When I was quite young, on summer days I would lie on the lawn and look up at the clouds. Those puffy white clouds took on various shapes and scenes in my imagination and I created fantastic stories from the cloud scenery passing over me. I believed that behind the clouds was God and that God was the director of those magnificent cloud shows performing just for me. Those days lying in the grass, looking up at the beautiful blue sky were quite memorable. They were times when I experienced a deep connection with God. Looking back, I see that those moments were imprinted in my mind because they were filled with love. I felt loved and embraced by an unending, deep and beautiful Love. A love I believed was from God: Divine Love.
I never had the conception of God as the old man with a long white beard in the sky. For me, God could not be seen, but the beauty that I witnessed in the world were God’s handiworks. Although I could not see God, as a young child, I felt that God was with me … looking out for me.
In my teen years, that all changed. Feelings of angst about fitting in and finding a place in this world appeared, as self-judgment reared its ugly head instead of turning to God, I distanced myself, convinced that God could never love me. I thought my childhood feelings of Divine love and connection were all a hoax played on the silly mind of a child. My reasoning for this change of heart went something like this: God is perfect. We are created in the image of God and supposed to act like it. Because I am not perfect, I must not be acting as if I am created in the image of God. Therefore, God would not love me or pay much attention to me at all.
It is illogical reasoning and it is sad to think that this teenager, at the time she needed God most, felt such self-rejection and pain, that she decided she wasn’t even good enough for God.
It would take me decades to come to understand the tragic and hurtful nature of such thoughts. And it took years to return to God. It wasn’t until my adult- hood that I realized I was not the only one to lose her childlike love of God and it is tragic that many of us never discover that connection again.
The High Holy days are filled with moments of remembering our imperfections, the times we “missed the mark.” The very purpose of these days is to acknowledge all the wrongs we have done and ask for forgiveness. We seek forgiveness and beg for mercy. We engage in a Teshuva that is more often than not, from a place of fear. Fear of punishment, fear of not living up to expectations—God’s, ours and others, fears about the reality of our imperfect, challenging lives and fear of the consequences we might suffer because of our actions. We approach God as Judge and jury and we plead for our lives.
But at the same time, our High Holiday liturgy also approaches God as a loving Parent. We call God Avienu~ our parent. We open the ark doors, stand and confess our transgressions, our imperfections to Aveinu~ a loving parent who gives us unconditional love and who forgives us and holds us near.
It is only when we know and feel unconditional love-love with out expectations, limits or conditions, that we can return love to the world. This world is in such dire need of healing, a healing that only love can mend. If we can’t love ourselves, how can we love another, how can we bring love into this broken world? Recognizing and believing that we are loved and working to feel Divine love, might be seen as narcissism, but it is not. Love of self is not at the expense of loving others. Again, if we do not love ourselves, we cannot muster up the capacity to love anyone else.
In a passage from the Talmud, we are taught the lesson of valuing our own life. We read, “Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only one] would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. [Who should drink the water?]Ben Petura taught: ‘Better both should drink and die than that one see the friend’s death,’ Rabbi Akiva came [later] and taught: [it says in Leviticus] ‘Your brother should live with you’ (Vayikra 25:36) – [and so this means] your life takes precedence over the life of your friend’s.'” (Bava Metzia 62a)
The point of this Talmudic teaching, is that if we give up our life to save another, than what does that say about how we feel about ourselves? For God also created us. If, all things being equal, we hand the water to over to our friend so that they may live instead of us, the transgression here is that we do not value our own life as much as we value someone else’s. We are all created equal in the image of God, therefore, it is not only okay, but required, all things being equal, for one to save oneself.
Love of self grounds us and enables us to fulfill commandments; obligations and acts of love and kindness. Love of self is not the end point. It is the starting place for a meaningful and purposeful life that brings love and joy into the world. The greatest commandment, the Golden Rule, V’ahavta L’recha Kamocha, Love your neighbor as yourself, has two parts: An obligation to love your neighbor and an obligation to love yourself. It is so basic a point—to love oneself that it is a fundamental assumption of Torah. We cannot fulfill the obligation to love our neighbor if we do not love ourselves.
On Yom Kippur, I will discuss love for our neighbor and love for the world, but before we can do that, we need to talk about feeling loved: feeling worthy, secure, desirable, important, and capable of making a difference in the world. Feeling loved means replacing the “I should haves” and the “if onlys” and the self-hate, self-judgment and criticism and with an awareness that we are okay just they way we are. Allowing feelings of being held, helped and supported by Divine, unconditional love, does not come naturally to most of us. Feeling loved takes compassion, faith and courage.
The compassionate heart is forgiving, loving and kind. Surely to give compassion to the world, we also have to give it to ourselves. The Hasidic masters teach us that rather than fearing our character defects and mistakes, we notice them. Notice and acknowledge. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about them. Notice these things so we can release them and let them go. Rather than push them away or bury them inside our psyche and physicality, devoting precious energy to concealing mistakes or things we are embarrassed about, we can simply notice them and with compassion understand that we are human, we sin and we hurt people. Its what we do, it is not who we are. What no one ever told my teenage self was that we can be both created in the image of God and make mistakes. They are not mutually excusive. At each moment of our lives we live with the yetzer haRah and the Yetzer ha tov, the inclination to do wrong things, and the inclination to do good.
To know this, is to bring love to oneself. Through compassion for our own self we can feel deep connections of unconditional, divine love.
A well-known story, From the Depths of the Heart, makes this point:
One time a Jewish peasant boy came to the big town to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. He didn’t know how to pray. He could not even read the letter Alef. He only saw that everyone was traveling to the synagogues to participate in the holy prayers. He thought, “If everybody is going to town I must go too!”
He arrived at the town synagogue with his father and watched the congregants crying and singing together swaying to and fro. He turned to his father and asked, “Father, what is this all about?”
His father turned to him and said, “The Holy One sits enthroned in the heavens and we pray all year long to God. We especially pray during these days of Rosh Hashanah when the whole world is being judged and each person is being judged for the rest of the year.”
The son responded, “Father, what am I to do since I do not know how to pray?”
His father quickly said to him condescendingly, “All you have to do is be quiet and listen to the other Jews praying. That is enough for you.”
“But Father, if I don’t know what these people are saying how is that going to effect God’s decision? How is being silent going to help me?”
His father became unnerved and blurted out, “Listen, you should be quiet so no one will know you’re an ignorant peasant!”
The son stood still for a couple of minutes as his father and the rest of the congregation continued praying and then – the young boy stood up and spoke loudly.
“I am going to pray to God in the way I know best. I will whistle to God as I whistle to my flock of sheep [and God will understand.]
He began whistling the sweet calling as most shepherds know. His father was enraged. The boy continued whistling with all his might not caring what other people thought.
The prayers of Israel were finally heard. The Gates of Heaven opened and their prayers received. (Nachlei Binah P. 317 #632 Tehillim Ben Beiti, Rabbi Eliezer of Komarno.)
Prayers of the heart are accessed and heard when we show compassion and love to our self. If we need compassion to feel loved, we also need courage.
It takes courage to show up to life, to relationships and to being human because so many times the stories we tell ourselves convince us that we can’t, we are not good enough, that we don’t belong. That we are different. That people see only our flaws.
In Exodus chapter 32:1 we read, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses…we do not know what has happened to him.’” So the people made the Golden Calf as a replacement for the love and leadership of Moses. The people were afraid that they had been rejected and they panicked, they were scared to be alone. They did not feel love; they only felt fear. The sin of the Golden Calf was not only their impatience resulting in idol worship, but rather it was the sin of forgetting that God was with them, that they had what they needed to be alright, that they were loved whether Moses was with them or not. In this story, the People were neither compassionate nor courageous. We all fear and have moments where we feel alone and overwhelmed. We can choose how to respond.
I remember when I was a rabbinical school student and preparing for my first High Holiday visit as rabbi in Joplin, MO. I had a chance meeting with Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, then the President of Hebrew Union College-JIR. He asked how I was doing and my reply was that I was very nervous for my first High Holiday pulpit. His answer to me was a quote from Reb Nachman: Kol Ha Olam Kulo. Gesher Tzar M’od. The whole world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. To feel loved is a courageous task. It is to come face-to-face with our fears and our doubts and still, cross the narrow bridge.
Divine love is with in each of us. It is not given conditionally. We are holy imperfect. We know it and so does God.
Along with compassion and courage, we need faith. I am not talking about Faith as in a monotheistic belief in God—although I encourage that. I am talking about keeping the faith. Faith that we will get through anything. Faith that is necessary to keep going, returning to Love and believing that we are loved, even on days when we don’t feel like we are.
There are many times a day that we will forget that we are loved. We know this and the Rabbis of the 6th century who composed much of our liturgy knew this too. They composed prayers to begin and end our day, which remind us that God loves us. In both our morning and evening prayers, we are reminded of divine love. We pray in the morning, Ahavah Rabbah Ahavtanu “With a great love you have loved us.” And at night we pray Ahavot olam beit yisrael amcha ahavta. You [God] have loved us, with an unending love! We begin and end our day with God’s reminder to us that we are loved. It is no coincidence that our day is bookended between these two love-prayers. We are not asked or commanded to believe we are loved, we are reminded of it, because it is true.
Through compassion, courage and faith we enter the realm of feeling loved.
Last year in my Yom Kippur sermon I wrote about depression, suicide and the need for all of us to know that Who we are makes a difference. We handed out Blue Ribbons and started a Blue Ribbon Who I Am Makes A Difference Campaign at Beth Am. I am happy to say that as a community, we have given away over 2000 Ribbons this year. This year we will continue to have a monthly Blue Ribbon Shabbat where we are encouraged to give Blue Ribbons to people and to share our reasons why.
But the more I thought about the campaign, the more I realized that it is easier to know that we matter, that we make a difference if we know that we are loved.
So this year, I want to you give you a gift as well. It is bracelet on which it is written, You are Loved. Courage. Faith. Compassion. There are plates underneath the first chair of the aisle. Please pass the plate and take a bracelet. Take one and Put it on, if you choose. It is a gift to remember that you are loved and when you forget that, bring compassion to yourself and keep the faith. Faith that you are loved even when you feel like you are not. Be of good courage knowing that you will be okay as you walk the narrow bridge, crossing through fears, doubts and challenges. May each of us know a year of unending, beautiful and eternal love.
Ken Yihei Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
Sermon Anthem: We Are Loved. Music, Shir Yaakov; Poem: We are Loved, Rabbi Rami Shapiro