Yom Kippur is almost here: It is the Day of Awe. It is the culmination of a 40-day period of reflection and repentance, which (if and only if we take it seriously and personally) can leave us feeling cleansed and renewed. But it takes work, hard work.
All year long we puff ourselves up in an attempt to impress our bosses, dates, prospective employers, those with whom we communicate on Facebook, and everyone else. Yom Kippur demands that for one day we strip away this puffery.
And so I look deep into my soul and ask: Why did I do the things I did? What was I really hoping to accomplish? Did I want to help others? Or did I want to aggrandize myself? Can the two desires be congruent? God commands me to struggle with tough questions. There is no place for pretense on Yom Kippur.
And so, I ask: Why does it mean so much to me to be introduced with the words: “This is the first time a rabbi has ever given the sermon in the history of this church?” I guess I want to matter. I want my words and my presence to be important.
But who cares, really? I give a sermon, people react nicely, and I am gratified. But so what? Does anything really change? I hope I leave a lasting impact, but I also look for approval. I feel good when I finish, but the good feelings fly away quickly, and like an addict I look for more approval.
I struggle: Will I ever truly rejoice in others accomplishments instead of feeling jealous of them? There will always be those better known and, in conventional terms, more successful. Why can’t I, as Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma advised nearly two millennia ago, rejoice in the abundance of blessings life has showered upon me.
Yom Kippur urges us to imagine our death, and to tailor our actions accordingly. Time is short for all of us. The Day bids me to ask: Am I spending my precious time and energy as I should? Does my life really matter? What can I change to insure that it does? Will anything but my death stop my yearning for approval?
These questions are especially acute and probing for me as I prepare for Yom Kippur in the midst of our ten-week stay in northern Germany. Yes it is an exciting adventure, but what are my motives for coming? Are they really just the opportunity to teach in the place that symbolizes our people’s greatest tragedy about the tradition I love?
Here is my hardest confession this Yom Kippur. Yes, I want to give, but I also want to receive. I want to be better recognized. I want my presence here to help me sell more books because I believe passionately in the value of the book that has been in my soul for forty years. But to some extent—even though I know I shouldn’t–I will measure my sense of self worth by how many copies of What’s in It for Me? I sell.
There! I admitted it. I wrote the damning words for anyone interested to see the unvarnished truth. I resist the impulse to take them back by pushing delete before it is too late.
One of the most important books I read last year was the late Susan Ford’s, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. She taught me to embrace, “the gold hidden in my darkness.” I believe, as she wrote, “it is my job to take my most human self” as I am and “transform him into my most extraordinary self.”
And so I confess. I embrace that part of me which is self centered and egotistical. I do not ask God to uproot what is part of my nature. I pray to use those impulses for good. Help me, Eternal One, please, to care more about what I am doing for others than what I am doing for myself.