The Door Marked “Teshuva”

Yom Kippur 5778

When you enter the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, you have a choice to enter through one of two doors: a door marked PREJUDICED or a door marked UNPREJUDICED.

A door marked PREJUDICED or a door marked UNPREJUDICED.

Which door would you choose?

What if the doors were marked with the character traits GENEROUS and GREEDY? Which attribute describes you? Which door would you go through? Or what about MERCIFUL and JUDGMENTAL? Which door would you enter? Chances are, you picked the good doors. If you are like most people you would choose to enter the doors marked UNPREJUDICED, GENEROUS, and MERCIFUL.

But cutting edge research shows us there might be a gap between who we say we are and who we actually are.

 “Everybody Lies,” was the beginning of a title of a book that came out this past Spring. 

 The title of this book is compelling, and it stings a little, too. It’s true. Everybody lies. Yes, you, the person sitting to your left, the person sitting to your right, and me, too –none of us might want to be called liars, but we all know we don’t always tell the truth.

 We lie about how many times we’ve gone to the gym this week, how much our shoes really cost. We call in sick when we are really not, we say we’ll be in touch when we won’t, we say we’re happy even when we’re not.[1]

The author of the book, Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz shared what he learned after studying Google search engine data for five years:

 People lie consistently to just about everybody but they tend to be really really honest to Google. Something about that little white box makes people feel comfortable telling things they might not tell to anyone else and it serves as kind of a digital truth serum…You can see from what people are searching what they really think, what they really want and what they really desire.[2]

Stephens- Davidowitz writes: “people don’t query Google as much as they confide in it.”[3]

WHY are we willing to confide in google more than in ourselves?

WHY are we willing to tell Google things that we won’t tell each other? Why is there such a distance between what we say aloud and what we type in our computers?

Way before google ever existed, social psychologist Leon Festinger offered an explanation for the distance between our outer and inner lives:

Cognitive Dissonance is the very idea that we become physically uncomfortable when we hold two ideas in conflict.  Because no one like being uncomfortable, we find ways to reduce the discomfort.

We encounter cognitive dissonance all the time: We know that it is bad for our health to smoke, but we smoke anyway. In order to resolve the disconnect we alter our frame of mind — we don’t smoke that much, and it calms us down, so we tell ourselves it’s better for our mental health.

Take the environmentalist who drives an SUV. Instead of selling the SUV to align his actions with his values, he convinces himself that he really needs the space for his big family.

When we get stuck in this frame of mind, we lose sight of our morality, of our honest frame of mind. Often times, cognitive dissonance puts us in a situation where we are dishonest, or where we tell lies.

How many times have we overslept, or thought we could run an extra errand and were late to meet a friend. Knowing that we value our friendship, and value our friend’s time, we blame traffic. After all, it couldn’t have been my fault that I was late.

But the truth is, there’s a big gap between who we project ourselves to be and who we really are. We are physically and spiritually uncomfortable with the space between the reality of the world as it is and the reality of the world we wish it to be, or rather the space between what we know is right, our morals, our values, our beliefs, and the way we behave. None of us want to showcase our worst side, and we can actually go through our lives thinking that we are that person we project ourselves to be. Think about it — Ever put up a photo or post on social media about how your day really went? Have you ever posted about the time you didn’t donate to an important cause? Or have you ever sent your child an article about how distracted driving is bad, knowing that sometimes you text and drive, too? Or what about the time that you told a “white lie” to get out of lunch plans with a friend when a better opportunity arose?

Cognitive dissonance allows us to tell ourselves that we are good people. We tell a little white lie, it’s not that bad. We don’t reveal the whole truth, we weren’t really lying. We still get to walk through the doors marked,  “Generous, and Merciful,” don’t we?

We sit here, all day long, repenting for what we wish we hadn’t done, making amends, seeking forgiveness. And we do so wholeheartedly.

But I’m afraid that when we leave this sanctuary  we will go back to our bad habits and we will confront “Repentance Dissonance.” One moment we will be uplifted and inspired, and the next, we will cut in front of a group to exit the building first, or aggressively honk our horn in the parking garage at the driver driving too slow.

We know we should try harder, do better this year, and THEN we arrive at break fast. Friends and family are critiquing the rabbis’ sermons, gossiping about the strange outfit at services, and we try so hard to hold back our opinions, and before we know it, we’re back at the same actions.

I know, because I do it. Like the time I gave a sermon about our obligation of tzedakah, and walked right passed the homeless person on my way home from Temple.

The honest reality, is that we leave here, and with rare exception, return here the following year with the same sins, the same things that we wish we would change in our lives. We sit, and we repent as we stare last year’s sins in the eye.

We encounter “repentance dissonance” for the same reason that we encounter cognitive dissonance — it’s easy to justify our mistakes.  Psychologist Carol Tavris explains that cognitive dissonance is, “The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones…”[4]

Self-justification becomes our defense mechanism to ease the distress caused by the dissonance.  We rationalize over and over again to escape the simplest and most logical conclusion, we made a mistake.

It’s hard to see that all of those avoidance strategies that we used to cover up our real feelings, our real beliefs, our real actions, didn’t really work. That when we tell ourselves it wasn’t a mistake, or try to clarify and defend the circumstance, or even worse, place the blame on someone else — it’s because we are afraid of probing the deep recesses of our souls.

We don’t want to open the doors to the chambers of our hearts. Most of the time we prefer not to deal with problems we can’t easily solve, the habits we can’t kick. We don’t want to see that we aren’t perfect, that we need help.

So, we cover up our innermost chambers, we conceal our dark secrets. We walk out of the sanctuary, we wake up tomorrow, the next days comes, and before we know it, we’re hiding, once again, behind a carefully crafted facade. Behind an identity that we build to shield ourselves from facing the truth. Our outside is protected by an image of the masks we wear. We provide the rest of the world with what we believe to be the right persona. But our inside looks nothing like our outside. We are setting up ourselves for a life of cognitive dissonance.

But that’s not what Yom Kippur is about. Yom Kippur is about moral alignment. Leon Festinger may have coined the term Cognitive Dissonance 60 years ago, but our ancient rabbis knew about it well before. That’s why they designed Yom Kippur to be about moral alignment. In Judaism, we have a solution to addressing the dissonance — it’s called Teshuva and it’s what we’ve been doing these past Ten Days, and it’s why we come here, today, on Yom Kippur.

Today, we face the dissonance between our inside and our outside. And Teshuva is the process that allows us to work towards an alignment of the two.

We learn this from one of our most central symbols, the Holy Ark. When our ancestors received the instructions to build the ark, they were told to cover it with gold, mibayit u’mitchutz, on the outside and on the inside.[5]

But, why would the ark need to be covered with gold inside, if no one will see it? Because, our ancient rabbis taught: the ark is analogous to one who studies Torah, and a Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is no scholar at all.[6]

Our job today is to be like the Holy Ark, to match what is inside with what we reveal on the outside — to strive towards moral alignment.

Listen to the liturgy we read just moments ago:

Atah yodei razei olam, v’taalumot sitrei Kol Chai

Are not all things known to You,

Both the mysteries of eternity

And the dark secrets of all that live?

You search our innermost chambers of our hearts

And probe the deep recesses of our souls.

Nothing is concealed from Your knowledge.

I’m not sure that God knows our secrets; but I can tell you that google certainly does, and they don’t go away. If our secrets could stay in the google search engine forever, then we wouldn’t need Teshuva. And, if we were to solely listen to the research of Stephens-Davidowitz, we wouldn’t need Teshuva either. Frankly, he would tell me that this entire sermon is bogus, that we are all going to continue to lie. He would even tell us that we are all lying about the work of Teshuva.

But here’s the thing, Yom Kippur is not about research or data or psychology. It’s not about anything but you and me. Look around the walls of this sanctuary, the seats are full. Why are we all here? Why are you here? Because, deep down, you believe something can happen that’s different than the ordinary, and so do I.

For us as Jews, google doesn’t work for confessional. But we do have our Yom Kippur liturgy to serve as a construct, to serve as our vehicle so that we can move from cognitive dissonance to moral alignment.

The work of Teshuva – of returning to what is in the deepest recesses of our souls, to searching the innermost chambers of our hearts – is why we are here today. There’s no more hiding, from each other, from God, from ourselves. Today, we are called to accountability. Because regardless of the lies we tell others and ourselves, Jewish tradition believes we are in fact capable of becoming who we say we are.

Atah yodei razei olam, v’taalumot sitrei Kol Chai

God knows the secrets of the world.

When we confront dissonance, we don’t have to defend our actions and turn to self-justification, we can do better.

We have Teshuva to help us create moral alignment so that we walk through the doors marked GENEROUS, AND MERCIFUL, not because we aspire to, not because we want others to see that we are good people, because that’s truly how we behave. Only when we can be fully honest, only when we unlock the doors to the innermost chambers of our hearts, are we truly walking through the door marked Teshuva.

No doubt, it is hard work. It is painful to face the truth that we have not lived up to the person we wish we were. That we have made mistakes. It’s painful because Yom Kippur forces us to knock on the doors, to turn the handles, and open the door, to stare directly into the innermost chambers of our hearts, not solely to see who we are on the outside, but to stare deeply at who we are on the inside.

We encounter doors all the time. Travel back with me, for a moment, to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Imagine yourself, standing in front of a door marked PREJUDICED and another door marked UNPREJUDICED.

Want to know a secret — it’s a setup — the door marked UNPREJUDICED doesn’t lead anywhere. 

You cannot walk through the door marked UNPREJUDICED.

It’s locked.

You cannot walk through the Museum of Tolerance without first walking through a door marked PREJUDICED.

You cannot walk through this museum without first, being fully honest with yourself.

Neither can I.

For we all know, and our Jewish tradition teaches us, that the only way for us to grow is for us to face the truth — just as the door marked UNPREJUDICED leads nowhere, so too does lying to ourselves lead us nowhere.

But, today, we are not in Los Angeles, we’re not at the Museum of Tolerance. We are right here, in this sanctuary doing the work of Teshuva — probing the deep recesses of our souls, searching the innermost chambers of our hearts, revealing our darkest secrets. Want to know the literal translation of Teshuva? It means to turn.

The only door that matters on this day of Yom Kippur is the one marked Teshuva. And it’s not a setup. And it’s not locked. The door marked Teshvah is open. It’s open wide — waiting for each of us, all of us, to walk through. All we have to do is turn the handle.

Shana Tova!


[1] All examples come from Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies. 105.

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/everybody-lies-book-data-science-seth-stephens-davidowitz/

[3] Stephens-Davidowitz 7.

[4] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12125926

[5] Exodus 25:10.

[6] Talmud Yoma 72b.

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