It happens every summer. In the middle of a long meeting about something completely unrelated, Rabbi Limmer pauses, looks at me and says, “So, what are you thinking of speaking about on Yom Kippur?”
Some years, I have a quick answer; other years it’s more of a process. This year, I blurted out a rant:
I don’t need Yom Kippur this year to tell me to be a better person or to tell me to do better. This year has been challenging enough! I have been hard on myself already, and I know many of our congregants have been hard on themselves, too. This year, what I need is for Yom Kippur to tell me that it’s going to be okay, that we’re going to be okay. And that all we need to do is just take each day one at a time.
These past six months have been nothing short of challenging. When we left work or school, life as we knew it, back in March, to Shelter-in-Place for what we thought might be a short few weeks, we had big dreams and goals about what we would accomplish: cleaning out rooms in our homes, completing that household project we never fully started, exercising daily from our makeshift gyms, making a home cooked meal and sitting down as a family for dinner each night.
Even still, there seemed to be a societal pressure to do more, to accomplish more!
Our inboxes began to flood with advertisements of ways to use our time at home: to learn a new skill, to study a new language, or to take a new class.
After all, didn’t Isaac Newton discover gravity and invent calculus while in quarantine? Didn’t Shakespeare write King Lear on lockdown? 1 What, then, might we be able to accomplish?
And while some of us did complete those projects and meet our goals, still others’ big dreams for shelter-in-place were quickly replaced with worry and fear, loneliness and heartbreak. For good reason!
We are living through a pandemic! People are getting sick and dying. We haven’t been able to hug our friends and family for over six months. It’s been hard. Really hard.
Can’t we simply accept that we are trying our best; and that we aren’t going to get everything right, all the time?
And now, we arrive here, today at Yom Kippur, our sacred day where we recognize that we have missed the mark, that we have made mistakes. We reflect back on the year, and especially these past six months with our litany of sins. But this year, our litany seems a bit different Al chet shechatanu lefanecha, we say, “for the sin we have committed against you,” adding now the qualifier, “because we are living through a pandemic.”
For the sin we have committed against by losing our tempers on our children and on our partners… because we are living through a pandemic.
For the sin we have committed against you by watching another rerun of the same tv show instead of calling to check in on a loved one… because we are living through a pandemic.
For the sin we have committed against you by eating an entire carton of Ben and Jerry’s because, well, we are living through a pandemic.
This Yom Kippur, can’t our litany conclude: “For all these sins, oh season of Covid, understand us, have pity on us, and accept our limitations?”
There’s a wonderful story told of the Chasidic Master Zusya. Lying on his deathbed, Zusya’s students asked him, “ Rabbi, why are you so sad? After all of the mitzvot and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!”
“I’m afraid,” said Zusya. “ that when I get to heaven, I know God’s not going to ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’
I’m afraid that God will ask, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’”
This Chasidic tale teaches: we are not created perfect, nor do we need to strive for perfection. It tells us that all we need to strive for in this world is simply to be ourselves. And that fully being ourselves, requires we accept our imperfections and our limitations. Zusya teaches that we should be satisfied with trying our best, with doing our best. If that is true on an average day, how much more so during this pandemic? Surely we don’t need to learn a new language. And we don’t need to beat ourselves up when we lose our tempers. This year, more than ever, can’t we be a little kinder, a little more gentler to ourselves and let ourselves off the hook when we miss the mark, because we are living through a pandemic?
But can we really let ourselves off the hook?
What are we doing here on this sacred day, if we only accept our limitations, and stay satisfied knowing we’ve tried our best?
Isn’t this whole day of Yom Kippur about striving for more? About doing more? About being better?
Rav Joseph Solevetchik, one of the most renowned rabbis of the 20th century, thinks we should expect more of ourselves. Solevetchik calls that Chasidic tale of Zusya a “shaina meisa”, a story we tell ourselves to make us feel adequate, to make us feel good, to make us feel better when we miss the mark. You know, to let ourselves off the hook, like when we are living through a pandemic.
Solevetchik teaches: “I doubt if Zusya ever made such a comment! Because it goes against Maimonides, who teaches,
‘Every human being may become as righteous as Moses.’”
They will not ask me, ‘Why I wasn’t Rabbi Soloveitchik’, but, ‘Why I wasn’t like Moses. It’s a frightening thought.’” 2
Why is it so frightening?
It is frightening, because you and I know, and even Rabbi Solevetchik knew, that it’s ridiculous to imagine we could be like Moses. And yet, Soloveitchik emphasizes that it doesn’t really matter if it seems impossible. We still must strive. No personal limitations, no sense of self-pity, no understanding that we are living through a pandemic should let us off the hook of high expectations.
I imagine Solevetchik might even say to us today:
“Well, it doesn’t really matter that you haven’t seen your friends and family in months, or that you’ve have had to navigate working from home while helping your children with their schoolwork, or that you’ve been extremely lonely and haven’t received a hug from a loved one in months, because all of that is simply an excuse for not striving to be the absolute best we can be, to transcend even our own limitations.
Rav Solevetchik teaches us radical accountability and ultimate responsibility for our lives and our choices. We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily. Even when it’s hard. Guess what? Rav Solevetchik says it’s supposed to be hard.
Well, which is it: is Yom Kippur a time to forgive ourselves? Or is Yom Kippur a time to ask more of ourselves?
And what do we do with these two conflicting takes on the Zusya story? Is it supposed to be hard or is it supposed to be easy?
If I’ve learned anything from these past six months, it’s that there is truth to both. Just listen to the words from our ancient tradition:
Three registers are open on Rosh HaShanah: one for those who are completely righteous, one for those who are completely wicked, and one for those who are, neither completely wicked nor completely righteous. For those who are in between, neither fully righteous nor completely wicked, judgment is suspended until Yom Kippur; if they repent they are inscribed with the righteous, but if they do not repent they are inscribed with the wicked. 3
This text elevates this idea that very few of us in the world are fully righteous and very few of us are completely wicked. The reality is that most of us find ourselves somewhere in between. It’s what the ancient rabbis called benoni: average.
Being benoni means that we are average. That might sound painful to a congregation of high achievers. But, our being average comes with an upside; we have the potential, with one move, to write ourselves in the register of the righteous. And sorry to say, there’s also a downside. One bad move and we’re written in the register of the wicked.
Listen to the words of Maimonides, “Throughout the year, a person should look at themselves as equally balanced between merit and sin…If a single person performs one sin or one good deed they tip their own scales… in that direction.” 4
Imagine a giant scale. Imagine the last 6 months: all the good deeds, all of the things that you are proud of on one side. And on the other, all the times that we knew we could have done better, all the mistakes we’ve made. I’m not asking you to tally how many good deeds and how many sins. This is not an exercise in physics and in literally balancing the scale. Instead, this exercise offers us the opportunity — despite our benoni status — to reach a little closer to the righteous side of the scale. To tip the scale a bit more towards goodness. To do one more good deed.
After all, Yom Kippur comes every year, pandemic or not, to offer us this very same invitation. When we have missed the mark, when we have fallen short of being the best person we can be, Yom Kippur comes to remind us that forgiveness is possible. We can apologize to those we have hurt, we can pray today on Yom Kippur seeking forgiveness from God. And we can even learn to forgive ourselves. But Yom Kippur doesn’t stop with forgiveness. Because we know that there is something gained by striving to do better and be better, to do one more good deed to tip the scale.
Just a few weeks ago, right after the High Holy Day bag pick-up, I was planning to sit Shiva with a dear friend whose father had died. I’d already paid a shiva call a few days earlier. And I was feeling exhausted — physically from standing on my feet for 8 hours straight, emotionally from the joy of seeing all of you, (of course with masks on and physically distant). I got in my car and began to drive towards the highway for the shiva call. And then I made a right turn, and decided I wanted to come home and lay on the couch. I was tired. I knew my friend would understand how busy a rabbi is at this time of year. The pull of the pandemic excuse was strong that afternoon.
Except…I was writing this sermon. I had Maimonides’ voice in my head, asking. “Do you really want to be average? Come on Amanda: do one more good deed.”
Tired as I was that afternoon, it was a moment that offered me the opportunity to tip the scale. To do the right thing. Amidst this season of spiritual turning, I decided to take a physical turn; just as I was approaching my apartment, I made a U-turn and drove to shiva.
On this day, we are called to ask ourselves: Do I want to be average? Do I want to be morally average? An average friend? An average parent? An average child? An average coworker? Do I want to be satisfied with who I am, or do I want to tip the scale and be one bit better. This is the question Yom Kippur asks us. The answer, the choice to be average or to be better, belongs to each and every one of us.
This year, let our litany of sins read instead like this:
Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha, for the sin we have committed against you by not being forgiving enough of ourselves.
AND al chet shechatanu l’fanecha, for the sin we have committed against you by being too forgiving, and letting ourselves off the hook when we know we can strive for more.
For these sins, Eternal God, grant us forgiveness, pardon us, and grant us atonement.
Remember that sermon I told Rabbi Limmer I wanted to write? The one that was all about how this has been a challenging six and half months? And how people have been really hard on themselves? And how the message I wanted our community to hear was to be kinder, more compassionate, and more forgiving of themselves? I wrote it.
And then I rewrote it.
Instead of just offering comforting words, I decided, on Yom Kippur, we all needed to be challenged.
Instead of accepting the excuse of a pandemic, I wanted, on Yom Kippur, to encourage us all to do better, to be better especially during this pandemic.
Instead of preaching that it’s okay to be average, I wanted, on Yom Kippur, to teach that Judaism commands us to be just one bit better.
May this new year inspire us to do just that. To be just that. One bit better.
2 Insights of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, 157.
3 Adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 24:3
4 Hilchot Teshuva 2:4