I want to tell you the story of the first time that I remember hearing a big, strong, “no.”
I was in college. Of course, I had heard “no’s” before. From my parents, teachers, friends. But this one was different.
As early as my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to run for President of the Jewish Student Union (which is what we called Hillel in those days). I waited until my junior year, working hours each week with a bunch of Jewish student groups, and then submitted my name for the ballot.
Given that it’s an election year in our country, and we have many political people in the congregation, let me tell you a little about the demographics of Columbia University undergrads in the early 1990s. There were a lot of Jews. Probably 1/3 of the population. It will not be surprising to learn that many of these Jews were not very involved in the JSU, and were uninterested in voting in the elections. Among those who were involved and interested, many were Orthodox. And even though I was pretty observant, I knew I wasn’t really one of them. I needed to reach outside the traditional constituency, get out the vote with those who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to participate.
I’m talking about the non-Jews, of course. There was no way I was going to get my less observant Jewish friends, “scarred” by years of Hebrew school or youth group, to vote. But non-Jews? They were game. And it was totally legal, according to the JSU election by-laws. (Yes, there were by-laws.)
Apparently, it was legal but not kosher, and I got called into the JSU executive director’s office to be told that I was to stop encouraging non-Jews to vote. Which I did.
A night or two later, I was hanging out at a polling place with a friend who was volunteering. Another friend (“friend”) walked by and saw me standing within 150 feet of the polling place. Apparently that, too, was against the rules. I had not read them in their entirety.
I was called back into the ED’s office, and told by a panel of my peers that because of my two infractions, I had been kicked out of the elections for president. I pleaded with them, I cried. Ultimately, though, I was escorted from the ED’s office. As I crossed the threshold, and turned around to make one more point, the door closed quietly.
I can tell you the color of the stained rug underneath my feet, the shape of the mezuzah on the door, the scraped-up door-jam painted a dingy white. The door itself, with the JSU sign. Everything I had been working for 2.5 years was on one side of the door. I was on the other.
If I were to ask you--what was your first “no,” would you be able to tell me? The dream job you didn’t get, the relationship that disintegrated for reasons you can’t articulate even today, the loved one who passed away too young, too soon? The Yom Kippur liturgy, resonant with a gate open in front of us, but soon closing, coaxes us to acknowledge that these no’s come, that they come more often than we would like, and that they change the arc of our lives forever. The goal is to accept the “no.” But that does not happen in an instant. It happens over time.
We take as an example the entire book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses learns how to die.
A few chapters earlier, in the book of Numbers, we had read the story of the Israelites, thirsty in the desert. They had gathered to complain to Moses and Aaron, who brought the complaints to God. God tells Moses to speak to a certain rock, and it will pour out its water. The community and their livestock will drink.
Moses complies, but he’s for some reason he’s angry with the Israelites. He yells at them--calls them “rebels,” and instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it. The water comes out anyway; the people drink.
But, God, perhaps ironically, is furious with Moses and Aaron’s angry behavior, and punishes them.
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites,” God says, “You will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
In other words, Moses, a man who has dedicated just about his entire adult life to bringing the Israelites out of slavery and through the desert, will die before he gets to the Promised Land. He will not get his reward.
There is an exquisite midrash called Petirat Moshe that narrates the story of Moses’ dying. He does not easily accept his fate.
When Moshe Rabbenu’s day to depart this world had arrived...Moses said, “Master of the Universe, allow me, and I will become a bird and fly in the air...or make me into a fish, and I will make my two arms like two fins, and my hair like scales, and I shall jump into the Jordan, and at least see the land.”
God says, “I can’t. I vowed that you wouldn’t enter the land. No.”
Moses: “Master of the Universe, lay me upon the clouds...that I might just see the land from above the Jordan.”
Moses begs, pleads. Moses deserved to enter. God says no. This just happens sometimes.
In contemporary society, the “no’s” bombard us from all corners. Some are as poignant as Moses’ death; others are more akin to being kicked out of the elections-- traumatic in the moment, but over the span of a lifetime not overwhelming. We have more information than ever before about our own health, so can find out almost for certain if we carry one terminal gene or another. Someone swipes right or left on us without even knowing who we are. We try to bargain--
God, please heal my sister. No
Please--just make that little plus sign appear on the pregnancy test, I promise I’ll never ask for anything again. No.
God: Medical school. No.
God, I’m 45 years old and haven’t found my life partner. Just this. No.
God, I’ve been unemployed for longer than I care to acknowledge. Please. No.
When faced with the terminal “no,” we have a few options. American culture would have us avoid the pain and rejection by sublimating it into consumerism. A 21st-century Moses would be encouraged not to yearn to turn into a bird and fly over a country he wouldn’t inhabit in any case but instead to forget about the land of milk and honey and buy the iPhone 7.
Yom Kippur stands in stark contrast. We wear white, no leather, no jewelry--no retail therapy here. We actually list the different ways we can die--no pretending here. We hold two truths at the same time: on the one hand, acknowledging that we are all mortal, that life ultimately is out of our control, and at the same time that “teshuva, tefila, tzedakah make easier what has been decreed”-- we have a way forward. Yom Kippur invites us not to live in a fictional “happily ever after” world but instead to acknowledge, however reluctantly--the no will come for all of us, but we have control over how we live in the meantime.
That this acknowledgement is difficult, painful even, is an understatement. In fact, our brains are wired to experience rejection in the same way as we experience other pain.
When scientists placed people in functional MRI machines and asked them to recall a recent rejection, they discovered something amazing. The same areas of our brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why even small rejections hurt more than we think they should, because they elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain.
Even the “small” no of a new friend who doesn’t return your email is not nothing.
According to research from Case Western Reserve University, exposure to rejection led participants in a study to have an immediate drop in reasoning by 30% and in IQ by 25%. It was also determined that feelings of rejection led participants to become more aggressive and exhibit less self-control.
These physical reactions are only compounded by the self-recriminations that follow our rejection. While some of us have no problem experiencing compassion for the other, we have a much more finite amount of compassion for our own selves. We berate ourselves with stories, only a few of which are factually accurate. Sometimes there is something that we said or did to make the “no” come about. Something as innocuous as not having prepped enough for an interview or as “insidious” as standing within 150 feet of a polling booth. Often, though, there is no reason. Either way, even as we must learn from our mistakes, to spend too much time blaming ourselves is hurtful at best. Invert the famous lesson from Rabbi Hillel: that which is hateful to others, do not do to yourself.
When the “no” arrives, unbidden, on the doorstep, we must first respond by granting ourselves permission to mourn. Yom Kippur is not Simchat Torah, with its joyous dancing in the streets. There is a season for everything, Ecclesiastes teaches. And sometimes we need to give in to the sadness.
Bat-Galim Sha’ar is a mother whose only son, Gilad, was one of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the summer of 2014. He was 16, a student, on his way home for Shabbat dinner with his family. Bat-Galim described what it was like to wait for eighteen days, not knowing whether her son was alive or dead, watching for the news, which, when it came, was as awful as it could be. Murdered.
She said recently,
[About this] statement we often hear telling us that we are strong.
I want to tell you a secret.
You can’t be strong in the face of death, of deep loss, with a huge hole in your heart.
So how can we go on?
We try to be flexible.
We try to learn how to be healed.
To remember that not everything is in our control.
Sometimes when there is a difficult wave of sorrow,
It is best to bend with the wave and feel the pain
And then get up and stand straight again.
But even that is not always enough.
To bend with the wave, to go through it, let it wash over you. If you try to stand tall in front of it, you’ll just get knocked over, anyway.
The meditation teacher Tara Brach talks about it as:
replacing the dark cloud of “no” with the expansive sky of a “yes” that has endless room for grouchiness and irritation. Quoting another teacher, she writes, “so walk with our heaviness, saying yes. Yes to the sadness, yes to the whispered longing. Yes to the fear. Love means setting aside walls, fences, and unlocking doors, and saying yes…”
Permit yourself sadness. The psalmist teaches, “tears last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” You can’t get to one without the other.
And allow yourself the anger. Says Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her legendary book on death and dying:
It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health-care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss.
I refuse to abandon “this is not fair!” to the ash-heap of childhood. Life is not fair. For some people it is even more unfair than for others.
And then--and then, please, remember that you are not alone. You are connected to a community larger than anything you can imagine, a net that will hold you in times of pain as it does in times of joy. Maybe this is your family, maybe these are beloved friends. Maybe this is the Jewish community, which has withstood whatever you’re suffering from and much more, which asks that you take when you need it, only to pay it back when you don’t. Accompany those who are in pain, just as you deserve to expect to be accompanied in your time.
When we say the vidui, part of what we acknowledge is a shared responsibility for the ways that we have missed the mark this year. But what if we also, as in the Hasidic tradition, think of the hand knocking on the heart as not about self-flagellation but instead about breaking our heart wide open, to recognize that our not only are our sins more than one person can bear, but so too is our grief. When we open our hearts on Yom Kippur after a year filled with no’s, we invite--we ask--our neighbor to take a little bit of our pain, to make our hearts just a little bit lighter as we walk in the world. And I will do the same for you, we say.
In a world in which we are affixed to screens, alone in our studio apartments, living walled off from pain/grief of others, Yom Kippur calls us to take down those walls and to open up. We say kaddish not alone but in a minyan, a group of 10 or more Jews. The ancient rabbis understood that the nos we receive in life are simply too much to bear on our own.
So too with Moses. At the moment he is about to die, he calls out to God:
Master of the universe, remember that You revealed Yourself to me in the burning bush, remember that you lifted me up to the heavens.... Merciful and Compassionate One, don’t send me off…[alone].”
God: “I have accepted your prayer. I myself shall care for you and bury you.”
At his moment of death, Moses is not alone. Even more astounding, his executioner is also his guide, the source of his pain and accompanying him as a beloved. On our own, it’s just too much.
And what else? Once you allow yourself the sadness, once you have been held in community, figure out where the learning is. The door has been shut, and you have walked alone back to your Columbia dorm room to sit on the floor and weep. A week has passed, a month, a few months. It is time.
For what it’s worth, the JSU story continued, of course. It involved a phone call from a reporter from the Columbia Daily Spectator, a late-night call to my boss the previous summer, who happened to be Congressman Henry Waxman for help navigating the press, a subsequent call to Congressman Waxman’s Chief of Staff Phil Schiliro (who recommended a “no comment” to the Spectator), lots of tears and recriminations, many bags of Peppridge Farms Goldfish crackers.
I found another Jewish student group to affiliate with, and the arc led from that moment to this moment in ways I could never have imagined. Some of you might have had the experience of not getting the job that you really wanted only to end up with one that was even better. In those moments, life seems to work out and make more sense.
But sometimes it never does. Sometimes we end up scarred, never whole again, a new normal. The acceptance that we feel is a reluctant one, tinged with bitterness.
It doesn’t mean that there’s not still something to learn. My father dying young has made me a better rabbi. A friend who was abused as a child is now a lawyer, specializing in abuse cases. A man who lost family members and every possession he had in Katrina’s floodwaters was able to make a better life for himself in Houston. All of us would give anything to undo what has been decreed, I know. But there are no take-backs. So instead we, the remnants, clench our fists around what we have left. We hold the potential to grow from even the most traumatic experiences.
Moses dies at the end of the story, so his “no” is final in a different way from most of ours. Those of us here today, alive, stand on a precipice. In the year that has passed, life may not have gone the way we had anticipated. Some of the rejections were inconsequential when viewed through the lens of an entire year. But some still sting, still bend us over, breathless, with sadness. The door has been closed in our face.
But now we have the opportunity to turn around. To see the hallway in front of us, going where? We don’t know. But to take that next step forward anyway. Towards community, towards new opportunity, towards the unconditional love that flows from many different sources, if only you take it it. We have the opportunity to remember, each and every day: “No” does not always mean “the end.”
G’mar tov. May we all be sealed for a year of acceptance, healing, and abounding love.