With your permission, I want to share something personal tonight. My hope is that, by baring a little of my soul, I might offer us all a new framework to embrace this holiday. Too often, we encounter Yom Kippur as a day of arcane rituals that focus on our flaws and failings; a day of scapegoats and judgment and criticism. Instead, I want to invite us to experience Yom Kippur differently: not as a day on which we punish ourselves to prove our worthiness to God, but rather as a day that invites each of us on a journey of self-discovery and growth; a day that speaks with understanding, wisdom, and clarity about the real-life challenges we face today; a day that reminds us not what we lack, but what we have.
Most of you here know that I have for a long time been a heavy social media user. I was an early-adopter of Facebook. One of my best friends, Arie, who is now an Israeli Masorti rabbi, was roommates with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard. Back when Facebook was only available to Ivy League students, Arie urged me to make a profile on this new website his friend was working on.
Before long, social media was a ubiquitous part of my life. I was using it to stay connected with family and friends, and, eventually, as a professional tool as well.
But this past summer, I decided to take a break from all social media. Beginning in June, I stopped all posting, liking, and commenting. Eventually, I even deleted all social media apps from my phone and iPad and, I’m proud to share, I haven’t even snuck a peek at a news feed.
I had many reasons for doing this:
Like many of us, I began to realize that Facebook was, in the words of comedian John Oliver, really a data-harvesting company disguised as a High School reunion. Social media companies like to present themselves as loving stewards of our secrets and facilitators of meaningful connections. But in reality, we are freely giving over our private lives, and our most intimate memories, to corporations that make billions selling that information to other companies who, in turn, use our data to sell us things.
I also became increasingly mindful of the ways in which social media distorted thinking and coarsened communication, how on these platforms truth was so easily drowned under a sea of falsehood and irrelevance, how it seemed to amplify the ugliest and nastiest voices, and how clever algorithms were insulating us from encountering information that might challenge or complicate our previously held beliefs.
And I additionally came to see how I was deluding myself not only about how much time I was spending on social media, but also about what I was really doing with my time online. I had always justified my time on social media as an efficient way of staying connected with family and friends, of being mindful of the zeitgeist in order to constantly teach relevant Torah to a wide audience, of deepening relationships with congregants, and of elevating the good work we were doing here at Temple Beth-El.
But as I got real with myself, I realized that social media was, for me, largely a form of entertainment. That didn’t make it evil, but it did put it in perspective, reminding me that, in terms of how much time I should permit myself to devote to it, social media needed to be in the same category of activities as, say, watching TV.
Arriving at that awareness, it turned out, was the easy part. Once I realized that I ought to treat social media as an amusing pastime rather than as a productive tool of daily life, I committed to cutting back, only allowing myself a little each day, and even then, only after I had taken care of all my other responsibilities.
And yet, I found myself breaking my own rules, that gleaming blue “F” icon on my phone and iPad calling to me like a Siren, all day, every day, to crash the ship of my life upon its digital shoals. Why, I wondered, could I not shake this habit? What was its hold on me?
Of course, I knew that companies like Facebook spend a great deal of money making their products as addictive as possible.
But I also remember something a teacher and mentor of mine, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, once told me. Rabbi Mark is the founder and rabbi of Beit T’shuvah, one of the world’s only residential addiction-treatment facilities that is rooted in Jewish wisdom and spirituality. During my final year of rabbinical school, I was honored to work at Beit T’Shuvah as a spiritual counselor.
A recovering addict himself, Rabbi Mark taught me that addiction isn’t only a medical disorder. It’s also a spiritual disease. The addict almost always turns to substances or other compulsions in order to fill a “hole in their soul.” One of the most important aspects of successful treatment, then, is identifying the hole in the addict’s soul and helping them discover how to heal or deal with it, rather than filling, masking, or numbing it with intoxicants or compulsive behaviors.
As I began to think of my social media use as an addiction, I became determined to pay attention to what was going on in my heart and in my soul when I was using it.
Here’s what I noticed: Yes, I was bothered by the data-harvesting, and I detested the misinformation, propaganda, falsehood, vitriol, and sheer idiocy that proliferates on social media.
But what really impacted me was seeing post after post of friends and family seemingly happier than I was, more successful than I was, better looking than I was. Their jobs seemed better. Their vacations seemed better. Their kids seemed better behaved, funnier, and higher-achieving.
And, beyond that, their posts had more likes than mine, more shares than mine. Far more people, it seemed, were talking about them, praising them, celebrating them — their ideas, their innovations, their accomplishments — than they were about anything I ever posted. If only I could be as good as them, as smart as them, as insightful as them, as successful as them, as popular as them, then I would finally be somebody.
Over time, I became determined to live not my best life, but the life that would make other people feel about me what I felt about them. I curated a social media presence that made me and my life look as amazing as possible. In front of my social media audience, I was always a fun-loving and loyal friend, a devoted and appreciative and hopelessly romantic husband, a present and understanding father, and an endlessly successful, innovative, insightful — and always, always, super-busy — rabbi. God-forbid anyone would think that I ever took a moment’s break. After all, there could be no rest for a rabbi with a growing and adoring multi-generational congregation, with a synagogue emerging as a preeminent center for Conservative Judaism in the Southeast, and with a devoted following outside the shul, including influential and powerful people who were drawn to my prophetic voice for justice and unique and wise insights. I even managed to disguise this boastfulness and self-congratulation in a well-crafted tone of contrived humility.
What’s more, I didn’t just selectively post on social media to project and amplify this image. No, I also made decisions in life — in my relationships, with my family, with my children, in my work — based on whether, if I were to post a picture or a video or a reflection about what I was doing, it would benefit my image out there in the social media space. Get me more likes, more shares. Reinforce the perception of me out there that I was trying to create, and amplify my reputation in the broader world.
Like I said, addiction is a spiritual disease. And I was sick. I had a hole in my soul. I felt that I was nobody. Unimportant. Insignificant. Worthless. And worse, I was surrounded by somebodies, important people being successful doing things of significance and universally beloved. I saw myself as a grasshopper in a country of giants. I was trying to show the world my perfection in order to mask the fact that when I saw myself, I saw above all else my mistakes, my weaknesses, my flaws, and my failures. That I was unliked, unloved, and unworthy. My life was dominated by self-doubt and motivated by fear.
I don’t think I’m the only one afflicted with this same spiritual malady. In fact, I think it is one explanation for why social media is so addictive, and why so many of us cannot pry ourselves away from our devices and the validation that comes with all those notifications, friend requests, follows, likes, shares and retweets. Deep in our subconscious, we doubt our worth and our worthiness, and we are influenced by a culture that values above all else wealth, beauty and celebrity.
But It’s not just about social media. So let me be clear: I’m not saying that social media is the problem. Just because you use social media, even heavily, does not mean you are necessarily afflicted with the same spiritual illness. I’m not saying you need to go out and delete your account. I’m not even sure if I’m going to stop using social media altogether; it has many practical and worthwhile uses. We also don’t have the right to be judgmental of how and why others are using this technology. Because the truth of the matter is, even if you don’t use social media at all, it doesn’t mean you are immune to the influence of a culture that says unless you are rich and successful — beautiful, popular, and famous — you’re worthless.
After all, advertising works because it plays to those same insecurities. And because we are deeply anxious about what people think of us, we rush out to the store — or, more immediately satisfying, hop on Amazon — and buy whatever we think will buttress our image. Many of us choose our friends and even partners based on perceived social cache. We parent our children based on what our neighbors will think if they don’t behave a certain way, or attend certain schools, or participate in certain activities, or become certain kinds of professionals. We try to prove our worthiness through professional accolades, through the size of our bank accounts or our houses or our companies, or through our proximity to people in power. We harangue ourselves and those near us when we don’t get the recognition for which we yearn, failing to recognize that the yearning is actually ceaseless, that we can never compensate for our inner feeling of being unloved by the praise and adoration of all those people out there.
Of course, honest self-awareness is both healthy and useful. On some level, Yom Kippur reinforces this insight, that bettering ourselves requires first and foremost vidu’i, confession. We will be confessing a lot of sins today. We’re encouraged to make personal confessions, and where the words fail us, we’re provided with a script listing any and every possible wrongdoing. The message and wisdom of this is that only through honest confrontations with our flaws and failings can we learn from our mistakes, overcome our weaknesses, avoid repeated errors, chart new directions, and become better.
At the same time, fear, self-doubt, and self-criticism can be corrosive. They prevent us from enjoying our lives, rendering us incapable of presence in our relationships, disabling us from living lives in service to others unless we perceive that service will somehow increase our standing. Fear causes us to try to make ourselves and others fit into the mold of what we think will get us recognized and celebrated. It disables us from fulfilling our true potential.
Perhaps this is why Yom Kippur speaks to us with another voice altogether, a voice that is at least equal in magnitude, if not more forceful, and opposite in direction than the voice inviting us to extreme self-judgment. This is the voice that says, at the very beginning of our worship tonight, before any of the chest-beating and self-mortification truly begins, “va-yomer Adonai salahti kidvarekha, Adonai says, ‘I have forgiven you as you have asked.’” Of course you will be given another chance. God loves you. And love refuses to allow us to be defined by our worst deeds, and forgiveness is always part of the deal when we love and care for someone.
It is the voice of Psalm 27, which according to tradition we recite each day, from the beginning of the month of Elul through the High Holy Day season. You can read it in full here. Each day for more than a month, this Psalm patiently reminds us that we need not live in fear and insecurity, because God is our “light,” our “salvation,” and “the strength” of our lives. Though we may at times be tempted to feel weak, small, and insignificant compared to others, when we remember that God’s loving presence surrounds and fills us, “our hearts need have no fear.” Secure in the knowledge of God’s sheltering embrace, we can joyfully hold our heads high, knowing that we could not be any more important than to be deeply and fully loved by the Sovereign of all worlds. With God’s love anchoring our spirits, we need not seek prestige or power; all we need, says the psalmist, is a “level path,” confident, secure in our footing, moving forward joyfully in the journey of our lives. Even, according to the psalmist, if our parents have abandoned us — even if our parents did not make us feel loved and supported in everything we did, even if they were overly judgmental or critical or, worse, abusive — God will gather us in, God will continue to embrace us in God’s love and enable us to remain surefooted in that love.
This is the voice that calls out repeatedly in the Yom Kippur liturgy that ours is a God of grace and compassion; a God who is patient, abounds in love and faithfulness, and assures love for all. Our worship today will remind us over and again that God is to us a loving parent, a doting partner, and a cherishing relative; and that, because of that relationship, because of that love, ours is a God who always forgives.
This voice, the true voice of God which calls out to us on Yom Kippur, invites us to live our lives based on love rather than fear, asking us: “What would your life look like if you didn’t feel you needed to prove anything to yourself or to anyone else, if you didn’t feel you needed to impress anyone? What would your life look like if you were secure in the knowledge that you were enough, that you already were somebody, at least to the entity in the universe whose opinion mattered most?” What would it look like for you to live your best life, not the life that would make other people feel awed or jealous, to make decisions about your life designed not to mitigate against pain or to avoid criticism or to elicit praise, but rather to maximize your joy and usefulness in service to others? What would you do, what risks would you take, what might you achieve, if you believed that, on the fundamental level of your worthiness, you couldn’t fail?
I know some of you out there are likely skeptical about all this. But I’m convinced that, were we to remind ourselves that God deeply and fully loves us — and actually believe it — we will be better able to sort out healthy from unhealthy choices in our lives and change harmful habits. Should I post that picture or make that comment on social media? Should I buy this article of clothing, or that new gadget? Should I accept that dinner invitation or share that opinion? Should I punish my child for that behavior, or push forward that new project at work? I’ve found that the best and most constructive answer often emerges when I ask myself whether I would make the same choice even if I knew I didn’t have to earn anybody’s approval, that I am already loved, that I am already enough, that I don’t need to accumulate likes to matter, because I already matter as much as I possibly could in the eyes of the Mother of Creation.
That’s the voice of God on Yom Kippur, the voice our tradition gives us an annual opportunity to rediscover, a voice that, above all, says to us: You are enough.
On this day a God, who sees all, who knows all, before whom nothing is secret and everything is revealed, sees us in our totality, in our frailty, in our imperfection. We show up before God stripped of our finery — according to tradition, we are supposed to wear the kittel, simple white shrouds lacking even pockets which would normally hold the money that we often feel distinguishes us from others — absent our makeups and perfumes, lacking even the food and water that reminds that at least we have the basic sustenance that others might lack.
And, in spite of all this, Yom Kippur assures us, “You are alright. You are worthy of support and love even when you fail. Your flaws and blemishes pale in comparison to what is great and beautiful and lovable about you. You don’t need to chase after adoration and approval, because you are already loved in everything you do with an unending love by the wisest, most knowing, most powerful being in the cosmos. You are enough.”
This Yom Kippur, my heart is strengthened through that love. This Yom Kippur, my soul has been granted courage through that love. This Yom Kippur, I can rejoice in the goodness available to me in the land of the living. And I owe it all to the message that this day calls out over and over again to me, to you, to all of us: we need not worry about the number of likes we receive. Because we are already worthy. We are already enough. We are already, all of us, without exception, loved, with all the love there is.
Kol Nidrei 5779
September 18, 2018
Temple Beth-El, Richmond, Virginia