Looking in the mirror (Rosh HaShanah Day 2, 5783 / 2022)
Every year shortly before Rosh HaShanah, there’s an Israeli music video that I like to watch, which presents a thoughtful metaphor about our interpersonal and spiritual goals at this time of year. The brief video set to the music of Israeli musician Evyatar Banai, shows us a young man who is carrying a full length mirror under his arm. We see that that mirror has a number of dots on it - some of which are black, and some of which are white, in neat, orderly rows.While he is carrying this mirror through a beautiful Israeli wilderness trail, ‘e see some scenes in his life that are presented as flashbacks, and we also see how this mirror came to have all these dots painted on it. We see him talking with a friend in a way that makes a third person feel excluded. And then we see a brief scene of him, ostensibly at home, dipping his brush into a container of black paint, and painting a new black dot on the glass mirror. Then we see a scene of him visiting an elderly woman, apparently a relative who is delighted to see him. And we see a brief scene of him again, at home, dipping his brush this time into a container of white paint, and painting a new white dot on the glass. And we see him in what appears to be his parents’ home, having a serious argument with them and storming out - followed by an image of him dipping his brush again into the black paint, and painting a somewhat larger black dot on the glass.
Now having some sense of how the glass got all these dots, and what the dots mean, we see him walking along the wilderness trail, to a stream by a waterfall. He looks again at the glass, at the dots and at his reflection, and then he takes the pane of glass and slowly dips it into the water.
And he slowly pulls it up -- it is completely clear. He is ready to start a better year.
In our prayers and in rabbinic literature, this day of Rosh HaShanah is referred to as Yom HaZikaron -- the day of remembrance -- a day for God to remember us, and a day for us to remember our core values and our core purpose and how we have measured up against our best selves. Repeatedly we use the Hebrew word ‘teshuvah’ to describe our agenda for this time of year - a word often translated as ‘repentance’ but that is also connected to the Hebrew words meaning ‘return’ and ‘renewal.’ Our goal is to return to the image in the mirror that best reflects us as we are and that reflects ourselves at our best - and then to do what we can to achieve that vision of ourselves, as individuals, as a community, as a people, and as an entire global population.
But the success of this process relies on our ability to look lovingly but also honestly and unflinchingly at that mirror. Because if we can’t handle seeing our faults, we are never going to be able to change. But if we see ONLY our faults, we will despair of ever changing. My colleague Rabbi Angela Buchdahl says this is the real reason why the Shofar blasts are primarily broken blasts - shevarim and teruah. (Jewish tradition actually says that we fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar really with the shevarim and teruah notes. The broken blasts are the real MESSAGE of the Shofar - the tekiah unbroken blasts are just like the punctuation but that’s not where the meaning is.) Only when we are comfortable enough to acknowledge our brokenness can the teshuvah process help us to become whole.
Being willing to look at oneself honestly in the mirror is agonizingly difficult. There’s even a story in the Torah that suggests that Moses, one of the most outstanding human beings ever to live, was unable to honestly come to terms with his mistakes. In the first chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses provides a recap to the people of Israel to explain why he won’t be accompanying them into the land of Israel. Many of us already know the story, which is told earlier in the Torah. We remember that in the Book of Numbers, the people are thirsty and they start complaining, God says go to this rock and talk to the rock and it will yield its water. And that’s not what Moses does. Instead, he and his brother Aaron say some angry words to the people, and then instead of speaking to the rock he strikes the rock with his staff. Water comes forth, but then God informs Moses of the consequences. Moses as well as his brother Aaron are told that they have made a big mistake and that they are not going to be allowed into the land of Israel. For just one mistake? Yes. It appears that God regards this as one mistake, but it’s a large one and a symbolic one that communicates something about Moses’ present and future fitness as a leader.
So that's the story as it’s presented in the book of Numbers - when it “actually happened.” But that’s not how Moses recaps the story in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 1, where we get Moses’ own perspective on what happened and why. According to Moses, this is not primarily a story about Moses hitting the rock; it’s primarily a story about how vexing the people of Israel had been, how frustrating with all their complaining, how impossible, such that God has punished the people of Israel and is not letting them enter the land of Israel, and then to top it off, Moses says : גַּם־בִּי֙ הִתְאַנַּ֣ף ה' בִּגְלַלְכֶ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר גַּם־אַתָּ֖ה לֹא־תָבֹ֥א שָֽׁם׃ “Because of you, God was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter the land of Israel either.”
And when we read this passage every year, I want to say - Moses, can’t you look yourself honestly in the mirror? Can’t you admit that the mistake was yours? Yes, you were vexed by the Israelites, but what God was responding to was that you lashed out in anger - no one made you do that - you bear full responsibility for that. How can it be that Moses, the greatest Jewish leader ever, had trouble acknowledging and owning up to his mistakes and presented himself as the victim!
But as soon as I get a little frustrated at Moses, of course I remember all the times that I have behaved in much the same way. All the times I would prefer to think of myself as a bit better than I am, all the times I would prefer to blame some of my mistakes on other people. No one said this teshuvah project was easy, there’s no one to whom it comes naturally all the time.
This summer I had an experience that reminded me of some of the complexity of this process of looking honestly in the mirror - on an individual level and on a communal level.
I didn't expect that my first major trip outside the United States since the pandemic would be to Germany and Poland. But I had two trips to Israel in the last couple of years that got canceled because of the pandemic, and I ended up with some flight credits that were due to expire and then an opportunity arose to tag along with my wife Rabbi Naomi Kalish who was leading an interfaith group of seminary students on a trip to Germany and Poland.
I’ll shared more about my trip another time - but what’s relevant now is that I got to see a phenomenon that my sense is, many people experience when they visit these two countries in quick succession. Remembering the Holocaust is very important in both countries, but the discourse about HOW the Holocaust is remembered is extremely different because these two countries look at themselves in the mirror very differently.
Someone who walks around any city in Germany today and looks down at the pavement is likely to see engraved stones set into the pavement which are referred to as Stolpersteine or ‘stumbling stones.’ there are almost 100,000 of them, mostly in Germany but also in some other countries in Europe, and they are inscribed with the names and the locations of death for Jews who were murdered during the Holocuast. People can get them installed near the homes that had been inhabited by Jews who were murdered. Collectively, these stones are regarded as the largest decentralized memorial in the world -- as they are identical except for the names and dates and places, and are spread out in all kinds of towns and cities.
[While most of these stones are in Germany where the project originated, there are also some of these stones in some other countries - in fact, 2 weeks ago, our synagogue member Pierre Alexandre Kahn sent some of us an article about how the home where his great-grandparents had lived in France has just had Stolpersteine installed near it, bearing their names and the dates when his great-grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz. But overwhelmingly this is a project associated with Germany.]
Of course these memorial stones are intended in part for the loved ones of those who have died. But they are also intended as a reminder to the society as a whole. Each one of the Stolpersteine is crafted and engraved by hand -- it is felt that that is the best way to commemorate those who were murdered by an astonishingly cruel mechanized process. The designer of the stones says that embedding these stones in the pavement is deliberate --so that “to read the stone, you must bow before the victim.”
Of course there are other monuments to the holocaust all over Germany, including huge Jewish museums in cities like Berlin and Frankfurt. But those museums are destinations that you either set out to visit, or you could avoid if you wanted to. The Stolpersteine are so ubiquitous that someone walking around any city in Germany is likely to see several of them on an average walk -- and be reminded that this place may today be a vibrant democracy, but its oppressive past remains part of the history of this place.
In other ways as well -- the memorials, the intensive state-sponsored Holocaust education in German schools that has been going on for decades, the strict laws against speaking in favor of the Nazis, the reparations -- all support the general sense that Germany is engaged in a process similar to teshuvah on a national scale. Obviously not everything is rosy in Germany’s response to the Shoah - there is a terrifying ascendant nationalist right wing in Germany that glorifies some ideas of the Nazis. And obviously time requires that I simplify this description. But overall, Germany is regarded as a country that has looked at itself honestly in the mirror -- and by doing so, it has been able to move on and to chart a brighter future.
And then there’s Poland of today, which has taken a different approach. Obviously it was Germany rather than Poland that was the primary perpetrator of the Holocaust -- And yet Poland was the place where so much of the Holocaust was perpetrated. More Jews died from Poland than from almost anywhere else, because of Poland’s huge Jewish community, and more Jews died in Poland by far than within the borders of any other country or region.
Poland also has numerous Jewish museums and memorials - some among the country’s top sites for visitors from abroad. But the current government of Poland is extremely sensitive about how the Holocaust is described and taught. So much so that a Polish law makes it illegal to suggest that the Polish people bear any responsibility for the Holocaust.
Historians tend to believe that Poland was a logical place for the Nazis to place the death camps in part because there would be less outcry from the Polish population, considering the long history of antisemitism in Poland, and the numerous 20th century incidents of anti-Jewish violence that were perpetrated not by Nazis but by Poles, before, during, and even after the Holocaust. But to say such a thing in Poland today could get you in trouble with the law. A campaign right now is underway to rewrite the texts in Polish Holocaust museums to make sure that they stick to the official narrative -- to remove any challenges to the idea that the Polish people, just like the Jews, were victims of the Holocaust. And so the museums highlight stories of the Polish people who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews. Of course it is appropriate for these heroic stories to be highlighted; there are in fact more righteous gentiles recognized by Yad Vashem who were Polish than of any other nationality. These are people of tremendous heroism and ethical steadfastness whose courage and goodness should be celebrated, and they include the Polish people who risked their lives to save my own relatives. But these Polish righteous gentiles were outnumbered by the Polish people who collaborated with the Nazis, or who actively betrayed Jews, which is also part of the story.
The contrast is remarkable. In a variety of ways it appears that Germany appears to be facing up to its actions, while Poland evades responsibility, largely because it has such a strong self-perception as a victim. Here are two societies that differ so strongly in their willingness to look honestly in the mirror. And without a doubt, the stronger and freer society is the one that is more honest, more willing to be self-critical, more willing to acknowledge the difficulties in its history.
Poland and Germany are not the only places where some national and communal conflicts focus on peoples’ willingness, or lack thereof, to accept that shevarim - broken shards - are part of their own story. that’s true also in this country, though obviously in very different ways from the countries we have just described.
You may be troubled, but probably not surprised, to hear that a survey by the University of California at Davis asked people this spring if they expected civil war in the United States in the next few years -- and chillingly, about half said yes. And we could make that long list of the issues are that seem to be tearing the American body politic -- from guns to abortion to LGBTQ inclusion, to to Covid policy and vaccinations, to January 6, to law enforcement, to to voting rights, to immigration, to the environment, to the legacy of racism. And this past year we’ve had lunch and learn sessions to learn Jewish texts about all these issues, and in my opinion, Judaism has at least something helpful to say about all these issues, which we are not addressing today.
There is, though, a subset of these disagreements that are based to some degree on differing approaches to uncomfortable moments in the American experience -- and how willing we are to look in the mirror. Some seek an accurate reflection. But that’s not everyone’s top priority. You may know there’s a setting on Zoom called “touch up my appearance” -- making your face look a little smoother and a little more symmetrical than it is in real life. Which is fine for Zoom. But that’s not fine when we are urged to stand before each other and before God and take stock of ourselves and our society. When we think about painful chapters in American history -- whether about the Native American experience, or the Black American experience, or the Jewish experience, or the immigrant experience more generally -- are we remembering historical events the way they happened, or the more benign way we might wish they had happened?
The writer and educator Betty Sue Flowers has a suggestion which was not originally developed as a Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur exercise, but you will see that it certainly fits the themes of this day. She says: if you really want to come to a deeper level of understanding of yourself, you should sketch out the basic outline of your autobiography - but you should do it 3 times, in 3 different ways. First, you should sketch your autobiography as a victim. And second, you should sketch your life story with you as a hero. And third, you should sketch your autobiography with you as a learner. I wonder if this technique works for communities and national groups when they sketch out their historical narratives. Hopefully each person and each group can grow to self-identify as learners - acknowledging our flaws but not being overwhelmed by them.
Earlier this month my colleague Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg published a new book called “On Repentance and Repair.” It’s a powerful discussion of Jewish texts about repentance and forgiveness, especially the classic texts by Moses Maimonides. Among the things that she notes is that when this material is taught, teachers tend to focus a lot on apologies - noting that apologies are an important part of the process of repentance, and that Maimonides indicates that as a rule, good apologies honestly offered ought to be graciously accepted. And yet, Rabbi Ruttenberg points out that according to Maimonides, the apology comes towards the end of the process. The first part of the process and the most important part of the process is vidui - confession - being able to articulate before God and before oneself that what one has done is wrong, and why. It’s the first step but also the hardest. And she suggests maybe we spend too much time trying to train people to give good apologies when really, most incomplete or unsatisfying apologies happen because the first step, the confession step, has not really happened. The person who did something wrong has not succeeded in articulating that what that person did was wrong, and why. And a good vidui - a good confession - is what paves the way for a good apology.
That’s another reminder that the most important part of the teshuvah process is the part that seems deceptively simple - to admit one’s mistakes and to understand why they were wrong.
This year may we have the strength and confidence to look in the mirror.