What It Means to Really Choose Life: A Path to Personal Tikkun

Who I Am Does Make a Difference!

Kol Nidre Sermon 2018, Rabbi Deborah K. Bravo, MakomNY

"I am concerned that when we don’t forgive ourselves for our misgivings, forgive ourselves for things we have said, the  things we have done, especially to those whom we love the most, then sometimes, we spiral downward and don’t know how to come up, and find life, and reach for something greater, something kinder." 

How many times have you been in a situation where someone asked you how you were, and you debated – do I tell them what they want to hear, or do I tell them the truth, and… are they ready to hear the truth?  And… are they someone I want to share it with?

Or… how many times have you been in the other shoes – when you were doing the asking.  ‘How are you?’ you ask – because it was the appropriate thing to say at that moment – but you really hoped the person would just say ‘ok’ or ‘great’, so you could continue your day.

For some of us, we are truly happy and content on a regular basis, and occasionally dip downward. For others among us, we have a hard time seeing hope, aspirations and dreams. We feel burdened by events, life, people or circumstances. For some of us, we are very open and honest about how we might feel; for others among us, we hide those feelings, believing they are better off left hidden and untold.

Whichever category we find ourselves in today, and it changes from day to day, it is important for us to realize that the world is certainly filled with people who are happy, but it is also filled with people who are sad, and struggling, for a moment, for a week, for a month, or for a lifetime. What can we do to help ourselves? What must we do to be aware so that we might help others? These are the questions we must ponder on this Yom Kippur.
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Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. We begin this Holiest of Holy Days by turning inward, by discovering more about who we are, what makes us tick, what makes us feel good, and what is disturbing and difficult for us to bare. This evening, I would like to give each of us permission to be selfish, to forgive ourselves for where we have erred, and to allow ourselves opportunities to reach for better.

Quite honestly, I am worried that we do so much to beat ourselves up, or allow ourselves to be beaten up by others, that we have forgotten how to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, or perhaps we never actually learned. We have forgotten that we all make mistakes, the smartest, most successful, happiest among us, we all make mistakes, and we must learn to forgive ourselves and move forward. We have forgotten that each of us is created in God’s image, and our God is far from perfect, but that is just the point. If each of us is created in God’s image, than we embrace our imperfections, own them, and learn how to use them to make us better.

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A Story.

The room was dark.
Rabbi Eleazar was still in bed.
His face turned toward the wall.
He couldn't even bring himself to look toward the window at life and light.

Rabbi Yochanan entered the room.
He looked down through the darkness at his friend.
Rabbi Yochanan pulled a chair to the side of the bed.
He hung his jacket on the back of the chair and sat down.
The rabbi prepared to sit in this heavy silence for a long time.
He began to roll up his sleeve. His face reflected the darkness.
But his hands and arms seemed to brighten the room with their own light.

Rabbi Eleazar turned from the wall to face his friend.

Yochanan asked:  Why are you crying?

Is it because you didn't study enough Torah?
Surely we learned: the one who sacrifices much and the one who sacrifices little have the same merit, as long as they direct their hearts toward heaven. 

Is it perhaps lack of wealth?
Not everyone gets to enjoy a double portion.
Perhaps you suffer because you are jealous.

Could it be that you regret not being a father?
You are looking at a man who has buried ten children! 

Rabbi Eleazar looked into the darkness for another silent moment.
Then he blinked at the brightness of Yochanan's crisp, white shirt.
His gentle hands.
The pale skin of his forearms.
Eleazar finally spoke.
I weep because all light fades into darkness.
Because all beauty eventually rots.

After some time Rabbi Yochanan replied:
On that account, you surely have reason to weep.
They wept in darkness together.

Yochanan asked:  Does darkness comfort you?

Slowly, Eleazar shook his head.  Maybe it did in the beginning, but it can't protect me from my thoughts.

Yochanan asked:  And the silence?  Is it comforting?

And being alone?
Eleazar looked into his friend's eyes.
No.  No, loneliness adds to my suffering.

Do you continue to welcome this darkness, this silence, this sadness?

No.  Before, I couldn't bear light, noise, or laughter.
Now, I can no longer bear the alternatives. 
But I didn't dare to look for a way back to living.

Yochanan asked:  Will you let me help you?
I will try.

Can I give you my hand?

Eleazar stretched out his hand.  He felt light and life touch him. 
He felt strength and warmth reach him. 
His friend raised him out of his bed and helped him to the door.
                   *                                                                                    *
This story from the Talmud, a nearly 2000-year-old story, depicts so much of what many people feel today. Eleazar struggled with life. He struggled with darkness. He probably had what today we would call a mental illness; would that description have made us feel more accepting toward Eleazar?

Mental illness is pervasive. Just because someone is sad does not mean they have a mental illness. However, there are many people who suffer from depression who are dealing with something deeper. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 1 in 5 adults in the United States, 43.8 million people, experience mental illness in a given year. Approximately 16 million adults suffer from depression and 42 million live with anxiety disorders. Many experience both. These staggering statistics represent people’s lives. Many of us are afraid to talk about it even though it is so common. People who are suffering need to be heard, to be accepted and not judged. The challenge is as old as Judaism, having afflicted even our most beloved Talmud scholars.

I am concerned that when we don’t forgive ourselves for our misgivings, forgive ourselves for the things we have said, the things we have done, especially to those whom we love the most, then sometimes, we spiral downward and don’t know how to come up, and find life, and reach for something greater, something kinder.

This year, the suicides of Kate Spade, iconic fashion designer and mother, and Anthony Bourdain, chef turned TV icon and father, just 3 days apart, brought attention to the challenges of mental health and the concern that people are not listening enough to themselves, and that we need to learn how to listen, and to help.

If we learn anything from these two celebrities, we learn that fame and wealth do not create happiness. We know this in our minds, but when we hear these stories, we cannot help ourselves but to say – but they seemed to happy, they had so much to live for. And what about the not-so-famous people – there are many more of ‘us’ than there are of ‘them’.  So many people are in pain, struggling with darkness, seeking to find some light.

We ‘everyday folks’ can feel we are in a dark space because of learning challenges, physical challenges, financial challenges, abuse, family issues, just like the celebrities. When we are angry and frustrated with ourselves, and are not able to forgive ourselves, sometimes these feelings push us toward deep sadness, depression, drug abuse and questioning one’s life’s worth. Those who suffer with mental illnesses are far more likely to go down this slippery slope, if they are not able to find proper help and support.

Luckily, our High Holy Days are the perfect opportunity for us to begin anew, to forgive ourselves for the bad actions, the missed opportunities, the unkind words. Our High Holy Days are actually a gift, if we learn how to put that give to its best use.

For those who felt like they were beating themselves up this year, that we didn’t do what we SHOULD have done, what we COULD have done, today is the day to forgive ourselves. But the day is not just about forgiveness, it is about finding a way to come out from the sadness and the darkness, finding a light.

And if we need help on that journey toward freedom, freedom of the soul, then PLEASE, I beg of you, know that help is out there. Adults in the room, know that there are people who care about you, about helping you, about supporting you. Family, friends, community members, professionals – there is a way out from that sometimes difficult place we call life. And children in the room, teens in the room, life can be tricky to navigate sometimes. You are not alone. There are safe people who care for you – your parents, your family, your friends, your rabbi, your teachers – know that we will help you to not feel so badly.

For adults, teens and children, life is hard. And don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone else is doing great and you are the only one struggling. We are not so honest, we people in the world, not with ourselves, and not with others. We think it is the social norm to respond to the question ‘how are you’ with ‘great!’ but that is wrong.

Honesty is so much better. That doesn’t mean we need to open ourselves up to every kind stranger on the street with our whole life’s story, but we also don’t need to pretend life is great, when it is not. Being honest with ourselves, and then with others, at least with the ones we love, and trust, is the beginning of getting ourselves to move from darkness to light.

This summer, the day before my son’s surgery, I was asked to officiate at a funeral in Queens. I met the family, and did not mention to them anything about Sam’s surgery, for that would not have been appropriate. But when I was saying hello to the Funeral Home Director, and he asked how the summer was going, in the split second, I had the opportunity to either pretend, and say fine, or tell him the truth. I decided to tell the truth, because I would have wanted him to do the same. He was incredibly sympathetic, and in the kindest and most sincere way, he said he would keep Sam in his prayers. From that moment on, I decided transparency was the best policy, a practice I typically live by in any case, as long as it was not going to negatively impact someone who was already suffering with their own pain.

In our High Holy Day liturgy, we read: al cheit shechetanu l’fanecha b’chachash - Forgive us, God, for the sin of engaging in denial. The important part of the High Holy Days is once we have asked for forgiveness, we must then be prepared to do something, anything, that will not cause us to repeat those behaviors in the year to come.

So if we have been denying our own feelings, our own personal challenges, our own struggles, and we ask God to forgive us for this, and we forgive ourselves, then we must move forward to very intentionally make a change so we do not ask forgiveness the very same thing next year. Don’t worry – there will be plenty more sins for which to repent on next Yom Kippur.

And though much of what I have shared is how we must forgive ourselves, recognize that very little in the world is perfect, and work to help ourselves find a place that has some light, remembering we each have a spark of the Divine within us, there is a piece of this conversation that relies on others to do some of the heavy lifting. I truly believe that, at any moment in life, there are people in need of supporting and people who are able to carry that load, and then our roles change, but there are always people on both sides of the weight. I want to conclude with a story that I believe illustrates just this point. You may have heard it before, but it is worth sharing with you on this day.
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A teacher in New York decided to honor all of her high school seniors by telling each of them how much of a difference they made. Using the Who I Am Makes A Difference Ceremony, she called each student to the front of the class, one at a time. First she told the class how that student made a difference to her. Then, she presented each of them with a Who I Am Makes A Difference Blue Ribbon.
Afterward, the teacher decided to do a class project to see what kind of impact acknowledgement would have on their community. She gave each of the students three more ribbons and instructed them to go out and spread this Blue Ribbon Ceremony. They were to follow up on the results, see who honored whom and report back to the class in about a week.
One of the boys in the class went to a junior executive in a nearby company and honored him for having helped him with his career planning. The boy gave him a Blue Ribbon, placing it on his shirt just above his heart. Then he gave the junior executive two extra ribbons, and said, “We’re doing a class project on acknowledgement, and we’d like you to go out and find someone to honor. Give them this Blue Ribbon, then give them the extra Blue Ribbon so they can acknowledge another person to keep this acknowledgement ceremony going. Then, please report back to me and tell me what happened.”
Later that day the junior executive went in to see his boss, who was known, by the way, as being kind of a grouchy fellow. He sat his boss down and told him that he deeply admired him for being a creative genius. The junior executive asked him if he would accept the gift of the Blue Ribbon and would he give him permission to put it on him. His surprised boss said, “Well, sure.”  The junior executive took the Blue Ribbon and placed it right on his boss’ jacket above his heart. As he gave him the last extra ribbon, he said, “Would you do me a favor? Would you take this extra ribbon and pass it on by honoring someone else? The young boy who first gave me the ribbons is doing a project in school and we want to keep this recognition ceremony going to find out how it affects people.”
That night the boss went home to his 14-year-old son and sat him down. He said, “the most incredible thing happened to me today. I was in my office and one of the junior executives came in and told me he admired me and gave me a Blue Ribbon for being a creative genius. Imagine. He thinks I’m a creative genius. Then he put this Blue Ribbon that says Who I Am Makes A Difference on my jacket above my heart. He gave me an extra ribbon and asked me to find someone else to honor. As I was driving home tonight, I started thinking about whom I would honor with this ribbon and I thought about you. I want to honor you.”
“My days are really hectic and when I come home, I don’t pay a lot of attention to you. Sometimes I scream at you for not getting good enough grades in school or for your bedroom being a mess. But somehow tonight, I just wanted to sit here and, well, just let you know that you do make a difference to me. Along with your mother, you are the most important person in my life. You’re a great kid and I love you!”
The startled boy started to sob and sob. He couldn’t stop crying. His whole body shook. He got up, walked over to a drawer, opened it and took out a gun. Holding the gun in his hand, he looked up at his father and through his tears he said, “I was planning on committing suicide tomorrow, Dad, because I didn’t think you loved me. Now I don’t need to.” This is the ‘Who I am Makes a Difference Story’.  Copyright ©2006 Helice Bridges
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Though the ending of this story may feel ‘extreme’, it is not; it is real. And whether our kindness prevents someone from taking their own life, or prevents them from feeling alone, and sad, alienated and humiliated, it is incumbent upon us, those of us feeling able and capable today, to aspire to be better, as individuals and as a community. And sometimes, we just need to look at life through a different lens, from a different perspective. I wonder what might have happened if someone had given a Blue Ribbon to Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain, or the many not-so-famous people in our midst.

Beginning at our Shabbat services in October, we will begin our own ‘Blue Ribbon campaign’. We will have ribbons to give out to those who are making a difference, and they will be asked to give ribbons to others as well. We hope to spread the kindness and care throughout this community. And we need your help to tell us who should be getting a Blue Ribbon. We will continue to do this each month, with your help.

I hope that as we truly contemplate the meaning of Yom Kippur, we will do several things in this New Year.

May we forgive ourselves, first and foremost, for the ways in which we have personally erred.

May we be honest, and transparent, at least with our closest friends and family, that life is not always perfect, and that is ok.

May we share some of our pains, so that we may find ways to heal that pain, physical, emotional and spiritual pain.

And if we are able, may we open our eyes and our hearts to others, who may need a simple act of kindness or care, so they may not feel so alone.

Hashiveinu Adonal Elecha - Help us to return to You, O God, and then truly shall we return, shall we repent, shall we find life.

What It Means to Really Choose Life: A Path to Personal Tikkun What It Means to Really Choose Life: A Path to Personal Tikkun Reviewed by MakomNY on September 18, 2018 Rating: 5

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