Is It All About You? Rosh HaShanah 5780

Is It All About You?
Rosh HaShanah 5780

          A few years ago, a good friend of mine was in a fairly serious car accident. Thank God, everyone escaped with nothing more serious than bruises, but it was an accident that pushed her car into oncoming traffic - and it could have been much worse. The following Shabbat, she bensched gomel, which is a prayer that is said in the community after a person has gone through a life-threatening experience. She explained to the congregation that the car accident had just happened, said the prayer, and went back to her seat. What she expected to happen afterwards - what most of us, I think, would expect - was that if anyone approached her about it, they would offer her some comforting words, or say that they were thankful that it had not been more serious. I’m sure that some people said just that - but that’s not what I remember about that day. What I remember is my friend’s face falling when person after person came up to her to share their own horror stories of car accidents. I remember her hands shaking after one man told her about how he’d accidentally killed someone in a car accident the year before. I hope that this is needless to say, but these stories were not helpful for my friend to hear - if anything, they were harmful.

          I remember asking her later that afternoon why she thought anyone would share those stories at that moment. Did anyone actually think that they were helping her? How did nobody read in her features that this was a bad idea? The conclusion that we came to that afternoon, after much bewilderment, was that her story had brought up painful memories for these people, and they had shared them without considering the effect that they might have had.
It’s a common tendency, and not always a bad one. Something significant happens to another person, and our immediate urge is to make it about ourselves. The instinct behind that is, I think, quite natural. Other people’s trauma brings our own to the forefront of our minds. And the instinct to share isn’t a bad one - it’s a way of processing. Where this goes wrong is when   in that moment  it really isn’t about you, or me. It’s about someone else who has just survived a car accident, who needs comfort - or, at the very least, needs to not also be carrying our traumas when she’s struggling to handle her own.

           There’s a danger to the kind of perspective that assumes that everything must be about the self. When we walk in the world seeing ourselves as the centrepiece, other people blur into the background. After all, they’re just the supporting cast - I am the main character. That kind of selfishness doesn’t work for very long. It’s self-destructive. When all we do is take from others, it won’t be long before nobody else wants to give to us anymore. That is how we destroy your own support systems, how we ensure that our love of ourselves stops others from loving us.
I think that one of the medicines our tradition provides for that mode of being   is prayer. In prayer, we are called to see something our than the self as the centre. We are called to shift our perspective - to decentralise the story of ‘me’ and focus instead on God. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Malkhuyot section of the High Holy Days Musaf. The Musaf Amidah on the High Holy Days comes with three extra sections, which are constructed of biblical verses relating to three different themes. Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot. Malkhuyot, the first, is interested in the sovereignty of God. It includes the Great Aleinu, during which we bow all the way down to the ground. It is about the majesty of the Divine, the vastness of the universe, and how tiny our place is in it. When we use the metaphor of God as King, a metaphor so common in this holiday period, we are casting ourselves as the subjects. We are subject to a greater power. And in that analogy, we are each not actually terribly important. When the liturgy asks us to prostrate ourselves to the ground   in order to show reverence to something far greater than ourselves   it is possible to read that moment as the tradition reminding us, ‘hey, it’s not all about you’.

          It is a shift of perspective on our own importance. I think that it’s worth noting that the liturgy is not asking ourselves to beat ourselves up. ‘I’m nothing’ is not the same as ‘I am awful’. On the contrary, thinking ‘woe is me because I am unimportant’ is still a type of self-obsession. In the words of Pastor Rick Warren: ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.’

          It is possible, of course, for this to go too far. If we walk in the world seeing ourselves as utterly unimportant, we might fail to look after ourselves - or worse. The theologian Simone Weil wrote passionately about emptying the self, and she refused to treat her own illness - or, in fact, to eat or rest adequately - and died of heart failure at age 34. It’s just as self-destructive to spurn the concept of the self as it is to centralise it.

          Even when it doesn’t go too far, the idea of our utter unimportance can be unhealthy for some people. When I was a teenager, I used to like sitting under the stars and thinking about how tiny I was - and am - in the context of the universe. For me, there was something comforting and beautiful about my own tininess. Any problems I had seemed to disappear when I held them up against the vastness of creation. But when a friend joined me one night, I quickly learned that what was comforting to me was a terrible message for him, due to his struggles with depression. He didn’t need to hear about how small he was, because he already felt like nothing.

          That image of God that we are given in Malkhuyot, that image of God as King as us as subject to a greater power - that image would not have worked for him. But it is not the only image that we are handed today. The second of those three special sections of Musaf is Zikhronot, ‘Remembrances’. This section is filled with poems and verses about the Holy One remembering and having relationships with individual people. It is a section about intimacy between individuals and God. This is completely different from the analogy of God as King; this is God as Companion. In the paradigm of God as Companion, it is all about you.

           This section serves as a reminder that there is no individual so insignificant that they don’t matter. Our tradition is filled with small actions of individuals changing the world. Yokheved puts her infant in the River Nile on the off-chance that he might survive, and a generation later, the Israelites were freed from slavery and marched out of Egypt. People matter. You matter. You’ll have to excuse me for quoting Doctor Who, which is not (strictly speaking) religious literature - but this Zikhronot section reminds me of a conversation which goes as follows: the Doctor asks, ‘Who’s she?’ and receives the response: ‘Nobody important.’ To which he replies: ‘Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. Do you know, in 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.’

          The analogy of God as King only gets us so far. It’s an important image, because it reminds us that we are not actually the centre of the universe, but if it were the only image that we were given for relationship between the human and the Divine, there would be little point to the season. We wouldn’t need to bother with t’shuvah if we were not important. And for those among us who are already acutely aware of the concept of unimportance, it could feel oppressive, or suffocating.

          And the same is true of the analogy of God as Companion. There is a truth to our importance, to our partnership with the Divine, and it can also be unhealthy. If we overestimate our own importance, we might become the kinds of people who meet someone recovering from a bad car accident and immediately regale them with our own traumatic tales, while remaining ignorant to how her hands are shaking.

          The Kotzker Rebbe described this balance succinctly when he said that a person should always have a piece of paper in each pocket. On one piece, he should write: בשבילי נברא העולם - ‘for my sake, the world was created’; on the other, he should write: אנוכי עפר ועפר - ‘I am but dust and ashes’. The trick is to know when to take out which piece of paper. That’s the reason for and the problem of the multifaceted approach to theological metaphors this season. It’s the reason, because some of us need to be reminded ‘it’s not all about you’, and some of us need to hear ‘you are important; this is about you’. And it’s the problem, because part of the work that we’re being asked to do is to pay more attention to the image that is harder for us to believe in.

          So yes, to clarify - it’s not about you. And it’s all about you. In the words of the great sage Hillel: אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’

          ‘If not now, when?’ This, I think, is that third of the extra Musaf sections: Shofarot. The shofar is given so much symbolism in our tradition because it is a wordless cry. We will see some of those symbols as we read verses about the shofar. There are two aspects of this wordless cry that I hear as responses to Malkhuyot and Zikhronot. The first is ‘if not now, when’. It’s an alarm. A call to wake up from spiritual slumber, to actually do this work of perspective shifting, of learning about ourselves, of paying attention to life. It’s a reminder that we don’t have forever - that if we keep thinking that we’ll work on ourselves tomorrow, then tomorrow will never come. If not now, when?

          The second way in which I think Shofarot responds to the previous sections is that it does not give us a model for relationship with God. The Shofarot section describes something much more primal than that - it is about the experience of revelation. It is about how huge and impactful interaction with the Divine can be. It goes beyond the metaphors. Analogues of human relationships are no longer enough. Because the truth is that God as King and God as Companion are useful metaphors but they are both incomplete.

          The truth includes both and so much more. It is more than can be encased in the vessel of our words.

          We are central, and we are small, and we are everything in between. This is why we don’t have just one symbol for our relationship with divinity today. Our liturgy asks us to grapple with both ends of the spectrum: it asks us at one point to decentralise ourselves, and at another to centralise ourselves. It demands humility and chutzpah. I hope that we are all able to find both, and so much more.

Shanah tovah um’tukah.

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