Live Strong: What Repentance Means in our Modern Culture – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

This post on “If Not Now, When?” Fairmount Temple’s interactive blog – includes Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk’s High Holy Day sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Wednesday, September 4, 2013, at the Congregational Service of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio. We encourage you to comment below, to share, and post these remarks as a link to others to teachings of Jewish tradition and their relevance in our lives today.

One day, a Rabbi and his wife were cleaning up their house. The Rabbi came across a box he didn’t recognize. He asked his wife about it. She told him to leave it alone as it was her personal box. But when she was out, his curiosity got the best of him & he opened the box. In it were 3 eggs and $2000. When his wife got home, he admitted he opened the box and asked her to explain its contents. She told him that every time he preached a bad sermon, she would put an egg in the box. He interrupted, “In twenty years, only 3 bad sermons, not bad.” His wife continued, “Every time I got a dozen eggs, I’d sell them for $1.”

I love that joke, and that I am its punch line. With all the honor that surrounds the rabbi on yuntif, the cash and the eggs in that joke keep me from getting carried away. But in fact Jewish tradition demands of all Jews to strive for bitul ha-yesh, a state of self-nullification. We are to separate from our egos so that we can truly connect with the Source of All Being. To paraphrase the words of the psalms, Esa Einai el He-harim– I lift my eyes unto the mountains, me-ayin yavo ezri? – from ayin, from “no thing”- from seeing myself as a fragment, a tiny spark, a particle of energy so minute you’d hardly call it a thing- I gain perspective.

You may have heard the story about the rabbi, the cantor and the temple president who struggled to fulfill this value. But it bears repeating! It happened during the middle of a High Holy Day service. The rabbi stopped his readings, walked to the middle of the bimah, prostrated himself before the ark, and cried out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!” The Cantor was so moved by this pious demonstration that she threw herself to the floor beside her colleague and cried, “Oh, God!  Before you, I am nothing!” The Temple president took a break from practicing his Rosh Hashanah speech and, wanting to set a good example, also laid down upon the bimah, repeated the rabbi and the cantor’s words of humility. Finally, Chaim Pipkin, a tailor, jumped from his seat in the congregation, prostrated himself in the aisle and cried out, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!” The Cantor nudged the rabbi & whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”

It’s not so easy being nothing, no simple task to admit how flawed we are. But the High Holy Days summon each of us to lead a soul-searching inquiry into our own personal conduct. Lest we think this is merely a cerebral exercise, tradition tells us to physically draw near to those with whom we’ve had conflict. We are to physically get near them to promote a possibility, however thin, of reconciliation. We can then look back at this season, not just on recent months, but on the human failures committed throughout our lives, to see if what we’ve torn over the years is now on the mend. For ideally we approach God to honestly confess our failures.  Avinu Malkenu, we can say, we’ve sinned. We’ve shown disrespect. We were negligent to our heritage. We faulted in others the sins we tolerate in ourselves. We gossiped. We slandered. We were hateful.

Personally, when I hear the confessions of our High Holy Day liturgy I imagine them being spoken by those whom I’ve looked up to with admiration: my parents, my grandparents my rabbi, my teachers. When I hear these words personally intoned by those whom I revere, I feel called upon by them, called upon by community to do teshuvah: to pay attention to life, to notice pain I’ve caused, to accept responsibility for wrong-doings and turn from these ways and live.

Paying attention, noticing harm, accepting responsibility and turning – these are actions worth admiration. But Judaism doesn’t present to us perfect exemplars of them. Rather, Torah depicts truly flawed human beings, individuals capable of both severe betrayal and earnest penitence. The men and women in the Torah are a match for our immediate family ancestry- the examples set for us by our moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and other flawed adults who helped accompany each of us into maturity. These are examples of people who have struggled to live accountable to their highest values. These are folks who fell, but got right back up to the tasks of seeking life, seeking forgiveness and seeking help.

As a rabbi, I often meet people who are under the false presumption that holiness was possible only for our ancestors in the Torah, but that it is too late for us. Nothing could be further from the truth! If holiness was ever possible, then it is possible right now. For according to Judaism, each of our lives is worth the life of the whole world! You need not be famous or learned to do something holy. You can choose this moment, this present moment to make repentance with one another and with God. For this moment is as holy as any time in history where we’ve sought help to bring about healing, reconciliation and dignity. Right now with no burning bush on your path, right now you could be standing on holy ground if you’d only be willing to place your feet on the ground and walk humbly, step by step from where you are to where you might yet be. That is why we search our souls on Rosh Hashanah. It is so we can walk our paths ahead with integrity, and stand on holy ground!

It is heartening when you see people who live up to this ideal– amazing when you encounter a person who is truly exceptional not only in their talents or in their generosity with others but in their willingness to step up and honestly ask forgiveness when they err. But isn’t it sad that such uplifting examples are counter-cultural? So many in our modern culture misuse and manipulate penitence as though humility and humanity were something a publicist can coach into you and not something you must form by practicing it habitually throughout your life.

I think here of cycling champion Lance Armstrong. To me his confession this past year was the opposite of self-nullification! It was self-glorification poorly disguised! Did you see the interview in which he finally admitted to having doped his way to winning 6 Tours de France? As one who had admired Lance Armstrong, I watched his interview carefully. What I thought was the most revealing moment of the interview was when he blamed a culture of winning at all costs for his having doped and lied and slandered and put others in jeopardy.  He justified his use of performance-enhancing drugs, comparing them to air in his tires or water in his bottle. It was part of his job, he seemed to say. One thing he didn’t say was how he’d make it right. He didn’t admit his own complicity in that culture. He didn’t say what he’d do for those he had hurt.

Friends, I’m not telling you there was an astonishing new piece of information in that interview. I don’t even completely understand why I thought it might go differently! Perhaps it was simply that his company’s brand of “Live Strong” had reached me. “Live Strong” to me didn’t just mean getting on a bike with cancer and cycling your way to a medal. It meant showing a champion’s level of strength in your humanity. It meant living strong not just when you win, but also when you fail, when you take notice of those you failed and take responsibility for a change!

No one we’ve wronged, not our family or friends or God require a national TV interview for us to admit our failings. It is in simple quiet moments that we can best turn to those we most trust in order to admit our faults. For God knows, it is in those same quiet moments that we face loneliness, frustration, jealousy and regret- the volatile emotions that made us sin in the first place. But Jewish tradition insists that we not be spooked by these feelings!

In the rabbinic tractate Avot d’Rebbe Natan, we are taught, “Who is the greatest of all heroes? – the one who turns an enemy into a friend.” (23:1) My rabbi taught me that this text is meant not just for physical but also emotional enemies. It is supposed to show us that the mightiest of all of us, the ones who truly “live strong” are those who summon the strength to turn their loneliness, frustration and jealousy into yearning, resolution and trust. These are the heroes to emulate: those who fail us, but who rise up from each failing honestly, always aspiring to live by a higher value.

I remember a time in my own life when I mistakenly assumed that my rabbi’s teachings about failing and wrong-doing, repentance and forgiveness were only meant for the religious dimension of my life. I was just a kid, and I had mistakenly sequestered the teachings of our Torah in the sanctuary of my temple and neglected them with me in my daily life, in the classrooms I inhabited and the pathways on which I walked or biked to school or home.

The thing is: my rabbi had always been a leader in preaching against bigotry. But when I look back, I don’t remember him ever teaching from the bimah that homosexuality was against our religion. I don’t remember it. And that was OK—because in the era in which I was raised, he didn’t have to.  From nearly every source, I had already heard the distinct message that being gay meant being unhappy and excluded. In my early years, fellow kids told me being gay was contagious so you shouldn’t get near gay people. The adults around me said, “I just feel bad for them. Imagine the life they are going to have.” No one at my synagogue, in the religious school or youth group, put the issues of homosexuality, equality or pride into our discussion. It was always talked about in a whisper or not discussed at all.  So not knowing any better, I wasn’t more than ten years old the first time I called someone a derogatory slur for being gay.

If I remember correctly, David moved to our school in the fourth grade, and here was a kid who marched to the beat of his own drummer. That’s no euphemism! In the lunch line, David literally marched or danced or trotted his way into the cafeteria. Somewhere in the distance, he heard his own music.  He was “gay,” we said, and in truth he probably was. But it didn’t matter whether he was gay or not. What we meant was that he should be ashamed of himself!

We were threatened by David being different. It didn’t have to do with his being Jewish or Christian or gay or straight. We just knew he didn’t play in the sports teams we organized during recess. We knew his voice was sweet and quiet, and that he was imaginative and silly and caring. And so we bullied him.  But the thing is…David never let us see how sad our name-calling and pushing him around made him feel. He internalized it all. So it got boring, at least for me, and I ignored him.  As we grew up through middle school, between new kids who got a kick out of picking on him and the silence of kids like me, he was ostracized from every possible circle of friends. I don’t even remember seeing him until high school when I took notice of him again.

At high school, something happened to both of us. We joined the Drama Department. For both of us, the environment of the theatre program was exhilarating. In that setting, I saw David let down the guard he had built all those years to protect himself from kids like me or worse. We weren’t friends, but we were colleagues and fellow actors. So I got to see up close that he was just another kid, a human being. I remember feeling happy that he had found a place where he was greeted with warmth, whether gay or straight or whatever. And I’ll never forget the honor’s assembly that first year in high school. The cheerleaders performed. The principal and sports coaches spoke. Then every department in school gave out awards. When our theatre director announced David’s name as the winner for the best new actor, I saw something you rarely hear in such a big high school, sixteen-hundred students doing one thing in unison. They booed and hissed and cooed at this sensitive, talented and caring gay young man.

I’ll never forget that day, because in it I realized the kind of cruelty and horrible meanness to which I had been a part. It’s funny: I don’t remember any of the kids from our predominantly Jewish high school calling out citations from the Bible as grounds for rejecting him. I don’t remember people saying that homosexuality was against religion. No we were just reminding him – no matter his religion or his sexuality or his humanity, he was unwanted.

I’m telling you that story tonight for two reasons. The first is so that we might ask ourselves whether such cruelty is still possible today. For me, the only honest answer to that question is “yes.” Of course it could happen! For though this past year we’ve seen many changes in society, true equality and loving dignity simply cannot be conferred by a judge nor a court no matter how supreme its stature. No President nor Pope nor Principal can simply speak affirmation & love into existence in a culture that chooses shame and blame over honesty and acceptance.

A change in a culture that shuns those who are different takes more than words and wishes. It takes individuals who take responsibility and follow through on repentance by turning from their ways. For people of faith, it means rooting out bigotry in our halls of worship. For Jews, this means remembering not just the beauty of Jewish values. It means remembering- that repeatedly throughout history- we’ve failed to live by values that demand empathy and sensitivity to the stranger.

The destruction of the temple, the seminal event of ancient Jewish history- was caused by hatred without basis or limitation, what the rabbis called sinat chinam. This is the biggest stain on our moral record, a sin God remembers when we come to seek forgiveness.  With this in mind, if I tell you tonight that I’ve rid my own heart or the heart of our community of hatefulness, who exactly would I be kidding? Through a chain of events I personally helped begin early in our lives, a young man was dealt a horrific blow. And even once I saw how ugly it could become, I did nothing about it! Nothing!

Confessing that is difficult.  No one wants to be seen as unkind. It is hard to admit that darkness could rise again within us. But it could. The potential to act with ugliness remains. We may seek holy ground. But along our path, when darkness, shame and indifference are placed before us, Judaism demands us to choose life, to choose honest lives of aspiration and failure. In this way we “live strong.”  In this way we are a very small, minute part of a grand and high and holy energy.

Then we can say with true clarity: Esa Einai El He-Harim, I lift up my eyes unto the mountains- the heights of truth and of reconciliation. Meh-Ayin Yavo Azri, may my help come.