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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Kol Nidre - 2014/5775


Comparing Ourselves, Coming Up Short
Kol Nidre – 2014/5775

Friday morning.  Alarm clock goes off.  Snooze twice.  Jump out of bed, already running late.  Brush teeth, shower, get dressed.  Turn on the coffee maker.  Pour cereal.  Eat it mindlessly, one eye on the news, the other on the clock.  Pack up lunch.  Check the weather, grab the appropriate coat, pour the now-ready coffee into a travel mug, head out the door.  Sit in traffic, silently cursing at the snooze button and the traffic.  Find a parking space.  Make a to-do list, start working on it.  Answer the phone.  Answer several emails.  Watch the to-do list get longer, not shorter, as the day goes on.

How much of this everyday morning did you share with others, through a photo, a conversation, a witty facebook status?  As much as some of us might mock facebook for being full of people who like to share photos of their breakfast cereal every morning, few people actually do—for most of us, breakfast was much too boring, and the morning routine wasn’t nearly impressive enough.  Instead, we share the highlights and exciting things that happen.  I was at a nearby coffee shop recently, and the woman ahead of me in line had two kids with her.  When the barista handed the woman her coffee, one of her girls noticed the heart design in the milk foam.  I sensed the mother rolling her eyes as she reached for the lid—I guess it was more of an everyday occurrence for her—and her daughter said, “WAIT!  I want to take a picture of the heart!”  I have no doubt that the photo ended up online.  We don’t share the boring and routine parts of our lives; we choose what we share to subtly show how great our lives are.  Most of us, consciously or not, use social networks and many of our in-person interactions to look at ourselves and our lives compared to others, and to see how we measure up.  Was your morning as exciting as that little girl’s, or as routine as her mother’s?

We assume that these constant comparisons are a modern-day issue exacerbated by the internet, but they go much further back than we typically assume.  Consider the story of Noah.  God saw that the world was full of lawlessness and corruption, so God decided to destroy it with a global flood.  God chose Noah to build an ark, save some of every kind of animal, and repopulate the earth after the flood.  Noah was saved from the flood because he was righteous, a good man, right?  Well . . . that’s not exactly what the text says.  Rather, it says, “Noach ish tzadik tamim hayah b’dorotav,” ‘Noah was a righteous, upright man in his generation’ (Gen. 6:9).  The Torah compares Noah to his peers!  He was righteous—at least when considered alongside the men of his generation—the ones because of whom God destroyed the world.  The ancient rabbis have long discussions about that verse, dissecting the comparison, wondering whether Noah would also have been righteous in the generation of other great men, or whether he would have been considered average or worse.  And yet, as the Torah shows us in this case, comparison made all the difference.  Noah compared favorably to those around him; it was enough to save him and his family and have his story written down for all eternity.  That would have made for quite a watercooler conversation, and he could have taken some impressive photos to post on facebook.  If even our Torah uses comparison to describe a hero, why does comparing ourselves to our peers often tear us apart?

Most of us are all too good at listing the things we could improve in ourselves.  We spend so much time comparing ourselves to others and coming up short, and most of us could come up with a list of ways we could improve that is longer than the machzor.  We mentally keep track of our offenses: we don’t take enough vacations, we eat too few photo-worthy meals, we don’t come up with enough witty one-liners.  We have been jealous of others’ accomplishments, we have begrudged their perfect family, we have lusted after their beautiful photos.  The thing is, we know the inner workings of our own lives; we see of others only what they choose to show us. 

On an everyday basis, we beat ourselves up as we compare ourselves to others, but on Yom Kippur we beat our chests in contrition as we recite our wrongdoings and compare ourselves to our ideals.  Here, today, we are trying to improve our individual selves, with no attention to the shortcomings or successes of those around us.  Here, on Kol Nidre, we arrive intending to expose the hidden parts of our own lives.  Here, on Yom Kippur, we come in hoping to be inspired, with the motivation to improve.  Here, today, we pledge to return to what is important, to our values, to serving our community and our world.  The High Holy Days remind us not just how we have fallen short, of which we are already well aware, but that we have it within ourselves to measure up in the coming year.  That comparison, between ourselves and our values and ideals, is the only comparison that matters on Yom Kippur.

While comparing our selves to our ideal selves is all that matters in a larger sense, all of us will, no doubt, continue to compare to others anyway.  However, as we do so, we must remember that what’s missing from social media and everyday interactions and comparisons is the fact that every one of us struggles.  A recent column in the Washington Post was all about private strugglers, in this case a mother of a child who is, as she put it, “on his or her own very different path.” [1] The author wrote about how difficult it can be just to have lunch with colleagues, when the conversation inevitably turns to their children, and because hers is so different, she has more trouble just joining in the conversation around the lunch table.  Her takeaway point for all of us: “when kvelling, notice the mom who’s quiet.”  We all have struggles, and most of us hide them.

Numerous studies have shown that spending time on facebook, where we consciously or subconsciously compare ourselves to others, is terrible for our self-esteem.[2]  We know the boring and negative parts of our lives that we don’t post or share ourselves, the everyday frantic mornings, the private struggles.  And when we’re looking at acquaintances’ profiles and hearing their stories and looking at their photos, we forget that they are struggling, too, and we only see the glamour.  We notice the friend who posts so many vacation photos, and we don’t notice that he only posts vacation photos, and only every few months.  We notice the friend who only has wonderful things to say about her children, and we fail to notice that she seldom talks about her husband, her job, her hobbies.  Nobody is as perfect as they portray themselves online, and nobody is as successful as they portray themselves; in a time when it is so easy to see others’ successes and self-portrayals, it is hard to remember that they also struggle, that their lives aren’t perfect, either. 

When we remind ourselves that everyone struggles, comparisons can be motivating, inspiring, and nurturing.  When we hear of someone we consider to be a peer who is “ahead” professionally, it can help push us to be more and to do more.  It can remind us of our own potential, our ability to be more like that peer, thinking outside the box and motivating us to do something better than we have been doing.  Seeing a friend’s beautiful vacation photos: white sand, blue water, weather that is so clearly not in Wisconsin, might inspire us to look at our calendars and block off time for our own vacation—we, too, have earned that time and owe it to ourselves to use it and enjoy it.  We have all heard of the strategy of attaching a photo of a healthier body to the refrigerator, trying visual motivation to make different food choices.  Seeing a friend’s constant photos of their children might inspire us to find more time to spend with our own families.  Hearing a friend discuss, or reading a post about a friend’s experience volunteering for a meaningful project might, hopefully, encourage us to join in.  We share photos of congregational events in Ha-Kol and on our facebook page hoping, in part, that others will see them and be inspired to join in the next time.  Organizations (including the synagogue) don’t publish donor lists solely to recognize their donors.  Rather, they (and we) hope that when we see that our peers have donated to a worthy cause, we will give our support, too.  Comparing isn’t always bad, it just depends what we do with the comparisons we make. 

There is a Jewish story about a man named Zusya, a great teacher.  Near the end of his life, he gets nervous, and he explains to his students that he is afraid of his conversation with God after he dies.  The students think he is afraid of having to explain the bad parts of his life, and of having to tell God why he was not like Moses or Solomon.  Zusya tells them he is not afraid of God asking ‘why were you not as great as Moses,’ or ‘why were you not as wise as Solomon,’ but rather, “Why were you not Zusya?”  Comparing ourselves to others and falling short is a much older problem than facebook; at the same time, social media like facebook makes it much easier to compare with more people, more quickly, and to hide more of the everyday parts of our lives and more of our struggles, but it also facilitates our inspiration and motivation, leading to our chance to measure ourselves according to our own values and potential.

We are supposed to examine ourselves this Yom Kippur, and figure out what needs to change.  Many have considered the trend of “selfies,” self-taken photos often shared online, to be damaging, too self-centered, causing too much focus on what we look like on the outside.  At times, all of those criticisms are true, but even selfies have some redeeming characteristics.  Selfies remind us to put our best self forward, to be ourselves, to portray ourselves as we aspire to be seen.  Zusya couldn’t have posted a photo of Moses and called it a “selfie;” neither can we get very far pretending to be or trying to be someone else.  While selfies are admittedly photos of only our outsides, the same concept can be applied to what’s on the inside.  What if we took a self-portrait of our good deeds, struggles we’ve overcome, projects we are proud of, and shared those?  Examining our internal self-portraits is exactly what we should be doing on Yom Kippur.  We spend a lot of time this holiday talking about the things we do badly or things we don’t do enough.  Turn that around for a minute: What would your internal selfie look like?  What are the parts of ourselves we adore?  What have we done and then rushed to share with others?  What are the things we’ve done that we want to repeat?  Let’s keep doing those things!  Let’s do more of those things!  Seemingly every study on personal change tells us that the best way to eliminate behaviors and traits in ourselves that we don’t like is not to just stop doing them, but to replace them with things we like better.  Selfies, or internal self portraits, can help us recalibrate and measure ourselves according to where we want to go.

The High Holy Days give us a plan.  When we allow Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe to enter our minds and souls, we don’t just confront our mortality, recite lists of sins, and go on our way.  Rather, we also let our tradition build us back up, helping us find the good in ourselves that we will aim to have crowd out the not-so-good in the coming year.  Facebook, magazines, idle conversation, and seemingly everything else we encounter force us to face our shortcomings daily, break us down, and remind us how deeply we are flawed.  Yom Kippur first reminds us which flaws are truly important, and then our prayers direct us to how we can begin to improve on them.  Our tradition teaches, “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  Let one be: ‘for my sake was the world created.’ And the other: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”[3]  Yom Kippur keeps both truths in front of us simultaneously.  We are flawed; we are dust and ashes.  But we also have great potential and capacity, and for each one of our sakes the world was created.  Most situations, most interactions, most comparisons cannot and do not remind us of both our flaws and of our amazing capacity for greatness; Yom Kippur helps us compare ourselves not to those around us, but to our values and potential. 

Bachya ibn Pakuda, an 11th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher wrote, “Days are scrolls: write on them only what you want remembered.”[4]  In Jewish tradition, God is constantly writing and reading those scrolls; God sees all and records all of our deeds, good and bad.  But we live in a virtual era, where we, too, can record ourselves and show a very carefully edited scroll to everyone else.  Are God’s scroll and our edited scroll the same?  We will no longer need Yom Kippur when God’s scroll of our days and what our friends scroll through on our facebook pages match entirely—when we are proud of every moment and the way we act at all times.  So rather than focusing only on all the things we’ve done wrong and don’t like about ourselves, let’s also remember what we’ve done right.  On the unedited scroll—paper or virtual as each of us pictures it—that God keeps for each one of us, what would have been posted this past year?  Exceptional caring for a friend in need, selfless devotion to a job we love, superhuman effort to get a healthy dinner on the table during a difficult time?  Would there be notes of thanks, photos of times we went out of our way for others?  These are the deeds we want remembered, so even as we confess our sins, even as we bring ourselves down, let’s remember these deeds to bring us back up.  The only thing that will get us to a better year ahead is repeating the ways we already measure up to our values.

As we compare our selves with our ideals over the next 22 hours, let’s remember that these are the only comparisons that matter: the ones that lift us up, inspire us, motivate us, and leave us better off when we are done, the comparisons not between ourselves and others, but between ourselves and our higher selves, our values and ideals.

We sin against You, God, when we sin against ourselves.  The sin we have committed against You by comparing ourselves to others when we cannot win, and the sin we have committed against You by comparing ourselves to others when we can only win.  The sin we have committed against You by forgetting others’ struggles, and the sin we have committed against You by minimizing the struggles of our own.  The sin we have committed against You by comparing to others for no reason, and the sin we have committed against You by failing to seek inspiration and motivation to be better versions of ourselves.  The sin we have committed against You by not measuring ourselves by our own ideals, and the sin we have committed against You by falling far short of our ideals.  For all these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

We continue with Vidui, our communal confession of sins, on page 269.

[1]  September 18, 2014, Nancy L. Wolf, “About that mom who’s not bragging about her kid.”

[2] Three examples:

[3] Chasidic, 18th century, as quoted in Gates of Repentance, page 232, # 13.

[4] Cited in Gates of Repentance, page 233, #17

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784