Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Aseret Y'mei Teshuvah: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Towards Teshuva

Right now, we are in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, formally referred to as "Aseret Yemei Teshuva," or "The Ten Days of Repentance." A lot of rabbis will tell you that the word "Teshuva" comes from a Hebrew root that means "to return." And you know what? They're right! Repenting and asking forgiveness from someone else is all about returning. The central idea is that you should turn around on the path you are on, retrace your steps, and attempt to go back and repair past mistakes and transgressions.

Some people will tell you that "teshuva" is supposed to be a returning to God, or to the Self, or to synagogue (especially if you're late paying your dues...) Rabbi David Wolpe has an interesting take on teshuva, stating that, "perhaps in teshuva is the idea of returning to the world, away from the preoccupation with the self. Beating one’s chest does not feed the hungry or comfort the bereaved." Regardless of which metaphor you choose, the important thing is to return; to go back to where you were before.

But what if where we were before wasn't so great? How many of us feel we used to be in some magical state of perfection that we are trying to return to? Were we ever free of sin or unburdened by mistakes or bad choices? I know I wasn't! So what am I meant to be returning to?

One of my favorite rabbinic stories may shed a little light on this quandary:

Consider the parable of a prince who was far away from his father - a hundred days' journey away. His friends said to him: "Return to your father." He replied: "I cannot. I have not the strength." Thereupon his father sent word, saying to him: "Come back as far as you can according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you." So the Holy One, Blessed be Adonai, says to Israel: "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you" (Malachi 3:7).

In this story, was the prince flawless? Do we imagine that he and his father never fought? If I know parents and kids, it's unlikely that this is the case. But that's not the point of this story. What is the central message here? If we start turning back, by examining our own behaviors and actions, and we look for ways to begin new paths, God will meet us halfway. The point of turning back isn't to get somewhere, it's to make that gesture towards improvement.

If we are willing to take that first step, God is already on the road to meet us. But the work won't be done for you. This ten-day period is an opportunity for you to break from old habits and start fresh. You don't have to create some imaginary goal or yardstick to measure success; just begin the process. Teshuva is indeed about turning around, but it's the start of something, not the end. And we've got the whole year ahead of us to figure out where to go from here, but at least now we know the journey has begun!

Shana Tovah - Have a great New Year, and may you all be written into the Book of Life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ha'azinu: The Hardest Person to Forgive

Well, the High Holidays are almost upon us. Not only does this mean it's time for apples and honey, beating our chests, hearing the shofar blasts, wearing white, and sitting through hours of services, but it also means my blog series on Relationships is coming to a close. We've talked about the way we relate to God, to the people around us, and to our family members. And now, it's time to examine what I consider the hardest relationship of them all. Really, we should have begun with this one, but I didn't want to lay too much on you at the outset, so I waited to the end.

Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace) wrote a beautiful song called "The Man in the Mirror," and how he was talking to this enigmatic mirror-fellow and asking him to change his ways. I wholeheartedly agree, and I ask all of you, when was the last time you talked to yourselves? We often shrug off the concept because it sounds silly or childish (or perhaps a little crazy), but few of us have ever taken the time to really understand ourselves. I meet people all the time who are depressed, confused, or lost, and who seem to never have taken the time to truly examine who they are. Do you know the answer to these questions: What drives you? What are you good at? And perhaps more importantly, what are you not good at? What are your own shortcomings, and have you come to terms with them? Have you learned to accept them? Sadly, most of us have not.

And if you've followed me this far, I would like to push you one step further. Do you love yourself? Or at least like yourself? Again, it sounds like a silly question, but I fully believe that it is not. It is, in fact, the first question we should be asking ourselves when we begin to think about relationships. How can you interact with others, and be helpful to someone else, if you don't like yourself? Some people bury their own problems by spending their time helping others, but in the long run they are doing themselves a disservice. The healthier you are, the more good you can do for others.

This High Holiday season, pick an area to work on. There are so many relationships we could focus on, the ones I've mentioned and an infinite amount of other ones. Don't try to do too much, because it won't be a lasting change; just make it significant enough that it'll stick. But if you haven't started with yourself, I highly recommend you do. Start to get to know yourself, examine where you've been and where you're heading, and above all, forgive yourself. Whatever it is, you CAN let it go.

Hillel the Elder is often quoted as saying "If I am only for myself, what am I?" and "If not now, when?" But the first part of that quote is just as important, and is sometimes forgotten: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Take care of yourself this year, and you WILL become a blessing to others.

Shana Tovah!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nitzavim-Va'Yeilech: And That's Why It Hurts More...

Already in my limited experience as a rabbi, I've realized something very interesting about family relationships, albeit very sad. There isn't a person out there who isn't dealing with some degree of family intrigue. There's always some branch of the family that no one speaks to. Every family seems to have a black sheep that none of your relatives keeps in touch with, and if you can't figure out who it is, it might be you! It's unpleasant, it's hurtful, it can even become violent, yet it is ubiquitous. And what this tells me is that family relationships are in a category all their own. The rabbis talk about "Mitzvot Bein Adam La-chaveiro" - commandments between people - but there's a big difference between dealing with people and dealing with family.

For many people, the pain of a family feud runs terribly deep, and feels irreparable. But continuing to allow it to fester is just as painful, if not more so. When we fight with a friend, we can choose to go our separate ways and never speak again. But family members are always there; for better or worse, they are a part of who we are. And when I say "better or worse," I really mean that. It is sad to hear about how bitter some family relationships have become, especially when they can be such a blessing. On the other hand, if you are blessed to have wonderful siblings, you know that it's like having a best friend for life! Most people may not be able to achieve that, but at the very least we should all strive to create cordial and friendly relations with our family members. Regardless of who started it, nothing is going to change unless you take the first step.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), Rabbi Eliezer informs us, "Repent one day before you die." Well how the heck is one supposed to do that? How can we know when we are going to die? But that's precisely the point. You never know when you're going to run out of chances to repent, or in our case to make amends, so don't waste time. There's nothing unique about the High Holidays this year. 2009, or 5770 in the Jewish calendar, is going to be just like every other year. If you let it be. It can be another year of continuing grudges, of ill will, and feuding. Or it can be the year that everything changed. Hillel the Elder taught us, "If not now, when?" You're running out of opportunities, and you know you will regret it when it's too late.

I have no doubt that it's hard. But life isn't about making easy choices or sticking with safe options. There's no question that family relationships are the most fraught with challenge. They are infinitely more complicated because they can be so much more rewarding. Blood is definitely thicker than water, which makes it more precious and life-sustaining. But that's also why it hurts more.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ki Tavo: Living in Unfamiliar Shoes

The bulk of our commandments, and certainly the ones most people have an easier time relating to, are the ones between people; what the rabbis call "Mitzvot Bein Adam La-Chaveiro" (lit. "Commandments between a man and his friend," though if these two gentlemen were really friends, they probably wouldn't need commandments to guide their interactions...).

There is a lot we could talk about here. Mitzvot about helping people who are in need, giving tzedakah (charity) to those less fortunate, not stealing, not injuring, gossip, slander, fair business interactions, writing mean things on their Facebook page - we could go on for hours!

But what does it all boil down to? What is the essence of Mitzvot Bein Adam La-Chaveiro? And since you're on my blog page, I'll tell you what I think. It's accepting someone else's position. It's being able to say that I do it my way, and you do it your way, and I'm ok with that. Now you're all nodding and saying, "Yeah, sure, that's easy!" Yet rarely are people able to do it. If you support universal healthcare, do you want to hear people who disagree with you? Are you willing to let them talk about it and not chastise them or attack them? If you think Obama's a horrible president, are you willing to listen to people who love him? We say we accept people with views different than our own, but do we really?

In Pirkei Avot, "Ethics of our Fathers," one of our greatest teachers, Hillel, says, "Do not judge your fellow human being till you stand in his situation" (Chapter 2, Mishna 5). Most of us are more familiar with the saying, "Don't judge someone till you've walked in their shoes." But that expression lets too many people off the hook. We need to push ourselves to step into those unfamiliar shoes. I urge you, challenge yourself to learn about, and learn to accept, the position of someone who totally disagrees with you. You don't have to change your mind! But so many of us cannot fathom how the other side thinks. We would much rather attack them and demonize them, saying they want to kill our grandparents, steal our organs, rob us blind, or send us to war.

Overwhelmingly, the issues we are dealing with are not black and white, with a right and a wrong answer (and no, your issue is NOT the exception). We all feel passionately about our causes, but so do the people debating on the other side. We don't need to let ourselves be convinced by their arguments, but if we can't hear what they have to say without jumping up to protest or shaking our heads in frustration and anger, we're never going to get anywhere or make ourselves heard. They may not be willing to listen to you in return, but if you don't take that first step (in your uncomfortable new shoes), who will?

This holiday season, push yourself to explore your relationship with other people. Open yourself up to the uncomfortable experience of talking (and listening) to someone with totally alien values from your own. It may not happen right away, but hopefully one day they will reciprocate, and we can all start having much more understanding and productive discourse. But for right now, let's just focus on you, and on one uncomfortable step at a time.