“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come.” So said President Obama in his State of the Union speech last night as he began to speak less of specific legislation and more of the values that he believed should shape how we, as a country, approach the choices we make and the kind of society we want to live in.
Earlier in the day I had participated in a multi-faith community prayer service at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA. The semester begins with a coming together that expresses a spiritual foundation upon which everything else is built at the college. Near the start of the ceremony they invited all present to stand to represent their faith tradition. Those who identified as Humanists, Atheists, and those who identified as “Agnostics, Seekers, and Questioners” were among the many groups called to stand. In other words, the whole college community was included. And without preaching, a presentation of the beauty and message of a variety of faith-based paths set the tone for the start of the semester.
However, even more than the ritual itself, I was struck and impressed by a conversation I had with a student after the service; a young woman who identified as Jewish, who came from a mixed-faith family background. I was particularly struck when she shared with me that studying in a college where faith community and spiritually-infused values are the foundation for everything that they do is so inspiring because there is a greater sense of purpose and meaning that feels so evident in the college community. Even though the college is overwhelmingly Catholic in its student make-up, the message has not been to be Catholic. Rather, she has been inspired to think more deeply about how her own sense of faith is defined and how it inspires a sense of purpose in her own life. And she is learning about the importance of being part of a larger community, working together, to live out that sense of purpose.
Hearing the President speak last night, and listening to this young woman earlier in the same day, I was reminded of what we know to be true but so often, caught up in the details of daily life, we forget. Whether as a country, a town, or a congregation, we easily lose our way and are more inclined to make poor, short-sighted choices, when we narrowly focus on immediate gains and don’t do more to convey the “why” of our institutions. We all want and need to be part of something greater than ourselves that is purpose driven.
President Obama asks, “who do we want to be?” In the remainder of his speech, he made it abundantly clear that this was not a solo question. He talked about economic justice, gender equality, LGBTQ equality, environmental concerns, international relations, the right to vote, and more. What we are creating together is incomplete when we leave some of us out.
For all of us who are part of communities, and for those of us leading congregations, this is the question that needs to lie at the heart of our mission statements and the focus of our being together. “Who do we want to be?” We may have different answers to that question but if asked with a broad and inclusive sense of “we,” the conversations that we have and the sense of purpose that we create will be ones that unify rather than divide us. Whatever else we may be doing in and with our congregations and communities, always returning to this question will anchor us and, as the President articulated last night, “… will make us stronger.”
Do people change? As human beings, are we not the sum of our unique genetic make-up and the equally unique combination of experiences, good and bad, that have brought us to this present moment? And, if the above is the case, than what is the point of the Yom Kippur fast? What is the point of this long day of introspection – the synagogue liturgy peppered with calls for Teshuvah (repentance or return) – if in the end we are who we are, and that’s it?
Some will answer that the meaning of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of all Sabbaths) is to bring about contrition in our short-comings and strive to make the next year better. There might be something to it. It’s good to try. My view of Judaism has a focus of human perfecting, getting incrementally better and better, rather than the unattainable goal of perfection.
Nonetheless, isn’t it ridiculous to expect that this will be there year you finally get it right? Didn’t I really try last year? And, in fact, what expectation is there that this year will be better than last if the dates for next Yom Kippur are already set on the calendar?
I could no longer expect to really change who I am than I could radically alter my own genetic code or build a time machine that would take me back and tinker with the specific events of my past, especially my early childhood, both good and bad, that shape my personality. After all, Nature and Nurture have shaped me into who I am, and, well, that is that. Isn’t it?
I think not. All of the above misses a powerful trope in Judaism, namely that, while we have free-will, making all of our own choices, nonetheless, our soul has a trajectory.
According to the Talmud (Niddah 30b), every soul is specifically chosen to live the life of every specific person. Every soul is guided by an angel who teaches the soul everything it will need to know in the world. Then, upon birth, the angel touches the upper lip, leaving a tiny dent, confounding speech, and a bit of amnesia. The soul cannot simply come into this world from the realm of God, Infinity, and mystery. As a rabbi I have come to understand my calling less at teaching people Torah, but rather helping them uncovering what they’re soul already knows. I call it Holy Remembering. It accounts for those moments of epiphany when our life’s events align, life makes sense, when disparate pieces of knowledge show us a clearer lens with which to see the world. “I thought I knew it, but now I understand”.
The challenge of Yom Kippur is to consider your soul’s trajectory.
What are the moments of your life, good and bad alike, that have shaped you? What career path you are meant to take, the people you are meant to love, the causes you are meant to champion, the good deeds you were chosen to accomplish—these are all very specific things that you were meant to do; you were designed for these specific things. People often try to turn away from doing the thing they’re meant to do, or are most naturally gifted at. Some events were no doubt simple chance. There is a bit of randomness in the world, but there is order too. Your soul knows what it needs to do in this world, it knows too the experiences you need to help it fulfill its calling. What if your soul chose your parents? What if your soul chose to lead you to those powerful turning-points in your life?
Your soul cast “you” in the role of (your name here) to accomplish some very important things. Sometimes we fight against what our soul wants for us – in those moments, life is a bit of a drag, we feel trapped by circumstance, powerless to overcome our lot in life. The Bible is filled with characters who run away from their soul’s trajectory, Moses feigns a speech impediment, and Jonah, whom we read about on Yom Kippur and whose soul’s trajectory was aimed at the big city of Niniveh, avoids his calling and finds himself inside the bely of a whale instead. But, when we understand, when we honor our soul’s calling, our life has flow – the abundance of life becomes obvious to us, as if it has always been there but now we feel it.
So, Yom Kippur… Introspection – yes, definitely. But, not simply to uncover your particular foibles. You know what they are already and so does God. Rather, ask, “In all those moments, at those touch-points of my life, good and bad, was my soul guiding me to experiences that I needed to have, to help me fulfill my soul’s calling?” “What kind of a caretaker have I been to my soul’s journey.”
The message of the holiday can be: Your soul has chosen you for a reason. Your soul needs you (imperfections and all) to carry it along a unique path, that only you can carry it. Yom Kippur is not really about the past, where you’ve been, but rather, the future, where all those moments have been leading you to. This Yom Kippur, and throughout this new Jewish year, ask, “What roles or tasks am I running away from via distraction that my soul wants me to pursue?”