Tokho k’Voro: Matching our Insides and Outsides • Yom Kippur 5777

This is my sermon from Yom Kippur 5777 at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY

I had a dream last week. I was walking down a long, dimly lit hallway. As I moved past different open doorways, I noticed a large, ornate mirror hanging on the wall. I passed by the mirror, and glanced into it. What I saw bothered me. I looked into my eyes, at the face in the mirror – and while I sensed that it was my reflection, the face was not mine. It was a startling and haunting feeling – to not recognize my reflection; to look at myself, but not see myself.

I woke up in a panic. I reassured myself that it was just a dream, caught my breath, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I remembered it vividly, and tried to brush aside the memory as an errant nightmare.

You do not need a degree in psychology to suss this one out. It is no surprise that my mind was clearly on this season of introspection; this season when we are meant to look ourselves in the eyes and come face-to-face with who we are.

We all have a vision in our minds of what we look like – our ideal version of ourselves. Studies show that for many, this representative image – this avatar – probably looks to be around 25 years old, at the height of our youth. Wise, and beloved by many, with seemingly limitless abilities.

And then one day, we walk by a mirror, catch a glimpse not of our idealized avatar, but of our real self, and we say: “Who is that?!

These yamim noraim – holy and awesome days – are the days when we match who we think we are with who we really are. We do the hard work of changing ourselves; aligning ourselves such that our vision and our reality are one. The Talmud speaks of this ideal version of the self as one whose insides match their outsides – Tocho k’Voro[1]

It is aspirational, to be sure. More often than not, we are out of alignment. We look in the mirror, and each of us sees a face that is familiar, yet strange.

Yom Kippur calls us to align ourselves. To reflect. And then to change.

*     *     *

I come before you, this holy community, on this most holy day… I come before you, a broken person. I have tried to change. I have tried again and again to grow, to change into the person I want to be. But I have failed. Sometimes, I have failed just at starting. Sometimes, at finishing.

Al Chet. I want to look less at my phone, and more into the eyes of others.

I want to speak with less judgement and with more empathy and curiosity.

I want to read less for work and more for pleasure.

I have a vision of my ideal self – we all do – and although I can see myself getting closer to that vision at times, I know that I am not yet there. In the depths of my soul, I know it.

We often approach Yom Kippur as a day of great solemnity, with contrite hearts. We recite Al Chet – a litany of sins and errors. We beat our chests, rhythmically pounding home the message: we have failed. We have transgressed. We have been led astray. How is it possible to not feel a sense of despair at our prospects for change?

These are very real emotions. Uncomfortable and challenging at times. But normal. “There is no one so righteous on earth that they do good and never sin,” teaches the sublime wisdom of Ecclesiastes. [2]

No one is free from needing to do teshuvah.

*     *     *

Teshuvah – which we often translate as repentance – really means return. “We all have a reference point for wholeness within to which we can return.” [3]

One image of teshuvah in our tradition is change motivated by fear – fear perhaps of divine punishment or negative human consequence. We read today: “Now the divine Judge looks upon our deeds, and determines our destiny.” In this vision, we acknowledge our sins, yet attempt change out of fear of the consequences.

Fear can indeed be a powerful motivator of change. But the rabbis teach that an even more powerful instigator for change is repentance motivated by love and joy – for our ability to exercise our distinctive human talent for change, with thanks to God for having been created with this capacity.

I prefer to look at Yom Kippur not as a day to metaphorically sit in ashes and literally beat myself. Rather, I find there to be something particularly exuberant about Yom Kippur – what could be more joyous than knowing that we are not condemned to one version of ourselves? What could be more joyous than knowing that we have permission to change; permission to return; permission to grow as human beings?

Indeed, the capacity to make thoughtful, intentional change is part of our very DNA as humans – it is what makes us different from the rest of creation. We are built, as psychologist Carol Dweck teaches, “not so much to be one way or the other… The hallmark of human nature is how much of who we are-and who we become-is not built in.” [4]

Similarly, in Jewish thought, the power of teshuvah is transcendent; nothing stands in its way. It is not simply one thing that we do; one commandment among many. Rather, it is it is “a general, all-comprehensive principle, the backbone” of Judaism.

*     *     *

So why, then, if the capacity to change is part of our psychological and religious DNA, is it so hard to do? Why do we rebel against the very thing that makes us who we are?

Change can be exciting. But, more often, it is hard. Change, teaches Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, “goes hand-in-hand with loss. Maybe you liked the way things were, and then they changed… Or: maybe you didn’t like the way things were, but now that they’ve changed, you miss what used to be. It wasn’t perfect, but it was familiar, and now that familiarity is gone.”

We resist change not only because we abhor loss, but because “we are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story.” [5] Often, we are so wed to the image we have of ourselves, that we struggle to see who we really are. If we can’t see the gap between who we actually are and who we say we want to be, how can we change?

A well-documented side-effect of our perpetually-online, social-media-saturated existence is that we spend too much time reinforcing what we think is true, and not enough time reflecting with nuance. We live in mirror-less echo chambers. We spend hours retouching photos to craft a perfect narrative. We devote precious time to choosing just the right profile photo, elevating our avatar over our real selves.

This word – avatar – comes from Hinduism, where it refers to gods who take on human image and descends to earth. Today, we are these so-called gods, crafting ideal images of ourselves – in our minds and in our online presences – and projecting ourselves out into the world.

The risk of idolatry with these avatars comes when we present to the world an idealized self – as if it were the real thing – without working to change our real selves. When we do this, our insides do not match our outsides; we are not Tocho k’Voro. We risk idolizing a fiction, a golden calf version of ourselves.

*     *     *

Al chet… I am certainly guilty of these sins.

Al chet… I have sinned by looking down at my phone instead of up at the world.

Al chet… I have sinned by devoting more time to creating an attractive avatar, than to bringing my actual self in line with it.

Change is difficult is because it is uncomfortable to confront the reality that who we want to be is still distant from who we are right now. But as the gap between our insides and outsides grows… change becomes more challenging.

Al chet… we have sinned by being too content with the familiar status quo.

Al chet… we have sinned by letting others define our image of ourselves.

Al chet… we have sinned by obsessing over image, rather than substance.

How do we overcome these challenges? The Israeli author, S.Y. Agnon, taught that “a person has three beings. The first being is the way in which a person perceives himself, the second is the way in which a person is seen by others, and the third being is prior to the first, and it is the being by which he was created by [God].”

So we need to see ourselves as God sees us: with grace, compassion, kindness, and abounding love. This image of ourselves comes before all others. We can be this ideal version of ourselves. We just need a willingness to look into the mirror with openness to change, out of love and joy.

*     *     *

Yom Kippur provides a mirror into our soul; its rituals set the stage for us to meditate on our capacity to change. We deprive ourselves of food and water – a fundamental change from our normal state. Some choose not to wear leather or jewelry, a change from how we might normally dress for synagogue. Attitudes change, too. We are more solemn. More reverent. Hopefully, our insides begin to match our outsides.

Islam, which has a shared tradition of fasting, has a beautiful teaching on the role of self-denial. It is said that if one observes the festival of Ramadan only with the intention of fasting from food, one will only conclude Ramadan feeling hungrier.

Likewise, if we come out of Yom Kippur only having temporarily deprived ourselves of nourishment, without having considered our capacity for change, surely our hunger will only grow ever stronger.

When I was younger, sitting next to my grandparents in synagogue, I thought it would be impossible to go an entire day without food or water. But, in time, I came to appreciate the fast as a tool to aid in introspection to change not only my habits, but also how I see myself.

This is the genius of Yom Kippur: it is an experiment in change – an equal opportunity afforded to all of us to come face-to-face with who we are and who we want to be. Through fasting and self-affliction, we realize: “If I can change my reliance on these essential things – even for just 25 hours – what else can I change in myself?”

How do we choose to change? One common thread among philosophy, psychology, and Judaism is the idea that we must look in the mirror, confront our story, and be open to realizing that who we think we are is not always who we actually are. There is a pure, Divine image of ourselves that we have access to, if only we are willing to see it.

*     *     *

I want to offer one stunning vision of the human potential for change. It comes from a midrash – a legend elaborating on the Exodus from Egypt. [6]

As the Egyptians tossed about in the waves of the Red Sea, Pharaoh heard the children of Israel raising their voices to sing a song of praise to God. In a shocking turn of character, Pharaoh pointed his finger up to the heavens, and called out: “I believe in You, O God! You are righteous, and I and my people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no God in the world beside You!” After hearing this act of teshuvah, God spared Pharaoh’s life, and installed him as king of the city of Nineveh – the same condemned city from the story of Jonah.

After a lapse of many centuries, when Jonah came to Nineveh, and prophesied the overthrow of the city on account of its evil, according to this Midrash, it was Pharaoh – now the King of Nineveh – who covered himself with sackcloth, sat in ashes, and called upon his people to repent. With his own mouth, he proclaimed throughout Nineveh: “Let neither human nor beast taste anything; let them not eat or drink; for I know there is no God beside Him in all the world, all His words are true, and all His judgments are true and faithful.”

In this stunning reimagining of the biblical story that we are familiar with, Pharaoh – even Pharaoh! – is able to change. It was not gripped by fear at the prospect of death that he committed this ultimate act of teshuvah – surely had that been so, he would have changed course much earlier. Rather, it was when he heard the celebratory singing of the Israelites that he turned. These Israelites – who had searched for God during 400 years of enslavement – were now praising God for their freedom. Pharaoh had only known an angry God, now he came face-to-face with a loving God. Perhaps at that very moment, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the surging waters and realized the immensity of our capacity to change; that as beings created with Divine love, nobody’s fate is ultimately sealed, even when it seems like we are in over our heads.

In elevating Pharaoh as an exemplar of teshuvah and the human capacity for change, the rabbis teach that surely, each one of us has the ability to alter course and improve ourselves, if only we take a long look at ourselves. We do not need the drowning waters of a raging sea nor the threatened destruction of an entire city to begin; we are given Yom Kippur as a reminder of what it means to have the Divinely bestowed ability to change ourselves for the better.

*     *     *

What if we spent our hours not counting down the minutes until we break our fast, or flipping through the makhzor to see how many pages remain, but instead, spend our time looking at ourselves, trying to close the gap between our insides and outsides, making our reflection in the mirror one that we want it to be.

Each of us today has permission to accept who we are and to change. And we can do this not out of fear or anxiety, but out of love and joy for having been created with this unique capacity.

Let us remember to see ourselves as God sees us – as beings capable of change. Capable of returning to God, and of turning to who we wish to be, with compassion and honesty.

K’tivah v’chatimah tovah – may you be written and sealed in the book of life, with goodness, and with integrity.

 


 

[1] BT Berakhot 28a

[2] Kohelet 7:20

[3] Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy. 132

[4] Carol Dweck, American Psychologist. November 2012

[5] Stephen Gross, The Examined Life. 121

[6] Mekhilta Beshalach

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