Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells the following tale.
A young boy went off into the world and returned after many years to his father’s house after becoming a master artisan. His specialty? He had become an expert in the crafting of the menorah – the seven-branched candelabra that adorns every sanctuary of every synagogue in the world, reminding us of the grand menorah that once stood in the holy precinct of the Beit HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem.
Claiming to be the most skilled of all of his craft in the land, he asked his father to invite all the other artisans in town to come and view his masterpiece – his most prized menorah. This the father did, and all the finest craftsmen throughout the land came to view his son’s menorah.
But instead of pronouncing the work a masterpiece, each craftsman remarked that the menorah was deeply flawed. When each was asked to name the fault, each found something different they claimed was wrong. What one person found defective in it another would claim to be its most beautiful feature!
Later, the son said to his father, “What did you think of my menorah?”
The father replied, “I’m sorry to say all of your fellow lamp-makers told me that it was an ugly piece, of very inferior workmanship.”
“Ah,” replied the son, “but that is the secret! Yes, they all said it was ugly, but what nobody realized is this: Each saw different parts as ugly, and different parts as beautiful. This was true of all of them — what one saw as bad, the others saw as good. Each overlooked the mistakes that he himself would make, and saw only the shortcomings of the others.
“You see, father, I made this menorah in this way on purpose — completely out of mistakes and deficiencies — in order to demonstrate that none of us have perfection.”
Human life is a paradox. Our world and we are, at once, broken, imperfect, faulty and flawed, and at the same time we are also awesome, creative, inspiring, and holy.
Many of us recall the legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner. As he lay on his deathbed, his mouth grew dry. When a caregiver gave him some water, he sipped it gratefully and then uttered his final word: “Marvelous.”
Psychologist Russ Harris remarked that even on his deathbed, with his organs failing, his lungs collapsing, and leukemia destroying his body, B.F. Skinner could only marvel at one of life’s basic gifts. Marvelous.
Rosh HaShanah invites us to perform a Cheshbon HaNefesh – an accounting of our lives. We look back over the last weeks and months of the last year, and think of the choices we celebrate and the choices we regret. We think about how wondrous is human life and also how limited.
I think Rosh HaShanah is hard because we don’t like to think about our flaws and blemishes. Most of us do our best to lead the best possible lives we can lead. We try to make the best decisions we can and to do what we think is right.
But then we get that slap – what Harris calls the “Reality Slap”. It’s that slap in the face when we told that the perfect life we thought we were living is no longer perfect. It’s when we find out a loved one is dying, or when we discover that we ourselves are ill. It’s when we find out that we’re losing our jobs, that our business is failing, or an investment is going bust. It’s when we realize a spouse was unfaithful, or a marriage needs to end. It’s when we realize we’ve done things, inadvertently, or perhaps even deliberately, that caused offense and pain to people we care about, and that go against our most important values. To realize that our lives are not going to be what we expected is like a big slap of reality.
Our world is a broken world. The great master of Kabbalah Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that in the beginning there was darkness, a world unformed and void. And in love God brought light into that darkness and created a world. God extended a ladder to that world, made up of holy vessels of wisdom and understanding, compassion and justice, drive and wonder, beauty, and presence. But as strong as these holy vessels were, the light was too powerful for them to hold, and they shattered in a spiritual cataclysm that rained down brokenness and shards of holiness all around.
Our world is a broken world. Rebbe Nachman wanted us to understand that the menorah of creation is flawed, each branch filled with fault. And yet, we can take pieces of those shattered vessels and with them build a menorah that will radiate the holy light of God’s presence into the darkness of our world.
Rabbi Karyn Kedar reminds us that “The light from creation … runs through you…. It is what was, before you were born, and it is what will be, after you die. And as long as you have breath, it is what gives your life the capacity for holiness and goodness.”
“If your soul can be imagined as a brilliant beam of light originating from above, running through your mind, into your core, and out through your heart, then every offense, every bit of criticism, every attack throughout your life has the capacity to diminish that light, and the dimming of the light within your being is the ultimate loss.”
Our world is a broken world. And yet we so badly, so desperately want to avoid its brokenness. We want life to be perfect. We expect life to be perfect. When things go right we assume that’s how it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be healthy. We’re supposed to be successful and prosperous. We’re supposed to be rich and secure. We’re supposed to be loved by people we can trust, we’re supposed to be satisfied and at peace. And we’re not. None of us are. Not completely anyway. And the gap between what there is and what we think there ought to be is what causes us so much angst, anguish, and agony.
So how do we begin to heal? Let me give an example.
From the time I was a toddler, both of my father’s parents lived in a nursing home. My grandfather died when I was five and my grandmother moved to live in the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, a nursing home just a mile or two from my house.
Life was not easy for my grandmother. She was terribly hard of hearing, she had cataracts that made it hard for her to read, and her arthritis confined her to a wheelchair. When I was an early teen, I used to ride my bicycle to visit her. She was very brave, and never complained when I took her outside in her wheelchair, barely controlling her as we maneuvered down the hill to sit by a shaded bench together.
But as I started high school, I began to spend less time with my grandmother. My father would offer to take me with him on his Sunday visits, but I often refused. I was uncomfortable at the nursing home, it was hard to talk to my grandmother who had such a hard time hearing me. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to her.
In tenth grade, our confirmation class decided to do a Chanukah celebration for a local nursing home. I was very excited, and I persuaded my classmates to do the presentation at my grandmother’s nursing home.
As Chanukah grew closer, it had been a little while since I had seen my grandmother. My dad had mentioned that Grandma had declined a little, but I didn’t really know what that meant. All excited, I ran up to her room to bring her down to the program, and I was shocked by what I saw.
My grandmother didn’t recognize me, and she couldn’t really communicate or speak. I tried talking to her, telling her who I was, but she didn’t seem to understand or respond.
I left the room in tears. My parents tried to calm me down, and it took a while for me to regain my composure. My mom asked me if I could lead the program if my grandmother was there, or would I be too upset. And then I said it. “No,” I said. “I don’t think I can.”
“That’s okay,” my mom said. I led the program, and afterward I went back upstairs to Grandma’s room. I couldn’t go in, the nurse said, because they were helping her change clothes back into her nightgown for bed.
Four weeks later, my grandmother passed away. I was fifteen years old.
I have never forgotten that night. Never. I keep thinking about my grandmother and her experience that night. For my grandmother, getting dressed was an arduous chore. Her stiffened joints made every movement so painful, and I knew it took at least an hour for her to get dressed.
I remember her sitting in her wheelchair that night. She was wearing a nice dress, her hair was done, and the nurse had just put on her lipstick. She must have been so confused – why did they go through all that trouble to get her dressed, ready, and beautiful when she never got to go anywhere.
I look back on those months of my teen years and I have so much regret. I regret that I didn’t visit my grandmother for all those Sundays. I regret that I didn’t have the courage to allow her to participate in the Chanukah program. My heart breaks when I think of her confusion, getting undressed after just getting dressed, wondering what was going on.
Each of us who shares these holy days together is a blemished and imperfect vessel. Like the menorah fashioned from flaw and failure, each of us can look back and find moments when we realize we made mistakes, when we did not act as we wished we had, when we lacked or ignored wisdom that would have helped us make a better choices.
We look at what we imagine a perfect life could be, and then we look at the life we actually led. And there is a gap, what Harris calls “The Reality Gap.” Sometimes the gap is modest, easily repaired. A petty misunderstanding can be repaired with a simple apology. An injury can be healed. But sometimes the gap is much larger, and we have to accept that the vision of what we thought life was going to be is never going to be realized. A chronic illness will never fully heal. An economic loss may never be reversed. A relationship may never be repaired. And living with that gap can be enormously difficult.
Life is never wrapped up in a box of happiness with a big beautiful bow. Life is far more complex. Like the menorah of faults and flaws, there are pieces of life that are beautiful and wondrous and others that are simply awful and challenging.
“The fact is this:” Harris writes, “to live a full human life is to experience the full range of human emotions – not just the ones that ‘feel good.’ Our feelings are like the weather, continually changing: at times very pleasant, at other times extremely uncomfortable.”
So just as it is important for us to experience moments of unbridled joy and happiness, so is it also important for us experience moments of anguish and regret. We heal the reality gap by appreciating the idea that both are blessings, both helping us to understand who we are and what our mission and purpose in life should be.
I am blessed to be the father of three extraordinary children. I know that as a father I try to do my best to support them to be all they can be, to guide them to be their best, to inspire them to embrace the values that are the bedrock of our family and our people. I also know that as a father there are times that I have let them down and disappointed them, that perhaps I pressured them more than they wanted, that I wasn’t present when they needed me to listen, that I yelled too much in the house. And I regret the gap that exists between the father I wish I were and the father I am. I regret the gap that exists between the husband I wish I were, and the husband I am. I regret the gap that exists between the rabbi, the friend, the mentor, the colleague, the leader I wish I were, and the rabbi, the friend, the mentor, the colleague, and the leader I actually am.
But regret is good. The Hebrew word for regret is חרטה – charata – which comes from the root meaning to engrave. Our regrets are etched into our souls – we always carry them with us, but regret can also inspire us to reach for a different future, with better wisdom and understanding of ourselves. Regret helps us learn to be more sensitive and focused on finding a path to grow closer to our ideal. The regret I carry with me from my experience with my grandmother inspired me to learn to be more comfortable with the ill and the dying. It taught me not to wait until it’s too late to tell the people you love how you feel. It was because of my regret for how I lived my life as a teenager that, when my mother told me my father, at home with hospice, wasn’t doing well, I decided not to wait and to bring my family to Washington the very next day. And thus I had the privilege of spending that next morning with my father, and being with him when he died that afternoon.
Regret is good when we embrace the lessons we have to learn from the slaps of reality we all suffer. But having learned the lessons regret affords, we must then, with newfound wisdom and acceptance, afford ourselves forgiveness.
Forgiveness cleanses our spirits of the toxicity of regret. Regret reminds us that we are flawed; forgiveness reminds us that we are human, both mortal and divine. Though our world is broken, forgiveness reminds us that it is nonetheless, wondrous. Though our lives are often filled with painful, agonizing slaps of reality, forgiveness reminds us that we can still embrace each day as an extraordinary gift from God. Though we are flawed, and regret our faults, when we forgive others their faults, and forgive ourselves our own, we come to see that we are still the vessels through which God’s light flows into the world. And despite the fact that in life we will never achieve all we want to achieve, never accomplish all we hope to accomplish, never realize all our dreams and never be all we wish we could become, we can, still, each day, each week, each month, each year, reach and strive and learn and grow. We may regret, but we may also forgive.
Forgiveness is the path to heal that painful gap between God’s world and our own. And on this Rosh HaShanah, when we take stock of the measure of our lives, flaws and all, we may see the full brilliance of God’s light shining through us, helping us to see that our lives and our world is broken, flawed, and … marvelous.