Who Are You? — Kol Nidrei 5783

During my sabbatical this summer, I began finally putting pen to paper on a project that I’d been dreaming about for some time – a series of comic books based on the weekly Torah portion, with at least one volume for each parashah. The concept, in short, is that a girl from our time gets transported into each parashah, discovers how the parashah’s message relates to her own struggles, and then returns to the present day. 

As I was workshopping the concept with some partners – including my dazzlingly creative daughter – I found myself thinking a lot about a story I loved as a kid, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which also tells of a young girl who is mysteriously transported to an unknown realm, and has to find her way through – and, she hopes, out of – this strange world. 

Shortly after tumbling down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland, Alice encounters a large blue caterpillar sitting on top of a giant mushroom, its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah. After staring intently at Alice for some time in silence, Carroll writes that, “at last, the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. ‘Who are You?’” Alice is taken aback by the unusual question. “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” she replies, continuing, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” 

The Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s reply, are obviously intended to have several layers of meaning. At the most basic level, the Caterpillar merely wants a stranger he encounters to identify herself. Alice, for her part, is confused about how she ended up in this curious land, in which she has literally transformed several times, drinking and eating items that somehow have caused her to grow and shrink. 

Of course, we all know that Carroll also intends the Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s reply, to register as existential questions. The Caterpillar is effectively asking Alice, “Who are you, really? What is your essence, your nature?” And if this is indeed the meaning of the Caterpillar’s question, Alice’s answer reflects a profound uncertainty that I suspect resonates for many of us, as it does for me. Who am I, really? Who are any of us, at our core? 

If you’re anything like me, you might have a very difficult time answering the Caterpillar’s question. We may, like Alice, push back against it, arguing that there is no such thing as an essential self. Echoing Sartre, we might say that our existence is what determines our essence. Who we are today is not the same as who we were yesterday or who we will be tomorrow. We are in each moment defined by the sum total of the steps we have taken that have brought us to that moment; we are what we have done, defined not by our essence but by our actions. We therefore may know who we are when we get up each morning, but by the end of each day, like Alice, we may recognize that we are no longer the same person; one day’s choices and deeds inevitably make us different than we were when the day began.

The idea that our lives are truly what we make of them – that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can become anything we want to be with the right combination of ambition and determination – is deeply embedded in our culture. But is it really true? [pause]

The evidence suggests the opposite. Consider, for example, the story of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer. Lewis and Springer were identical twins who were separated at birth and raised apart. When they were 39 years old, they reunited, and found that they were both the same height and weight; both also habitually bit their nails and got frequent tension headaches. Now, that may not be so earth-shattering. We might expect two people with the same genes to have the same body shape, health history, even habits. But here’s where it gets really weird: as kids, they both owned a dog named Toy; as adults, they both worked in law enforcement, drank the same kind of beer, and smoked the same brand of cigarettes. And that’s not all: both independently gave their firstborn sons the exact same name, James Alan. Lewis and Springer are not an anomaly. Since the 1950s, researchers have done numerous studies on twins raised by different parents, and the results consistently show that identical twins turn out very similarly, regardless of their upbringing. This research reveals a simple, if perhaps challenging, truth: each of us comes into this world with an inherent nature, an essential self.

What modern science has discovered, Jewish tradition has long believed to be true. בְּטֶ֨רֶם אֶצׇּרְךָ֤ בַבֶּ֙טֶן֙ יְדַעְתִּ֔יךָ, וּבְטֶ֛רֶם תֵּצֵ֥א מֵרֶ֖חֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּ֑יךָ, writes the prophet Jeremiah; “[God] knew you before you were formed in the womb, and before you were born, [God] sanctified you” (Jer. 1:5). Religious extremists misconstrue Jeremiah’s words as biblical proof that life begins at conception. That’s not what this verse means. What the prophet is really saying is that the nature we will exhibit once we are born is deeply rooted, encoded into our very DNA, implanted within us from the earliest moments of our formation; moreover, Jeremiah is asserting that our fundamental selfhood is both a genetic inheritance from our biological parents and, also, a sacred gift from God.

Those of us who have children of our own likely discovered this truth early on, for better or worse. Watching each of my children from their earliest days on earth, it was readily apparent to me that, as the writer and master teacher Parker Palmer put it in his extraordinary book Let Your Life Speak (which I read no fewer than four times this summer; it’s that powerful), each of my children “arrived in the world as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.” Each had inborn “inclinations and proclivities,” an intuitive sense of what they liked and disliked, what they were drawn toward and repelled by (Palmer, p. 11). Each naturally moved in the world in their own distinct way.

The countercultural, perhaps uncomfortable, truth, is that none of us come into this world as raw material to be shaped into whatever we, or the wider world for that matter, might want us to become. We give voice to that truth in our worship tonight. A little later in our service, we will sing: 

כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹֽמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר. בִּרְצוֹתוֹ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר. כֵּן אֲנַֽחְנוּ בְּיָדְךָ חֶֽסֶד נוֹצֵר.

As clay in the hands of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of love.

This piyyut, this liturgical poem, is both very famous and very misunderstood. In it, the poet compares us to clay, to stone, to iron, to glass, to cloth, and to silver; God, in turn, to a potter, a mason, a blacksmith, and so on. Traditional commentators tend to interpret the poem to mean that an omnipotent God can mold us however God desires. However, as my teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, points out, “anybody who has worked with clay knows there are things you can do with clay, and there are things the clay will not let you do. Anyone who has worked with cloth, or with metal, or with jewelry, knows that the matter you are doing your work with constrains the results you are able to achieve.” 

Similarly, each and every one of us is made of a unique material. We can therefore only fashion ourselves, or be fashioned by others, into whatever form is possible given the distinct potential and limits of our essential selves. God, according to the piyyut, knows this. According to the Mishnah, God’s ability to recognize our uniqueness is precisely the divine quality that testifies to God’s greatness (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). And, as Rabbi Artson warns, “It is our frailty to forget.”

While the widespread cultural belief that we can do anything we want to do, be anything we want to be, is meant to be empowering and hopeful, it can also lead to harm. A failure to understand or honor our unique nature leads to us trying, and invariably failing, to be that which we are not. Failing to understand and honor other peoples’ unique nature, including and especially our children, leads to us trying, and failing, to get them to be that which they are not. No two people are the same. Try as I might, I cannot force myself to be someone I am not, nor can I force someone else to be someone they are not. Seeking to build lives for ourselves, or to push others to make lives for themselves, without understanding and honoring the material we’re working with, is like trying to build a working suspension bridge out of clay, or a ship out of stone. Not only won’t the finished product turn out right but, as those examples illustrate, trying to do so may well be dangerous, whether for ourselves, or for others.

And yet this is precisely what happens to most of us. As the author and activist Robert Bly, who passed away just last year, once put it, we come into the world: 

…‘trailing clouds of glory,’ arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well preserved from our 5,000 years of tribal life—in short, with our 360-degree radiance—and we [offer] this gift to our parents. [But] they [don’t] want it. They [want] a nice girl or a nice boy…Our parents [reject] who we [are] before we [can] even talk. 

Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, p. 24

I remember encountering Bly’s observation shortly after having my first child, and it has haunted me ever since; not only as a parent, but also as a child myself. 

It took me many years – and a lot of therapy – to finally realize that I am fortunate to have loving, if imperfect, parents, who tried their hardest and did the best they could with the tools at their disposal to raise me right. By and large, I like to think they succeeded – though you can tell me what you think!

But, like virtually all parents, my parents had myriad expectations of me and for me – and, indeed, they had expectations about parenting and life that were placed upon them, by their own parents, by their extended family, by their community, by the broader culture – that had little to do with who I really was and am. 

I am certain that this was not in any way my parents’ intention. As Bly observes, “We do the same thing to our children; it’s a part of life on this planet.” We “arrive in this world with birthright gifts,” Palmer teaches, and then “we spend the first part of our lives abandoning them, or letting others disabuse us of them…we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability…” (Palmer, p. 12)

Being taught from our earliest days to deny our fundamental selves, is, for many if not most of us, a source of deep emotional pain; a powerful, and lingering feeling of rejection, of feeling as though we have to be, or strive to become, something we are not in order to be thoroughly accepted by and pleasing to the most important people in our lives. I know it has been for me. And as I come more fully to terms with it as an adult approaching – God help me – middle age, the more I realize that the particular perniciousness of this pain is that it produces more pain. Because we end up either trying to live with the painful dissonance of trying to be something we are not, or else being in a context where we are rejected for being who we are.

Before we chant Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, many have the tradition of reciting a prayer called “Tefillah Zakah,” a prayer for purity, composed about 200 years ago by the modern Lithuanian sage Rabbi Abraham Danziger. The prayer is deeply personal, with the author reflecting on the ways in which he has not lived as God created him to live: “You created me with a tongue and a mouth…to speak the words with which You formed heaven and earth…But [instead] I [have embarrassed] people, [laughed] at others, [gossiped, lied, and caused] arguments. You created me with hands…to transmit tenderness and comfort, but I have often used my hands for hurting others…” and so on, Rabbi Danziger reviews all the parts of his body, acknowledging the various ways he has betrayed his God-given gifts. 

What Rabbi Danziger is pointing to here is a universal human truth: on some level, we all deny our essential selves. We strive to be something we are not in order to fit in. And what’s more, we try to get others, often the very people we love the most, to live in ways that are incompatible with their nature, selfishly – even if unintentionally – forcing people in all their infinite uniqueness into the finite and uniform boxes into which we feel they should fit. What suffering we cause ourselves and others through acting this way! What pain we cause our Creator by rejecting God’s infinitely precious gift of our singular souls! How grievous this sin; perhaps even the very root of all transgression!

The Torah calls Yom Kippur shabbat shabbaton, a complete cessation, a moment for us to stop everything about our lives – to stop wearing the clothes we normally wear, to stop being concerned about our body odor and our stinky breath, to stop numbing our pain with physical pleasures, to stop eating and even to stop drinking water. Is it possible that, by asking us to so thoroughly interrupt the momentum of our lives, our tradition is offering us an annual opportunity to take a good, honest look at ourselves and ask: Am I living the life I was meant to live? Have I been who God created me to be? If I look at my life, will I find a life that’s mine, the unique child of God who came into this world “trailing clouds of glory”? Or will I find someone else’s life, one that is unrecognizable to my singular soul? And beneath all of this is the one question that must be answered in order to address any of the others, the most basic question of all: Like the Caterpillar in Wonderland, on Yom Kippur we must ask ourselves, “Who are you?

I don’t know about you, but I find those questions haunting to consider; painful, evenThat’s the point of the whole holiday, of course: When the Torah discusses Yom Kippur, it commands, “v’eeneetem et nafshoteikhem” (cf. Lev. 23:27, Num. 29:7) which can be literally translated as, “you shall afflict yourselves.” This day requires not only forgoing creature comforts but also leaning into the discomfort of confronting the deepest pain in our hearts – our guilt, our regret, our longing. And the pain we are asked to lean into on Yom Kippur is profoundly purposeful. It is precisely what tells us that we are not in fact living the lives we should and could be living, that we have strayed from who God created us to be. It is the voice calling us to return – to return to our true selves; to who we really are. 

The problem, however, is that because we spend the first part of our lives being trained away from our true selves, and abandoning our birthright gifts, for the sake of belonging, most of us have lost sight of who we really are. When we channel our inner hookah-smoking Caterpillar and ask ourselves, “Who are you?”, we are likely to answer, just as Alice did, “I hardly know” anymore

So how do we recover who we are, deep down? How do we hear the inner voice of true self that is calling out to us? 

The answer, of course, is that we must listen. It is no coincidence that our tradition’s guiding principle has long been, “sh’ma Yisrael,” listen, O Israel. In order to hear the voice of our godly soul calling us in each and every moment, we must listen for it. 

True, our souls don’t literally talk to us; at least, not in a way that is audible to our ears. Rather, as Palmer writes, our souls “speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being” (Palmer, p. 6). Like trees that grow in the direction of available sunlight, our souls speak in the ways we intuitively recoil from certain experiences and are drawn to others; in the ways we wither in certain environments and thrive in others. 

But however our souls speak to us, hearing their voice requires us to do something even more basic: to listen, we must first be quiet. It is again no coincidence that we cannot utter the Torah’s command to listen, “sh’ma,” without first telling ourselves, “shhh.” We can’t hope to hear the divine sound of our soul without first being quiet., 

Perhaps this is why our tradition has us recite the sh’ma no less than twice daily; morning and evening, we remind ourselves to be still so we can listen for the godly voice within. The daily practice of sh’ma has a weekly parallel in the Sabbath; the Hebrew word for which also, helpfully, begins with the sound “shhh” – Shabbat. On Shabbat, we “lay down the profanity of clattering commerce,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, so that in the silence we might hear our souls speak. 

But for most of us, even those daily and weekly practices are not enough. We are so accustomed to silencing our souls that we have all but forgotten their sound, even as they long for us to listen to their voices. So once a year, we have Yom Kippur, a shabbat shabbaton, a supreme sabbath, a day to cease not only our labors, but all aspects of quotidian living; a desperate measure – for desperate souls. 

It is fitting, then, that we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a prayer that reminds us that all our many words are and ought to be b’teilin u’mvutalin, utterly null and void. Yom Kippur is a day for the supreme silence we need to hear the speech of our souls. So we start Yom Kippur by telling ourselves, in effect, to be quiet; because if we are to listen to our souls speak, we must first embrace the stillness. 

Only when she steps outside the life she was supposed to be living does young Alice confront the most basic and most important question there is: “Who are you?” On Yom Kippur, we are like Alice in Wonderland. By inviting us to break radically with our routine reality, Yom Kippur enables us to peer beneath the people we’ve become to inquire about and discover who we truly are – to stop and be still so we can hear the sound of our souls, to discern the distance between who we were meant to be and who we are today. As Alice discovered, navigating this Wonderland is not easy. But it is nothing compared to the pain many of us know all too well of living lives that are not truly our own, seeking belonging by losing our selves.

This day invites us to healing and wholeness: reclaiming who we truly are, embracing our singular souls. This day invites us to ask ourselves, “Who are you?” to answer “I am Me,” and to live in the year to come in such a way that honors ourselves as the unique gifts from God that is each and every one of us. 

Gmar hatimah tovah.

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