Tuesday, September 25, 2018

America is a Worthy Argument - Kol Nidre 2018/5779

There’s a story about a rabbi who was new to a congregation. When it was time to share the Shema, half the congregation stood while the other half remained seated. The rabbi asked, what’s the tradition here? And the ones standing argued it was to stand, it had always been to stand. Similarly, the ones seated argued it was to stay seated, it had always been to stay seated.

So the new rabbi paid a visit to a founding member of the congregation who at this point was very elderly. And the rabbi asked, which is it? What’s the tradition around the Shema? Standing or sitting? They’re arguing about it.

And the elderly founding member said, Ah! Arguing about it - That’s the tradition.

To argue, to disagree… much has been made over the millennia that this is the Jewish way.

We don’t argue to argue… though sometimes it feels that way.

What we really cherish as a people and appreciate is our ability to engage in the difficult conversation. We have a long history in Judaism of preserving debates. Refusing to erase dissenting voices, we recall both the majority and the minority opinions.

Pirkei Avot proclaims: An argument for the sake of heaven will have lasting value. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai.[1]

And it’s true. We’ve preserved Hillel and Shammai’s 2000-year-old debates and while the halakah, the law often followed Hillel in the end, we’re taught Eilu v’eilu - Both these and these are the words of the living God.

Debate is healthy - holy even - when that debate is an attempt to figure out how we as human beings can best act in the world. If Judaism is about lifting up the holy art of disagreement, then might it have something to say about the state of affairs where we currently find ourselves in America?

It turns out maybe Judaism and these United States of America might have more in common than you think.

Eric Liu recently wrote in the Atlantic:

America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argumentbetween Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum. The point of civic life in this country is not to avoid such tensions. Nor is it for one side to achieve “final” victory. It is for us all to wrestle perpetually with these differences, to fashion hybrid solutions that work for the times until they don’t, and then to start again.[2]

America as a perpetual argument about who we are and who we aspire to be - that’s an idea worth embracing. But this current state of affairs we are in? Today’s disagreements remind me very little of an argument for the sake of heaven.

Lest we think otherwise – and this is for the conflict-averse among us - debate and disagreements are not inherently bad; they’re necessary for a healthy democracy. Conflict can be a sign of intense interest, ownership, and engagement.

However, when our debate descends into something decidedly darker, when arguments are entrenched in ego and triumph rather than what’s best for our nation and our people as a whole, then we know we are in trouble.

A story:[3] There were once two study partners, a chevruta pair. Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. Their study and debate were legendary until one day Rabbi Yochanan retorted not with a solid argument, but with an insult instead. They had been discussing the ritual purity and impurity of weaponry and had come down on different sides of the matter. They go back and forth until finally Yochanan throws up his hands and says to Resh Lakish, “A robber understands his trade.”

You see, what you need to know here is that Resh Lakish in fact was a robber before he met Yochanan and it was precisely his meeting with Yochanan that returned him to the path of Torah. “A robber understands his trade” then was not a factual you-would-know because you used to handle weapons. No, Yochanan employed it as a dig at Lakish’s past when his own argument wasn’t getting him the win. Rabbi Yochanan took the low road with his insult. To win was seemingly more important than the feelings of a friend.

When Resh Lakish falls ill, his wife who is also Yochanan’s sister comes calling, begging Yochanan, please, brother come make peace with your friend. But he refuses, stubborn and Resh Lakish dies. Words are left unsaid.

A final image from our sacred text: Yochanan tearing at his clothing filled with a deep grief, sobbing, Where are you Resh Lakish? Where are you, Resh Lakish?

When we fight without care, when we lay relationships to the side in order to be right, it leads to dire consequences.

How many of us have lost friendships or even relationships with family members over conversations that have gotten out of hand or over political debates that boiled over? How many of us have resorted to the use of insults or taken the brunt of an insult ourselves? How many of us are fed up and have decided nope, I am not talking politics anymore because I do not want a fight.

And I get it. I really do. I understand how hard it is to have these conversations. How sometimes it is easier to avoid them altogether in order both to maintain our integrity in what we believe as well as to respect our relationships.

My father and I, while not quite polar opposites, are pretty close to that when it comes to politics. Talk about a border wall left us both drained and exhausted. Talk about ways to stay gun violence got us nowhere. But I love him. And while the grandkids are usually the first and safest go-to for our talks, I refuse to not talk to him about the big issues facing us in our world. Because I respect him too much to not talk about what keeps me up at night or to wonder with real curiosity how and why he thinks and believes what he does.

We discuss without the intention to sway the other. Things are a little too far afield for that, but it’s important that we talk. Because we believe that America is an argument. A worthy argument. And America depends on these types of conversations, especially between those with different opinions.

More and more, it seems like that type of healthy debate is no longer desired. What’s replaced the healthy debate is the desire to drown out the other voice in whatever way possible. It’s like sometimes we think if we just shout a little louder, a light-bulb will magically appear over our debate partner’s head having been enlightened by us. And when that doesn’t happen and we’ve all raised our voices and we’re all frustrated, we sometimes encounter that old refrain, “Be civil.” And sometimes, it means just that: Be civil, Rabbi Yochanan, no more low blows. But other times, Be civil is code. It’s code for “Sit down and be quiet now. Your anger is not welcome here.” Be civil can be a powerful weapon in shutting down debate.

It’s not easy to listen to an opinion distinct from our own. It’s much easier to dismiss what we can’t understand.

Author of the book Being Wrong[4], Karen Schulz argues that in order to explain to ourselves how anyone can believe anything other than what we believe, we often resort to what she calls ‘a series of unfortunate assumptions.’

The first unfortunate assumption: those on the other side of the debate are ignorant.

And maybe sometimes that’s true… But if it turns out that they are operating from all the same information that we have, and they still come to a different conclusion than our own, then it’s time to break out the second unfortunate assumption: they must all be idiots.

And then if it turns out that they are operating from all the same information that we have, and it turns out that they are actually smart people and they still come to a different conclusion than our own, well then – third unfortunate assumption - they must just be evil.  

If we thought beforehand that it was difficult to talk across lines of difference, well now it’s just near impossible.

There are of course other ways to explain why we have come to different conclusions, the first of which is to consider the radical possibility that it is we indeed who are wrong.

In her Ted Talk[5], Karen Schultz asks the audience in front of her, what does it feel like to be wrong? And think for a moment about how you would respond to that question, too. People begin to call out: it’s dreadful, it’s embarrassing. But then she explains: those are responses to a different question. Those are the responses to the question, what does it feel like after you realize you are wrong.

You see, when we’re wrong when we think we are right, we feel like we are right – right?

To illustrate this point, she tells the story of a surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess right here in Boston who operated on the wrong leg of a patient. The Hospital Senior Vice President for Healthcare Quality later said, “For whatever reason, he simply felt that he was on the correct side of the patient.”

What does it feel like to be wrong? It feels like being right.

If we never slow down and carefully, intentionally question our assumptions once in a while, we may end up making horrific mistakes.

Here’s another take on why we may disagree. It’s not that we are wrong at all, but rather that morality is complex.

I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion[6] and in it, he argues that we all approach the world weighing different aspects of morality more or less heavily than others. He calls these aspects our six moral foundations. Liberals, his term, tend to favor the moral foundations of care and fairness while conservatives, his term, tend to favor all of the moral foundations relatively equally adding a little extra weight to the other four: to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Haidt understands that we are not creatures governed by reason despite what a whole score of 18th and19th century philosophers may say. Rationality won’t win here even if it should. Because it is our emotions, our moral foundations that drive our very human behavior.

And that’s exactly what we see playing out in our country today. We can continue to choose to drive against human nature and appeal entirely to logic to straighten out the mess that we are in or we can work to better understand human beings and what really makes us tick.

It’s possible that we may be able to get somewhere by appealing to the intuitive, moral foundations of our sparring partners, for example, shifting the frame of a debate from caring about others vs. not-caring to caring about others vs. respect for authority. Grounding conversation in an understanding of competing moral foundations rather than immediately demonizing a different intuitive approach may, at the very least, get us talking differently. And that’s a step. And if we can do that, then maybe, just maybe we can begin (just begin!) to unpack this stalemate in which we currently find ourselves.

What we know for sure is that we’re living in extraordinary times. We’re more divided than ever. And the knowledge is ever present in our hearts that this is no mere intellectual exercise; for many, people’s real lives are on the line – and that is why we simply do not have the option to disengage.

There will be times when the chair on the other side of the table will be empty. There will be no partner with whom to engage, no one who is willing to listen. At least in that moment.

In those times, we are like the lone man who lived in Sodom who would take to the streets protesting each and every day against the immorality perpetrated around him. One day, a traveler stopped in Sodom and saw the man in his protest and said: “Why do you keep shouting? No one is listening.” The man responded, “At first I protested because I hoped to change them. Now I protest because if I don’t, they will change me.”[7]

And there will be other times when yes, someone will be ready to sit down across from us; we will have a partner with whom to study and discuss and debate. Take that opportunity. It’s precious and increasingly rare. Be at the table. There may be moments when insults will replace reasonable retorts, but we will be ready keeping in mind the tragedy of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. We’ll strive to engage - and emulate the greats: the houses of Hillel and Shammai. And on the good days, the conversation will be healthy – and maybe even holy. And on the not-so-good days, we’ll commit to keep returning to the table because America is an argument and a worthy one at that.

Will our willingness to engage in a difficult conversation change the state of politics? Probably not. Will it change you and the person across the table from you? Maybe.

Change has to start somewhere. Why not with you?

Starting in just a few weeks, we will begin a series here at Temple Isaiah called Difficult Conversations: Right, Wrong, and Righteous.[8]

Groups made up of about fifteen people each will meet over the course of a month to begin a shared conversation about what it means to be right, what it means to be wrong, how we can disagree with grace, how we can understand the limits of debate, and how we can stand in our own truth and integrity despite the storm raging all around us. This series is not issue-based; rather, it is about what Judaism and other great wisdom sources can offer us about how to engage in thoughtful, intentional discourse. After Yom Kippur, head to our website; register today. Many groups are already filling up.

We need these conversations. We desperately need to talk.

In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Invite your Neighbors Over for a Barbeque this Weekend,” Marc Dunkelman argues that our “middling relationships,” that is, those relationships with people outside our core, but with whom we are still in close physical proximity “are the best suited to pierce our much-bemoaned filter bubbles. A left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently.”[9]

So come and talk more to these neighbors right here, the ones all around you through our Difficult Conversations groups. Lest you be lulled into the false impression that we are all of the same political bent here at Isaiah, that this is an extension of your bubble, let me pop that bubble right now. While we might not quite be a microcosm of our country as a whole, I can assure you that there is a diversity of beliefs and opinions right here in our temple family.

Let’s talk to one another and create a shared conversation grounded in our sacred text and our Jewish values.

There was a debate a number of years ago here. A conversation ensued at a board meeting: did we want to be a congregation that was a sanctuary from the world around us or one that prepares us to live our Jewish values, to live Isaiah each and every day beyond our four walls.

Isaiah is our home and haven, but we are not doing our duty as a moral community if we are only a shelter from the storm.

Our values and texts guide us to engage and look outward. They implore us: Do not separate yourself from the community.[10] Do not hate your neighbor in your heart.[11] Do not be indifferent.[12] Do not stand idly by.[13]

May we never forget the Talmudic teaching: a sanctuary must always be built with windows.[14] Why? Because windows look out into the world! And therefore, so must we.

Judaism is a conversation, an argument about how we can be our best, most moral, most responsible selves in the world.

America is an argument, too. May we bring our full selves, our open selves, our courageous selves to this argument – and may it be an argument worthy of all who count America as their home. An argument worthy of the sake of heaven.

Shanah tovah. G’mar tov.


[1] Adapted from Pirkei Avot 5:17.

[2] Liu, Eric. The Atlantic.Americans Don't Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing” Nov 1, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/post-election-reconciliation/506027/

[3] Bava Metzia 84a.
[4] Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. New York: Ecco, 2010.
[5] Karen Schulz, On Being Wrong, TED2011. https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong
[6] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
[7] Adapted from Wiesel, Elie. "Words from a Witness," Conservative Judaism, XXI (Spring, 1967), p.48.
[8] Registration for Temple Isaiah Difficult Conversations groups can be found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScg-DseRRRBgKZrQv1EkhxJ5LlroYWXbkgYbKi5eVvJzF9nAQ/viewform

[9] Dunkelman, Marc J., The New York Times.Invite Your Neighbors Over for a Barbecue This Weekend.” May 26, 2017.

[10] Pirkei Avot 2:5
[11] Leviticus 19:17
[12] Deuteronomy 22:3
[13] Leviticus 19:16
[14] Brachot 34b

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Growth Mindset for the New Year - Rosh HaShanah 5779/2018

This summer, I took one of my sons to a rock climbing gym. It was a new experience for us; we had never climbed before. We laced up our climbing shoes and let our eyes scan up the height of the wall. As we prepared ourselves for the challenge, we turned to the staff member nearby and said, “We’re ready.”

And he said, “Great. Now it’s time for your falling lesson. The first thing you need to do is learn how to fall.”

And I’m not going to lie. I immediately thought to myself – SERMON.

I mean: think about what he had just said. When attempting to go up, the first thing to learn is how to fall. How true for that wall… how true for life!

Learning how to properly fall assumes that we will fall at some point, so we better be prepared. The journey upwards is never guaranteed.

It also assumes interestingly that there are better ways to fall than others. Our teacher taught us how to protect our heads, our wrists, and our vital organs. He told us not to try to turn our bodies around while we were mid-fall; it was better, safer, he said, to fall backwards. He was teaching us how we could best cushion the impact and lessen the pain of a fall so that we could quickly get back up and try again.

So we started to climb and at first, we could only make it a little ways up before needing to head back down to re-group. We climbed some more. And yes, we fell. We survived. We rested and then pulled each other up for another go.

My hands were hurting. Muscles in my sides I didn’t even know existed were screaming at me, but I knew that this was good not just for my son, and not just for my body, but for my soul. It took over an hour for us to finally reach the top, but when we did, the feeling was exhilaration.

And that process, the climbing and the falling, and that awesome feeling of finally reaching the top got me thinking about how we change and stretch and how sometimes we need to force ourselves out of our comfort zones to wake up our dormant muscles within.

Perhaps you can relate - I know I can - to that moment when God turns to the people at Sinai many moons after revelation and honestly and frankly says to them: Rav lachem shevet b’har hazeh - You have lingered too long at this mountain.[1]

It’s time to go.

In this season of change when the holy days beckon us into discernment, how do we recognize when we, too, have lingered too long? And when we realize that it is indeed time for a change, how do we even start? Where is the falling class for life?

In thinking about all of this, I’ve found the work of social scientist Dr. Carol Dweck to be helpful. In her book, Mindset,[2] Dweck teaches us about change and specifically about what she calls the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

People who operate with a fixed mindset, she argues, believe that intelligence and talent are fixed within all of us. Sure, we can learn new content, but our strengths are fixed as our strengths and so are our weaknesses. We may think of ourselves as athletic or clumsy, as bold or shy, as brilliant or definitively not – and we’ve been that way since birth. A fixed mindset is the belief that we are simply who we are.  People don’t change – not really.

On the other hand, people who tend towards a growth mindset are people who believe that we can change and grow over time with hard work. Failures and falls are not reflections on the core of who we are; rather, they are opportunities for growth that will help us become smarter and stronger.

While a lot of Dweck’s work is being used to design better classrooms to help children grow as learners, these ideas apply just the same to adults, we who too often and to our own detriment think of ourselves as fixed, as grown, as done with all the learning that we are going to do. The truth is that if we think that we are already fully baked into who we are, then honestly the work of this season, the work of change and teshuvah will do very little for us.

Deuteronomy warns us against becoming too self-satisfied. In the voice of Moses, we learn: Perhaps you will eat and become satisfied, you will build nice homes and become settled… then you could become arrogant and forget about God who brought you out of Egypt, who led you through the vast wilderness… and you may say ‘My power, the strength of my hand made me all this wealth.’[3]

We all have work to do.

A growth mindset, though a new term, is not, I would argue, a new idea. For millennia, we have had teshuvah in our back pockets, the core belief that accompanies these holy days, teaching us that change is indeed possible. Lest we think that we are merely our past actions, especially our mistakes – teshuvah says no, you can be more.

Teshuvah is often translated as repentance but is better translated as turning and best understood as change.

Teshuvah is completely about mindset. The potential for change is completely about mindset.

Studies have shown that simply believing that it is possible to change helps us actualize that change. And it is possible. Scientists have discovered that our brains continually re-organize throughout our lifetimes. A brain is like a dynamic, connected power-grid and it can be re-wired. Trying new things, working on new skills, even feeling new feelings can ignite our neurons and get them firing to create new pathways. With practice and hard work, these pathways can become stronger and old pathways, old habits can fall away.

This knowledge can be a powerful tool in the work of teshuvah.

And we need that tool to get to what Dweck calls “The Power of Yet.” She studied a high school in Chicago where if a student didn’t pass a course, they received the grade “Not Yet.” Instead of F for Fail – they received Not Yet.

I’d wager that there isn’t one of us here who hasn’t fallen down at some point. Instead of thinking of that fall as indicative of our failure, how radical would it be if we thought of our stumbles as stops on the way to our eventual goal.

The idea that I have failed sometimes stops me in my tracks; it makes me want to give up. It makes me to think to myself: I am a failure. But not-yet screams to me that I better get up and give it another go.

The Power of Yet is about the belief in self even if it takes me the long road to get to my destination. As we’re taught in Proverbs: “The righteous will fall seven times and will rise again.”[4]

Stumbling and falling, it’s part of the journey, but it’s what you do after you fall that determines who you really are.

We might call that resilience. Or perseverance. Or we might call it grit.

Angela Duckworth recently wrote a best-selling book entitled Grit[5] and in it, she digs deep to discover why some people succeed when others do not.

She studied academia, athletics, business, and more. She visited West Point. She visited the Scripps Spelling Bee. And what she discovered was that talent and brilliance weren’t the determining factors for success in each of these elite areas. Everyone was talented at West Point; everyone was brilliant in the Bee. But her research revealed that the folks who graduated West Point or were the top performers at the Bee were the ones who knew how to get back up.

Sure, someone else may be able to run the course faster or spell some unknown, unusual word without much study, but the folks who thrived were the ones who had become acquainted with failure early on rather than the ones who had become accustomed to always coming out on top.

Knowing how to deal with failure said more about long-term success than any other factor. Talent counts. Luck is a part of success, too. But grit time and again was the best determining factor to explain who crossed the finish line.

Grit is the belief that hard work pays off and failure once doesn’t mean failure always. As Duckworth explained, Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.[6]

So then: how do we get grittier?

It turns out grit is not innate in us either. It is a skill that can be learned.

We can get grittier by practicing persistence. When something is easy, it’s time to step it up. Just like at the gym. When a weight becomes too easy for you, you know it’s time to add more reps or more weight. To get a good work-out, we should be struggling. It should be hard. Not so hard that we walk away. But incrementally harder over time. Another five pounds until it feels easy again. Muscles literally need to tear in order to grow. So, too, with us.

Persistence is going just a bit further, just to where you begin to feel discomfort – and this applies in so many facets of our lives. Persistence in learning. Persistence in being brave and bold. Persistence in love.

We can get grittier by practicing resilience. When we put ourselves out there, we’re not going to succeed at everything – and certainly not right away. We need to practice bouncing back after smaller set-backs so that we are prepared for the bigger ones. Resilience is realizing that difficulties in life need not be paralyzing events, but rather moments to be reckoned with.

Sometimes, we want moments and feelings to disappear. Sometimes the events of our lives are overwhelming. I’ve sat with some of you after something life-changing, after a death or after a trauma that feels like a death and you’ve said to me, “When will I stop feeling this way?”

And any one of us who has gone through this, myself included, eventually learns that the answer is that these bigger events of trauma never truly go away; they come in like waves. Sometimes the seas are quiet and sometimes there is a storm. We never “move on.”

Resilience is learning how to ride the waves and when they knock us down, how to swim back up to the surface for air. Resilience is also all those hands around us that hold us up when we run out of breath.

We can get grittier by practicing empathy. Yes, empathy will help us become stronger, grittier and more in line with a growth mindset. Understanding a problem or a situation from someone else’s point of view reminds us that our view on the world is not the only view. We can practice empathy by slowing down, by listening, and by being present in the lives of others.

Empathy emerges from the very heart of Torah, the heart of our story: You were strangers in the land of Egypt – you know the heart of the stranger.[7] Knowing others, knowing their hearts, is essential for knowing our own.

Grit and a growth mindset, persistence, resilience, and empathy – they show up all over our tradition. Take Jacob, who one can argue is the grittiest guy in all of Torah and also the character who perhaps changes the most.[8]

Jacob begins his existence as a trickster, but with age, experience, and failure after failure after failure finally makes a turn. On the evening before a confrontation with his brother who had threatened to kill him over Jacob’s trickery, our text tells us that Jacob struggles throughout the night with a character only identified as an ish, which is Hebrew for man.

Neither is able to get the upper hand until finally Jacob is injured, but instead of letting go, he hangs on for dear life and demands a blessing from the ish.

Many commentators believe that this unnamed character is Jacob’s moral self - and it’s God, too. And that’s not a large leap, is it? We all wrestle with ourselves, our past, and our decisions. But what makes this moment extraordinary is that Jacob won’t allow the struggle to be for nothing. He demands a blessing, self-aware enough to not let this moment go by without learning something about himself.

Therein, I believe, is the key for us. When we feel like a piece of us has been wrenched, when we struggle, the question is: will we fight for a blessing?

Jacob’s blessing is a new name. Israel. It is symbolic of his growth and his struggle, symbolic of the opportunity to make himself anew.

The next morning, he goes willingly to confront the brother who has the power to destroy him. And what does Jacob- what does Israel do? He bows in humility; he bows in apology. He does teshuvah.

We always have a choice. At every point in our lives, at every moment, at every age, no matter what’s already happened, we always have a choice about what we will do next.

Life is not fair. Through luck, some of us are dealt better hands than others. We don’t get to determine our genes or the circumstances into which we are born. We cannot control the additional challenges of life that come our way. But we are not powerless.

Tomorrow morning, we return in our liturgy to that great imagery of the Book of Life laid open before God. And while the Book of Life is not and was never meant to be understood literally, its imagery speaks to us because it feels so much like our experience of this life – our powerlessness at the hands of the universe.

But make sure you have the whole picture. The poet who penned this incredibly evocative image gave us a great gift. The Book is laid open and the poet points for us to pay attention to what’s on the page. On the page are our signatures, he screams. It’s our handwriting, signaling to us that despite our sense of powerlessness in the world, we are still the authors of our next chapter.[9]

We always have a choice.

The approach of the fixed mindset is to relinquish all control and throw the pen onto the floor. It’s fate. It’s my genes. It’s God and that Book of Life.

The approach of the growth mindset doesn’t deny that there are parts of our lives over which we have little to no control. It’s not naïve. But what a growth mindset does is re-position us to pay attention to the power we do possess. To the teshuvah we can do, the change, the growing, the living, the doing, the giving. Don’t sell yourselves short – you are powerful.

We’re taught, Love your neighbor as yourself.[10]

Which is well and good except when we don’t know how. Labeling yourself in boxes, never letting yourself escape and grow and change does not look like love to me.

What stories are you telling you about yourself?

That you can never change?

That you’re afraid you’ll always be the cheater. Or the angry one. Or the alcoholic. Or you’ll always be the victim. Or you’re not the parent you want to be. Or the child your parents need. Or you’ll never measure up because you’re not smart enough. Or deserving of love.

If you can do that to yourself and never give yourself the sacred gift of a new day, a new year, the sacred gift of self-discovery, then you’ll never allow anyone else in your life to change in your head or your heart either.

And that is a tragedy on both counts. That is sadness. That is a prison of your own creation.

…. So break free.

Break the doors down. Let this be the year when you write your own story. Take the opportunity of a new year to re-wire your brain with new pathways of understanding and re-frame your heart with kindness and compassion. Let this be the year where you accept the fact that falling is a part of the journey – and so is getting back up.

And love yourself – and love your neighbor as yourself. We all change in our own time; be open to the possibility that others are moving through their own self-discovery and allow them the opportunity to show you.

Save the labels for those bins in the garage; labels don’t belong on people. They don’t belong on you.

Dr. Carol Dweck wisely wrote: We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.[11]

We, mere mortals, come into our world brimming with potential and power. Our stories are not yet set in stone. Our stories are still being written.

What do you want your story to say next about you?

Say you’re strong. Say you are learning. Say you are not perfect – none of us are – and that is just fine. Say you are not satisfied with the status quo. Say you are deserving. And you will pick yourself up when you fall and you will try again.

Because you believe in the power of teshuvah and transformation. Because you believe in yourself. Because you are making yourself extraordinary.

One last teaching for this Rosh HaShanah, a teaching from midrash that I love more than I can possibly say:

Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and softly whispers: grow, grow.[12]

If that is true for each and every blade of grass and I like it imagine it is, then all the moreso should it be true for each and every one of us.

May we all grow, grow.

Shanah tovah.


[1] Deuteronomy 1:6.
[2] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.
[3] Adapted from Deuteronomy 8:12-17.
[4] Proverbs 24:16.
[5] Duckworth, A. Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Harper Collins Publishers. Ltd., 2016.
[6] Duckworth. Grit, 20.
[7] Adapted from Exodus 23:9.
[8] The story of Jacob spans much of Genesis; my focus is Genesis 32:23-33.
[9] The prayer is Unetaneh Tokef. The line referenced is: v’chotam yad kol adam bo variously translated as “and every human signature is in it (the Book of Life)” or “every human being leaves it mark” among other translations.
[10] Leviticus 19:18.
[11] Dweck. Mindset, 90.
[12] Adapted from Midrash Rabba, Breisheet 10:6.