Taking Emotional Risks: Yom Kippur Sermon 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon 2016
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Taking Emotional Risks

Let’s start off tonight with our first confession.

The High Holy Days can feel make us feel a little word weary, between all the Avinu Malkeinu’s, the Al Chet’s and the Ashamnu’s. Repetition can be instructive, even cathartic but it can be dulling as well. Frankly, some of us may already feel a little bored or tuned out this ‘early in the game’ and are bracing ourselves for the next 24 hours.

Just like we delved into our ‘Deep Stories’ during Rosh haShanah to uncover what drives us and what can make us more empathic towards the experiences of others, we have the opportunity to embrace the ideas behind the words of our liturgy. If there’s one key idea – of many - that we can distill from the High Holy Days is the call to take emotional risks.

The confessions, the repentance, the high drama of prayer, the intensity of the God-language, the liturgical repetition, the self-examination, the promises, decisions and commitments on our personal relationships: what binds all of these elements together is that like Abraham, we are called to go into ourselves, move beyond our comfort zone, push ourselves a little harder and make an emotional investment without guaranteed returns. Yom Kippur is not meant to be easy; it’s meant to be hard. If it’s grating, uncomfortable, boring, and difficult, then we might be doing something right. Yom Kippur is an exercise in delayed gratification – not just in terms of physical sustenance (although that is an important component for those of us fit to fast) but also in terms of what we hope to effect within ourselves.

Like many Jewish religious practices, it is profoundly counter-cultural. We live in a shrill, angry and impulsive society and many of us partake in that vicariously by imbibing fantasies of power, images of force and words of callousness. We may find ourselves glued to our mobile devices soaking up information, news or mere gossip – often toxic and life-denying. Our culture thrives on negativity and with the ubiquitous information we are forced to digest, it’s hard to get away from these deflating and dehumanising messages. As we have become more publicly expressive, we have become less personally accountable.

This season of discontent, however, this narrative of anger is not the same as emotional risk-taking. Taking an emotional risk is not about projecting anger outwards but about drawing grace inwards and reaching out in relationship in a transformative, empathic, expansive way. Taking an emotional risk means you willingly put yourself forward in a sacred confrontation with the Other and say a full-bodied ‘hineini’, ‘here I am’. By saying ‘hineini’ you are willing to move into the unknown and accept the consequences.

This is the model that we encounter time and again in the stories that we read on the High Holidays, from the days of Creation to the redemptive vision of our Prophets. Emotional risks in our tradition do not come without their failings yet lead to greater insight and deeper compassion. Some of the stories of our traditional Torah and Haftarah readings are deeply familiar to us this time of year.

There is the story of Abraham near-sacrificing his beloved Isaac. Of Hagar being cast out into the desert with her poor Ishmael. Moses pleading with God for forgiveness of the Israelites as he wrestles with his own judgmentalism. A selfish Jonah fleeing from his mission to redeem Nineveh while he nurses his injured pride under the kikayon, the gourd tree. These stories aren’t idylls – they are gritty accounts of how flawed characters rose to the occasion. Sometimes they get it desperately wrong: Sarah dies after the binding of Isaac and son and father never speak again. Abraham also dishonourably severs the relationship with his firstborn, Ishmael, and the vulnerable mother who bore him. Moses forsakes the very mercy he pleaded for on behalf of Israel by striking the rock in anger. Hannah passionately pleaded with God for a child and consequently vows to relinquish him to the Temple as an infant.  Jonah was forced to face his callousness as God takes him to task through the redemption of Nineveh.

In all these stories of emotional risk taking, there are moments of transformation and growth. We could argue that especially when the situation is difficult there are moments of transformation and growth. After all, this is the same Abraham who stood up to God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, who relentlessly pursued justice and hospitality. This is the same Moses who found the courage in his heart to challenge Pharaoh despite the heaviness of his lips. This is the same Hannah who lifted her voice in victorious song, ennobling and vindicating the vulnerable and oppressed. This is the same Jonah who learnt first-hand what Divine mercy is and became a better person because of it.

As I confessed at the beginning of this sermon, there is no shortage of words. We can lose ourselves in the all the Al Chet’s, Ashamnu’s and Avinu Malkeinu’s of the Machzor. At the same time, we can find ourselves through the deeds and relationships they point to.

No relationship can be established, be nurtured and come to full fruition without emotional risk.
We cannot repent and atone without risk.
We cannot contemplate the trajectory of our own lives without risk.
We cannot enter into the world of prayer or into a conversation with God without risk.
We cannot give part of ourselves, our time, our resources and money without risk.
We cannot serve our Jewish community, our synagogue and our neighbours without risk.
We cannot fight for a better world, deeper connection and greater vision without risk.

Out of the many messages of the High Holy Days, this one is significant because it is stark in its honesty. The High Holy Days are not meant to be simple, satisfying or easy even though they are, of course, joyous and grace-filled. Rather, this season has us living on the edge and we should push ourselves a little further, even if it may make us feel uncomfortable or embarrass us, or remind us of parts of ourselves that we would rather forget.

Perhaps Abraham felt incredible remorse and regret over how he had effectively emotionally sacrificed both his sons. Hannah must have been devastated by guilt to leave her long-longed for child in the service of others. Moses must have felt profoundly intimidated at the thought of calling God to account. What were Jonah’s deepest despairs as he wrestled with his depression? Only through asking these questions can we assess the transformative risks in our own lives.

Our tradition gives us tools and a trajectory to personally engage in this project. The trajectory is well-known to us: from the moment we usher in Rosh Chodesh Elul, the month of Elul preceding Rosh haShanah, we are encouraged to consider our lives and deeds through prayer and reflection. This process increases in intensity as we cross over into Rosh haShanah and the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. This process culminates in our 25 hour long collective experience known as Yom Kippur and hits its crescendo at Ne’ilah with the final teki’ah gedolah, the great, resounding blast of the shofar.

But how? How do we do this inner work? We know the rituals and prayers, the trappings and traditions. We cite the words of the Unetaneh Tokef, ‘u’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et haro’a gezeirah’ – ‘But repentance, prayer and charity can defy the evil decree’. However, even that is too abstract. If we are convinced of the merit and necessity of taking an emotional risk this year, then how do we do it?

The tradition offers us the two-fold concept of ‘tochechah’ and ‘teshuvah’. These two words are among some of the most poorly translated words in our tradition. Tochechah is often translated with ‘rebuke’ which sounds harsh and unrelenting. Teshuvah is often translated with repentance, which sounds self-castigating. In truth, ‘tochechah’ is better translated as ‘reproof’, or in a more pastoral or therapeutic setting, as ‘constructive criticism’. ‘Teshuvah’ is done more justice as ‘return’ or even ‘answer’.

Be what may, tochechah and teshuvah work in tandem, edging us closer to an authentic expression of who we are, warts and all. Tochecha means that you – gently, bound by a set of rules to guarantee the dignity of the other – give your reproof or voice your grievance towards someone who has hurt or upset you. Likewise, teshuvah is the answer to the moral question of reproof. Through teshuvah, the other person tries to repair the relationship. When both parties are willing to take the emotional risk of being honest, real and vulnerable with each other, then repair can take place.

This dynamic of tochecha and teshuvah draws on one powerful source: the Holiness Code in Leviticus:   

Lo tisnah et achicha bilvavecha; hocheach tochiach et amitecha v’lo tisa alav chet. V’ahavta le’re’achah kamocha’ - ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and incur no sin because of this person. You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:17-18)

Those of us familiar with this part of Vayikra, Leviticus, will recognise the latter part of the verse – ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s this sentiment we can all embrace, often without giving much pause to how we get there. Human relationships are bound to be fraught and the Torah, in her compassionate realism, acknowledges that. You can only truly love another person if you do not begrudge them; if you bear them no ill-will and if you harbor no resentment. That, for sure, is a tall order! But the Torah gives us a pressure valve through the institution of tochecha: if we bring up our issues in a spirit of love and sensitivity and are willing to take that emotional risk, then the relationship can become redemptive. Indeed, Rabbi Yosi ben Chanina in the Midrash (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 54:3) candidly states:

            Kol ahavah she’eino imah tochechah eino ahavah” –
 A love without reproof is no love.”

To which another rabbinic sage, Resh Lakish added:

Tocheach mev’i lidei shalom” - “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.”

How can reproof lead to love and peace? Or more explicitly: are love and peace are incomplete without reproof? We can all cast our minds to a situation where we’ve held ourselves back, firmly believing that we reigned in our indignation for the sake of peace only to find resentment festering. Maimonides already recognises the effects of such a dynamic when he writes in his code of law, the Mishneh Torah:

“When a person sins against another, the injured party should not hate the offender in deep silence…But it is that person’s duty to inform the offender and say, “Why did you do this to me? Why did you sin against me in this matter?” Therefore it is said, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:17). If the offender repents and pleads for forgiveness, the offender should be forgiven.”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dayot (Laws of Knowledge), Chapter 6:6

Our great challenge is to determine whether we can repair and improve relationships through this gentle yet radical candour, by taking the emotional risk and exposing our vulnerabilities. Are we ready and able to have those conversations, to write that letter, to offer that apology or to address those grievances? This is truly and utterly difficult work. This is journeying into the uncharted territory of teshuvah.

As we let the words of the liturgy wash over us and soften our hearts and encourage our resolve, I hope that all of us can be blessed with courage to repair what was broken and live with the uncertainty of not knowing how our apologies, intentions and attempts to make amends will be received. Likewise, may we have the endurance of God’s patient love when we ourselves feel hurt and may we respond with both Divine grace and human audacity to move forward in our lives with what matters most and who matter most.

G’mar chatimah tovah.


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