I once thought I had made an error, but I was mistaken.
It is an old joke. The point is not just that the speaker is confident in the perfection of his or her actions, but that he or she clearly states his or her imperfection and is completely blind to it. The first step in turning away from error is to recognize an error has been made.
This time of year is intended to foster meditation and introspection. We are to slow down in our headlong rush doing to consider what we have done and what we are doing. To engage in self examination to consider what we have done wrong, what we have done right, and what we might have done better. From there we seek the forgiveness of those we may have wronged in the previous year. We resolve to recalibrate our lives and shift our direction, to do better, to take our first steps down, we hope, a better road.
We are expected to continually examine our actions throughout the year and make small corrections to our aim and approaches as we go. Yet, this stop to pull the car to the side of the road, carefully read the map and look around us is useful. Surely we can feel we are on the right track when we have made a wrong turn several miles back. Repentance and forgiveness are always available, but to pick a special time to emphasize these activities is both useful and proper. So we have the lead up of the month of Elul for extra introspection and these ten days of awe of a further intensification of our self examination.
This is the homely daily, incremental path of self-improvement, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, and, with these Days of Awe, year-by-year. Clear headed and careful, working through our minds, meditation, and, for many of us, prayer. It is an intellectual process, effective and necessary.
However, sometimes this careful approach breaks down. As a traveler coming upon an unbridged chasm, the careful step-by-step has reached a limit. We can stand at a loss. We are lost, on a wrong path, but do not know what to do. We have a sudden realization that we have gone mile after mile, year after year and have ended up far from where want want to be, far from who we want to be.
It can be a time of despair. Some us have gone through this, some of us have had someone close to us go through this and have tried to help. Some of us have had a friend go through this and have not known, for the competent are best at appearing competent and in control.
Sometimes, as we travel the path of our lives, we come to a little stream, a small obstacle. We step into the water and find ourselves sucked into a roiling river, dragged under by unexpected turbulence, gasping for air that cannot be found, choking on waters of chaos. A disaster brought forth either by our own actions, the actions of others, or the unaccountable workings of fate.
And there we are. Frozen before a chasm or, shivering on a small space of battered rock in world of maelstroms, unable to move.
What to do?
In these situations we have our friends, our communities, even professional help. Yet, here is the place of the broken heart. This is the place where we feel we have run out of options. Where we doubt our own worth, our self-image, the story we have been telling ourselves about ourselves as the years have passed. We feel that not only is our heart broken, but that we are broken.
What to do?
I am an academic, a trained scientist, a western intellectual. I retain a discomfort with the non-rational, the non-scientific, the mysterious even when speaking from the bimah in this place. Yet, I have been forced through life experience, study, and observation, to recognize that deeper reality and constant presence we call G-D. Too frequently, though, I can keep my understanding and realization a thing of the mind, accessing a visceral depth of faith only in poetry and song. Yet it is that non-intellectual, non-scientific understanding that is the source of hope when we are at our lowest points. There is something real, something profoundly true in the Holy.
This time of year we say Avinu, Malkeinu, our father our king. We must recognize that our understanding of G-D is limited to metaphor and the rare extra-intellectual insight of mystical experience. Given that here we are limited to metaphor, I will take one of these. I will take the metaphor of parent. I know that for some, the relationship with mother or father is fraught with problems and to use this metaphor is to enter a field strewn with landmines. Yet I have have been blessed in my life with wonderful, loving, supporting parents. As a father, my heart swells with love when I think of my own children. Their faults may sometimes elicit sadness. But, more often, amusement. Overall, my children bring me delight and, whatever their actions, my love is ever undimmed. This is the image of parent I carry with me and the metaphor for G-D that is brought forth into the place of broken heartedness and brokeness.
From our deepest despair, our shattered selves recall the broken hearted child, barely able to understand his or her own sorrow and pain. Reach out to The Holy One, even if it is only a wail of despair. As a mother holds her weeping child to her breast, gently stroking the sweat damp hair, murmuring words of love, so will comfort flow from G-D. The child’s pain may not be lessened, but it can be more easily born. There is some unfathomable love available to each of us in reaching out to The Creator. It is there, it is real. It can comfort, it can heal.
In prayer and attachment to the Holy One, we can begin to unfreeze, find our way across a seemingly dark and stormy world to a firmer, more comprehensible, and navigable world. G-D does not promise everything will be easy. We are not meant to be green house flowers tended and constrained. G-D is also the father letting go his hold on the back of the bicycle as we peddle our first go on our own, knowing full well that, not only might we fall and suffer some hurt, we will probably fall and suffer some hurt. But part and parcel of being human is free will, the right to choose, and, with it, the dangers of life. Life will always have pain, but the same father who released the back of the bike is there to help us up, to hold us while we cry, and to help us find the strength in ourselves to get back on the bike to try again, even though we know with new understanding what the cost might be.
G-D is the mother watching her child drive off on his own for the first time in a car, knowing just how dangerous that is while realizing that her child has no realistic idea.
G-D longs for us to fly on the wings of eagles, to soar in the bright light of Sun. G-D desires to take joy in our joy and delight in our exhilaration. Yet, our Creator knows our weaknesses and our flaws. The gates of repentance are always open to us. When we have fallen to our greatest depth, the unwavering love of the Holy One is there for us. As we climb back out of deepest darkness, there is an encouraging Presence that knows, not just our flaws, but our infinite possibilities, knowing that we are stamped with the Divine image, able to transcend those flaws.
Day-by-day, year-by-year, we can grow and improve as we examine our lives, our actions, our souls. We have been given the Holy blessing of free will, the opportunity to change our choices for the better and so improve our lives and, yes, heal the world. Even when we have crashed down to the depths and life seems without hope or happiness, when we feel ourselves unworthy of any grace, there is a constant divine flow of love and support. Out of brokeness, with the help of Holy love, we can reach for wholeness. We can rebuild a life of meaning and worth, finding contentment in the struggle to create a holy life. Reach out to G-D in happiness and gratitude. But recognize that when you are at your lowest point and can not raise your head, let alone your hand, The Holy One Of Blessing will be reaching down to you, cradling you in an unshakable love and the certainty of your ability to rise from brokeness to wholeness, darkness to light, and sorrow to joy.