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Kol Nidre - 2008 / 5769

09/20/2008 09:09:05 PM


Rabbi Carey Brown

Have you heard that teenagers no longer email one another?  Just as we finally figured out email – so much so that it became a central manner of communication in our lives –it seems to be turning obsolete.  Well, maybe obsolete goes a bit too far, but at least the technology is changing.  Those on the cutting edge – always the youth of any generation – have moved on.  Social networking is the new thing – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter.

Now, for those of us not quite on the razor’s edge of technology, a quick primer on social networking: Users create a personal webpage with information about themselves. One can post pictures, videos, and of course text. People write about their lives one small thought at a time. The object of all this is to connect with others. You might read that your friend Matthew posted new pictures from his vacation, that your friend Sonia invited you to join her in an effort to lobby for UN action in Darfur, or that David suggests reading a newspaper article that he finds interesting.

In addition, friends will notify you of their “status updates.” Imagine standing with a megaphone in Times Square and broadcasting what you are doing, feeling, thinking, missing, hating, loving at any given instant.  Instead of your voice being heard by all those within hearing range of the megaphone, your status is broadcast as a short statement – just a sentence or two – to be read by anyone who is connected to you as a friend. On a philosophical level, your “status” could be understood as an existential statement of self-reflection, is generally of a more ordinary nature.  From the sublime to the ridiculous – I’m engaged!  I’m clipping my nails! I’m enjoying a pumpkin-spiced latte!  It is kind of like having a very personal newspaper to read every time you connect to the Internet.  In fact, Facebook calls this stream of updates a user’s “newsfeed.”  Read it often enough, and you begin to have a good sense of someone’s daily life.

For example, imagine this status-update scenario, had Facebook or Twitter existed 2500 years ago.  Our Yom Kippur afternoon reading of the book of Jonah might go something like this:

Jonah is enjoying his weekend in Jaffa.
Jonah thinks he is hearing voices.
Jonah is going sailing to get away from that nagging voice.
Jonah thinks he should go to the doctor to have his head checked.
Jonah is overboard.
Jonah thinks that fish guts are disgusting.
Jonah is not looking forward to prophesying in Nineveh.
In many ways, the status update phenomenon reflects the narcissism of modern life.  It is a focus so individualized and self-centered.  Does the world need to know that you just cleaned your fish tank or that you think the latest song on the radio is terrible?

Yet, on the other hand, this method of social engagement is an incredible mechanism for keeping in touch, especially when so many of us live great distances from one another.  If I know that I am unlikely to see my closest family and friends with any frequency, it is nice to be able to know about some of the smaller details of their lives so that we when do talk and see each other, we do not have to play catch-up. 

A recent NY Times Sunday magazine ran a cover story about this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.”  “Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.”1

Of perhaps greatest benefit, social networking is a wonderful way for us to maintain what sociologists call “weak ties” – those relationships that we share with acquaintances, old schoolmates, camp friends…  It has been a thrill for me to reconnect with friends from elementary school, relishing in the pictures of my camp bunkmate’s new baby, and following the travels of my friend during her year in Ghana.   But our virtual connections are, of course, not substitutes for our “strong ties” – our primary relationships that require real work to maintain.  The pointillist painting is just a one-way visual.  It does not stand as a proxy for a relationship.  

As we increasingly connect with one another via these virtual associations, we are faced with a challenge in our work to maintain those relationships that qualify as “strong ties” – those with our siblings, parents, children, and close friends – especially when distance separates us.  How many of us live in a different place from where we grew up?  How many of us live within an hour’s drive of all of our siblings, parents, children, and friends?  I know that my own family falls easily into this category.  I live in Massachusetts, my parents are in Minnesota, my brother lives in California, and my husband’s family is in Pennsylvania.  How often do all of us have a chance to see one another?  Once a year, twice?  Three times if we are lucky?  What does this add up to, a handful of days at most?

For those of us whose primary relationships occur at a distance, at this season, especially, we find that the work ofteshuva, the difficult work of repentance, comes with an additional handicap.  As we are called to take a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, to examine our deeds from the year and the status of our relationships, we are called to do so from a distance.  

In order to engage in heshbon hanefesh, we must measure the status of our relationships, to assure we are setting them on the right course.  We ask ourselves: Who am I?  Where am I in my life?  In what ways have I let my insecurities, my self doubt stifle me?  In what ways have I hardened my heart to the people around me?  Have I let myself love?  Have I let others love me?  What pain have I caused?  What potential do I have?  Has my year been marked more by longing or gratitude?  By brokenness or wholeness?  By distrust or faith?  By animus or by love?

Once we determine the answers to these questions, we continue by engaging in teshuva – repentance – by approaching those with whom we need to make amends.  But what happens when you need to do teshuva with someone you love who lives three time zones away?  It can be so difficult to maintain these ties and to do what is right in repairing and maintaining the relationships.  It can also be easy to fall into the most dangerous and false sense of teshuva – we ignore the problem, and convince ourselves that everything is okay.  It is easy to shut out uncomfortable tension when we are not confronted with the issues face to face.

And when we do get together for the real face-to-face encounters, what do we do?  We talk about the weather, the baseball score, the travel headaches we endured to see one another.  We spend a lot of energy broadcasting our small status updates, but how much time do we devote to the real relational work that is necessary to maintain healthy relationships?

Although I speak of those relationships we have that are separated by geographical distance, we of course know that there are other emotional gulfs that keep us from facing the necessary steps of teshuva even if that person lives down the street or in the same house as us.  Even without physical distance, often the gulf of hurt feelings creates a barrier that can be difficult to overcome.  An incredible story in the Babylonian Talmud 2 shares the intensity of this difficulty:

It all began with an argument about an oven: An oven made of coils became ritually impure, because a critter accidentally got trapped inside.   The rabbis ask, can the oven be taken apart and repaired in such a way that it could become pure again?  Rabbi Eliezer says it can.  All of his colleagues say it cannot.  Rabbi Eliezer uses every argument he can think of to support his case, but his colleagues, led by Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Academy, are not really listening.  Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer's colleagues vote to excommunicate him from the Academy.

Now, Rabban Gamliel happened to also be Rabbi Eliezer’s brother-in-law, and his excommunication created an enormous family rift.  A small argument about an oven grew into a disproportionate emotional clash.  Rabbi Eliezer was deeply hurt.

After the oven argument, there was an intense bitterness between Eliezer and Gamliel, so much so that R. Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom, who also happened to be the sister of Rabban Gamliel, made sure her husband was never alone, so that he would not pray for the death of her brother.   One day she was interrupted by a knock at the door.  When she came back into the house, she found her husband fallen on his face, prostrated in prayer. “Get up!” she cried out to him, “You have just killed my brother.” Her prediction was correct – just then an official announcement was made that Rabban Gamliel had died. “How did you know it?” Eliezer questioned his wife.  Her reply, “My father always taught me: ‘All gates are locked, except the gates of wounded feelings.’”

We have so many images of gates opening and closing on Yom Kippur. Tonight, as we heard the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, we removed all of the Torah scrolls from the ark, leaving the empty doors open, symbolic of the gates of prayer open wide to receive our words of sincere prayer.  Our Neilah service, which will take place immediately before sundown tomorrow, engages the imagery of the gates closing as we squeeze in one final opportunity for repentance and prayer on this holiest of days.  The “gates of wounded feelings” seem to be of a different nature.  Our hurt feelings are like an open sore; as long as they remain unaddressed, they fester and are a constant source of our calling out to God.  They do not go away.  There is intense power in the prayers of those who hurt, so intense that the gates are left open to receive them.

There is an important addendum to the story.  Later, we read in another section of the Talmud3, Rabbi Eliezer fell seriously ill. Rabbi Akiva, who was one of Eliezer’s prized students, came with his companions to visit him in the hope that they could persuade him to repent for the oven incident. Elizer asked, “Why have you come?”  “We have come to study Torah,” they replied. With a note of anger in his voice, he asked, “And why did you not come before now?”  They answered, “We had no time.”

Here was Eliezer, a man who was so profoundly affected by the hurt feelings, from so many years ago.  The response he received from Akiva and company was one with which we are all too familiar: No time. Thinking, like Rabbi Akiva, that we don’t have time to repair our relationships, is so common.  We all use this excuse, and we know that it is just that – an excuse. 

“The gates of hurt feelings are always open.” Imma Shalom’s statement is profound.  Imma Shalom seems to be the key to the story. Her name, Imma Shalom, meaning, “mother of peace,” indicates that her position in the family was one of peacemaker.  Her brother and her husband were opponents in the story; she attempts to pick up the shattered pieces of the family; and in the Talmud’s over-all structure and placement of this account, her teaching about God’s response to the prayers of the humiliated is the story’s main point.  She has an understanding that hurt feelings do not go away, even when those who caused them are not active in our lives.  Imma Shalom understands that the health of a relationship depends on the repair of those hurt feelings.  The status of our own spiritual health is predicated on our abilities to engage in the necessary teshuva to repair those relationships. 

Let us return to Facebook and consider again the question that greets its users at the top of their computer screen: “What’s your status?”  It is the existential question of Yom Kippur.  A question, that when taken seriously, can help lead us to a process of heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul and hopefully, onward to a path of teshuva.  One of the brilliant effects of the Facebook phenomenon is that we, like Facebook users, can be called to check our status on an ongoing basis.  Heshbon hanefesh is not limited to Yom Kippur or this season of repentance.  It is a process that is most effective when we are continually engaged. 

Yet, unlike Facebook, the question of our status is not about the small pointed dots of our personal details, but about the status of our relationships.  We are not called to broadcast these findings to the world, but we are expected to acknowledge the results to ourselves.  So let us consider as the gates of prayer are spread open before us this Yom Kippur…

What’s your status?

1 NYTimes Magazine, Sunday, September 5, 2008

2 BT Baba Metzia 59b

3 BT Sanhedrin 68a

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782