Monday, September 26, 2011

Defending Your Life

Saturday afternoon, I was the guest speaker at an event for the Saint Paul Chapter of Hadassah. Being a life member and all, I can tell you that the stereotypes of the 1950s Hadassah ladies are long gone and the group, which ranged in age over 4 decades, was an interesting and lively one.  Since Saturday night was S’lichot, that odd midnight service that kicks off the penitential season for Jews, I decided I would talk about ownership.

If you don’t know much about the High Holy Days: Rosh HaShannah is the Jewish new year….and this year is 5772…here’s a little background. This is not the same kind of new year celebration as the one in January. This one is somber, reflective, and, if you do it right, really hard.  The big thing for this holiday is called t’shuvah:  you assess the last year for what went wrong and set about to figure out how not to repeat it. T’shuvah literally means “turning,” and this is a moment for turning one’s life.

Okay, so that’s what I was supposed to be talking about. I was supposed to be discussing, interactively, how one approaches that assessment and how one gets through it. It can be very depressing if you’re totally honest about it. It takes a certain kind of fortitude, and that's what I was describing when one of the older women's hand shot up. "It's very negative, you know," she said, "and we shouldn’t just be all about the negative. We should be looking at what we accomplished, too."

I waited a few seconds before I said, "Uh, actually no. If you focus on the accomplishments you kinda subvert the purpose. It's supposed to be about the things we've done wrong." Well, she wasn't thrilled with the answer, but a lot of other heads in the room were nodding vigorously. Turns out, that little exchange was the most provocative of the afternoon, and I don't know if anyone else even noticed it.

Saturday night, throughout the s’lichot service, I was thinking about it instead of my own issues. Granted, I was sitting in a pew after midnight and my mental acuity may not have been top notch, but somewhere in the middle of the service, I figured out the answer.  All of us are sitting there thinking about where we’d gone amok. This is not a bad thing. There are times when you need not blow smoke up your own butt. So I decided that what bothered me was that she wanted to minimize the mistakes…as if accomplishments could wipe out the bad stuff. But this isn’t cap’n’trade.

When confronted with the act of atonement, it’s not okay to gloss over the bad stuff and remind G-d only about the good stuff so G-d should think better of us. We shouldn’t be absolving ourselves of the real work of examining our actions. If G-d is omniscient (and what Mother isn’t) you can’t blow smoke up Her butt. You and She are going to know you are fundamentally redacting your own history and that’s coloring outside the lines. This is a one shot deal to decide if the life you’ve lived this past year is morally, ethically, and socially responsible. And the only one who really knows if you’ve lived up to your own measure, is you.

You know, of course, it really isn’t just for Jews, and it really isn’t about G-d. It about answering the last question on the test: have you done everything in you power to make sure no one is suffering because of your actions? That ranks right up there with “leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.”

And just for the record, you and G-d can endlessly debate the merits/ demerits of heavenly deeds all you want; just be aware that G-d cannot forgive you for that which you have done to another person. That is not part of Her job description. 

L'shana tovah to one and all.
 May you be inscribed for a happy, sweet, healthy and adventurous new year!

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
This picture is worth a thousand words:


  1. In the 12-step program that guides me spiritually, we call it "personal inventory", and I need to do it more than once a year. What I've accomplished in life will speak for itself, but if I don't take ownership for my wrongs, and do my best to not repeat them, then all my good means nothing. Thanks for the reminder.
    L'shana tovah, and may the coming year be a good one for you.

  2. Dear Wifely -

    So I was about to write a thoughtful comment about how we Americans have become so addicted to giving out positive reinforcement, boosting self-esteem, and giving good strokes.

    But then I read your Tip o'the Week - which this time really is a Tip - and the somber moment was blown away. Good thing Phil wrote something intelligent. I am still laughing too much for any introspection.


  3. When considering T’shuvah, it's wise to be honest in a Jimmy Buffett sort of way... "we are the people our parents warned us about".


  4. In Buddhist thought, we reflect on our actions constantly, via meditation, to determine if we are living mindfully -- not causing harm to others is one part of mindful living. Interesting that all spiritual practices, regardless of their orientation, ask that the practioner do a self-evaluation of their lives and actions. Of course, the "turning" of our lives is what makes our belief more than lip service.

  5. The last sentence in particular of "The Tip of the Week," would not seem to apply to Catholic Priests!

    Fortunately, this does not apply to Rabbis, who are not required to remain celibate!

    Gung Hay Fat Choi! (The Chinese equivalent of "La Shana Tovah!")

    The Mystic Moyel