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Being Yourself – erev Rosh Hashanah

September 9, 2018

There is a story about a beloved rabbi who, after a long and fulfilling career at one spectacular synagogue, decides to retire. His congregants are supportive, but anxious. The community has been thriving. The last thing they want to do is to rock the boat

The synagogue president calls an emergency meeting. How could they possibly replace their beloved rabbi, while keeping things exactly how they are?

“Well,” suggests one well-meaning congregant. “Didn’t the rabbi’s son just graduate from seminary? He was brought up in this congregation. He studied at his father’s feet. He even looks like his father. If we’re looking for continuity, why don’t we hire him?”

Everyone sighs with relief. That was easy! The president writes to the rabbi’s son and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Crisis averted. It is the shortest rabbinical search process in the history of synagogues.

When the new rabbi arrives, everyone is ecstatic. The elders are delighted that the new rabbi looks exactly like his father did in his early years on the pulpit. The young parents like the idea of their children growing up with the same kind of rabbi they had loved as children.

But then, something strange happens. Things at the synagogue begin … to change. The new rabbi switches the service times. He sings different melodies for the prayers. He preaches different ideas in his sermons. He has different opinions in meetings. And sometimes…he doesn’t wear a tie!

Another emergency meeting is called. This is not what the community had signed up for. They march over to the new rabbi’s house and pound on the door.

When the rabbi answers, startled and tie-less, the president gets right in his face and demands to know, “Why are you changing everything? Why are you not doing things like your father did them? Why aren’t you like your father?”

The new rabbi stares out at the mass of congregants assembled on his front lawn. “I am exactly like my father,” he says.” And I am doing things exactly like my father did them. My father never imitated anybody. And neither do I!”

Needless to say, this story has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few months, as I prepared to stand in front of you for my first High Holy Days as your rabbi. As you might imagine, it is somewhat intimidating to stand in this spot, at this moment, addressing many of you for the first time. The High Holy Day image of standing before God, waiting to be judged on our merits and our failings, feels all too real for me right now.

For 24 years, you have had the blessing of building a sacred community with our Founding Rabbi Elliot Holin. I am in awe of what you have accomplished in your time together. As I said on my very first Shabbat at Kol Ami, I am hyper aware of the big shoes—and the colorful socks—that I have to fill.

When I mentioned my concerns about measuring up, one of you generously offered, “Don’t worry about that! How could we possibly compare you to Rabbi Holin? It’d be like comparing fruit to steak!”

I didn’t ask who was fruit and who was steak in this scenario. But this statement—though meant as a joke—was a gift to me. Because there really is nothing I could do or say or wear tonight that wouldn’t betray that I am not what you are used to. Even without all of the fanfare of the search and transition committees, it wasn’t like I could sneak in here unnoticed. Moreover, worrying about measuring up to Rabbi Holin was taking up precious time and mental energy. And I needed that energy to work on being the best version of myself, and the best rabbi for you.

Certainly, after ten years serving in the rabbinate—and 33 years as a middle child –I should know better than to waste my time comparing myself to others. But this is a trap that many of us fall into from time to time.

Tonight, we imagine ourselves standing before God, presenting our good deeds and our missteps, hoping that the former will outweigh the latter. But often, we judge ourselves, not by what we’ve done—or failed to do—but by how we measure up to the people around us.

Perhaps, instead, we should focus on whether we have lived up to our own potential, and whether we are in alignment with what we hold dear. The rabbis called this alignment process cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen shares the story of a colleague who likened cheshbon hanefesh to tuning an orchestra. When the oboist plays the A: “At first there is chaos and noise as all the parts of the orchestra try to align themselves with that note. But as each instrument moves closer and closer to it, the noise diminishes, and when they all finally sound it together, there is a moment of rest, of homecoming. That is how it feels to me. Somewhere deep inside of me there is a sound that is mine alone, and I struggle daily to hear it and tune my life to it” (Elkins, Rosh Hashana Readings, 215-6).

The sound that calls us to order this Rosh Hashana is not the controlled A of the oboe but the raw, piercing cries of the shofar—telling us to wake up and tune our spiritual instruments to the right note. Unlike the oboist’s A, every note the shofar plays—and indeed, the sound of every individual shofar—is slightly different. Likewise, the notes to which we tune ourselves are varied and unique.

It isn’t hard to figure out when we are “out of tune.” We all know the feeling of looking in the mirror, or hearing the words coming out of our mouths, or taking stock of the people and things we’ve surrounded ourselves with, and thinking: This isn’t me.

But it is vastly more complicated to align ourselves with that note to the point where we can honestly and confidently say: Now this, this is me.

One reason our note can be difficult to hear is that the cacophony of outside influences threatens to drown it out. We have always been subject to the expectations of the people we respect and admire, as well as the demands of work or school, and the needs of our loved ones. We could always take a peek at what our neighbors were wearing, driving, or doing, or let the media and the market tell us who we should be, what we should want, and what we might buy in order to measure up to society’s impossible standards of wealth, beauty, and happiness.

Now, in the digital age, we don’t even need famous people or household brands to tell us what we are lacking. We need only scroll through social media, gawking at other people’s careers, relationships, families, and vacations—to feel totally and utterly inadequate.

It is easy to get caught in the trap of comparing our insides to other people’s outsides. We forget that we are looking at a carefully filtered, airbrushed version of someone else’s life. This is not a fair comparison to the messy, complex, work-in-progress that is our day-to-day experience.

Studies have shown—as if we didn’t know already—that what people post on social media is not in tune with what they are actually doing, thinking, or feeling—or in one recent study, what they are Googling in secret. Consuming all of this curated content can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation, and loneliness.

Comparing ourselves to others can also distract us from doing any real work on ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to say: If I only had what so-and-so has, I could live a better life and be a better person. But since I don’t, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t measure up. I’m just not good enough.

One might think that the message of the High Holy Days is exactly that: We can’t measure up. We’re just not good enough. But as it turns out, it is meant to be exactly the opposite. This annual call to teshuva—returning ourselves to the right path—reminds us that we are inherently good, and that we are capable of change.

God doesn’t have to be the prosecuting attorney: listing our high crimes and misdemeanors. God can also be the loving parent, teacher, or friend who knows us, inside and out, and gently says, “I expected so much more from you. I know that you can do better. I know who you are. And this isn’t you.”

This is also the function that communities and their leaders perform for each other. As we enter into our sacred relationship, we will be called upon to hold one another accountable for living up to our potential, and being in tune with ourselves.

I hope that you will to hold me to the highest standard as your rabbi. And I hope to help you become the best versions of yourselves, as individuals, as families, and as a community. In order to do this, I want us to spend this year cultivating a deep understanding of who we are, and who we are not.

This summer, I’ve had many conversations with leaders, staff, and members of our congregation. If I haven’t met you yet, don’t worry, we’ve only just begun. In these meetings, I’ve been asking our people who they are, and, just as important, who we are as a community.

In the spirit of the season, I’ve compiled my findings in alphabetical order. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past W without using Xenophobic, which we are most certainly not.  Here is what I know so far of who we are:

We are Accepting. We are the Best synagogue so far. We are creative, comfortable, caring, close-knit, and cohesive. We are Dynamic, Egalitarian, Friendly, a Family. We show Genuine excitement about what we do. For many of us, this is Home. We are Inspirational, Inclusive, and committed to social Justice. We are Kind, and a place of Kinship. We are Low-key and Loving. More than one person simply said, “I love it here.” We are Moral, Non-ungepotchked (that was my favorite), and Neighborhoody. We are Open to new ideas. We are Passionate, Progressive, and Questioning. We Relaxed, Real, the Rebel synagogue. We are Sweet and Safe. We are Small, but we can still have a big impact. We are Traditional, Transparent, Unique, and Unpretentious. For many people, we are your Village. We are Warm, Welcoming, Well-respected. We are the place Where friends are.

These are incredible things to be able to say about one’s community. As we make decisions about who we are, and who we will become in the future, we will need to make sure we are in tune with what we know of ourselves, so that we can say, with confidence: This is who we are, and this is not.

Many people have asked me: What’s your endgame? Where are you planning to take the synagogue? It is true that we have many internal and external forces to respond to: the changing demographics of our neighborhood, shifting global attitudes towards religion and affiliation, the cultivation and allocation of our resources, and the spiritual challenges of our time. Just ensuring the future of the Jewish people, no big deal.

But unlike the rabbi in our story, I have no intention of doing everything differently. Nor do I see us as a community that holds tight to every rule and custom, refusing to adapt. It is adapting to our changing world that brought many of us to Kol Ami in the first place. We might even want to explore some new ideas and experiences, as long as they are in tune with who we are.

This year, I want to talk with you about our traditions and our values, so that we can maintain them, and adjust them gently, when necessary.

But even if I had tried to come in and do everything exactly as it has always been done, it wouldn’t be the same. Because if there is one thing that I know for sure, it is that I can only be me, and you can only be you. This is why I came to Kol Ami in the first place.

A very big part of my decision to become a rabbi was that the Jewish community was where I felt I could be most myself, and where I could put the best parts of myself to use. But in order to do that, I needed to find a community in which I could be completely in tune with myself. I didn’t want to have to put parts of myself away, or try to change into someone that I am not.

Likewise, you needed a rabbi who could serve the unique community that you are. I didn’t choose Kol Ami because I thought I could come in and make it over in my own image. I have tried that, and it does not work. I chose Kol Ami because I was delighted to learn that a place like this exists. I chose Kol Ami because felt like I could be my whole self here. I chose Kol Ami because I wanted to help us become the best version of who we already are.

We will often be surrounded by institutions that are older or bigger, or newer or flashier. We will wish them well, and we will build strong relationships with them. But we will not try to be them, or to beat them. Because the only way we will continue to succeed is by being true to ourselves.

Whether we are thinking about what we want to accomplish in our community, or how we want to grow as individuals, it is essential for us to work on ourselves first. Because often, this is the only part of the equation that we can control.

Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk [an 18th century Polish Hasidic master] once said that, “As a young person, I wanted to repair the world. As I grew older, I became more modest in my aspirations, and decided instead to repair my country. As time went on, I decided instead to repair my community, and then, only my family. Finally, as an old man, I am merely trying to repair myself.”

We do not have to be old men to begin the crucial work of self-repair. And, even if we are already old men, it is not too late. The High Holy Days call us to work on ourselves through teshuva, tefillah, and tzedaka—return to the right path, prayer, and righteous giving. We are called to take these ten days to work on ourselves, and only ourselves, so that we can better face the joys and challenges of the year to come, and build all of our relationships on a foundation of honesty and integrity.

You might be more familiar with Rabbi Elimelech’s brother, Zusya. When Zusya came to the end of his life, he began to weep in front of his followers. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “You have nothing to worry about. You showed wisdom like that of Moses. You showed kindness like that of Abraham.” But Zusya would not be comforted. “When I stand to be judged in Heaven,” he said. “God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not like Moses, or why were you not like Abraham?’ God will ask me, ‘Why were you not like Zusya? Why were you not yourself?’ And for that, I have no answer.”

During the High Holy Days, we imagine that, like Zusya, we are standing before God, preparing to be judged. But Zusya’s tale reminds us that there is no one set of criteria that every person needs to meet. Rather, we will only be judged on whether we did our best with what we were given, to be strong and wise, compassionate and courageous, in our own unique way. So we ask ourselves, not, were you better than everyone else this year, but, were you the best version of yourself? And in the coming year, we will not ask our community: are we the best synagogue in the world (because of course we are!). Instead, we must ask ourselves: are we the best Kol Ami that we can be?

In the days to come, there will be many opportunities for us to learn about one another and to determine our course for the future. With Kol Nidre coming up, annulling all of our vows, it would be foolish to make promises about what we will accomplish. I assure you that we will do good and we will make mistakes, and we will try to make the former outweigh the latter. Moreover, we will strive to move forward in a way this is in tune with who we are. That is all we can ask of ourselves.

But there is one thing I can promise you: Kol Ami has never imitated anyone else. And neither will I.

Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz