I am presently with my wife in Los Angeles, California where we are preparing to spend our second year celebrating Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beit T’Shuvah. We are both looking forward to seeing a young man from Tallahassee helping to lead the services at this synagogue. A year ago this young man was at a very low point in his life, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of Beit T’Shuvah he is finding a new lease on life.
It is always interesting to me to see how life evolves. What follows below is a talk I gave at the very beginning of Rosh Hashanah 2013 in Tallahassee. In the talk I mention Beit T’Shuvah and the work they are doing. Little did I realize that my curiosity would take me on such an incredible journey that has created many wonderful new relationships, not just for me, but for a number of people in my life. I actually got to meet the young woman I quote in the talk and she’s an incredible person who is doing amazing work in her life. I hope you enjoy this look back at my writing from 2 years ago.:
Rosh Hashanah Talk 2013
Last year, a few weeks after we finished the High Holy Days I gave a talk from this very bima on why I don’t like the High Holy Days and described my struggle to find meaning in the rituals and words in the High Holy Day prayer book. In a way my talk was somewhat of a challenge to our tradition and maybe even to G-d to help me find some meaning the process we’re about to go through. Let me tell that if you come into a synagogue, stand before your community, and directly challenge G-d to help you understand something, you’re probably opening yourself up to some interesting opportunities for growth.
And that’s what happened for me, and through my experience I got a new perspective on not only why we observe the High Holy Days, but also why we even come here at all.
The answer, I have learned, is actually very simple. It’s all about connection.
For me all this understanding started with an email to my Mother-in-law. You know that in any good Jewish story there has be a mother or a mother-in-law. So, I was writing my Mother-in-law an email and I was telling her a story about some challenges people close to me faced many years ago. I’d told this story many times before, but this time when I hit send, I’m felt uncomfortable about what I had written. As I thought about my discomfort I realized that while everything that I’d told my Mother in law in the email is true, I haven’t really been honest in what I shared with her because the story I told her was carefully edited to leave out any of the struggles that I encountered or any of the failures I experienced. I was quite distressed when I realized that I had written myself out of what really was an important part of my life story.
It occurs to me that one of the challenges in life, at least for me, and I suspect for many of you, is to show up and tell our stories in the most honest way possible, disclosing not just our strengths and victories, but also our struggles and failures. I’ve certainly seen this in my work as a nurse and as an attorney. People will commonly talk around and evade disclosing information that reveals their struggles and imperfections. But why is this such a challenge? Don’t we all want to be authentic honest people?
To understand this further, I looked to the work of researcher Dr. Brene Brown who studies shame and vulnerability. I’m told that Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is one of the top ten TED talks of all time and she was named one of 50 most influential women of 2009. Brene Brown says we as human-beings are hard wired for connection with other human-beings, but that shame, which is really fear of loss of connection, creates a barrier to connection, and that to fully connect we must be willing to be vulnerable and tell our stories in a wholehearted way.
She writes: “We must remember that our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness”. Brown says that in seeking avoid vulnerability we numb ourselves, but we’re not just numbing shame and vulnerability, we’re also numbing joy, love, and creativity.
A few days ago we gathered for Selihot and prior to the service we watched a film called G-Dog about a Jesuit Priest name Father Greg Boyle, who I met this summer that Chautauqua Institution. I’ve learned a lot about the impact of shame and the power of overcoming shame to reach connection from Father Boyle’s work. I highly recommend his book Tatoos on the Heart. Father Boyle runs, Homeboy Industries, the largest most successful gang intervention program in the United States. In describing how he helps turn a 70% recidivism rate into a 70% success rate that has helped decrease gang activity in Los Angeles by 50% he writes: “ You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for what it is; the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and those whose burdens are more than they can bear”. It’s about overcoming shame and developing connection.
Similar work is happening in the Jewish community with the work of Rabbi Mark Borowitz, himself a former addict, who now leads a congregation whose work is a 120 bed residential treatment facility. The name of the facility, Beit T’shuvah. The house of return. Did you know that Jewish addicts and convicts exist? At Shomrei Torah we learned this several months ago when a Jewish inmate wrote to us and requested prayer books. I am very proud to say we answered the call. Unfortunately, the stories of our fellow Jews who struggle with addiction or who have had legal troubles rarely get told in our synagogues. Sadly, even when those stories get told, we often act as if they’re anomalies rather than real problems in our community. Consider what one young woman from Beit T’shuvah wrote:
As a young “nice Jewish girl” from Calabasas, to many people I am not the usual addict. Yet, still people do not want to hear what I have to say. They head nod me off until I shut up and then they give me the “not in my house” speech. Usually goes along the lines of my child gets great grades, they are in all AP’s, they are involved in extracurricular activities, we have Shabbat every Friday, or another excuse to make me believe they are perfect. But I too had all of those traits, yet I checked into rehab at 18 years old.
We all have issues. Every family is dysfunctional in its own way. The question is when do we stop leaving the dirty laundry at home and start talking about our problems? Judaism is rich in sources of comfort and teachings about the possibilities for change. When it comes to the social ills of our own, however, we often seem to prefer denial. People are coming into treatment younger and younger and from all different types of homes. But how can we stop it? My advice is to stop living in denial. Break the taboo and start talking about personal issues and stop hiding behind a mask. Learn how to cope in a healthy way with issues rather than just pretending they don’t exist. Without learning healthy coping mechanisms we turn to escaping through drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, work, food, etc. Addiction does not discriminate. If kids and adults believe that this disease CAN happen in their own backyard, they will become more aware of how their actions affect their lives
Bringing our troubles into the synagogue, telling our stories, it’s really what why we’re here. Sure, there are lots of reasons why people come to a synagogue. Some of us come to socialize, some for rituals, some for a sense of ethnicity, but at the core, it’s all about connection. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “when two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
Rabbi Adderett Drucker recently recommended a book to me, and I want to recommend this book to every person who wants to strengthen and grow our community. The book is called “Relational Judaism” by Ron Wolfson and the basic premise is that it doesn’t matter how beautiful your building is, how many programs you offer, how charismatic your rabbi is, or how pretty your website is. None of that matters, what does matter is whether the people who come through your doors find a truly welcoming community where they find connection and build relationships? We need to ask are people, including newcomers, sharing Shabbos dinners, dinning in Succahs together, gathering to study, and is your synagogue a place where people can show up and share their story, and be heard. Is your congregation a safe place for people to tell their story?
One of the most powerful stories in the book is about a synagogue where huge overdone parties had become the rule but as soon the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was over the families left to never be seen again. In that synagogue they brought the parents of children preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s together to share their Bar/Bat Mitzvah stories and the author writes: “We realized that they were not happy with what the expectation were, but that they felt helpless to change it. They didn’t want their child to be the only one not having dancers, the games, etc.” As the families shared their stories, the conversation moved from the subject of parties, to what kind of children did they want to raise, and what is the purpose of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
The result of those conversations was not only to change the way the synagogue did Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, but it also turned their previous 80% drop-out rate of post bar/bat mitzvah families into an 80% retention rate. People changed from seeing their synagogue as a place of transactions, such as bar/bat mitzvah training and celebrations, to a place where they were seen and could share stories and experiences with other people. They had become a place of connection.
As we begin our journey through the High Holy Days, we refer time and time again to repentance and t’shuva, but what is this? I used to think that T’shuva meant apology, but that’s incorrect. The word for apology is actually “ sheliot”. T’shuva means “to return”, but return to what? I think it’s a return to connection.
William Tyndale, who coined the term “Day of Attonement” in his 1530 translation of the Hebrew Bible implied that sin is a matter of estrangement, of disconnection. Maimonides writes that Teshuva “brings close those who are far off” and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchek in commenting on Maimonides’s teaching defines sin as that which creates distance between a person and G-d.
There’s a Hasidic teaching that says that every human-being is tied to G-d with a rope. If the rope breaks, but is later fixed with a knot, then that individual is connected ever closer to G-d than if there never were a break in the rope. Thus, errors, mistakes, and failures have the potential of drawing us ever closer to G-d.
My readings on the High Holy Days lead me to the idea that the purpose of t’shuva and repentance is much greater than what most of us consider to be “sinful acts”. I’m seeing the purpose as a return to authenticity and a promise that despite our short-comings, imperfections, and failures, we are worthy of love and connection whether it be with G-d or with our community.
In closing, as we go through the next 8 days, I invite you to look at this as a process of connection, not of self-flagellation. In just over a week we’ll fast, not to punish ourselves, but to render ourselves vulnerable, so that when stand before G-d and recite the al chet prayer ten times, not listing our sins as is commonly thought, because this actually translates as the times “we missed the mark”, we do so with a whole heart showing our true imperfect selves. This is our opportunity to share our stories, to become more authentic, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and in the process transform both ourselves and our community. Let’s connect.