Perceive Us in the Book of Life | Erev Rosh HaShanah 5780
Delivered by Assistant Rabbi Matt Green
Think for a moment of the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you. It might make you cringe, but think for a second. When was it? Was it this past year? Or a few years ago? Did it happen when you were a kid?
For many of us, presumably, the absolute “most” embarrassing thing to happen to us likely happened a long time ago. Especially since we tend to be more self-conscious in our younger years. But even if many years have passed, the memory of that embarrassment still affects us. Makes us squirm a little bit. It’s something we might like to forget, but there’s a masochistic little voice inside of us beckoning us to remember.
Marcel Proust insisted that the memory of a smell is the strongest, most enduring type of memory. But I think that memory of embarrassment or being humiliated is at least as strong as that.
When we think about embarrassment, we realize that it’s a feeling that doesn’t really come up when we’re by ourselves. Embarrassment is a feeling that requires the perception and judgment of others. If you split open the fly of your pants sitting at home, it would be aggravating. But if you split open that same fly while giving an important presentation at work, you might have to spend months in therapy processing it. The presence of other people — and the possibility of their judgment — raises the stakes considerably.
Now at the risk of being a little too personal this Rosh Hashanah evening, I’ll share one thing that comes to mind for me when I think of being embarrassed, and it was actually three years ago today on the Jewish calendar. At Brooklyn Jews services that year, we didn’t have a volunteer to sound the shofar, and I thought, ambitiously, that I could do it. Some of you here might even have been there that morning. I got through the first round of blasts, no problem. But by the second round, I was just struggling so hard to make that thing work. In fairness, it was, basically, a defective shofar. But be that as it may…in front of hundreds of people, I couldn’t make a sound.
Thankfully, someone from the congregation came up to save the day, but for the rest of that morning, I was mortified. What kind of rabbi am I supposed to be, if I can’t even blow a shofar? And ever since, even seeing a shofar has been kind of triggering. What made that experience so painful was the presence of hundreds of Brooklyn Jews watching me, and the anxiety of how they would remember me for that moment.
The Talmudic sages teach us that the reason we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is in fact to remember. Not to remember the moments when we’ve slipped up, or embarrassed ourselves in front of hundreds of people…but to remember the horn of the ram that Abraham sacrificed instead of his son, Isaac. By conjuring this memory of Abraham, the Talmud explains that the sound of a ram’s horn reminds God of our people’s connection to Abraham and his abiding faith in God. And therefore, even if we are of little merit, as we say during these holidays, the shofar reminds God that we still deserve to be remembered because of our connection to our biblical forebear whose abundant merit could never be called into question.
Merit. Worth. Value. Our contribution to the world. These are the things that we feel are in doubt when we experience embarrassment or humiliation. We want people to think we’re competent and strong, that we have worth, and that we deserve to leave a good impression. And we work hard to project that image into the world. But when we fail to project only an image of competence, as we inevitably do from time to time, if we say the wrong thing, or fall on our faces, we feel embarrassed. Our judgmental impulse kicks in, telling us we are small. We are imposters, and we are not worthy.
We sound the shofar on this holiday to beg God not to focus on our embarrassing or shameful moments from the past year…but to remember that like Abraham, we, too, always have a baseline of value. Even if we sometimes feel like we’re literally the worst humans on the planet, we sound the shofar to remember that that’s probably not true.
This is not a small part of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Reminding God of our innate worth is so important that the Talmudic name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory.
We find throughout our machzors myriad examples of the verb “zakhor,” to remember. And almost always, this verb appears in conjunction with the idea of reminding God that we are worthy of being inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.
In our Sim Shalom prayer for peace, we add the words: B’sefer Chayim…nizacher v’nikatev. In the Book of life, Oh God, remember and write. In Un’taneh Tokef, we read: v’tizkor kol hanishkachot v’tiftach Sefer HaZichronot. And you will remember, God, everything that has been forgotten. And you will open the book of memories. Elsewhere, too, it is not enough that God inscribe us in the book of life, or perhaps judge us, or be compassionate to us. Our tradition says Zochreinu, remember us in the book of life.
Now this might present a theological problem. An omnipotent and omniscient God presumably never forgets to call Mom on Rosh Hashanah, or to turn off the oven when leaving the apartment. When we ask God to remember us, are we really thinking God could’ve forgotten us? But this is not the kind of remembering we’re talking about.
The semantic field of the Hebrew “zakhor,” is far wider than the English translation conveys. Sometimes it means to recall something in the past, as in “remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” Sometimes it means to “hold onto something,” as in “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” And elsewhere it means being reminded of some discrete thing, “God heard their cries and remembered the covenant.”
In this case, however, when we ask God to remember, specifically in reference to the Book of Life…the best translation is to say that we are asking God to perceive us. To count us among the living for another year, by noticing our inherent worth as human beings. Not in that moment to be the judge…but to be the witness.
The Mishna asserts that “all are judged on Rosh Hashanah,” but when the rabbis unpack what that means…it’s not so obvious that judgment is what God is really doing. Each and every human being passes before God on Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis explain. And they go on to interpret this with a number of different metaphors: that humans are like sheep passing before a shepherd, who counts them one-by-one. That we are like mountain climbers who are visible to an individual standing at the summit of the mountain. Or that we are like soldiers in King David’s army, who could be surveyed with a single glance.
The plain sense of these metaphors is that God witnesses every human being on this day. Though the Talmud calls this “din,” or judgment…in each of these scenarios, with God watching human beings as if we are sheep, as mountain climbers, or as soldiers…God’s central act is seeing us. And the text even concludes with the phrase, HaYotzer Roeh Yachad Libam, the Creator of the world sees all of humankind’s hearts together. Emphasizing the importance of perception…the rabbis literally put the word “seeing” directly into the text.
If this version of God were to take a Myers-Briggs personality test, God’s four letter result would have a P on the end instead of a J. The perceiving God is one who is open to new information, looser and more flexible and more willing to accept than the God of judgment, whose decisions are quick and concrete. And when it comes to being inscribed, it is the flexible God to whom we appeal.
The God before whom we stand on these holidays is a God that we hope is flexible. Perhaps because many of us do a pretty good job of judging ourselves. And we’d rather God be somewhat kinder to us than we tend to be to ourselves.
Many of us spend our lives in constant fear of judgment: being watched by critical audiences in the world around us at work, at school, and in our personal lives. And many of us try to mitigate or control the judgment of others by curating social media personas that present only our best selves to the world. Our most attractive selfies on Facebook and our wittiest commentary on Twitter. Social media offers us the illusion that the archive of our 21st century lives is somehow in our control. Yet the Book of Life metaphor confronts us with the reality that in the end, we do not have complete control over how we are perceived. And inevitably, we make mistakes. We are human. We get embarrassed.
There has to be some way of moving past the moments when we feel that the judgment of the world is insurmountable. So as we set the tone for these holidays tonight, let us first consider the God who is here above all to witness. To perceive all the chaos and all of the rawness of the human condition…before judging.
During this season, we are commanded to seek forgiveness, bein adam lachavero, from the people whom we’ve wronged. And then once we’ve done that we are supposed to seek forgiveness from God, bein adam la-Makom, on the High Holy Days, for the ritual transgressions we’ve committed as well. This is how the arithmetic of teshuva, of repentance, operates. But we don’t have a good mechanism for seeking forgiveness from ourselves. What do we do when we’re the ones who are making ourselves miserable? What do we do when we cling to the memory of being embarrassed, perhaps, or of feeling worthless or incompetent or small? How do we not leap to judgment and try, instead, to forgive ourselves? We can take a cue from this understanding of God and try witnessing ourselves. In all of our rawness and complexity.
When we’ve done something that embarasses us, or that we’re ashamed of, we must remember that we are not defined by that thing. We might be inclined to say, “Oy, I’m the worst, I can’t believe that happened, I never want to show my face again.” But instead of doing that to ourselves, we can acknowledge the thing, see what comes up for us, and give ourselves the chance to do better. This is not intuitive for a people known for being critical, analytical, and self-deprecating. But the whole premise of these holidays is that it is possible to move beyond the things you once did…and do a little better in the coming year. If we were defined eternally by our past behavior alone, teshuva would be impossible.
Tonight, as we move into ten days of deep introspection, we can’t start out with the conclusion that we are worthless because of our prior behaviors. Rather, we must start out by recognizing that we have a baseline of worth and give ourselves the chance to witness ourselves. To notice who we were this past year without shaming ourselves for the things that we regret. Especially those things about us that happened because we are merely human. Because if we judge ourselves too hard, and say that we “are” the things that we’ve “done,” the possibility of teshuva will be impossible.
It is likely that I will never again volunteer to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But when I hear it tomorrow, and in future years, I’m going to try not to cringe. So, too, for each of us, as the shofar sounds the shevarim blast, the “broken” blast of three notes, may we hear it as a call to break through the judgmental layer of our psyches that blocks us from teshuva with ourselves. May its sound be a call for us to let go of the perception that we assume others have of us, recognizing that we can be our own worst critics, and that the God of remembrance, of witness, is likely more forgiving than we are.