“The Curated Life”, Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim, Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

The Curated Life

Rosh Hashanah 5776

Rabbi Rosie Haim

Remember when you needed film in your camera to take a picture?! It seems so long ago!! Using that style of camera we were judicious in how many pictures we took of the same thing: probably one more just for good measure.  Inevitably there were the heads chopped off or the eyes closed that ruined the shot we had hoped to frame.  With the digital age we’ve become accustomed to taking as many pictures as necessary to make sure that everyone looks good, and then we try to take it on everyone’s cell-phone camera until someone finally says “I’ll just post it on facebook and tag everyone!”  Before we post, it however, comes the editing. Easily selecting the best one of the bunch, we can change the lighting, the coloring, crop it just so, and viola! A gorgeous picture of everyone smiling and enjoying!

         I enjoy seeing these pictures of your families, and of friends and relatives from far flung places.  It makes the world smaller, and by simply hitting the “Like” button, I can feel as though I’ve made a connection that says “I see you and want to be part of your life.” And I love when you “Like” my pictures and reach out to say hello to me with the simple click of a button.  The ability to connect to each other and share our lives almost instantaneously is a real gift.

I’m sure, however, that I’m not the only one to have noticed that there is an inherent gap between what we show the world and what happens in real life.  It has to be that way because No one, no family is happy all the time, nor is the pattern of the average day leaping from one achievement to another.  If we think about what gets emailed around, and posted on facebook or other social medial, we realize that it’s usually the beautiful and the fun and adventurous sides of our lives. We have sifted and sorted through all the retakes, edited the pictures in content and quality to create a certain kind of image.  It’s as if we’ve become the curators of our life and are preparing a kind of exhibit to publish only what we want others to see.

One blogger writes about the beautifully curated life she posts on Facebook.  Playing with her kids, she posts pictures of them in perfectly coordinated outfits lounging over a backgammon game with coffee in hand.  But what she didn’t post, she reveals, included the argument over what to wear, the fact that the kids only stacked the backgammon pieces and when her daughter found out two of the white pieces were lost and her stack would never be as tall as her brother’s, she had a melt down, knocked the table and spilled the hot chocolate which remained under the table because she was not planning on cleaning it up until she’d finished her already cold coffee. (Sarah Tuttle-Singer kveller feb. 25, 2013) That’s the invisible story we erase from social media!

And what about in our conversations? So often we gloss over the real concerns of our day and fill our conversations with polite chatter that obscures the pains we carry in our hearts.  We visit with family members taking pictures of celebrations and talking about the weather, yet may miss the opportunity to share the struggles and storms in our lives.

In our blissful moments posted on FB or our family-friendly talks, we neglect to tell the whole story and present something more like what Matt Rilley writes about in a WSJ article entitled “Hard-wired Hypocrisy in Our Divided Minds.” In his article, he asserts we engage in a kind of “Public relations exercise: so that we project a particular perspective to the outside world.”  In this narration, how we tell our stories becomes an airbrushed version of our lives, and the topics we choose to discuss may be edited versions of that particular chapter. No one is happy all the time, and yet we are often compelled to measure ourselves against that artificially constructed perfect life where everyone projects the perfect family-life, and their children as above average, and their vacations seem always sunny. 

This is most definitely not meant as criticism for the pictures and stories that share our joys and accomplishments! But let’s ask ourselves: What would it mean if we removed this pressure of perfection whether in our virtual communities, or in the pictures we paint with our words in our personal relationships? What if we dared to share our authentic selves?

There is a rabbinic insight that applies in this season, captured in a word play between the two holidays Purim and Yom Kippurim.  Noting the similarity in sound, the rabbis remind us that Purim is the time when we put on our masks in frivolity, but on Yom K’Purim—the k-sound meaning “a day like Purim,” we are invited to take off the masks we use daily to shield our true selves, and so, hide ourselves no more.  As it is Rosh Hashanah and we mark the beginning of these Ten Days of Awe until Yom Kippur, wouldn’t it be awesome to remove not only our masks before God, but also to unmask ourselves before others—to end the masquerade that our lives are perfect.

Surely we are gathered here to examine our lives and know well what is behind the masks we so carefully apply. An alphabet of challenges: from anxieties and betrayal, to challenges with children or childlessness, disappointments, embarrassments, failures, growing waistlines, hatefulness, insecurities, joblessness…the alphabet continues.

We hide these because they sometimes make us feel imperfect around others who seem to have conquered or are immune to the very things that make us feel vulnerable or embarrassed. We hide them away for fear that others will think less of us if they truly knew who we are beneath our many masks. But it is precisely this inability to admit we are not perfect; our unwillingness to present our whole selves that interferes with our ability to connect with others. 

What if as we reviewed our lives in this holiday season, we also reviewed the way we share our lives? What if we shared our lives more fully with each other and could draw support and caring from our family and friends, from our colleagues and even the strangers in our midst?

Sharing our lives more fully would begin with a commitment to live with more vulnerability. In her bookDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Dr. Brene Brown encourages us to embrace our own vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we resist the desire to numb and isolate ourselves.

She’s not the first to suggest this.  The brilliance of our Bible stories is that the people who are upheld as our heroes embrace their imperfections. They are our role modelsbecausetheir story exposes their human struggles.  They have a kind of Spiritual nakedness. Curating their lives, our ancestors may have been tempted to post the picture of the perfect family, but the Torah has the courage to present their vulnerabilities: 

Rather than Abraham and Isaac smiling on the top of Mt. Moriah with a caption like “father-son hike, at the Summit! Wish you were here!” we are given the true picture of a man’s inability to communicate with his family—his wife Sarah has no knowledge that he decided to endanger their son Isaac’s life. 

Instead of posting a holiday picture of one big happy family of all the children of Israel in matching outfits, the Biblical narrative describes Jacob’s complicated relationship with Rachel and Leah, and the sibling rivalry and jealousy between all their children with only Joseph standing out in his coat of many colors. 

What about the edited version of a picture of the three smiling siblings of Moses, Aaron and Miriam all together? Behind the family friendly moment the Torah reveals real life complicated relationships and emotions of Moses as a person who sometimes acted in anger killing an Egyptian and striking a rock; and Miriam and Aaron as gossiping about Moses’ wife.

Posted with great pride might have been King David looking dashing going out into battle behind his shield with the Magen David, but The Torah makes sure we know he lusted after Bathsheba, and even knowingly sent her husband out in battle to his death.

And even the man of peace, King Solomon whose curated picture would surely have shown him standing in front of the most magnificent Holy Temple, is shown with flaws when The Bible reminds us he used forced labor. 

Whether it is in relations between spouses, children, siblings, as leaders, or facing ethical decisions, by showing us the fullness of their lives, including the flaws, these classic stories force us to recognize and accept that we are not alone in having imperfections.

One more modern beloved figure teaches us this lesson and helps us to give it a name.  Not to mix holiday metaphors – but let me tell you about the “latke moment.” Many of you will remember Julia Child, whose raison d’être was to demystify and bring French Cuisine into the home kitchens of amateurs like me!  On her television program, while intending to delicately flip, what we would call, a latke, she instead dropped it on the floor.  Her public exposure of the fact that she wasn’t perfect, allowed for us to try making latkes too.  We all have ourlatke moment! That moment or experience which lays bare our shortcomings, our fears, our struggles! That’s the risk! But the benefit is that our revelation may spark a response in someone else. 

When we acknowledge our struggles, that’s when we begin to move beyond feelings of isolation and silent suffering. Rather than friends getting together without anyone sharing the difficulties in their marriage, or letting others in on the hardships with their child or parent: afraid of being judged, afraid of how people will change their opinion of us, we hold tightly to our secrets. Instead, had we allowed for a deeper give and take of our lives, perhaps they would have taken away some wisdom and most importantly some gentle caring of hearts reaching out.  When we open ourselves to sharing our vulnerabilities and we invite others to reach out to us, we let them know that we need some kind of support from a word of encouragement to information or resources that support our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

It begins with the simple way we ask each other “how are you?” In the equivalent phrase in Hebrew one inquires: Ma shlomcha/shlomech?  One asks how is your Shalom—your peace. Further understanding of this expression is derived from the biblical story when our patriarch Jacob sent Joseph to “Go and see theshalomof your brothers.”  In this context, Jacob wanted to know about more than their health, he was asking for a report that included their condition: their problems, their threats, and what forces were impacting their welfare.  As we ask about each other’s wellbeing, we open ourselves to sharing about our shalom, the condition of our peace of mind. 

Opening our lives, we quickly discover that we are not alone in the challenges we carry.Rav Nachman of Bratzlav put it like this: Kol ha olam kulo—gesher tzar me’od—The whole world is a very narrow bridge — v-ha-ikar lo l’fached klal— and the important thing is not to be afraid. We discover that others are walking on that same narrow bridge with us: with similar concerns; and the fears we have are shared in their hearts too; and then suddenly the world seems less frightening, more welcoming.

I think most of us can agree that whereFearwill destroy and paralyze, Love will open us up to aworld of connections and possibilities.  To live with love and be emotionally open is the ultimate act of human courage. Operating from a perspective oflove will help us toassume what Rosemund Zander, the author ofthe Art of Possibility,calls “a posture of openness.” My mom has always scolded me to pay attention to my posture, to sit up straight—it takes ten pounds off, she reminds me!

But this is a different kind of “posture of openness.” It is about letting go of fear that weighs us down, so we can be open to finding the good in each person. When we turn the switchto love, love helps us to see that people are doing the best they can.

Living with love, begins with loving oneself. The Midrash preserves the story of a person who went to visit Rabbi Hillel with the demand “Teach me everything there is to know about Judaism while I stand on one foot, and I’ll convert.”  Rabbi Hillel, known for his insight into the human condition, recognized the man’s desire to belong –especially to belong to the Jewish people, and patiently replied,“V’ahavta l’re’echa k’mocha.  Love your neighbor as yourself.All the rest is commentary now go and learn it!  

Love your neighbor as yourself!What a tall order! The rabbis were puzzled by this verse of Torah because the Torah cannot command something that is impossible to do. They identified an inherent problem: what if a person does not love him/herself, then how can that person love another? We’ve all known people whose unresolved issues cause them to lash out at others.  How then can this proposition actually be fulfilled by everyone?  The rabbis, therefore, instruct us to read the verse on a more literal level—reframing “the kemocha, the like you”allows for us, at the very least, to read it as “Want for your neighbor what you want for yourself because they are kemocha –like you.”Human, vulnerable filled with fear and capable of love!

 What is it we want for ourselves? We all want to be judged fairly; or even as the Pirke Avot: The Saying of our Ancestors would instruct us—we want to be judgedl’chaf zachut–we want to be given the benefit of the doubt.  If we expand on our narrowly curated life on Facebook or share our challenges with a friend;if we open up to tell another person our hurts and hardships;wewant to know that we can trust that our vulnerabilities will not be mocked or cynically evaluated.  Putting ourselves out there with honesty, we want for ourselves what we want for others: to have our sensitivities, our struggles, our exposed hearts viewed with compassion and caring; greeted with grace and wisdom,andheld in trust.  In our hyper-critical world, what I want for myself that I can give to another is thegift of living with love and not fear.

In our tradition this kind of love, is known as chesed.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of London and global religious leader describes chesed like this: “It is usually translated as “kindness” but it also means “love”—not love as emotion or passion…but love that is loyalty, and the loyalty that is love…the love that means being ever-present for the other, in hard times as well as good…Those who know it experience the world differently from those who do not.  It is not for them a threatening and dangerous place. It is one where trust is rewarded precisely because it does not seek reward. Chesed is the gift of love that begets love. (Mishkan HaNefesh p358).

We recognize chesed, this lovingkindness as a universal truth that transcends our age or our circumstance. When researchers asked a group of children “What does love mean?” they received answers like this one from 8 year old Rebecca:  “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.” And the answer that showed that even a four year old knows this kind of love came from a child whose next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy replied, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”  (email from Albert Bassan)

Chesed is found in this story about the Hasidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov who talking to his disciples, said: “Today I learned the meaning of love from a drunk!  On my way home from visiting my rebbe I stopped at the tavern to get a cool drink.  At the table next to me were two people arguing.  One said to the other, ‘Vladimir, you don’t love me.’  Vladimir screamed at him: ‘Yuri, I’ve known you all my life.  Of course I love you!’  Yuri, now weeping, said again: ‘Vladimir, you don’t love me.’ Again, aghast, Vladimir yelled: ‘Why do you say such a thing?  You know I love you with all my heart.’  Yuri replied: ‘No you don’t.  If you love me, you would know what hurts me.’”  Chesed, Lovingkindness requires empathy.

Because we know what hurts them because it hurts us, we can choose to respond with our empathetic hearts from a place of love and kindness; with generosity of spirit and compassion in our heart. If we want this for ourselves, we will have to put aside our fears and open ourselves to do this for others too. Responding from a feeling ofchesed, and not fear, we can reach out in a way that sanctifies life and makes it holy.

Our lives as Jews are all about holiness.  Our tradition implores us“Kedoshim tihiyu: You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy!”  Whilethewordholy,”in Hebrew Kaddosh,is usually understood to meanseparateness, itis not about separating ourselves from all others, but rather, as rabbi and psychologist Edward Feinstein writes: Holiness is about “attaching ourselves to one another; opening ourselves up to embrace each other and to form bonds of significance.”

Sacred bonds are honored as we engage in the important ceremonial rituals in Jewish tradition connected to that root wordKaddosh–that you know so well. For example, when we sayKiddish-the blessing associated with wine, it is not about the wine being sacred, but rather a celebration of the bonds that gather us together in celebration of Shabbat or joyous occasions.  Amarriage is known as Kiddushin, and it’s about celebrating the binding of two lives together. And on the opposite side of emotions, when we sayKaddish, over our beloved deceased relatives and friends we are declaring “Death cannot sever the bonds that hold us together.”  Commanded to be Holy thus does not mean to separate or isolate ourselves, but rather to live with holiness in our heart is “To open ourselves up, to draw the circle of relationship wider.” 

We discover instruction for creating these sacred bonds in our holiness prayer itself– theKedusha–repeated daily in the Amida.  It begins with the Seraphim—these angelic beings—who in the words of the prayer “v’kara zeh el zeh—who call one to the other.” Chanting this part of the prayer, the worshipper might choose to look and bow to the left, then to the right, as if turning with humility one to the other and calling to each other. Then the choreography continues, as enunciating each of the words “Kaddosh, Kaddosh, Kaddosh—Holy, Holy, Holy is the God of hosts” we rise on our toes — lifting just a little higher each time, as if we are reaching toward ever greater holiness ourselves. Imagine this picture—people looking at each other, calling out to each other, engaging in mutual respect, and stretching ever higher in our desire to create sacred relationships. 

In his recent book,The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks identifies what it means to reach toward holiness, reminding us: “It is not about being better than someone else, but about being better than we used to be.” This season calls to us and reminds us that in the peak experiences of life it is easy to feel the power of holiness. But our challenge is to open ourselves to it in the ordinary encounters of daily life by creating relationships with others that are empathetic and loving. By responding with understanding and compassion, we are reaching out in holiness, and bettering ourselves.

While it is the time of year when dressed in our best, gathered perhaps as families or friends to celebrate these sacred holidays, we will take lots of pictures to put on Facebook, it is also the time to turn the camera around and take a true selfie: to be honest in facing ourselves.  Now is the time that demands that we curate our lives in a way that does not seek to cover up our flaws in fear of being judged by God, but rather when we are encouraged to acknowledge that we are not perfect, and to embrace our vulnerabilities. Now we say we are sorry for acting out of fear; we apologize for our harsh critique of a person’s life.  When we do this we let people know we care about the condition of their life, and that we think they are worthy of dignity and respect, which after all, is what we seek for ourselves.

As we curate our lives, whether on Facebook or face-to-face, let us also put our authentic selves on view.  By sharing ourselves, our vulnerabilities, struggles and all, and expecting and extending acceptance and love, we make it possible for the one who clicks LIKE to deepen our sacred connections.  May we know that while we may like each others pictures, what we really like is deeply sharing our lives and feeling truly connected to each other.

Now is the time topose –but not for a picture. Rather, in the words of our tradition: Now is the time to “…pose this challenge to our spirit(adapted from Machzor of the Reform Movement)

May we learn to embrace as easily as we evaluate.

May we quiet the ever-present instinct to judge and critique….

May we learn to accept help from those who care for us….

May generosity of spirit find a home within each of us.” Amen.