Atonements and Apologies, 5772

The text below is something that I share with many wonderful people in my global network of friends, colleagues and loved ones. This year, I thought it appropriate to post it to my virtual network, as well.

Dear friends,

And so another year has passed. And so another cycle has ended, even as a new one begins. As I did last year, and the year before, and the year before that, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the Jewish High Holy Days. And in doing so, I would like to share some of those thoughts with you, the people in my life, the people who have made this year what it has been, the people who essentially are my world.

We have just entered the Jewish calendar year 5772. Exactly one year ago, I wrote about humankind’s capability to absorb change, good and bad. I was – and remain – in awe of that capacity, of that power. I concluded by suggesting that while we are not able to determine, decide or define what happens to us, we are able to determine, decide and define exactly how we react to it. That, I offered, is one our most precious gifts, one of our most cherished traits, one of our most dignifying features.

Looking back, I will be the first to admit that maneuvering my way through 5771 was not easy. An entirely new set of challenges were thrown before me, some less pleasant than others. I was forced to deal with situations that I would not wish upon even my greatest of foes. But in doing so, in fact the good, the bad, the ugly and the beauty, I tried above all to keep control, to maintain an awareness of character, of value, of myself in responding to each hurdle, each opportunity, each adventure.

The result? Better than anything I could have imagined. Things just seemed to work out better when I consciously dictated how I would respond. And now, I find myself truly humbled by the blessings bestowed upon me, today, yesterday and hopefully tomorrow, taking nothing for granted.

I am sure many-a-marketing firms could concoct better “you can do it” campaigns. That is not the point, and quite the contrary. Often, many of us actually can’t “just do it.” Circumstances limit, situations confine. We find we cannot honestly exercise our God-given liberty, desire, passion to respond as we deem fit. We are weighed down by burdens, by commitments, by expectations, all which distort our loyalty to instinct and intuition. And we become distraught, distressed, disappointed by what we perceive as our failures and faults, our inability to be our own agents of change.

We are, indeed, mortals, operating under a gamut of restrictions. Thankfully, there is a reason these High Holy Days come once a year. They essentially remind us, once again, that we have strength to ultimately become the best versions of ourselves. When we greet each with the Jewish New Year blessing of Shana Tova – interpreted to mean “a good year” but, as I have argued before, simultaneously eluding to Shinui Tov or “a good change” – we do not demand nor expect that such change or goodness will be immediate. So once again, we remind each other to continue changing for the good, to continue challenging ourselves to be better, to do better, to want better.

I am reminded of a quote by British-American comedian Henry Youngman: “I once wanted to be an atheist, but I gave up – they have no holidays.” The High Holy Days are a gift, our gift, one which I treasure and am blessed to share with you. So this year, again, I challenge all of you as I challenge myself. Have a healthy year, have a spiritual year, have a humble year, have a human year.

And in the spirit of this awesome Day of Atonement, I implore you to forgive me for any acts in which I may have wronged you, knowingly or unknowingly. I pray that any pain I brought to you, either through my activity or inactivity, can be forgiven. And I absolve you of any injuries you have caused to me, willfully or accidentally. May no human being be judged on my behalf, and may we all merit being inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for another year of wonder and wonderful.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’taihatemu,

Dear friends,
Last week, the Jewish People welcomed the new year, 5771, and with it, the hopes and dreams that another year tends to bring. At dinner tables and synagogues across the world, we greeted one another, “Shana Tova.” In previous years, I have written about the connection between the word Shana (Year) and Shinui (Change). I suggested that as we wish each other a ‘Good Year,’ we are also, in essence, blessing one another with ‘Good Change.’ This year, I would like to explore that change.
It has been a humbling year for many of us — loved ones passed, mortgages collapsed, jobs were lost, and futures were left undetermined. I’m always surprised by just how much change — good AND bad — we as individuals are capable of absorbing. It is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. And yet, while some of that change is determined by us and by our actions, much of what we have to accept is actually beyond our control. Yet we have to deal with and react to both, accordingly and equally. And how we do so reveals so much.
The natural-born producer in me has always believed that just a little more work, just a little more effort, just a little more elbow-grease can help get the job done quicker, better, and with the more ideally-desired result. But I know that I am a mortal, limited in my strength, limited in my abilitiy to always determine, define, decide change in my favor. We are all mortals, and even the greatest effort, the strongest push, the most humble drive…sometimes is not enough , particularly when others factors are at play.
They say ‘time is a healer.’ And this past year, I have learned just how true that is. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has always recognized the special grace of time. In his book ‘The Sabbath’, he argues that the days uniqueness (and thus Judaism’s uniqueness) is that it sanctifies the holiness of time. Not of a building. Not of a person. Not of a location. Of time. Time is a power greater than us all, and it can often determine much more than we are able to. So if we are not in control of change, and not in control of time, are we just along for the ride?
This year, in his annual High Holy Days message, UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller explored the possibility of change, and the centrality of good character. He explored the following Maimonidean text about tschuva (repentance):
“Do not say that one need only repent for of sinful deeds, such as fornication, robbery and theft. Just as a man needs to repent of these sins involving acts, so he needs to investigate and repent of any evil disposition that he may have, such as a hot temper, hatred, jealousy, scoffing, eager pursuit of wealth or honors, greediness in eating, and so on. Of all of these faults one should repent. They are graver than sinful acts.”
Rabbi Chaim adds that Yom Kippur challenges us to be spiritually devoted in a way that illuminates the best in us.
So no, we are not just along for the ride. We do not built the streets. We do not determine the distances. We do not always get a choice between turning right or turning left. But we are driving. We are poised, in front, with two hands on the wheel, in control. And no one but us can determine how we drive.
We cannot control what others do, but we can control how we react. And that is our character. That is our one power over time. That is our one strength over change.
In her poem, ‘The Invitation,’ Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes: “I want to know if you can be alone / with yourself / and if you truly like / the company you keep / in the empty moments.”
Yom Kippur challenges us to be that person: the one we like when no else is looking, the one we have to live with when we are most alone, the one we can truly respect when we judge honestly and intimately, the one we can forgive even when not asked.
Recently, walking down the street in Tel Aviv, I saw the following graffiti on a wall: “The greatest revolution is personal revelation.”
As I struggle to be the person the poet writes about, and as we all struggle with our revolution, I ask for your forgiveness for any wrongdoings and transgressions which I may have committed, and for which you have borne the pain. In the spirit of this Day of Atonement, I ask for your forgiveness for these sins I committed, whether knowingly or unknowingly, against you. And I offer to you my forgiveness for any injuries befallen upon me by your hand.
As the Book of Life is sealed, may no individual be judged on my behalf, may no one be held accountable at my expense. And may you all be inscribed in for another year of changes, good and bad, and the strength, will, dignity and humility to absorb them.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’taihatemu,