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The Power to Choose: Embracing Self-Compassion on Yom HaDin (The Day of Judgment) – Rosh HaShanah 2020/5781

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Shana Tova.

I want to start this morning with some truth telling:

In the past year:

  • I let my kids watch TV or play video games for hours — no, days! — on end
  • I ignored my work at moments where my kids needed me
  • I ignored my kids at moments at moments when they needed me
  • I did not reach out to friends for help, support, or companionship nearly as much as I needed
  • I yelled at or picked fights with my partner at a significantly higher frequency, and I stayed mad longer.
  • I did not engage in nearly as much self-care as my body and soul craved.

Lest you think I have forgotten that it is Rosh HaShanah and not Yom Kippur, I share these things not because I am confessing my sins to you. Rather, I share them to name some of the things I am offering myself compassion for over these Days of Awe.

Today is Yom HaDin: the Day of Judgment. According to the mishnah (the first Jewish law code), all of humanity passes before the Holy One for judgment on Rosh HaShanah (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:2). As we say, in the Unetane Tokef: On Rosh HaShanah the decree is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Even if we do not subscribe to a theology that includes Divine Judgment, the theme remains central to our contemporary holiday observance. We engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our soul and actions. And as the inauguration of the aseret y’mei teshuvah, the ten days of turning/repentance, Rosh HaShanah invites a critical eye and self-judgment, as we consider the ways in which we have missed the mark and how we can do better in the coming year.

Yet, according to Jewish tradition, Rosh HaShanah is in its essence a day of rachamim, compassion. A midrash (rabbinic teaching) teaches:

“On Rosh HaShanah, When the Holy Blessed One ascends to sit on the throne of judgment on Rosh Hashanah, God ascends for judgment. Once the people of Israel take their shofarot and blow them, what does the Holy Blessed One do? God rises from the throne of judgement and sits on the throne of compassion, and is filled with compassion for the people and transforms the quality of justice into the quality of compassion.” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:3)

As Reconstructionists and/or modern Jews, we likely do not believe that God literally sits on a throne of judgment. Yet we look to the texts of our tradition as a mirror and instructions for our lives. This text teaches us what our seat or vantage point should be on Yom HaDin.

Self-judgment may be necessary, but it is neither helpful or productive to dwell there forever, to criticize or beat ourselves up. Bringing compassion to our imperfect and painful places, our mistakes and wrongdoings, is equally and perhaps even more important. And as the midrash states- it is our actions that determine this shift: the power to choose between judgment and compassion is in our hands.

While self-compassion is important on any Rosh HaShanah, it feels critical to our mental and spiritual health as we enter this new year, 5781. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. Our lives have been upended and disrupted. Some of us more than others for sure, but even still, all of us in some way. Our relationships have been strained, either because we are not able to see people we love at all or with regularity or because we are seeing the people we care about with too much frequency!

The pandemic is a set up for failure, because we cannot do the things we normally do that make us feel productive and because we are on edge and exhausted.

And we are living through unprecedented, anxiety-provoking times as we watch the manifestations of climate change, worry about the future of our country — which just became even more heightened in the last twenty four hours with the tragic loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We feel concern over growing anti-semitism, and see, and for some experience first-hand, the horrors of racism.

Meanwhile, each of us carries the individual burdens we bear under the best of times. How could anyone be their best selves under these circumstances?

In times such as these, moving from self-judgment to self-compassion isn’t just a good idea, it is a spiritual necessity. It is what will help us meet this moment and even thrive under these difficult circumstances.

We don’t become masters of self-compassion overnight. Like anything else that is meaningful, we have to work at it and build our self-compassion muscles. To that end, today, I will speak about two principles, rooted in Jewish texts, to help us grow our self-compassion. The first is “letting go of perfectionism” and the second is “loving ourselves as we love our neighbors.”

Letting go of perfectionism

I recently learned a beautiful teaching from my colleague Rabbi Stephanie Kolin. A midrash tells that when Moses was to construct the mikdash, the tabernacle, he felt insecure and asked God: How can I possibly construct this Tabernacle, knowing that I am only human and cannot make it perfect like you or your ministering angels?

And God returned: I have celestial materials above. You do not need to use my materials, you have your materials down below; if you build the mishkan with the materials you have, in your earthly plane, I will come and dwell there. (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:8)

This fictional conversation between God and Moses offers a remarkable teaching for all of us, especially those of us who bend toward perfectionism: Do not judge yourself by a godly standard, something unattainable to reach. Use what you have: your talents, your resources. Perfection is not only impossible, it is not desired. What you create and what you build will be not only good enough; it will be holy.

This is torah that speaks right to my soul, as I lean toward perfectionism in almost every area of my life. And while perfectionism can sometimes help me write that great sermon or push me to take on new projects, it also has a shadow side that often stops me from feeling joy or satisfaction.

The pandemic has really challenged this perfectionism for me, especially in the area of parenting. In a flash, I was not just a mom and a rabbi. I was a mom, a rabbi, a teacher, a supervisor, a playmate, a chef, and a personal secretary all at the same time. I felt like I was failing all the time.

In March and April, I felt terrible about the amount of screent ime that my kids were enjoying, my lack of presence, and basically: all of it.

In May, my husband Jon shared something he read in a Times article about parenting during the pandemic. A mom in Fremont, California, said: “Our goal is to survive: no divorce, no getting fired and no children running away from home. If we can do that, I will consider us a success story.” Without exaggeration, this perspective has saved me.

Now, whenever I start complaining about how bad a job I am doing at this pandemic parenting thing or when I see my kids are behaving in ways I normally would feel terrible about, I repeat to myself- or have Jon repeat to me- that mantra: “No divorce, no getting fired, and no running away from home.” That is success.

As we learned in the midrash, we are not to judge ourselves by godly standards. Perfection is not desired. We build with what we have.

Loving Ourselves as We Love Our Neighbors

There is a debate in the Talmud about what is the most important verse in the torah. Ben Azzai cites a verse about the generations of Adam, bringing us back to our central humanity. Rabbi Avika asserts: “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha”: Love your neighbor as yourself.

On this debate, Rabbi Brad Artson says, “We are all supposed to think that Rabbi Akiva is right … (as he is the torah scholar par excellence). But I want to say that he got it backwards. The challenge, I think, is not loving our fellows the way we love ourselves. We are all pretty good at giving people the benefit of the doubt. I think the challenge is loving ourselves in the way we have been trained to respond to other people‘s pain.” (https://ikar-la.org/sermons/the-gift-of-self-compassion-rabbi-dr-bradley-shavit-artson/)

It is important to note that the Hebrew object is “re’acha” -not the stranger, not the countryman, but the neighbor. Someone you are in a relationship with, who knows our spouse or children if you have them, someone in our community, a person you trust and have affection for.

Let’s play this out for a moment. If you have a neighbor or friend who is going through a difficult time, what would you do? You would listen to them, offer sympathy. If that friend was expressing impatience at not being in the place that she wanted to be in her physical or spiritual life, you would refrain from judging their progress, instead urging them to be patient and that everything would be ok. If you had a friend going through a hard time, you would likely make them casserole or two or organize a meal train!

Let’s take Rabbi Artson’s challenge, flipping the order of the phrase: to love ourselves as we love our neighbors. When we are having a difficult moment, do we offer ourselves sympathy/empathy? Do we refrain from judgment and offer reassurance? Are we willing to ask for the help and support that we need — perhaps in the form of meals, rides, walks, company? For most of us, our answer is no or not really. But that’s the work.

Anne Lamott, author and spiritual teacher, writes about mercy, which she defines as “radical kindness.” She says, “Probably the most radical part of it all is that it begins with kindness to yourself in the same measure with which you would be very, very kind to others. Sort of automatically — [we] are warm and friendly to other people…. And yet with ourselves, we tend to be harsh. And we tend to be easily exasperated with ourselves. So, the radical part of kindness is about stroking your own shoulder and stopping the bad self-talk. And that’s where my belief in healing — both ourselves and our families and the world — begins, is that we put our own oxygen masks on first.” (https://www.dinnerpartydownload.org/anne-lamott/)

Some may say that given all we are facing in the world, self-compassion is a luxury. I am convinced that it is essential. When we are depleted and struggling, self-compassion brings us back to life: to the moment, not some fantasy of what should be happening, but what’s happening right now. And self-compassion is a gateway to laughter, to acceptance, and to joy — all of which fuels our work in the world.

Some may say that given all we are facing in the world, self-compassion is a luxury. I am convinced that it is essential. When we are depleted and struggling, self-compassion brings us back to life: to the moment, not some fantasy of what should be happening, but what’s happening right now. And self-compassion is a gateway to laughter, to acceptance, and to joy — all of which fuels our work in the world.

Whatever we build in the coming year, whatever we create or manage and whatever we face, I want to invite us to hold onto that image of Moses building the Tabernacle and know that we just need to give our best effort with the materials we have been given and it will be exactly as it should be. Whatever we are struggling with or holding, let us offer the kind of kindness and generosity we would with our neighbors and friends.

May this Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment, be sweetened with Rachamim, compassion. May we remember that the power to choose between harsh self-scrutiny and self-compassion is always in our hands.

Shana Tova.

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