Sermons, Divrei Torah, Kavanot
Adam Cerino Jones 2018/5779 RH2 D'var Torah
Debby Swirsky-Sacchetti 2018/5779 RH1 Drash on Haftarah - Hannah
Kol Nidre, 2018 - Holy Community, Holy Balance
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, Or Zarua
Shanah Tovah, holy community of Or Zarua! What an honor it is to enter the gates of Kol Nidre with you on this Day of Atonement, this day of At-One-Ment – 5779. Yom Kippur is the time of Teshuvah, of turning and re-turning, a time to open to our truest selves, and a time to enrich our relationships with family, friends, and community.
As we enter into this sacred evening together, as the gates of Teshuvah, of turning and re-turning, are open wide for us, I would like to reflect on our holy community of Or Zarua, expressing my deep gratitude to each of you for the gifts of love and light that you have brought to our community during this past year.
What is the definition of community? According to Dictionary.com, community is:
“a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests, and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.”
An adequate definition from Dictionary.com, but one that was a bit too “clinical” for me, so from Dictionary.com, Iturned toadmired author, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, Parker Palmer, for a more soulful definition of community.
For Palmer, community is “a place where the connections felt in our hearts make themselves known in the bonds between people, and where the tuggings and pullings of those bonds keep opening our hearts.”
Community, bonds, tuggings, pullings, open hearts…
As I look around the Meeting House this evening, and I see the light in your eyes, I sense and feel the bonds and connectionsthat we have created during our first year together as a community. As I behold each one of you, I feel the tuggings and pullings of my heart – my heart which has been opened by youthrough our shared experiences at Or Zarua. And these bonds that we have been creating through our relationships in holy community, in Kehillah Kdosha, fill me with deep gratitude.
Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov V’rivka, Mishkenotecha Yisrael– How good it is to be in this tent, in this sanctuary, this prayer space so kindly shared with us by the generous, openhearted Friends of this Old Haverford Meeting.
Last year at this time, we joined together for our ShehechayanuOr Zarua High Holidays, our first High Holidays together. We were brimming with anticipation and excitement about the possibilities of what we could create together as holy communityin the year to come.
And what a Shehechayanu year it is has been. It has been a year of collaboration, of creativity, of discovery. You have been the groundbreakers, the pioneers, the brave ones. You have shown that you believe in a Judaism that touches our souls, that reveals our inner gifts and yearnings; a Judaism that allows the seeds of our individual and collective light to be planted, to be nourished, and to burst forth with strength and with joy.
You have demonstrated that you believe in a Judaism that is grounded in Torah, in the tradition and seeds of light sown by the history, practices, and customs of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. And you have also demonstrated that you believe in a Judaism that is current and relevant, committed to Gemilut Hasadim- acts of lovingkindness and appreciation for each other, and to Tikkun Olam– repair of the world. You have volunteered your homes, your food, your music, your art, your stories, poetry and divrei Torah. You have offeredyour gifts of time and your Tzedakah to the American Jewish World Service, to the American Civil Liberties Union, to victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and to volcano victims in Hawaii. You have supported Youth Buildwhich provides education, counseling and job skills to unemployed young adults, and you have collected and delivered clothes, toiletries, and needed household items to local refugees and homeless through HIAS and Hub of Hope. You have spoken out, written letters, marched and demonstrated for Women’s Rights and rights of immigrants. You have stood up for LGBTQ rights and you have taken a stand against gun violence. You have shown that living a moral Jewish life means advocating for the rights of all, defending the downtrodden, sharing from our own fortunate bounty to lift up those in need. You have demonstrated your commitment to changing the world through acts of Tikkun Olam. In this Shehechayanu year at Or Zarua, we have been planting the seeds of light that are germinating and blossoming, allowing us, as a holy and sacred community, to act to heal our world.
I am so very grateful for your passion, your commitment, your belief that together, as holy community, a Kehillah Kdoshah, we can express ourselves with truth and authenticity, all through the lens of a Judaism that is meaningful and relevant for each one of us.
In this Shehechayanu year as an Or Zarua community, there has been so much touncoverand to discover. On a personal level, as rabbi of this sacred community, I discover, each and every day, just how wide and deep the responsibilities of a community rabbi really are. I am continually amazed that what I learned in rabbinical school is only a mere fraction of what one truly needs to know as a rabbi. Though the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College did focus to some extent on the spiritual and emotional aspects of Judaism, our rabbinical studies were primarily focused on the intellect. I guess this was to be expected – after all, we, as Jews are “the people of the Book” – with Torah, Mishnah, the Talmudand the entire canon of Jewish texts serving as the base of Jewish wisdom and practice.
My burning passion, though, upon entering rabbinical school was to connect this “head” Judaism to the spiritual places in our hearts and souls, to find those places in Judaism that touch our deepest yearnings, that calm and soothe us when we are hurting, that help us to understand who we are, that allow us, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav says, to discover “that place in the world – that space where we truly belong, that space which belongs unconditionally to us.”
Last year at this time, I described the 100 holy conversationsthat I had with so many of you – holy conversations during which we shared both laughter and tears - coffees, breakfasts, lunches, dinners at which many of you told me your life stories, expressing your most deeply held values, your yearnings for making meaning in your lives, and the legacies that you hope to pass on to your children and grandchildren. You shared with me your sources of light/of Or, that which motivates you and makes your Neshamot/your souls shine. You shared with me that which is essential – the Ikar-in your lives. You shared with me your places of brokenness and pain, as well as your places of light and joy.
And through this year, this Shehechayanu year of Or Zarua, our 100 coffees have nearly doubled in number and our heart-to-heart conversations have continued, deepening our relationships. Our bondshave continued to grow, and the holy tuggings and pullingsof our hearts have strengthened and intensified.
During this past year, we as an Or Zarua community, have experienced the full range of life together. We began last Rosh Hashanah with a blank, new page in the Book of Life. And over the year, our Or Zarua community page has been filled - inscribed with Simchas- births, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, awards, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries; and our community book has also been inscribed with Tsuris– sadness, disappointments, traumas, challenge, illness, death and loss…
And as a community, committed to holy relationships, we have supported one another both through life’s joys as well as through life’s challenges. We have been there for one another, lifting brides and grooms on wedding chairs, lifting our voices to comfort the sick and to console the mourner, making phone calls, sending soothing text messages and e-mails, delivering food and flowers, providing rides to doctors’ appointments. You have listened to your hearts, and you have responded to the call to perform acts of Gemilut Hasadim– acts of support, care and lovingkindness for others in our Or Zarua community.
In our Reconstructionist weekly Shabbat Siddur, directly following the opening Mah Tovu prayer, there is a beautiful teaching by Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, that exemplifies this supportive aspect of community. Kaplan says:
“It is only a true and close community that develops associations, traditions and memories that go to make up its soul. To mingle one’s personality with that soul becomes a natural longing. In such a community, one experiences that mystic divine grace which, like radiant sunshine, illumines our lives when joyous and, like balm heals them wounded or stricken.”
Kaplan, as the founder of Reconstructionism, believed fervently in the power of community. For Kaplan, Judaism was all about behaving, believing, and most importantly – belonging…
Do you agree with Kaplan’s words? Do communities have a Neshamah – a soul?
And if a community does have a soul, do we all have a natural longing, as Mordechai Kaplan maintains, “to mingle our own personality with the soul of our communities?”
Think for a moment about yourself and your personal preferences– do you enjoy solitude or do you crave community? Or do you yearn for both?
Each one of us is unique. Some of us prefer to spend time alone, and there are those of us who crave time with others. Perhaps this particular proclivity for solitude or being with others depends on where we each fall on that famous Meyers-Briggs personality scale. I usually come out on the end of the scale that indicates that I derive energy from being with people…and yes, I do love being with others, and I derive great joy and energy in community settings. However, during this year as Or Zarua rabbi, I have learned that I absolutely need my alone time as well, time to think, time to reflect, and time to re-charge and to regain balance.
Parker Palmer comments on this paradoxical need to both be alone and to belong to community in the following way:
“Our equal and opposite needs for solitude and community constitute a great paradox. When it is torn apart, both of these life-giving states-of-being degenerate into deathly specters of themselves. Solitude split off from community is no longer a rich and fulfilling experience of inwardness; now it becomes loneliness, a terrible isolation. Community split off from solitude is no longer a nurturing network of relationships; now it becomes a crowd, an alienating buzz of too many people and too much noise.”
What wisdom Palmer shares on the paradoxical needs to be alone and to connect, highlighting the requirement for a degree of healthy balance between these two polarities of solitude and community.
And isn’t it balance that each one of us is constantly struggling to find in our lives? Balancebetween work and family life, between productivity and relaxation, balance between the needs of our partners, our parents, our children, our grandchildren, and our own individual needs?
Think of how pervasive the word "balance" is in our language: “to hang in the balance, to strike a balance, to throw off balance, to balance out, a balancing act…”
And why do we yearn for balance in our lives? I believe that it is in order to achieve a state of calm and peace in our busy and frazzled lives. We take yoga or dance classes, we meditate, we run, we work-out, we engage in mindfulness practice, all to achieve a few moments of balance and peace in our otherwise hectic and frantic schedules.
I know that for me, when I do feel “balanced”, I am able to be my most creative, my most patient, my most loving.
How about you? When, where, and with whom do you feel the most balanced? How does balance manifest itself in your life?
Do you prefer your alone time or are you a community person? Or do you find that you need both alone time and together time to feel in balance?
Our holy community of Or Zarua is here to provide holy balance in our lives. At Or Zarua, we honor each person’s uniqueness and individuality. We are artists, musicians, actors, singers, naturalists, professors, historians, intellectuals, spiritualists, social activists, athletes, teachers, lawyers, physicians, therapists, social workers, business people. We are extroverts and we are introverts. We need to be alone, we need to be together. We feed our Neshamot, our souls, in different ways, and we find our balance in our own unique ways.
The gift that we are given each High Holiday season is the opportunity to turn inward and to ask the question – have I been in balance this year? What might I change to taste and experience more moments of balance in my life?
At Or Zarua, our vision and goal is to be that holy community in which individuality is honored, in which each person’s unique light can shine, in which we can each be our most authentic selves. We honor the concept of balance– the human need to be both our unique individual selves while also being part of a holy community in which we can safely express the truth of who we are…
At Or Zarua, we come together in our uniqueness to share and to shine our light humbly, creating holy community as we shine our individual light.
And I feel blessed to be creating this holy community, this Kehillah Kdoshah, together with you.
The teaching by Mordechai Kaplan that we quoted earlier in this drash finishes in the following way:
“In a true and close community one experiences that mystic divine grace which, like radiant sunshine, illumines our lives when joyous and, like balm heals them wounded or stricken.
Then all questions about saying this or that become trivial, for the real purpose is attained in having each one feel with the Psalmist,
“One thing I ask of G-d that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of G-d all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of G-d.”
And what prayer is that to which the Psalmist refers? The Achat Sha’alti,Psalm 27, which we recite every day during the month of Elul just prior to the month of Tishrei and the Yamim Noraim –
Achat Sha’alti, Meeyt Adonai, Otah Avakesh
Shivti B’veyt Adonai, Kol Y’mei Chayai
Lachazot B’noam, b’noam Adonai
One thing I ask of G-d, one thing I request
To dwell in the House of Adonai
All the Days of My Life
To see the pleasantness of G-d
And to visit G-d’s sanctuary.
Perhaps the one question that we might ask tonight, on this Kol Nidre evening, is –
How do I come into balance, Adonai, so that I can be my best self, my most creative self, the self that can help to bring Shalom/peace to my family, to my community, to the world?
Please G-d, help me to find that balance. Help me to find those people and those places that allow me to connect to others as I also connect to my truest Neshamah, my truest self.
I leave you with this poem on Balance, by Rabbi Karen Kedar:
Befriend the many aspects of self,
Mind, body, soul, emotions
All form a tapestry of beauty
Handcrafted for you by G-d.
It is the landscape of your life, your true self.
Deny none their rightful place.
Strive for an equal balance of all the parts.
Collect your emotions.
Unbury your soul.
Honor your body.
Calm your mind.
Journey forth with every part of you
In this New year of 5779, may our holy community of Or Zarua continue to grow its “soul”, its Neshama. And may we each find holy balance through our relationships with one another in this holy community.
I wish each one of you an easy fast, and a Shanah Tovah U’metukah – a sweet, healthy New Year. Gmar Chatimah Tovah– may we all be sealed in the Book of Life, the Book of Health and Peace, the Book of Wholeness and the Book of Healthy Balance.
And let us say, Ameyn.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
Kol Nidre 5779/2018
Jacob Fogel - Yom Kippur Day Drash 5779
Jacob Fogel – Yom Kippur 5779/2018 Or Zarua
I am honored to be speaking to you all this Yom Kippur and appreciative of Rabbi Shelly for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
Out of respect for the members of the Old Haverford Friends Meeting and the beautiful meetinghouse they have shared with Or Zarua, I ask you all to join me in a centering moment of silence and reflection…
I have spent the better part of my life connected to Quaker education, 13 years as a student and 7 years as an educator, and as a result, the last two High Holidays in this building have had an elevated sense of home for me. Growing up surrounded by the teachings of Judaism and Quakerism has led me to find many connections between the two.
Quakers utilize the power of silent reflection during Meeting for Worship, waiting to be moved by the Spirit or G-d before speaking and sharing their ministry. At the core of each Jewish service is the Silent Amidah, a time for us to pray directly to G-d, offering praise, gratitude, and asking for that which is needed. The Quaker testimonies and teachings encourage those within the Society of Friends to regularly take part in community service. Within Judaism, many of our Mitzvot specifically call for us to better our communities and help those who are in need.
Finally, Quakers believe that there is “that of G-d in everyone” and refer to the presence of this spirit as the Light. Our name, Or Zarua, translates to the light that is sown, encouraging each of us to plant seeds of our light to strengthen, or illuminate, the good in the world.
Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday and I am aware that this may not be a common sentiment. Yom Kippur not only utilizes the practice of self-reflection but also the calls on us to withdraw from distraction. While other Jewish holidays and traditions intentionally build community around the dinner table, Yom Kippur reminds us that there is a need, at times, to take stock of how we as individuals are interacting with and impacting our greater community. In a way, Yom Kippur asks us to shift our perspective from “community” as a holistic unit to “community” as a collection of individuals.
On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Shelly expressed her appreciation that Vidui, our confessional, is written in the first person plural. Ashamnu, Bahgahdnu, Gahzahlnu… We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen… One interpretation of this is to focus on the collective nature of community; while I may not have stolen, someone has and thus, we all have, emphasizing the intertwined nature of our souls on this day. Alternatively, the use of “we” instead of “I” as we confess could be to serve as a reminder that the failures of an individual are often the result of shortcomings within their community. While I have not stolen, my actions, or inaction as an individual contributed the environment for others to transgress in this way.
Over the past few years we have found ourselves in a political and social climate that unfortunately is not unique. As a history teacher, I have the privilege of teaching young people to identify how populist, egocentric, and anti-press political bodies have been established, how they have worked to maintain their power, and, most importantly, how they have eventually lost their standing in the global arena. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to hold up the voices of inspiring individuals who, through their words and actions, provided road maps to a peaceful society.
I am drawn to a letter from July, 1939 that I recently came across. It was sent a few months prior to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, yet well into their control of Germany’s people and its government. The letter was written by Mahatma Gandhi and was sent to Adolf Hitler “for the sake of humanity”. In this short note, Gandhi exhibits his compassion for the world, he recognizes Hitler as “the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state,” and offers his sincerest apologies for any offense this letter may cause. In his strength, Gandhi embraced the difficulty of reaching out to those with whom we share no common ground. While many of focus on never forgetting out of fear for history’s repetition, I encourage us to never forget because of the solutions that are hidden within our history.
The rhetoric and raw emotion that surges through our daily lives today is palpable and, yet, its meaning is heavily influenced by our diverse socioeconomic, cultural, or political backgrounds. The pathways to communicate have been eroded and, with them, our ability to empathize has been diminished. Why has it become so difficult to maintain the plurality of communities that make up our global society, when each and every faith-based and secular belief system highlights the importance of traits such as peace, family, community, charity, and kindness?
In the moments of silence that we share today, whether they are in atonement or reflection, I ask that we, specifically as members of Or Zarua and more generally as peoples of the world, turn a portion of our attention to this query.
- What have I done in the past year to help sow the seeds of light within a community that is not my own?
It will require immense love, understanding, and a willingness to embrace discomfort, but I believe that it will aid us in our effort of Tikun Olam. How can we become the change we wish to see, how can we share the seeds of light that this community works so hard to cultivate?
G’mar Chatima Tova
May we all be inscribed in the book of life.
Yom Kippur 5779/2018
Yom Kippur Day Sermon – Wednesday, September 19, 2018 –
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, Or Zarua
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. The person who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn – and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.– Bhagavad Gita
“Slichah”– I’m sorry…Forgiveness is one the major themes of our Jewish High Holiday season. During the month of Elul which precedes the High Holidays, we reflect upon our successes and missteps during the past year. On the Shabbat evening during the week before Rosh Hashanah, there is a special evening service called Selichot, a service of forgiveness. And during the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Returning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to seek forgiveness from those in our lives whom we may have wronged, and to offer forgiveness to those who seek it from us.
Forgiveness– Not a simple concept by any means. When I seek understanding, my inner linguist always begins with a definition.
According to Merriam Webster, “to forgive” is: to stop feeling anger toward someone who has done something wrong; to stop blaming someone; to stop feeling anger about something.
And according to Wikipedia, “forgiveness” is:
“the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense; letting go of negative emotions such as vengefulness; forswearing recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning, and reconciliation.”
These definitions address those situations in which someone has wronged us, in which we hold hurt, anger and blame against another, and in which we, allowing ourselves a healthy process of letting go over time, eventually release ourselves from the intensity of anger and blame that we have been holding towards that person.
Not a simple process, but one that is encouraged and described in explicit detail in Judaism – we are commanded to both seek and offer forgiveness from and to others at this time of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, this Day of At-One-Ment.
So, hopefully you have done your Teshuvah with others, apologized and sought forgiveness for ways in which you may have missed the mark with loved ones and friends. And hopefully, as well, you have offered sincere pardon and forgiveness to your loved ones for ways in which they may have missed the mark with you.
But for this Dvar Torah, I would like to focus on a kind of forgiveness that is not so clearly addressed in Torah or by the Rabbis, and that is self-forgiveness. Yes – the difficult topic of self-forgiveness. Do we, in our Jewish texts and sources, have any teachings about self-forgiveness, and if so, what are they?
As I’ve shared with you many times, I grew up in an observant Jewish home, the child of German Holocaust survivors. I have many clear memories of Yom Kippur as a young girl in my Orthodox shul. From the women’s side of the Mechitza, or separation between men and women, I could make out the men in their white kittels shuckling back and forth as they davened. And on my own side of the Mechitza, I observed the women, as the day of Yom Kippur wore on, passing smelling salts to one another to keep from passing out. And I remember with great clarity the choreography around the Yom Kippur Al Cheyt prayer, with its long list of sins - sins of speech, of thought, of action, sins that I, as a child, had never even heard of, with words that I didn’t even understand. Yet, as a child, I was being instructed to beat my chest with the recitation of each of these sins. And as the rule-following girl that I was, I obediently recited each line, striking my chest firmly with closed fist, for fear that if I didn’t, I would not be forgiven for my sins.
Was this beating of my chest for a list of sins that I hadn’t committed a practice borne out of kindness? Did this form of prayer reflect self-compassion and self-forgiveness?
No – to the contrary – the message here was that in order to make atonement and to do Teshuvah, we had to overcompensate, recite every wrongdoing possible, and on some level “beat ourselves up.” This did not feel gentle, this did not feel loving. This felt harsh and rigid.
Don’t get me wrong, I experienced many beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy as a child, and over the years, I have worked to “reconstruct” the Judaism of my youth, retaining that which was healthy, life-giving and soul-nourishing, while letting go of the negative, the unhealthy, and the limiting.
We all make mistakes, we all “miss the mark”, we all have disagreements, arguments, altercations; we misspeak, we act out of frustration or anger -- we all let ourselves and others down.
The question is – how do we acknowledge and forgive ourselves gently for our mistakes, for our errors, for our shortcomings? How do we live in healthy relationship with ourselves as human beings, scars and all?
As I give voice to these feelings and these questions now, I feel tension deep inside of me. My upbringing was so rigid; I was raised with so many rules – Shabbat, Kashrut, and in addition to the rules of Judaism, there were messages, or “agreements” (à la our Rosh Hashanah Day 1 sermon) that I received from my family of origin. My grandmother, my Omi, lived by the “agreement”that children should not get “a swelled head” for fear that they would become conceited. Omi would remind my mother of this teaching, making sure that I didn’t receive too many compliments. Was the idea that the withholding of compliments and praise would keep a child from becoming “conceited,” and that by being hard and even critical with oneself, one would somehow grow to be a better, smarter, more efficient, and more productive person?
As a child of Holocaust survivors, I was always trying to be “the good girl,” aiming to please my parents and grandmother, seeking compliments in an environment that was just too sparing with them. Needless to say, this was difficult for me – always trying to please. I was hard on myself, and I didn’t learn much in the way of self-compassion at home.
Over the years, I have learned to forgive my grandmother and family of origin for that which I have just shared with you. I have come to understand and appreciate that, especially with their own trauma of the Holocaust, they were doing their best, trying to raise my brother and me the best way that they knew how. I have truly forgiven them, and that forgiveness has allowed me to regard each of my family members with great love and great respect.
But the question and challenge that still remains is– where is my self-forgiveness and my self-compassion?That is still a work in progress…
What does Judaism have to say about self-forgiveness and kindness to self? Are there teachings on self-compassion and self-forgiveness within Judaism, and what about in our secular world? In writing this Dvar Torah, I turned to several authors, teachers and resources, and I was comforted to find much wisdom, both Jewish and secular, supporting the practice of self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
A favorite teacher of many of us here is the late Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono livracha, deep spiritual thinker and author of the book, “This is Real and you are Completely Unprepared - A Preparation for the High Holidays,” In his book, Rabbi Lewreflects on the importance of self-forgiveness in the following way:
“Self-forgiveness is the essential act of the High Holiday season. That is why we need heaven. That is why we need G-d. We can forgive others on our own. But we turn to G-d because it is sohardto forgive ourselves. We need to feel accepted by a larger power who transcends us and who embodies our highest values. When we wish to wipe the slate clean, to finalize self-forgiveness, we need heaven– a sense of something or someone larger and beyond ourselves.”
Rabbi Lew states that though self-forgiveness may end with G-d, it begins with us. Lew maintains that self-forgiveness is so difficult largely because we hold ourselves up to such high standards, higher than it is possible to live up to. And it is precisely when we are hardest on ourselves that we are most tempted to bury our misdeeds – to hide from our reality, to deny weakness, to deny that we’ve done anything wrong.
The Jewish concept is that we are each created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, and though this may come as a surprise to some of you, the G-d of Torah is not a perfect G-d. Kabbalah and liberal Judaism, for that matter, teach us that G-d has many attributes and aspects that are in tension with one another. The G-d of Torah is not consistently loving, kind or patient. G-d is a G-d of Rachamim- lovingkindness, and G-d is also a G-d of Din- judgment. G-d has patience, and G-d has anger. According to Kabbalah, G-d struggles just as we do, yet G-d is holy and sacred. So, if we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, then we, too, with our imperfections, our struggles, our opposing attributes and traits, our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, are also holy.
According to Rabbi Lew, if we allow the High Holy Day season, with its prayer, its fasting, and its intensity, to do the work for which it is intended - to open us to our deepest selves, we might realize that we, as imperfect beings, are infused like G-d, with holiness. All of our qualities, attributes, strengths and shortcomings have a holy spark at their center. Acknowledging that we are holy in our uniqueness, says Rabbi Lew, is the essence of self-forgiveness.
“To forgive ourselves,” says Rabbi Lew, “we need to give up one of our most ingrained beliefs – that there is something wrong with us, that we are bad, inadequate, somehow defective, and lacking in goodness. Disciplining ourselves, rejecting ourselves, beating ourselves, leads us farther away from this goodness, not closer to it.”
Rabbi Lew then elaborates on this theme of self-rejection by quoting his teacher, Jewish/Buddhist guide, Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg states,
“If I have an idea about how I should be more compassionate, and I go through a process of rejecting myself every time I don’t meet this standard, I will never find that compassion. One kind of emotional process cannot possibly produce another kind of emotional process. Rejection will notlead to compassion. Rejection will only lead to further rejection. Only compassion can lead to greater compassion.”
And then Rabbi Lew calls upon his teacher Reb Nachman of Bratslav, great Hasidic master and author of the Likutey Moharan, upon which our beloved little book, The Gentle Weapon ,is based. As we have learned together, Reb Nachman suffered from bipolar disorder and was always trying to find the joy and light in life. One of Reb Nachman’s famous pieces of counsel begins, “Judge all people favorably.”
And after instructing us to search for the “point of good” in others, Reb Nachman added: “You must also find the good in yourself.” He advised: “When all we see and feel is negativity, we must search within ourselves for an aspect of goodness, a white dot within the black, and then find another and another until these dots form musical notes.”
Rabbi Lew expounds upon this concept of musical notes by saying, “It is our life’s work to connect these white dots, these musical notes, and to notice the melody that these dots make. This is the melody you were born to dance to. This is the background music for the real life you are living. Listen to it!”
In addition to the late Rabbi Alan Lew, another wise teacher on self-forgiveness is Philadelphia’s own Dr. Dan Gottlieb,best known as the host of "Voices in the Family," a weekly radio program heard for more than 30 years on WHYY-FM.
Dr. Dan asks – Why is it so hard for us to forgive ourselves? He suggests that this business of self-judgment is, for many people, the ultimate question. Many good people refuse to forgive themselves, while people who are really bad often have no difficulty forgiving themselves. Why do some people judge themselves so harshly, Dr. Dan asks? He maintains that we beat ourselves up, thinking that we need to do this in order to improve ourselves. “I’m going to whip myself until I improve my income, my looks, my well-being.” And of course, to improve we have to do just the opposite. We have to love ourselves.
Dr. Dan asks, when we feel that we’ve made a mistake, the question is, “Who has made a mistake and messed up? Is it a person for whom we feel compassion? A person whom we love? Or is it a person to whom we withhold compassion and love? A person with whom we are always at odds because self-punishment and being hard on ourselves was what we learned from parents and teachers as a way to keep ourselves in line?
Dr. Dan shares a Midrash to lift up the importance of self-compassion. According to Torah, when Moses met G-d on the mountain, it was the back of G-d that was turned to Moses. The Midrash then says that G-d passed beforethe eyes of Moses, and in one brief moment, Moses saw the world through the eyes of G-d. Moses saw what it is to have compassion for all things. So, Dr. Dan teaches, if we want to be fully human, even G-d-like, we need to see the world with a holy, divine level of compassion for all living beings, including ourselves.
In their book, Wise Aging, Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit, Dr. Linda Thal and the late Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who just passed away a few short weeks ago, right before Rosh Hashanah, maintain that “holding on to anger with oneself can be as toxic as clinging to grudges towards others.” Thal and Cowan recommend that we must acknowledge our mistakes with as much straightforwardness as we can muster. But, they say, we should not wallow in our mistakes or take on an exaggerated sense of guilt because of them. Dr. Thal and Rabbi Cowan maintain that it is simply counterproductive to beat ourselves up for our mistakes.
They remind us that Judaism is clear about the essential goodness of human beings. And we reiterate this here at Or Zarua in our prayers when we sing – Elohai Neshama Shenata Bi T’hora Hi– My G-d the Soul you placed in me is pure. Here at Or Zarua, we chant this prayer each Shabbat,and it is actually the very first prayer on the first page of our High Holiday supplement.
In our Shabbat Kol Haneshamah Siddur, there is a beautiful commentary on this Elohai Neshama prayer by Eric Mendelsohn, which states –
“This short and beautiful prayer starts each day and offers comfort in times of stress. Self-esteem is a precious gift. Even though we may lose it in the tragedies of the present, it will be restored to us in our future. G-d the healer, returns our soul to us.”
And another commentary on Elohai Neshamafrom the website Belief Net says
“Jews do not believe that humans experienced a “fall” and thus became innately impure. Our core is holy, a spark of the Divine. "The soul you have given me, God, is pure". Rather than merely striving to become better people every day, it might be more accurate to think of ourselves as remembering who we really are: sacred beings created in the image of God. More than doing good deeds, we acknowledge and nurture our pure souls and allow this purity to flow from the core of our beings.”
I love these commentaries on the Elohai Neshama prayer– this prayer that soothes the soul, and provides the basis for self-love, self-forgiveness, and self-compassion.
These concepts of self-forgiveness and self-compassion have become popular today in the field of social work and psychology, and I know that so many of you therapists utilize a variety of strategies and tools to encourage self-compassion in your clients and patients. Experts like Drs. Tara Brach, Kelly Monigal, Kristin Neff, and Chris Germer are among today’s great teachers on self-compassion.
Tara Brach, in her book, Radical Acceptance, reflects on the power of self-compassion and self-forgiveness to lead us on a healthier path.
According to Tara Brach,
“For many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much--just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work--to make us feel that we are not okay.
Beginning to understand how our lives have become ensnared in this trance of unworthiness is our first step toward reconnecting with who we really areand what it means to live fully.Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, self-compassion and self-forgiveness release us from the self-hatred and self-criticism that prevent us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, in her book, “ The Willpower Instinct” reflects on self-compassion in the following way:“Self-compassion, being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure, is associated with more motivation and better self-control. We all have the tendency to believe self-doubt and self-criticism, but listening to this voice never gets us closer to our goals. Instead, try on the point of view of a mentor or good friend who believes in you, wants the best for you, and will encourage you when you feel discouraged.”
And Dr. Kristin Neff, a groundbreaker in the area of self-compassion in her book, Self-Compassion, and in her new “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook”, co-authored with Dr. Christopher Germer, provides both a description and a technology for self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
For Dr. Neff, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, being loving and understanding with ourselves, rather than critical and judgmental.
Self-kindness asks us to use gentle self-talk, speaking to ourselves as if we were consoling a child or a dear friend. When we are hurting, we should speak words of lovingkindness to ourselves. “This is hard, this is challenging…. You are going through a difficult time, you made a mistake, that’s OK.”
Step 2 according to Dr. Neff requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in our suffering. To be human is to be imperfect. We often feel separate and isolated in our imperfection, when it is actually the common human experience of suffering that connects us to other people. So, in our suffering we focus on our shared humanity, acknowledging that suffering is a universal human experience. Neff suggests mantras such as: “Everyone is suffering, everyone has hardships, everyone makes mistakes, no one lives a perfect life. May I be kind to myself.”
The third step according to Neff is mindfulness- being with what is in the present moment, holding our experience in balanced awareness, neither ignoring our pain nor exaggerating it. We have to be aware of our suffering to give it compassion. We need to acknowledge our feelings and offer ourselves compassionbefore we move to problem solving, says Neff.
And what does the research say about self-compassion? Research indicates that self-compassion is strongly related to mental well-being, yielding less depression, anxiety, stress, and perfectionism. And self-compassion is strongly related to positive states – happiness, motivation, making healthier lifestyle choices, more connectedness to others and deeper relationships.
So, what might self-compassion and self-forgiveness look like for you? For me, self-compassion and self-forgiveness require me to go back and to reconnect with that little girl growing up with my grandmother’s mantra of “withholding compliments so as not to get a swelled head,” as if that was going to make me a better person.
I know better now – I don’t need to beat up on myself or criticize myself to be the best person I can be. I don’t need the harsh inner critic to motivate myself. I am human, flaws and all, with my mistakes and my weaknesses. I cannot do it all, I cannot do everything well – but instead of beating up on myself for being human and flawed, I will respond kindly and compassionately to my mistakes, my shortcomings, and my flaws. And in so doing, I will also respond with more kindness and compassion to others. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness build empathy. After all,if we cannot be kind to ourselves, how can we really be kind to anyone else?
What might self-forgiveness look like for you? Can you turn towards self-compassion, quieting any inner critical voices that you might have? Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment. It does take work to break our habits of self-judgment, but what better time to quiet the inner critic than today, on this day of Yom Kippur, this Day of At-One-Ment?
As the Dalai Lama states: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. Humanity cannot survive without empathy, understanding, sensitivity and kindness. We all need to be compassionate towards others. We all need to be open to receive it from others. And, most importantly we all need to be compassionate towards ourselves.” To close, I offer this Forgiveness Meditation from the Buddhist tradition:
If I have harmed anyone in any way
Either knowingly or unknowingly
Through my own confusions
I ask their forgiveness
If anyone has harmed me in any way
Either knowingly or unknowingly
Through their own confusions
I forgive them.
And for all the ways that I harm myself
By judging or doubting or being unkind
Through my own confusions
I forgive myself.
May we all find the place of self-forgiveness this Yom Kippur day, and each and every day during the New Year to come.
G'mar Hatimah Tovah, May you and your loved ones be inscribed for a sweet, healthy, New Year of self-forgiveness and self-compassion,
and let us say Ameyn.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
Yom Kippur Day
September 19, 2018