Permanent Record – Rabbi Joshua Caruso, Yom Kippur 2016 – Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Yom Kippur morning in the congregational service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH. We encourage you to post questions or comments below, and to share the link by email and on social media such as Facebook or Twitter to engender continuing dialogue on the topics it raises.

I once heard a story about a friend who was remembering his childhood teacher in first grade, Miss Chotiner. He related the following:

Miss Chotiner always used to say, ‘Behave! Otherwise it will go on your permanent record”. Did your first grade teacher say that to you, too? I believed her. I believed that there was a permanent record that they kept somewhere in the principal’s office, and that it went with you for the rest of your life.

I imagined that when you wanted to get married you had to go down to City Hall and they looked up your permanent record, and if you behaved in first grade they gave you a license, and if not, they didn’t! It was only years later that I realized that there wasn’t a permanent record in that sense.[1]

I think we worry about our “permanent record” because of the human inclination to regard our past actions as indelibly ingrained in us for as long as we live – and perhaps even after that! We may carry regret, guilt, or even shame over our past insensitive, thoughtless, or callous behavior. We may harbor feelings of anger or despair about how we have been treated by others, not always realizing how much those feelings impact who we are today. These incidents may cause estrangement in our relationships, cutting us off from people we once loved. These experiences – for better and for worse – remain a part of our permanent record, as it were. Our worth, however, far exceeds our experiences of record, and while the challenges of the past certainly shape us, they don’t have to define us or determine our futures.

We come together once again this year to hear the familiar liturgy designed to both inspire and provoke reflection and forgiveness. The offerings of the prayer book, however, regrettably fall short. In the absence of an adequate encapsulation, here is one colleague’s understanding of what these days can mean:

You CAN change your past. That is the emotional premise of forgiveness. No you cannot change what happened. You can change only your emotional relationship to what happened. And it might very well be the hardest thing you ever try to do.[2]

What does that mean, to change your emotional relationship to your past? It often means making a conscious decision not to allow a past mistake or trauma continue to have too much power over your present life. We have only so much emotional capacity to deal with what life throws at us. If we allow our pasts to burden us, we often don’t have the energy it takes to nurture the people and projects that we value most.

But as my colleague stated, changing our emotional relationships with the past is really hard. It might take forgiving oneself or forgiving someone else for transgressions that we have been clutching tenaciously for years. It might take committing oneself to making a difference in others’ lives. It might take breaking bad habits, or choosing different friends. These things are hard to do. But our tradition demands that we not only choose life, but choose the best life that we possibly can.

So, let’s make a short departure from the usual Yom Kippur afflictions (and self-flagellation) and take a different angle. Let’s think back over our years, and acknowledge those episodes that hold us back from choosing life. Episodes that shape us and remain with us, but still make us cringe when we think of them. If you are like most you can recall at least one such moment. I, myself, can furnish a robust collection! Let me share one of them with you.

A music teacher in my high school, Mrs. Ext, never liked me – and a particularly troublesome episode remains indelibly etched in my mind.

Yes, 30 years later I still think about it.

Frustrated at my lack of interest in her class, Mrs. Ext embarrassed and insulted me in front of my peers, concluding her ugly salvo by calling me a “mediocre person”. If I were generous, I could say that she meant it as a motivational tactic, but it didn’t work for me that way (and, truly, I don’t think the incident merits my generosity!).

Mediocre. The word stung. A lot. Particularly because I believed her.

In fact, I involuntarily carried those words with me throughout the rest of high school and into college. As a sensitive student, that was probably the worst thing I could have heard from a teacher. I let her words define me. They became part of a permanent record that was not kept in any file folder downtown. It was worse; I carried her bitter estimation within me, wherever I traveled. As a result, I expected less of myself, for then I could confirm what Mrs. Ext already knew – I was mediocre.

How might my life have turned out if I had continued to believe Mrs. Ext’s assessment of me? Would I have been able to pursue my dream of becoming a rabbi if I believed myself to be a mediocre person? If I expected that little of myself? I had to make a choice to move on from her hurtful words to write my own script for my life.

Just a few months ago, I met some people who showed me—in a very dramatic way—what it can mean to get past negative self-perceptions and make positive choices for one’s life.

I was one of twelve rabbis – including Rabbi Nosanchuk – from across our state who went to visit Marion Correctional Institute, a men’s prison in Marion, Ohio. Here I was visiting a place where people really do have permanent records! Before making the trip, I wondered how anyone could change their circumstances in a medium-security prison. Unlike us, who come to temple once a year to reflect on our past deeds, these men must confront them…every…single…day.

As the day of the visit approached, I became more and more anxious. What I knew about prison is what most of us know from popular culture: images from Silence of the Lambs, Escape from Alcatraz, Shawshank Redemption and Orange is the New Black!

All our gaggle of rabbis knew was that the inmates we would meet are part of a special program at the facility. After passing through heavy security, and walking down a hallway with inmates staring at us, we could see the solitary confinement cells just a few feet away. The sound of the cell gates closing stayed with me. What would these men be like? Crude? Dangerous? And what could they have done to have landed here?

There were about forty inmates in prison uniforms waiting for us to arrive. While it was impossible not to be wary around them at first, they soon emerged as people with vulnerabilities and weaknesses like all of us. They made an extra effort to reach out and connect because they sensed our unease.

We gathered in a big circle (I sat in between two prisoners covered in tattoos who amiably looked me in the eyes, shook my hand; one even asked if he could get me a cup of water). As we settled in, the first exercise charged us to complete a statement starting with, “I bet you are thinking…”

One prison said, “I bet you’re thinking…Boy, he has a lot of tattoos”.

Another chimed in with, “I bet you’re thinking…What is he in here for?

It was a revealing exercise. I WAS thinking about those things.

The Healing Broken Circles program[3] invites the prison’s inmates at Marion to participate in self-enrichment and growth activities, including writing and reciting poetry, performing scenes from Shakespeare, and sharing monologues – all related to their prison experience.

One inmate, named Dan, had a tattoo that read, “Hatred” on the back of his neck, but I saw no evidence to that effect. I later discovered that six years ago, he literally took a close look in the mirror at himself as he was beating up a young man in prison who was actually his friend.

You see, when Dan first entered prison he started hanging out with the wrong crowd. In prison there are gangs, and they become like family; giving the inmates a sense of security and belonging. Although being part of a gang helps the inmates with their loneliness and fears, it often leads to falling back into the same habits and behaviors that led to prison in the first place. Dan was headed down a really dark road. One day he began beating up on a man weaker than he. Dan reflected on that day:

…I remember looking in the mirror and looking down at him and (thinking)…what am I doing? This is someone I say I love. This is someone I care about. This is someone I say I treat like family. And this is how you treat family? And that was the last time I physically hurt a human being…[4]

That incident became a transformative one for Dan. He chose to step away from the gang in prison, isolate himself, and forever reject physical violence. Instead of continuing to accept the expectations that had defined him, he chose to remove violence from his permanent record.

It was hard. Really hard. Dan missed his gang “family”. But he feels like a different person now, and says “I’ve come to terms that I’m kind of in prison now for someone else’s crime”. The person Dan has become is now in charge of the Healing Broken Circles program. He is one of the most creative of the bunch.

In his poem, “I Want To Be” he writes:

I’m still a puzzle to myself, a collection of so many colliding and colluding passions that I have been accused not only of revisionist history but of revisionist destiny, too.

 The real me – the essential me – it’s in the ink found on the pages of those notebooks you see stacked everywhere I go. I’m in the scribbles, scrawls, you see in the margins that scream out “read me, please”. Like the silence between the notes, I exist in the space between the words.[5]

 Meeting Dan made me realize that any of us can lock ourselves into a prison, confined by a damaging narrative that we carry with us. Yet whether the prison bars are metal or metaphorical, there is always an opportunity for transformation. Dan will not be going anywhere soon, as his parole is not up for decades and his crime cannot easily be forgiven. However, his lifelong quest to redefine his life is inspiring to any of us who wish to shed past labels and judgments, improve relationships, or find a new direction for our lives. While Dan is still in prison, there are others who have been given another chance to experience redemption on the outside; to not let their record define their lives. An example of which is right here down the road – in Shaker Square.

Brandon Chrostowsky, the chef-owner of Edwin’s Restaurant, an upscale French bistro only a few miles away, has not only transformed his own life but is creating opportunities for others who, like him, spent time in jail. He said, “I was a reckless teenager…fortunately, I had a judge who gave me a break instead of ten years in prison.” His gratitude for being given a second chance compelled him to develop a program that enables former felons to reenter society successfully. He trains the former inmates in every aspect of food service, he gives them jobs, provides a place to live, offers services like child care, and continues mentoring his students even after they complete the program. Since the program began, he has trained over 100 former felons. Over 90% of them are now employed elsewhere, and not a single one has returned to prison.

Brandon’s shared his view in a recent interview at the restaurant he established:

“We all make mistakes, so we take everyone, regardless of their past, and we have a culture of trust. Period. The first thing I did when I moved into this space was rip out the old security cameras, because moving forward means you accept someone for who they are and not who they were…To have a second chance is to have a new life.”[6]

To have a second chance is to have a new life.”

One doesn’t need to be involved in criminal activity to recognize that these are wise words. Are you willing to give yourself a second chance? Are you willing to do what it takes to change your emotional relationship with your past? To forgive yourself for moments you are not proud of? To forgive others for hurting you? To reject others’ assessments of you in favor of believing in who you can be? To let go of whatever confines you in your relationships? I know that this is not easily done, yet when we allow our pasts to exert power over our present lives, we are the ones who suffer.

It is traditional in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to find an open body of water and toss away our “sins”. We call the practice “Tashlikh”, which means, “to toss away”. This year, let us toss away not only our sins, but those moments from our past that have defined us and marked our permanent record. Let us make those hard choices that can lead to transformation in how we see ourselves and others. Let us see the Gates that are closing as closing one chapter of our lives, as we prepare to begin the next chapter anew. Let us take to heart the words that our tradition teaches us—“u’vecharta chayim”—choose life.

[1] Unknown source

[2] Changing Your Past: Reflection on Forgiveness by Rabbi Ellen Lewis, Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, p. xxiv.