This Drash is dedicated in loving memory to my Father, Sidney Weisberg, Yehudah Ben Avraham V’Chasiya Rivka, Zicrono Livracha.
So, there I was, on moving day for our shul in May, in my shorts, t-shirt, and baseball hat catching my breath as I stood in the line at the bottom of the stairs waiting to lug a bookshelf up to a second floor classroom when I was approached with the question: “Ruth would you like to give a Drash on Yom Kippur?” Instantly the words ricocheted through my head, and those old familiar voices started speaking their mind, that old pattern of a downward thought spiral that’s plagued me my entire life. However, after spending a few days thinking about it, and realizing what an honor it was to even be asked, I humbly accepted the task.
Over much of the summer I started mulling over some ideas in my head and looked a little at this morning’s Torah reading, from Vayikra chapter 16, to begin figuring out which psukim and themes resonated with me the most. I began realizing that my inner battles with myself might be a very poignant theme to pursue.
And then on July 26th I made my fateful trip to Minneapolis to visit my parents. My main purpose was to spend time with my Dad who had been rapidly deteriorating for a couple of years. It was intended to be my first of many regular trips home as I had realized he would no longer be traveling. I had no idea I was going home to say good bye.
On Thursday afternoon, July 28th, my Mom, Dad and I went on a river boat ride on the Mississippi. We followed our adventure with lunch in downtown Minneapolis. After lunch my vacation turned into something completely different. As we were headed back to the car, I went ahead of my Dad and opened both our doors. Then I turned around to see him falling from between the cars into the street. Four days later my family and I said good bye to my Dad forever. He died Monday night August 1st, the 26th of Tammuz 5765.
Which leads me to this morning’s Torah reading from Parashat Acharey Mot, after the death. The reading starts out with a little reminder of what happened many chapters earlier in the book of Vayikra. In Parashat Shemeni 10:1, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, take the priesthood into their own hands and make an offering to G-d with out instructions from Aaron or G-d. As a result they both die suddenly when a fire comes forth from G-d. Since Aaron and his other two sons are priests, they are instructed not to mourn. As I studied in Etz Chayim, their obligations as priests took precedence over their bereavement. After the narrative reminds us what’s been happening with our main characters, it then details the Yom Kippur ritual, in which Aaron as the Kohen HaGadol, the high priest is to atone for the sins of the entire community.
Now wait a second, although Aaron was the high priest and had the unique opportunity to speak to G-d, looking at him as a human, how is it possible that he could just put aside his grief to do his holy job? I started thinking about what it might have been like to be Aaron the grieving father. Although I am not a man, parent, or priest, and I don’t think I’ll ever have the blessing of encountering G-d in the same way as Aaron, I am a teacher, prayer leader, and bartender who is grieving. In other words, I’ve had many public obligations to uphold as I’ve begun grieving my father. My dad’s passing coincidentally occurred during the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. During shloshim my only participation in services was leyning a perek of Eicha, a mere two weeks after my Dad died. Although it was painful, it was quite fitting for chanting the sad book of Lamentations. In the same way I wonder if somehow Aaron’s grief helped him to atone for the sins of all of Israel. However, putting myself in Aaron’s robes I thought, wasn’t he distraught because his sons had sinned? Wasn’t it Aaron who taught them how to be priests? Could he have done more to make sure they knew not to make any kind of offerings without instructions and with out Aaron present?
As I started looking at the story from Aaron’s perspective I realized that maybe I was really looking at my own story. One of the first things I thought Aaron might have thought was, couldn’t I have done more? Was I projecting my own guilt onto Aaron? Was I falling into my own pattern of beating myself up as I tried to empathize with Aaron?
To explain, my Dad’s deterioration compromised his mobility. The morning before the fall, I took extra care to walk slow with him and offer a hand whenever needed. When he fell it was the only time I remember that I wasn’t directly next to him that day. Guilt and blaming one’s self is a natural part of grieving any loss especially a sudden one. Even though it is unclear why my Dad fell, whether he lost his footing and stumbled, or had a specific medical episode that caused his fall, from the beginning I was playing the “what if” game. What if I hadn’t come to Minneapolis? Would my Dad have been stepping off the curb and stumbled when he did? What if I had waited to help him off the curb instead of rushing ahead to open the door? Would he still have fallen? In other words, why did I let this happen? Couldn’t I have done more?
Acharey Mot, after the death of my father, this anger and guilt have been so hard to live with. My old familiar patterns of beating myself up have manifested exponentially. As I’ve been trying to tolerate my crippling grief at the same time as preparing for the holiday season, I realized it might be time to do some T’shuva with myself.
In Estelle Frankel’s book, “Sacred Therapy,” she uses the example of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” to explain the idea of T’shuva. Dorothy’s journey down the Yellow Brick Road with the scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion, becomes a journey to wholeness. Dorothy is on a journey to Oz, to help her find her way home. Ironically, Oz is Hebrew for strength. At first Dorothy feels so far away from home, so far away from being whole. She longs to return but does not know the way back. Her three new friends also are also seeking wholeness, as the scarecrow is seeking his brain, the tin man his heart, and of course the cowardly lion is looking for courage. Eventually, Dorothy and her three companions realize the strength they seek outside themselves already exists within each of them. According to Frankell, “Once we take the time to turn inward, face our fears, do the work, we can find with in each of us what is needed to make us whole.” The challenge is finding a way to do this for ourselves along with repairing our connections with others.
When I think back on my preparations for the holiday season over the last many years, I can remember looking inward at how I could improve relationships with others. But, I do not remember focusing on how I could improve my relationship with myself. However, as these patterns of beating myself up have been like a slap in the face as I’ve begun grieving the loss of my Dad, I have found it time to start thinking about doing some t’shuva from myself to myself. Isn’t it time I start nurturing myself just as I have my relationships with others in past years? This idea brought to my mind a saying from Pirke Avot 1:14 “im ain ani li mi li, uchshani l’atzmi ma ani?” “If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am for myself alone what am I?” In other words, we need to care for ourselves, and remember to care for others too. How do we balance doing t’shuva for ourselves and our community?
I thought maybe looking at some of today’s liturgy of might help me understand how to balance these aspects of the healing of self and community.
The main example I looked at was the Al chet prayer from the Vidui in today’s Amida. Al chet Shechatanu, we have sinned against you. After studying this prayer I was struck by the fact that this major part of today’s liturgy is in the plural. We as a community have sinned against G-d in a number of ways. This prayer specifies many sins we have committed against others. Although we include this in our personal prayers in the silent Amida, it does not specify the self. Sure, the new Kol Nidrei Machzor we davened from last night does include the use of the word ego in the al chet, but it really isn’t allowing us an opportunity to specifically look at how we have wronged ourselves. The Machzor gives us a challenge by leaving it up to us to decide which of the verses apply to us as individuals and how we treat ourselves. After reading the commentary on this prayer in the new Machzor, it helped me to understand one reason why it is in the plural. While this prayer is said individually in the Amida throughout Yom Kippur, the fact that the prayer is in the plural, and we pray it amongst other imperfect humans, gives us the courage to admit our sins. I also studied that according to the Chasidic teacher the Sfat Emet, “all souls are united” on Yom Kippur. In other words, we pray as a community in the plural because our individual sins are united as we are united on this day. But that still leaves out the idea that we are individuals and we may have sinned against ourselves by, in my case, being so hard on myself. All of us have our own struggles with ourselves. I know that I am not the first person who has struggled with being my own worst enemy. In fact this is a challenge my father faced his whole life also. I wish this idea of wronging ourselves was addressed in the liturgy, even if it was stated communally in the plural. Why doesn’t it state Al chet shechatanu lefanecha for wronging ourselves?
This led me to study a little about what our tradition says about the self and how we are to treat the self. My big brother, soon to be Professor Ori Weisberg, helped me to find a section of Gemara from Bava Metzia 62:A about property ownership which could also be applied to the self. The scenario is as follows:
Two people are walking along a deserted road and only one of them has a canteen of water. If both drink from this limited amount of water, they will both die of thirst before reaching civilization. Should the owner of the water alone drink he alone, will survive but his companion will die sooner.
Must they share the water? According to Rabbi Akiva, your life comes first so you must drink the water even if your companion dies. This might sound harsh, selfish, and about as un - Berkeley as could be. In fact the Rabbis argued over this and many disagreed with Akiva’s ruling. But there is a strong message, our own lives are precious gifts from G-d to be cherished and held on to at all costs. We must care for ourselves. After all, as we will read in two weeks in the creation story, according to our tradition we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d. And as we repeat so many times today and on all chagim, the section from Shemot that is know as the 13 attributes, G-d is a compassionate, gracious, patient and forgiving G-d. Since we are created in the image of G-d, who is compassionate and kind , we must be compassionate and kind to ourselves. However, Uchsheani l’atzmi ma ani? If I am for myself alone what am I? How do we balance nurturing ourselves and our relationships with others?
This question reminded me of one of the most well know psukim from the Torah. V’ahavta l’ra’acha kamocha, Love your neighbor as yourself, Vayikra 19:18. For me, I think it would be a better lesson to switch it around to, love yourself as your neighbor. So often I take the time to give to my community and friends when my own life is in disarray. In fact, you should see the state of my bedroom right now as I have been writing this Drash and preparing a number of other things for this season. According to Nachmanidies, Love your neighbor as yourself means one should pray that one’s fellow person should receive all those blessings that one hopes to receive them self. And relating this back to T’shuva, if we run around frantically during Elul and the first 10 days of Tishrei that lead up to Yom Kippur apologizing to those we’ve wronged, we also need to spend the same amount of energy to turn inward to heal any wrongs we’ve committed against ourselves.
It is so weird that I was asked to give this drash way back in May on a Parasha that is titled Acharey Mot, after the death. I stand before you today, five months later, scarred from the recent death of my Dad, having just said Yizkor for the first time in my life as one who is obligated. My Dad was truly a mensch to others. His strength was making connections with everyone he encountered. Whether it was early in his life, as a Jewish educator, teaching conversion classes and adult Bnai Mitzvah classes, and helping people find their connection to Judaism, or later in life as a realtor. His favorite thing was to get to know new couples and help them find their b’sheret home, the house that was perfect for them to start their new life. Not to mention the friendships he made with the everyday people in his life such as the valet who parked his car at work, or the employees at the bakery where he picked up challah every Friday. Unfortunately, he wasn’t always as kind to himself. I can’t remember how many times I heard him say that he had messed everything up. I just wish, he would have known how to be a mensch to himself. He was such an incredible person, and I am not sure he every really knew it.
We are created Btzelem elohim, in the image of a kind and compassionate G-d. As we prepare for the Book of life to be sealed, as we spend the final hours of today atoning for our sins, leave some space for how you want to improve your relationship with yourself. I bless us all that we will have the ability to balance atoning for our sins against others along with the sins we committed against ourselves.
Close your eyes, and take a moment to think about what an extraordinary person you are. Take a deep breath, and find one thing that you could do to treat yourself better during this year.