Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflection -- it's not just what's in the mirror

Rosh Hashanah

1-2 Tishrei 5772 / Sep. 28-30, 2011

Parashat Ha’azinu

D’varim 32:1 – 52
3 Tishrei 5772 / Sep. 30 - Oct. 1, 2011

The Rock – his deeds are perfect” – Deuteronomy 32:4

Referencing neither Dwayne Johnson, nor the Nicholas Cage / Sean Connery movie, “The Rock” is one of the many names used in the Jewish tradition for God. In Haazinu, the next to last portion of the Torah, we find Moses using poetry to describe to the Children of Israel the consequences that await them should they betray God. Moses specifically refers to God as being perfect. But what constitutes perfection?

More than anything else, beginning with the Hebrew month of Elul, which is about to conclude, the time period leading up to Yom Kippur is when we as Jews are meant to do some hardcore introspection – to self-reflect. This time of year, we are given the opportunity to take a long, hard look at our lives, and to determine areas for improvement.

We often don't allow ourselves proper time for reflection – taking the time to really think about who you are and how you function. Being humble enough to recognize your shortcomings, and strong enough to resolve to work at improving them. Unlike Moses’s description of God, we are not perfect – even the most righteous among us makes mistakes. Once we recognize that as humans we are inherently flawed, we open the door and our eyes to areas of ourselves where we can improve.

You might ask: if perfection is unattainable, then why strive to be better at all?

The answer is that because to be better is a struggle, and Jewish life is all about struggling with our imperfections. Look at some of our biblical heroes:

Abraham allowed Hagar, his second wife, and Ishmael, his son, to be cast out of his house.

Jacob favored Joseph and loved him more than his other sons.

Moses allowed his anger to get the best of him and he smashed the first set of tablets.

King David saw a pretty woman he desired, sent her husband to the front lines of battle so he would die, and once he was dead, took the woman as his own wife.

All of these figures, our biblical heroes, were imperfect. All of them struggled to deal with their human inclinations. As Jews, we don’t look for perfection in our leaders – we recognize their imperfections as they are human beings, study those imperfections, and seek to learn from them. To struggle with what we perceive as our imperfections and working towards improving upon them is the true essence of Judaism, and the accompanying introspection is what has given our people the ability to outlast empires, kingdoms, and the development of new faiths, throughout history.

Our High Holiday liturgy also makes it clear that we are not alone in dealing with our imperfections. We very much are meant to approach our own shortcomings in the context of community. For example, the “Al Chet” prayer that we say is written in the plural. “Al chet shechatanu lefanecha” – loosely translated as: “for the wrong we did before You.” It is absolutely possible that of the long list we recite, there are some wrongs that as an individual you did not commit. And yet, you still say them, knowing that the wrongs of your community are your own wrongs, and your wrongs are theirs.

While the names said to be inscribed in the Book of Life or Book of Death are individual names, we as a community come together and recognize that the transgressions of one are the transgressions of all, and in taking such a stand, make it clear that our fate is a collective one, and that we should be judged as a single unit. As a result, like it or not, we each, individually, are in some way responsible for the actions of our brethren.

As we begin this Rosh Hashanah holiday, I ask the following:

What concrete steps have we each taken towards self improvement?

To become a better person? To be a better friend; family member; significant other?

Take the time to reflect.

Have the humility to realize you’re not perfect.

Always strive to grow -- to be the best person you can be -- and be willing to work hard to make the necessary changes in your life to allow that to happen.

May the coming year bring nothing but happiness, health and joy to us all.

L'shanah tovah!

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