Sermon: Seeking Joy Amidst Imperfection

Rabbi Joe Blair — Rosh Hashanah 5768 (September 12-13, 2007)

Today, we are taught, is the birthday of the world, the anniversary of creation. G-d is viewed as the sovereign, sitting on the throne of justice and judgment, writing our fate in the books of life and death. Our deeds are weighed, our souls are judged, our worth is measured, our future determined.

Which of us is confident we will not be found lacking? Which of us has been completely righteous, without sin or transgression, blameless, and without error? Certainly, I would not dare to think of myself in that category. I am an imperfect human being. I err frequently.

But all is not lost.

Even now, at the holy days, if we strive, we can accomplish Teshuvah, turning and returning. We can repent and make amends. We can seek and grant forgiveness. We can repair the damages, heal the injuries, seek forgiveness for our trespasses, and forgive those who have trespassed against us. In short, we can open our hearts, perform Teshuvah, and be better than we were.

This requires a sincere effort in all of these tasks and aspects. Not one, not two, not some, but all. It is not enough to make amends and repent. Nor can we simply seek forgiveness for what we have done that injured others. A key component of this process is sincerely to grant forgiveness.

Easier said than done. I find that often, the most difficult thing of all of these to do is to forgive. As hard as it is to say ‘I am sorry’, it is harder still truly to forgive.

I am human - we all are -and we all have a tendency to nurse our hurts, to hold on to our grudges. This is not healthy. In fact, this is not only fruitless, it is downright self-destructive.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a woman who approached him after a high holiday sermon on forgiveness. The woman was absolutely furious. She reminded Kushner that her husband had abandoned her, leaving her to raise two small children by herself in very tough circumstances ten years earlier. Her life had been very hard since then. She demanded, angrily, “After he did all that to me, you want me to forgive him for what he did?”

After a moment, Kushner replied, “Yes, I want you to forgive him. Not to excuse him, not to say that what he did was acceptable, but to forgive him as a way of saying that someone who would do that has no right to live inside your head, any more than he has a right to live inside your house. Why are you giving a person like that the power to turn you into a bitter, vengeful woman? He doesn’t deserve that power over you.”

Kushner’s point is valid, showing us that forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended or injured us. It is a favor we do for ourself, a way of cleansing our soul of thoughts and memories that lead us to see ourself as a victim, and make our life less enjoyable than it is or could be.

When we understand that we have little choice as to what other people do, but we can ALWAYS choose how we will respond to what they do, we are empowered and able to let go of the embittering memories. We can then enter the new year cleansed and refreshed, free of the burden of carrying their actions in our heart and soul.

One more step: as difficult as forgiveness is, an even more difficult task, in my experience, is forgiving oneself. Like many of us, I am my own harshest critic. I seem to never forget or let go of my failures, I can’t overlook my mistakes, I hold on to and remember all that I do that does not work or does not meet my own expectations. Being very much human, I have lots to criticize in myself. I cannot count my errors and faults in the course of a week just on my fingers and toes. At times I feel that it would take a 10 digit adding machine with paper tape to do so! I am all too aware of my many flaws and mistakes.

But if I continue to carry the load of all of these faults and flaws and mistakes with me, I will burden myself to the point that I will be unable to move or function under the oppressive and crushing weight of them all.

What to do?

We cannot merely forget these flaws and mistakes, and we cannot simply say that the slate is wiped clean and we will go forward into the new year, doing the same things again! No. We know in our hearts that is not the way, it will not work.

Instead, once we have sincerely repented for what we have done, made amends as best we can, and truly asked forgiveness of others, then we are ready to do the hard work. Only then may we seek to do for ourself that which we do for others: we must forgive ourselves for our own errors and transgressions. In this way we can free ourself from a crushing encumberance that drags our soul down, and free ourself of the burden. At that point, we are prepared to seek G-d, and to ask for forgiveness from the divine ruler.

When we free ourself of the burden we have created, we enter the world of the spirit. The most amazing thing to say about this world is that it is free of the constraints of our ordinary life. Gravity doesn’t apply to our spirit or our soul. We can fly and soar, there are no boundaries, and the whole universe is open to us, and our playground.

When we are free in this way, it is possible for us to seek G-d, to approach the throne of the most high. In that state, we are able to soar upwards, seeking G-d, and in that fashion, acting and striving to bring more godliness into the world, and to be more godly in our own life.

There is a huge benefit to us for this effort. This feeling of freedom, of interacting with the divine, is the source of Joy. Not happiness, for that is fleeting. Not pleasure, which is tied to the physical world and the actions of others. Joy, the sense of being at one with creation, in communion with the divine, at peace with ourself.

The tools are available to us, and we can take advantage of them to reach Joy. We are flawed, but in a manner of thinking, the imperfections we contain are the necessary precursors to seek and find Joy. It only remains for us to choose to seek Joy amidst imperfection.

One more story, before I conclude. A bit of wisdom that shows us how G-d is merciful, and offers us a path that can lead to Joy.

In the traditional Jewish world, there are men (and some women) who serve as schnorrers. This term means ‘beggar’, but the fact is that they are really not beggars. Instead they serve as collectors for money for a worthy cause. The stereotypical picture is of a righteous chasidic man, very pious, very religious. They often come to Jews around the High Holy days (and other holidays), and they make a pitch for the person they are visiting to give Tzedakah for a cause they espouse. Their attitude is often that they are there to do the Jew they are visiting a favor, giving him or her the opportunity to fulfill a Mitzvah. Often, the best of them make their pitch in the form of a story, something that will touch and affect the listener. Here is one such story that contains a great deal of wisdom, as told by Avi Magid (a name that can be translated as 'my father is a storyteller'), slightly adapted here.

“I was called and asked to join in a meeting, so I hurried to the rabbi’s study. As I entered his study, Rabbi Joseph was talking in an animated way with, of all people, a schnorrer, a very small, very elderly chasid. Odd, I thought, why invite me over to meet another schnorrer? A schnorrer is a schnorrer. A quick glance verified that there was nothing unusual about this schnorrer. He was dressed in the usual black coat, black hat, wore a long gray beard, had the full payes. In short, he had all the criteria of the mental image of a schnorrer. But, as it turned out, this was no ordinary schnorrer collecting money for a yeshivah or orphanage. No, this guy had gone big business — he had merged and consolidated! He represented a multitude of institutions, and had gold foil stamped and embossed certificates of authenticity, documented in a well worn leather portfolio, which he grandly displayed and brandished to emphasize both his status and the importance and value of his mission. Every year, he made the rounds of synagogues and individuals. Every year, he brought back large amounts of money for his employers. And every year, he did this by telling a story — usually something that contained musar - a tale with an ethical twist to it. And, like the wandering minstrels of medieval Provence, you paid him in direct relationship to how you much you liked it or how much it affected your heart. As you can imagine, he was very good at it. That year, his story was in the form of a question. The rabbi led us over to the seating area. We got settled, and comfortable on the couch, the schnorrer sitting opposite us on an armchair. He leaned forward in his chair and looked deep in our eyes. He asked, "What is the difference between a mitzvah - a good deed - and an averah - a sin?" The question, of course, was rhetorical - not meant to be answered by us. And, even if you did know an answer, you were obliged not to respond. So, we looked at him and waited politely for him to explain the answer. He sat back heavily. Closing his eyes and speaking softly in the sing-song voice which is often used to study Talmud, so as to draw us in, he said: "A mitzvah is something that often seems hard to do, but afterwards you know you did the right thing. An averah is something that often seems easy to do, but afterwards you know you did the wrong thing. And how do you know? Because your kishkes - your guts -tell you so." Here was a statement about life which basically rendered any formalized system as meaningless. All the structured discourse of the philosophers, all the patterned logic of the theologians were for naught. All the classes on morality, the reflections on situational ethics, the values based decision making, even the pilpul of the Talmud; and it all came down to just this. The final arbiter of principle was kishkes. How simple. That was the schnorrer’s story that year. He got an exceptionally large check.” For us, the message is clear. As the schnorrer said: you know in your guts what is right. The hard thing is doing it, but you can choose to do so. When you do what is right, you feel yourself free and moving closer to G-d, finding Joy. And when you err, all is not lost! There is still the means to recover, by using the tool of Teshuvah. You can still free yourself, and achieve Joy.

The bottom line, the take away message is that G-d has provided for us two ways to seek Joy: by choosing so as not to err, and by seeking Teshuvah when we do err. Joy is available to us even when we err. How liberating! What a great gift! Praise be to G-d for creating us in such a way that we may find Joy, even when we fail in the first instance.

May all of you have a shanah tovah u'metukah, and a gut, gebencht, gezunt yor, and may you find and experience much Joy.