensions of our personality, and each of us benefits from a certain amount of balance on each dimension. For example, the quality of anavah – humility – is seen by many as a positive trait. Being a humble person is frequently seen as valuable. However, a person who has too much anavah is a person so humble that their own needs are disregarded and pushed away. Rabbi Marcia Plumb tells a story about a person sitting on a bench waiting for the bus on a hot day. A person with no anavah sits directly in the middle of the bench, spreading her arms and legs widely to cool off. This person takes up all of the space on the bench, leaving anyone else who may be waiting for the bus forced to stand. A person with too much anavah, in contrast, sits only on the very edge of the bench, barely stable. He is not able to relax and cool off in the heat of the day, and he soon becomes so tired that he risks fainting. The person with a balanced amount of anavah – of humility – sits to one side of the bench, comfortably seated, and also leaving space for his fellow.  This represents a balanced amount of anavah. Musar rabbis go on to talk about innumerable traits, and what a balanced amount of each trait may look like.

The goal of musar is to move toward a personality of balance. Before engaging in self-improvement, musar requires an honest reflection on the relative strength of each quality we possess. The qualities we see in excess are those we hope to quash, whereas the qualities we feel are lacking, we desire to strengthen.   

If we return to the words of Alan Morinis, however, we see that this recognition, this noticing, is only a first step. Recognizing our qualities and traits is a huge challenge, to be certain. Next, though, is the formidable task of acceptance. Accepting ourselves as we are, here, today, is the second step in the process of cheshbon nefesh. Recognizing and accepting – this is our challenge on the Yamim Nora'im.

Implicit in the self-reflective process of the Days of Awe, however, is the idea of change. We all know of “New Year’s Resolutions” and vows we make to ourselves and to others as the fresh slate of a new year comes in to view. “This is the year I will finally go to the gym!” Or, daven (pray/meditate) each day, or eat more leafy greens. We love the idea of possibility, of finally becoming that idealized person in our visions and dreams. So why, then, do the rabbis charge us with self-acceptance at this time of change? Why is it that cheshbon nefesh – the critical process of reflection and acceptance happens now, just as we are looking into the myriad of possibilities in the new year?

The complex and arduous process of change, I would argue, begins with acceptance. Acceptance of who we are; acceptance of the qualities we possess – particularly those qualities that we feel are present in excess or are lacking; acceptance of where we are in our personal, professional, and spiritual journeys; and acceptance of all that we have, or have not done in our time thus far on earth. These may not all be things we are proud of. In fact, those things that are hardest to accept are often the ones we keep buried deeply, out of shame or embarrassment.  Yet, on Rosh Hashana, as we begin a new year, we can not enter that year divorced from who we were last year, and the years before that. The beautiful, bright future begins with acknowledgment of our past, and acceptance of our present.

Thus, our charge on Rosh Hashana, as we engage in cheshbon nefesh, is to bravely, honestly reflect on who we are. If we are able to reflect, and then accept, ourselves as we stand here, now, today, then we are ready for the next 10 days, and for Yom Kippur. On these days, we will ask forgiveness – certainly from those around us, and certainly from God. But I believe the most challenging forgiveness is that which we can offer to ourselves.

True forgiveness for ourselves can only happen when we confront and acknowledge the person we are. Not the idealized, better person we strive for, but the imperfect, flawed person we are today.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we recognize and accept that person. We embody those words – I am here. I am enough.  Only when we are able to truly recognize, acknowledge, and accept ourselves as we stand today – when we can know that we are enough – are we ready to ask forgiveness in the days to come.

 Yvonne Asher, 13 September 2015, 1 Tishrei 5776

Shannah Tovah

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