This is the sermon Rabbi Posen delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 16, 2023.
I’d like to let you in on a little secret, but you have to promise not to tell my children. I’m NOT perfect. I know, hard to believe, right? We tend to look to rabbis and teachers as modeling the things we aspire to, and while yes, I am a rabbi, I am also a human being, resplendent in all my imperfections.
Wow, that feels great to get off my chest! Let’s all try it.
Show of hands, how many of you are perfect?
As we’re now officially in the aseret y’mai teshuvah, the ten days of repentance, it’s refreshing to have that out in the open, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if that was all there was to it? But in ten days, we’ll be back here for Yom Kippur, and there’s a lot of work to be done between now and then. The central piece of this work for me comes right after I finish speaking, so I might be up here for a while.
As much as I admire my own rabbinic teachers, I’m not in favor of the “rabbi on a pedestal” attitude. Which I realize is a strange thing to say as I’m literally up here on the bimah. I’m reminded of a line in one of my all-time favorite movies, Keeping the Faith. Ben Stiller and Edward Norton are best friends, one a rabbi, the other a Catholic priest. If you haven’t seen it, you can probably figure out who played who.
The movie is very funny, but also very rich in asking questions about what it is to be a faith leader and the complexities of being held to a higher standard in all aspects of life, when really, we’re all human, as you may remember from two minutes ago. Ben Stiller, as Rabbi Jake Schram, says “Jews want their rabbis to be the kind of Jews they don’t have the time to be.” And Father Brian Finn – Edward Norton – responds, “Yeah, and Catholics want their priests to be the kind of Catholics they don’t have the discipline to be.”
There’s a connection here to Hineni, the prayer which the service leader chants before entering into the Amidah for Musaf on Rosh Hashanah. It’s an unusual prayer. It plays both upon the words we hear repeatedly in the Torah for one of our ancestors standing up and answering a call from God, as well as upon the notion of the humility that it takes to lead a congregation, knowing that they hold you to a higher standard, yet being human nevertheless.
“Here I stand, impoverished in merit, trembling in the presence of the One who hears the prayers of Israel. Even though I am unfit and unworthy for the task, I come to represent your people.” The prayer continues, “Charge them not with my sins and let them not bear the guilt of my transgressions, though I have sinned and transgressed.” There’s more, but we’ll be there in just a few minutes, and I want to leave you with something to look forward to!
Growing up, I remember one of the lessons of the High Holy Days about repentance, which is that the prayers are written in the plural. “We have” done this, “we have” done that. But here, this is in the first person singular. This is the one time when an individual is asked to name their imperfections in front of the kehillah. Why would this be an exception?
It could be the idea of leading by example. After all, it might be easier for you to see your imperfections and name them if I do it too. Surprising no one, we have a method for this as well. Judaism has a process for everything. To quote Rabbi Jake Schram one more time, “What do you want me to do? Flagellate myself? Jews don’t do that, we plant trees!”
True, we do plant trees, but, kidding aside, we also plant the seeds for transformation, regrowth, and the reworking of our own actions and preconceived notions in order to find our next steps forward. We learn this from the Rambam.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, philosopher, doctor, scholar, teaches us that repentance and repair require time and intention. He also gives us the steps to take in order to truly make amends and move forward. You’ll note that this process is really more about repairing than forgiving. We are not commanded to “forgive and forget,” as helpful of a sentiment as that may sound. Instead, we’re given steps to follow to change ourselves and work towards earning forgiveness. Here’s what the process looks like, and how we might use these next ten days ahead of us, and perhaps beyond.
Step one: Own the pain you’ve caused. In order to actually begin any process of healing, we have to move past denial and own our actions. And own them without passing the blame. It could be: “I recognize the words I used were hurtful, even if I didn’t mean them that way.” Or “I wasn’t as responsible as I should have been.” Or “I judged someone by their appearance alone.”
Step two: Make a change. Simply owning your actions alone is like an empty promise. There is real work involved, and it starts with step two. In this space we’re implored to get down to it. Repentance is an active endeavor; it happens when we make actual changes to behavior and thought patterns. That’s not easy. Sometimes we all need reminders to keep destructive comments to ourselves. Sometimes we all need reminders that it’s ok to ask for help when you need it. Sometimes we all need that nudge from a friend for a quick reality check.
Step three: Make amends and apologize. To make amends means putting effort behind repairing a relationship. You’ve changed yourself, now figure out how that change can counteract the damage that might have been done. This one is tricky because it requires both interpersonal contact and the openness of the one who was wronged to hear your apology and either accept it, or hopefully at least acknowledge it and allow room for growth.
Don’t try to reverse engineer this step three; I know all your tricks because I’ve used them too. Saying “I’m sorry that YOU felt I was out of line” doesn’t count. That completely skips over step one and step two. Again, apologies without action are empty promises. When you actually put in the work of ownership and change, then you’ve earned the right to say, “I’m aware of my actions, and I apologize for the lapse in judgment that was cause for concern.” Or “I realize my actions crossed a line, and I hope you’ll see how I’ve changed.”
Finally, step four. Step four is the hardest. Of course it is, it’s step four. If it was the easiest step, we’d start with it. Don’t repeat whatever it is you’re trying to change. Don’t fall into the trap of letting this happen again. There’s no magic solution to step four, it just takes practice. And why, again? Because we’re not perfect after all. Don’t we all wish we lived in a world where we could snap our fingers and change behavior? But we don’t. To truly make a change in 5784 or any time requires daily practice and self-control. It takes holding oneself accountable and recognizing when it’s time to return to steps one through three of the process.
This is a good time to remind each other again – this process isn’t really about forgiveness. It’s not about the person who was wronged because you can’t control their feelings, and you shouldn’t try. Repentance is first and foremost about personal change. What’s remarkable in this, as in the Hineni, is that it’s built on trusting the true intentions of another person. Forget all your preconceived notions, forget your snap judgments. Giving the benefit of the doubt is a two-way street. Here’s what I mean. If I’m the one who did wrong, you trust me that I’ve made it to step two. I’m working on me. And at the same time, I trust you that forgiveness will come eventually. It’s not automatic or necessarily quick.
See? Now you know why step four is so challenging. The thing that follows change, the thing we don’t really talk about during the season of repentance, is maintaining. Forgive me – it’s the time for asking, right? – but I’m going to quote a line from a famous Christmas song from 1959, written by a Jewish composer, as all the best Christmas songs were. The great Sammy Cahn, who wrote the lyrics to hits like “High Hopes” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” wrote the words, “It’s not the things you do at Christmas time, but the Christmas things you do all year through.” I don’t think the Jewish Mr. Cahn would mind if we adapted it just slightly. It’s not the repenting you do at the Yamim Noraim. It’s the changes you make all year through.
In a few minutes, after the act of recognizing the imperfections of leadership, we will recite the Unetanetokef prayer, the one which asks “Who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, etc.” We often read this prayer as placing all these decisions on God, removing our personal ownership in the outcomes for the future. Personally, that theology doesn’t make me feel more connected to God, it makes me feel less connected to myself.
To quote Rabbi Ed Feinstein on this text, the answer to each of these questions in the Unetanetokef is “I have the power to decide.” We are not greater or more powerful than God, but each of us does have the small power to change the way in which we live. Not for this small window of ten days, but for much, much longer. However, we use these seasonal reminders of forgiveness and repentance, when done with honesty and conviction, to change our world so there is a little bit less anger, hurt, and judgment in it.
One of my favorite Jewish musicians, Dan Nichols, in his prayer for the body, sings “I thank you for my life, body and soul, help me realize I am beautiful and whole. I’m perfect the way I am, and a little broken too, I will live each day as a gift I give to you.”
Friends, I’m a little broken too. About two years ago, I myself fell into a very deep depression that I have not talked much about publicly, except for bits and pieces here and there. This is my public opportunity to say that throughout the journey of leaving that depression, I made my share of mistakes. My step two occasionally resembled an out-of-order escalator, and any of you who’ve had similar experiences know how stuck we can get. Therapy, friends, nature, and simply time have allowed me to stand here today, acknowledging my missteps on the journey to being the kind of Jew I want to be, and want to make time to be – thank you, Rabbi Schram.
As we perch on the precipice of 5784, I ask for your forgiveness. As is the High Holiday tradition, I’m moving to step three. But as you already know, forgiveness is not automatic. Neither yours nor mine. But it’s the changes we make in step four – the “all year through” part of the song – that let us rebuild and reshape and recommit. I invite you to join me in tearing down whatever notion of perfection you have and walking through the world seeing each other the way we are. A little broken too. Together, repentance, forgiveness, and a lot of community, kehillah, can bond us to each other and inscribe us in the book of life this coming year.
– Rabbi Eve Posen
Source: Hineni – Rosh Hashanah 5784