Drash for Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5771
I've been a bit blocked of late. Writer's block for sure. But maybe more. I turn 50 in three days and it's brought up a bit more gunk than I thought it would. More limitations. My body not working the way I want. And, of course, these are just plain hard times to begin with: the economy; the wars; the planet; the new generation of book-burners amassing their piles of Korans. So much to feel angry and helpless about. So I've been feeling blocked, and have come to feel angry and helpless about that too. Even writing a drash for tonight was killer. Last year and the year before they flowed. But not this one.
All year I'd collected thoughts, feelings, phrases. Then when it came time to write, I threw these all at the paper and none of it would stick. Or it stuck, but failed to make a pattern. I turned on myself in a fury. "Aha, beginners' luck has worn off, and now we see the truth," I said to myself, rather cruelly. "You've finally run out of things to say," I said to myself, rather disingenuously. "Everyone will see you're no rabbi," I said, while another part of my mind feebly responded, "Well, they do know that already..."
I decided to spend a day thinking and writing in the woods. It worked great last year. But this year, I sat anxiously under the indifferent redwoods, waiting for inspiration. The last straw came when I looked up out of the anonymity of nature to see a familiar face smiling and saying, "Oh Reb Irwin, I can't wait to hear your sermons this year!"
The rout was complete. I was ruined, my efforts worthless. I felt wrung out - not by my hard work (and I was working hard), but by the exhausting ordeal of self-judgment. Hineh yom hadin - as we say on these holidays: Behold the Day of Judgment.
After all, isn't that what these holy days are about? Judgment? The judgment language is everywhere in the liturgy. We are asked to look inside and take stock, in a process called cheshbon hanefesh - the accounting of the soul. It's hard and it doesn't always feel good. In fact, I had one friend tell me that she wouldn't be attending Yom Kippur at her synagogue this year because she's tired of being asked to feel bad.
Of course self-judgment makes us feel especially bad, because we're really so good at it. Maybe the concept of divine judgment is terrifying because it's another layer on top of the what we've done to ourselves. I know my failures; God knows not only those, but also the ones I'm still in denial about. Who could stand up to that kind of God-like scrutiny?
We've complained about this angst for as long as we've been a people. In Psalm 130, which we recited the other night at Selichot, we ask:
אם–עונות תשמר–יה אדני מי יעמד
"If you keep track of all our transgressions, Adonai, who can stand?" In other words, how can any of us hope to withstand God's judgment?
A more modern text raises the same question. This very Jewish text is a joke my friend Esther Schor told me this summer. It goes like this:
Moses has died and ascends to heaven. God welcomes him. "Moses, are you hungry," asks God. "I could eat," replies Moses. God picks up a can of tuna, opens it, dumps it on a plate, sticks a leaf of iceberg lettuce next to it and puts it in front of Moses. Not wanting to be impolite, Moses nibbles at it, all the while looking down over his shoulder, where he can see clear down to hell. There the people are feasting. Tables full of food like at a Bar Mitzvah. Finally Moses works up the nerve and says, "God, I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I can't help but notice that the people in hell are eating much better." "Listen, Moses," replies God, "for two I don't cook."
Both the Psalm and the joke correctly point out that saintliness is not in our nature; if there were a heaven and hell, and divine judgment determined the outcome, heaven would be empty. And if self-judgment determined the outcome, I don't imagine heaven would be any more populous.
And no wonder. We live lives that are complex. Our efforts to be our best selves are hampered by our need to make money and take care of our families and get out the door to work and a million other things. Moral questions are often gray. And sometimes we do know what's right but we just don't have time, for many good reasons, to do it. And what do we mean anyway by "our best selves?" Are we really split into bad and better selves? Isn't this "best selves" metaphor another "good me/bad me" dichotomy that's just another setup for failure?
That's why I'm goingon strike this year. I protest. I have gone through a sincere cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual inventory, during each of the last 40 or so high holy day seasons. Every year I explore my shortcomings. I try to make my peace with the world. Sometimes I even pray. And the next year the shortcomings look suspiciously similar to the ones the year before. Like going back over and over to look in the fridge. Same stuff inside. But older. And a little more pungent. So while this annual season of introspection can feel cathartic in the moment, I'm skeptical about how much it results in actual change.
So yes. I'm on strike. I say this: if cheshbon hanefesh is a true accounting, then the balance sheet must contain not only liabilities but assets too. I want to spend a little time looking at that side of the ledger. This year I want to make it my project to look for the good. In others, yes. But also in myself. Because I think just underneath or on the flipside of everything we feel bad about, there is something good, something worthy of love, something waiting for a little respect.
I will now model this, using several of my real-life shortcomings.
I feel hopeless and unhappy about the overflowing pile of undone stuff on my desk. The inbox of emails awaiting response like pets pawing at the door to be fed. The boundaries I didn't set. My difficulty saying "no." The way my family suffers for my overcommittedness.
(Days of Attunement X-Ray Glasses)
Some other year, I'd brood over those things, feel terrible and resolve to try harder. But this year I would like to see deeper. If only I had a pair of Days of Attunement X-Ray Glasses, I take a second look. Wait! I do have a pair! Let's see what we see.
Aha. So behind the overcommittedness there's my desire to be everything for everyone. And also there's my deep love of saying, "yes." Those aren't bad things. They get me in trouble, but they're lovely things, and they deserved to be noticed. Hey.
Let's try another one. My impatience. My seemingly ever-shortening fuse. With my Days of Attunement X-Ray glasses what do I see? Some nasty perfectionism maybe; behind that some insecurity. Behind that I see my need to prove something, to prove what I can do all by myself, and behind that - let me readjust the glasses - ah yes, the desire to be loved. Now I get it. And wait, there's something else. Oh, this one is surprising, for a rabbi-slash-singing-drag-queen. Deep down, there's part of me that's an introvert, who just wants to be able to be alone and doesn't know how to ask for that. Wanting to be loved. Needing solitude. I can honor and appreciate those parts of me, even though the way I've acted on them has obviously gotten me into hot water.
So I'm not trying to wiggle my way out of responsibility; I'm not - despite appearances - looking at myself through rose-colored glasses. I'm not letting myself off the hook for my actions or their consequences. If there is teshuvah to do in the world, I have to do it. But looking lovingly at their source, the simple, human, even beautiful source: that is new and surprising and, I think, good.
So what are these X-Ray Glasses? Here's your mnemonic. You can remember because they form a chet. They are the divine and, thankully, human attribute of chesed. Of love. Of kindness. What a nice change, looking at all I'm ashamed of through a lens of genuine love and kindness.
You don't have to do it this instant, although you're welcome to. But I'd like to invite you this year, when you're beating your chest and rattling off your list of transgressions, to find one that's really present for you, to pause with it and to look deeper behind it using your own built-in Chesed Lenses. What we all might discover is that there are parts of us that are real and are praiseworthy and are in need of attention, and which need to be taken into consideration when we act in this world. Maybe that little bit of good stuff that's in need of attention will help us change more than any great heap of self-condemnation.
The great Chasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, commanded his followers to judge with kindness. He taught:
דע כי צריך לדון את כל אדם לכף הזכות
"Know," he said, that you must judge every person on the meritorious side of the scale, on the generous side...
ואפילו מי שהוא רשע גמור, צריך לחפש ולמצוא בו איזה מעט טוב
and even someone who seems completely wicked to you, you must look for and find eyzeh m'at tov - some small bit of good, and by recognizing the small bit that's good, you invite the person to return in teshuvah. For Rebbe Nachman, looking for the good wasn't enough. Finding it was obligatory. In other words, he never doubted - nor should we - that it's there.
But what I propose is that m'at tov - that nugget of goodness - is not sitting alongside our faults. It is part of them. It breathes through them. And the m'at tov is also what makes us care about how we're doing in our lives to begin with.
Rebbe Nachman believed this m'at tov to be utterly transformative. His prooftext (they always use prooftexts) is in Psalm 37:
ועד מעט ואין רשע והתובוננת על–מקומו ואיננו
"Just a little bit and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." The traditional reading is that in just a little bit - i.e. very soon - the wicked will be wiped off the face of the earth. But the Rebbe's ingenious reading is utterly different. Find the little bit of good in someone and the next time you look, you will not see a wicked person at all. Just a little bit and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there. Is this advice any less true when looking at ourselves?
And so may we, on the brink of the new year, during the hard and pressured times that we all experience, do this for each other and for ourselves. When we look inside, let us not stop with the faults. Let us mine deeper for the praiseworthy piece that set it all in motion. The m'at tov - the bit of good that flows even through our failures. And by acknowledging that praiseworthy piece, that m'at tov, may we send it on a better course to its happy fulfillment. May that be our method of change. So that when we look back to the place where we saw, and scolded, our wicked selves, our wicked selves will no longer be there.
I wish all of you a good year, a better year, a year of compassion, a year of attunement to the good in others and in ourselves.