Friday, September 4, 2015

Parashat Ki Tavo: Themes of the High Holidays

You will know it’s my retirement year when, for Rosh Hashanah, my sermon is one word long: REPENT! The Days of Awe approach and we are supposed to reflect inwardly, to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, and take stock in our various transgressions and sins, and make atonement for them. This is the moment where we submit ourselves to Divine judgment and turn back toward what we know is good and right and away from all that we have done wrong; or, to paraphrase Harold Kushner, to turn away from our false selves and back toward our best selves.
And so we carefully list all that we have done wrong: Al cheit shechatanu milfanecha: for the sin we have committed before you, O God…and list one failing after another. And while the traditional list is generic, we can see ourselves and our own failings reflected in the words: the times we were dishonest, or hurtful. The times we prioritized ourselves over others. The times we were judgmental of those who needed our support.  
Of course, a real accounting would look at both sides of the ledger: not only debits but also profits—and here I don’t mean Isaiah. But at this time, we never look at that side of the book. We assume our efforts at doing good in the past year were wanting, insufficient. Is this because we don’t want to slip into easy justifications or delusions of ego, or is it actually easier thinking about the bad stuff? Well, if you’re like me, it’s much easier to focus on the bad: the unspoken word of kindness, the hastily spoken word of cruelty. If you’re like me, the capacity for guilt and regret is pretty high. And this time of year, I find the practice of reflecting on the past year and its sins pretty easy: I can conjure up a pretty decent list of moments where I did the wrong thing, said the wrong thing. And our culture has a very strange dynamic when it comes to reflecting on the good we do.  We now know that many people have trouble hearing compliments or praise; that reflecting on the good one does makes some people uncomfortable, as if they are pressured now to live up to unrealistic expectations.  We are ambivalent about praising children, wrestling with how much is too much, with all kinds of articles about how trophies for showing up are undermining civilization. And we know women in the work force are less likely to receive praise from supervisors and less likely to identify their own successes in their reviews. Clearly, we don’t feel comfortable talking identifying our successes.
And yet, there were moments of goodness too. Moments where everything went right, where I was supportive, or kind, when things actually went according to plan. Moments when I felt…well, good. Why don’t we spend time on that as we approach the high holidays? Why do we spend so much energy at the high holidays focused on our transgressions, and no time at all focused on the good we have done in the world?
We see this reflected in our torah portion, Ki Tavo. In it, after Israel crosses the Jordan, the people are divided and sent up two different mountains, with the Levites in the middle. The Levites then recited blessings and curses, a reminder of the covenant and responsibilities of the people, and everyone must say amen. The litany begins with the curses. And it might be easy to dwell on them, but we don’t. We move on to the curses. Yes, everyone has to say ‘amen’ to the curses (which, traditionally, are recited quickly, and in a hushed voice), but we say ‘amen’ to the blessings too; we affirm the good that we have done and that we are going to do.
There was a recent Kveller article that challenged people to make up a ‘mitzvah’ list to go alongside the ‘regret’ list, an alternative to the Al cheits we recite: “For the good that I performed in this world by doing or saying…”. I think this is a marvelous idea. For this is as important, if not more important, by giving us the energy, the encouragement to do more of the same, to in fact affirm our best selves. We need to affirm our own goodness.

Rosh Hashanah is a week away. Yes, we are obligated to look inward and correct and repair what is wrong; but let’s also take the time to look at the other side of the ledger. Let’s reflect on the year and all the moments of good that we’ve done: when we were good parents and children, good friends and neighbors. The moments we supported people in need, whether we knew them or not. Whether we liked them or not. The moments we turned away from what was easy and chose instead to do what was necessary. So I offer Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s prayer, one that mirrors the al cheyt: For all these things, God, please remember and inspire us to do more acts like these in the year ahead. Amen. 

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