There are various metaphors used to describe what we are supposed to be doing during the Days of Awe, the High Holy days. Sometimes we talk about being asleep, and the shofar blast is part of what wakes us up to be in the moment and pay attention to what is really important. Sometimes we talk about cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul, and paying attention to the details of what is going on in our souls the way an accountant has to pay close attention to columns of numbers. And sometimes we talk about breaking our hearts--finding everything that is inside us in this period of self-examination, followed by repentance, atonement, and finally celebration.
Once the Baal Shem Tov (18th cent. founder of Chasidism) commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blast of the shofar, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh ha-Shanah [that is, Rabbi Zev would call out the different blasts: “Tekiah! Sh’varim!” and so on, and the Baal Shem Tov would sound the shofar]. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and put the slip of paper in his shirt pocket. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s horn, the shofar, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the shofar, without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.
Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: Lo, in the dwelling-place of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock; but the master key of all is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the shofar: The secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks open his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the Sovereign above all sovereigns, the Holy One, blessed be God. (Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days, Edited by S.Y. Agnon, p. 74)
The idea here is that one can find one’s spiritual way by knowing the individual meaning of each blessing, each ritual, but if one can open oneself fully to God--breaking open one’s heart--everything can be infused with meaning, with God, at once.
Another Chasid, the Kotzker Rebbe, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, said “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” It sounds like a paradox: How can something that is broken be whole? And how can it be more whole than anything else?
I didn’t understand this saying until recently. For over a year, I have been in a process of spiritual direction, working with a guide to more deeply explore my spiritual life and what I want it to be. In July I had a breakthrough.
I wonder if any of you harbor negative feelings about yourselves, feelings you ignore, or deny, or suppress. Feelings that you never feel good about, that you are in a constant fight against, a fight so long-lived and so familiar that usually you don’t notice it at all. Maybe they have to do with how your body looks; or with long-standing, unexpressed grief; or with guilt about something you did or said long ago; or with anger toward someone who hurt you. I wonder if you go through the days with those feelings always there, deep below the surface, to be triggered unexpectedly sometimes, only to be buried again, perhaps with fresh negative feelings about having been triggered.
In July, in a meeting with my spiritual director, I came to a place where I was able to recognize that I have a lot of those feelings inside myself. I have been—for years—pretending they weren’t there, ignoring them, trying to resist them. In July I stopped doing that.
This has been like nothing I’ve ever done before. I realized how lonely I felt with these feelings. I began to journal. I wrote honestly, stripping away all my defenses, about how tired I am of trying to fight my negative feelings toward myself. I found myself listing what I hate about myself.
After a few weeks of writing once or twice a week, something happened. It felt like I broke open. My heart broke. And when it did, when everything inside me was exposed to the air, all the hidden pain, and need, and loss, and sadness, and loneliness, the world didn’t end. Instead, I have been feeling more deeply connected to the Torah and our other sacred texts. I am moved like I’ve never been before by Isaiah’s promise that God says, “I could not forget you! Indeed, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your safety is continually in my thoughts” (Isaiah 49:15-16). When I read in Deuteronomy that God says, “I am not giving you this land (Israel) because of any virtue of yours,” I understand it in a new and deeper way: This isn’t God saying, “I’m giving you this land even though you’re bad people,” it’s God saying, “You don’t have to deserve this land. You don’t have to be perfect. I care about you just as you are, flaws and all.” It’s unconditional, divine love, and it’s wonderful. This process has not been easy--far from it. But it’s what I need to be doing, and it’s helping.
My broken heart is more whole than it was before, because every part of me, the easy and the hard, the attractive and the ugly, is fully acknowledged and allowed. And I am still worthwhile. That is what the Kotzker Rebbe was saying: When your heart breaks and everything you’ve been hiding is exposed, then you are truly a whole person.
Our rabbis taught that each of us is born with a good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, and an evil inclination, the yetzer ha-ra. We might think that our task is to eliminate the evil inclination, so that there is only good, but that is not correct. Our task is to keep the evil inclination, the yetzer ha-ra, in check, to not let it overpower the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov. But if we got rid of it completely, if we had no greed, for example, we would not get up and go to work and earn our living. If we had no lust, we would not reproduce.
The yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, is inside of us. We need it. It’s strange, isn’t it, that our tradition would value the evil inside of us, at least as long as it’s controlled and appropriately channeled? It’s strange, and it’s kind of amazing.
I wonder how many of us feel okay about negative feelings we have toward ourselves, feel okay about the parts of us we’re ashamed of. But if we have them, they are part of who we are, and we can’t deal with them unless we acknowledge them and let them exist. Some of them are part of our evil inclination, and some probably are not. But we might be in the grip of our evil inclination in thinking that the way to deal with these feelings is to fight them, to suppress them, to pretend they don’t exist. I’m not saying that it is evil to try to ignore these feelings. The evil inclination can help us to survive while we’re not equipped to deal with these feelings. Sometimes we have to deny and suppress because it’s too much. When I was ready, and when my heart broke open, the evil inclination lost that hold on me.
This is what the High Holidays are about. If we are in a place where we can handle it, they are about facing the worst that is inside of us, letting it see the light of day, breaking ourselves open, making ourselves completely vulnerable, in order to let ourselves heal. It’s hard. So very hard. It is also powerful and real and can help us get better—both in the sense of healing and in the sense of improving ourselves.
Part of my process has been feeling loneliness. I expect I’m not the only one here who has felt alone with negative feelings about myself. But I have not been alone. My spiritual director, therapist, husband, and close friends have given me safe spaces and let me know that I am loved. At the High Holidays, our worship services also try to create spaces where we can recognize that we are not alone, and that we are loved, when we make ourselves vulnerable by facing the worst in ourselves.
I mentioned earlier that when journaling, I made lists of what I don’t like in myself. When I read back over it, coincidentally around the time I was planning our services for the holidays, I found that there was something familiar about what I wrote. Last Saturday night at our S’lichot service, and in 10 days, on Yom Kippur, we will chant Ashamnu: [chant] Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofi. Here is what some of it means in English: We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have lied, we have had evil hearts, we have scoffed, we have been scornful, we have corrupted, we have persecuted, we have broken the law, we have been stiff-necked.
That’s quite a list, and it isn’t even half of the 25 words that are in this short confession. My list of what I don’t like about myself includes some of the same and some different qualities and behaviors than those listed in the Ashamnu. It struck me, though, how much the lists resembled each other. When we confess using the Ashamnu, we are bringing our negative feelings about our behaviors, feelings we would prefer to hide or ignore, to the light. That gives us the opportunity to face them and free ourselves of having to fight them, because we can feel forgiven and those feelings can dissipate.
There is an important distinction between my list and the Ashamnu. My list is in the singular: I am these things. In the Ashamnu, we chant together, and we say we are these things. We are together. We are recognizing that there are faults in all of us, bad behavior, negative thoughts and feelings. We are acknowledging that not one of us has been perfect this year—it is impossible. We are saying that we can face together what we are ashamed of having done and been. We can be forgiven. And we can be—and are—loved.
The prophet Isaiah said, “Have no fear: you shall not be put to shame; do not cringe: your disgrace is at an end” (Isaiah 54:4a). I don’t know if it is really possible to face what we are ashamed of in ourselves without fear, but Isaiah is telling us that we will be cared for and forgiven in spite of what we are ashamed of in ourselves.
We are all in this together. If we can face what we hate in ourselves and let our hearts break open, we can heal. Psalm 147 speaks of God “healing the broken-hearted, binding up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). I know there are many different beliefs and ideas about God in this room. That word “God” in this context might mean the strength to dig deep and let out all the ways we feel bad; it may mean the help we receive from friends, family, and mental health professionals to support us as we heal; it may mean a loving presence that cares for us unconditionally, either human or deity.
Whatever we mean when we say “God,” we all have places inside that need healing. In order to heal, they must be acknowledged. That can be so very hard. If you are ready, this is the time and this is the place. You are safe, and you are loved. In all your flaws, in all your mistakes, in all your difficulties. Here you are safe, and you are loved. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Though the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, My love shall never depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed—says the One who loves you, the Eternal.”
The word for peace, shalom, has the same root as shalem, which means wholeness. We help our hearts to break open so that we can embrace our whole selves and heal, and God is with us as we do so—in the form of loved ones, supporters, the ability to love ourselves as we are.
May the next 10 days be days of deep soul-searching, of facing what we don’t like about ourselves, of bringing it out into the open. May we strip ourselves of our defenses and make ourselves vulnerable. And may that process help us to heal, so that the coming year may be a good and a sweet year for us. Amen and Shana Tovah u’Metukah.
(This beautiful song by Shir Yaakov Feit was the anthem after this sermon.)
(The video of the sermon is here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/91894734.)