Rosh Hashana Day 1, 5774, Meghan Starkey

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Rosh Hashana, First Day

Sep 5, 5774 / 1 Tishrei 5774

Meghan Starkey


Shanah Tovah.

Here we are in the month of Elul. Here we are, poised at the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to reflect, to change, and to repair. We stand at the start of our community-wide, ritualized time in the calendar for teshuvah, or return. We take this opportunity seriously enough to spend many hours in thought, prayer and reflection.

During this time, we are specifically told to ask forgiveness from the people we have hurt during the year. So I asked around to see who has actually done it. How many times, and how conscientiously, did we go to the people we’ve hurt, and truly ask their forgiveness? Did we do this every year? With every person we had hurt? How many times did we instead let ourselves off the hook before we even really tried? What stopped us? We hear this message over and over again, and probably all agree with the idea, but the compliance rate certainly isn’t 100%.

What quickly happened to my question is that it evolved from the simple one, whether we observe this important but perhaps neglected ritual, to a question about how do we make real and fundamental change in our lives. When and how can we achieve that moment of transformation, in which we make a conscious and lasting difference in our actions?

I started first with my husband and best friend of 28 years, and asked him about how he made change in his life. His response was that “I’m not a good example, I don’t make a lot of change.” I wasn’t sure if that meant he was not reflective, or if he’s perfect, but I’ll put that question aside for now.

I also asked my children. They are blessed with piercing observation, honesty, and a passion for justice. They, however, categorically refused to answer because when I asked them a question in preparation for my drash at Yom Kippur a few years ago, I quoted them by name, and I suppose it wasn’t very flattering. Sorry about that, girls. And hopefully this gives me some credit in the annual asking for forgiveness department.

So obviously I needed to expand the pool for input, and I began asking questions of others, including friends, the family members who were still talking to me, and many highly trained professionals in my social circles.

The overwhelming and universal answer, I am sad to report, is that we don’t change without pain. Real pain, sometimes excruciating, pain. The death of a loved one. A personal crisis that affects every moment of our day. That confuses us, that rocks our sense of who we are in the world. Situations which hit the deepest parts of our fears, our defenses, our resistance, our self-esteem. My friend Ruthie, a rabbi in Colorado, told me that while love was the more noble impetus for change, fear was far more effective. My friend Mary put it this way: you find yourself in a situation in which you tell yourself that there has to be a better way, and that it becomes less scary to make a blind leap of faith than it is to continue as you are.

Among those sharing their observations with me was my friend Seth, a clinical psychiatrist and analyst. Of course, what I thought was an interview about his work in helping people transform turned into a free analysis session. If you want a good analyst, I have a recommendation.

As a skillful analyst, he immediately turned the tables on me, and asked why I was interested in this topic. Of course it wasn’t an abstract, intellectual exercise. In the past four years, I’ve had a situation which, shall we say, presented me with numerous opportunities for growth. In other words, it was miserable, annoying, and all-consuming. If I weren’t in synagogue right now, I’d use some more colorful words.

Although it was in a professional context, it hit every button I had. Every insecurity. It took the memories of some of the most difficult situations of my life, freshened them up, and rubbed salt in them. I began to question the meaning of work in my life, what I had accomplished, and what I could still accomplish. And I did not have the answers.

So, I had the prerequisite for change: pain. Awesome. Check the box on that.

It was easy to blame others for this. Frankly, it was really too easy. Amongst people I respected, the feeling about this situation was shared. It affected far more people than just me, perhaps not as strongly, but I wasn’t alone. Their reactions and observations were consistent. So clearly, it wasn’t my fault.

But even with that support, and feeling that I could legitimately blame others, I couldn’t leave it at work.

It had a big impact on my family. Not only did they get sick of hearing my complaints, I wasn’t a pleasant person to be around. I reacted badly. I was thin skinned. I didn’t read situations as well. I was less flexible, and honestly, no fun at all. If you know me, you know there is one thing you do not mess with: my family. These three people, and the four of us together, are my bedrock, the meaning of my place in the world. But here I was, messing with it.

What they offered me instead of blind sympathy and soothing platitudes was blunt honesty. They told me some things that I really didn’t want to hear, but that I needed to hear. Because of who they are, and how they did it, I was forced to confront the situation differently.

So this, I felt, was another essential step: straightforward and honest information.

However, I also knew that simply telling people to do the “right thing” isn’t enough. As an environmentalist who has spent her career working for fundamental change in how we use and manage our natural resources, I was always encountering the attitude among other professionals that all we needed was to “educate” people. Somehow, with more effective wording, different techniques, social media, a better headline, or new statistics, we could convince people to do things differently. To go out of the way to find the recycling bin, to look at labels at every purchase, to do things that were icky, like putting food waste into the green bin rather than in a plastic trash bag, or to bring their reusable grocery bags to the store.

Well, guess what, lack of information is not the problem. For at least 20 years, my agency, one way or another, has dutifully distributed the message to Bring Your Own Bag to the store as an answer to the “paper or plastic” question. Even in Berkeley, a city that prides itself on environmental superiority, until very recently, the vast majority of people still just picked up a single use bag every time they went to the store.

Recent research in behavioral economics outlines some key concepts in changing personal behavior in pursuit of a social goal. First, people react much more strongly when presented with a potential loss rather than a reward. So when it came to the bag issue, on the one hand, we could help people feel virtuous by bringing reusable bags to the store, but the truth is, things didn’t really change until we banned plastic bags and made people pay 10 cents per paper bag. Once people had to pay even that nominal price, they suddenly decided carry their purchases out in their hands rather than paying for a bag. Similarly, research shows that getting an “I Voted” sticker isn’t nearly as effective in getting out the vote as the strategy of printing in local papers the specific elections in which each citizen had, or had not, voted. In addition to the potential “pain” to individuals, these types of approaches strongly enforce the “social norms” for the desired behavior. As my friend Jonathan, an economics professor, pointed out, with the right incentives anyone can change. In his experience, we usually hate incentives because they work. They make us change, and change is hard, and therefore, we hate incentives because they make us do really hard things.

I do think though, regardless of whether it would work, that we can all agree that printing a record in the Netivot newsletter of who has, or has not, asked others for forgiveness this year is probably not a good idea.

So what should be added to the mix?

Almost everyone I talked identified the need for support from others. A friend of a friend is an analyst in New York City, and she explained to me what brings a person to therapy. In addition to the pain, fear, confusion in one’s personal life noted by others, she identified the need, sometimes desperation, to look outside oneself to receive guidance. There are any number of developmental theories that outline cognitive changes, including the dynamic interplay with psyche, culture, economics and politics, which she finds very helpful in her work. Ultimately, though, she has found through 20 years of practice that what people want most from the work they do with her is her: the true, honest and human person they spend time with each week. It is in the process of seeking her out that they can find the truth in themselves. Along the way, there can be various forms of failure, confusion, and disappointment on both sides of the consulting room. Ultimately, however, the certain knowledge that there is a trustworthy and available human being there for a person in pain, each step of the way, that leads to transformation. As my friend Rebecca, a clinical psychologist, observed, change not only requires openness, it threatens the coping mechanisms that probably served us well at some point in our lives. Taking even small steps, and finding them well received, in turns nurtures more change.

Even outside the psychotherapeutic framework, this theme rang true. Current and historical rabbis refer over and over again refer to the need for support and love, the help of others in engendering constructive transformation. Rabbi Creditor observed that seeing behavior as destructive isn’t enough. It’s caring enough about others to offer guidance in a way that can be heard, and to hear and use it when it’s directed at us. In Genesis, God realizes that it is not good for a person to be alone, and first creates animals and then forms Eve to assuage Adam’s loneliness. We are meant to be together so that we are not alone – or as Billy Joel sang, “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”

To paraphrase Martin Buber’s deeply moving work, “I and Thou,” it is the spirituality of a God who cares that allows us to encounter others most deeply. It is the centrality of an actual human relationship—that God is present when I confront you. If I look away from you, I look away from God. Being present that fully with another person is scary, and in many senses “awe-ful” but it is that which moves us most deeply and enables us to transcend our individual, temporal existence.

Going back to the original question of this drash, then, it seems to me that the reason we are instructed to ask forgiveness from another person is not so we get a “do-over” or new information. The point is that we get to lean on the love and support of another, to feel the presence of God, to understand our place in the world with greater certainty, and risk changing for the good. Change is hard, scary and uncertain, and we need the love, support and guidance of others each step of the way.

The final piece, I believe, is practice, and a certain type of practice.

As a competitive athlete growing up, in an individual sport, practice was a session in which you did something over and over, your coach told you everything you did wrong, you performed once a week, were judged and either won or lost. That is not the type of practice we’re talking about here. It is the type of practice in the yogic and Jewish traditions.

I walked into a yoga studio two years ago, when I had the space in my life to take up a regular practice of something that I knew was good for me, but for which I had not yet found time. I was confronted with some serious Gumby people. I’m talking legs behind the head, arms under the thighs and around the back, upside down and otherwise moving their bodies in ways that just did not seem possible. That was a little intimidating. When I took the time to look around, however, I also noticed people with limitations, including a person with partial paralysis. With that example, I really had no excuse not to try, and discovered that I was seriously mediocre.

The practice of yoga, in the traditional sense, is about being aware, and accepting oneself for where and as one is at that moment. If you’re me, you interpret this as telling yourself you’re screwing up because you’re not accepting of yourself. And yes, I fully appreciate the irony of that statement.

But what I have slowly come to realize, with the help of a gifted and kind teacher, is the meaning of practice. Of showing up every day. Of trying to access the subtle meaning and not just the external expression. It’s unity of breath and movement, and not whether you can put your feet behind your head, that matters. I also believe this is one of the most meaningful aspects of Judaism, the understanding of constant, thoughtful, and reflective practice. That observing Shabbat every week, that undertaking mitzvot, that coming to Rosh Hashanah services to hear an age-old message is worth doing even if you don’t notice an instantaneous change. It’s not about performing. We understand this so fundamentally in our community that we don’t have a cantor to sing theatrically, and alone. It is about each one of us taking the chance to try, to speak, to learn, to lead and to teach, even if it’s hard or we’re not all that good at it.

In yoga, each time we step on the mat is a new practice. Every breath is another opportunity to exhale. Each Rosh Hashanah, we have another period to reflect and ask forgiveness from others. In every encounter with another human, we have the opportunity to take the halting and imperfect steps that may lead us to a fully and deeper understanding of our lives and places in the world.

So in the process of researching this drash, did I find the magical “moment of transformation” that enabled me to break free of the personal stress and struggle that started this question?

What I found was that there is no one moment. There’s no Saul on the road to Damascus becoming Paul. That’s probably just as well, as it wouldn’t be a good message for Rosh Hashanah. Instead, I have come to believe that the process of transformation is the toiling on the road, reaching out to others for help, having the insight to recognize what are real barriers and what are false barriers, what are the real threats and what are the paper dragons. To be brave and honest in the company of others, who, like ourselves, are both imperfect and loving. To try to connect our pasts with our aspirations, to take our mistake-ridden, painful, sometimes shameful history and connect it with our true possibilities, to see and become one’s best self.

I believe there is a razor’s edge between acceptance and transformation. Being accepting of who we are instead of who we “should be,” to be honest and humbled by what we have done, and correctly understand the true nature of the transformation. Do I need to act differently? Absolutely. But I also need to go deeper, to understand with compassion and clarity and true insight why I and others act the way we do, so that my changes can be the right ones.

As God says to Lebannen in final volume of Earth Song Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, when the power of magic was in danger of fading entirely from the world, “This is. And Thou art. There is no safety and there is no end. The world must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

Shanah Tovah.