As a child, I was fascinated by maps. I was particularly fascinated with the maps that included a brightly coloured arrow sticker that read ‘You Are Here’. Whether I was at Centre Island or the Eaton Center, these sprawling places were not only mapped out on a big 2-dimensional board, indicating where everything was, including my favourite places to get milkshakes, but they magically knew exactly where I was within it. I could go to a different area of Centreville or the mall and see the exact same map, but the location of the sticker announcing ‘You Are Here’ had incredibly moved along with me. Amazing! As an adult, I continue to be almost as amazed by the wonders of the GPS. Not only can this omniscient device send me directions, outlining the best way to get to my destination, but it constantly tracks where I am, a flashing red dot constantly indicating you are here, and now you are here, and now here.
In his book Strive for Truth, 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler gives us a mapping assignment. He puts us in front of the map of our own lives, the map of our moral growth and conscious living, and he puts a brightly-coloured arrow sticker in our hands and asks, Where are you? Here is the map of your character and qualities. Where does this arrow go today?
He calls that arrow ‘the behirah point’. Behirah means choice or decision, so it is the decision point that sits right at the intersection between our own light and our own darkness. It’s the point of tension between our draw toward goodness and our pull toward harm and sin. It is one precise point. Whether you’re looking at the map of your generosity, the map of your patience, your greed, or your gluttony, whatever the moral attribute is, this one point, he says, is the only point that matters on the entire map because, at any given moment, this is the only place where you struggle. This is the only point at which a decision can and will be made. So in order to make wise and conscious decisions, in order to make decisions that enact the mitzvot, the imperatives of ethical and holy living, and in order to grow our moral capacity, we need to become adept at knowing exactly where we are on the map.
Dessler writes: “When two armies are locked in battle, fighting takes place only at the battlefront. Territory behind the lines of one army is under that army’s control, and little or no resistance need be expected there. A similar situation prevails with respect to territory behind the lines of the otherarmy.” That is to say, in our moral and religious lives, there are certain behaviours and orientations that we don’t really think about either because they are thoroughly ingrained in us to the point that they are automatic and don’t stir deliberation, or they are so utterly foreign to us that they don’t factor into our decisions.
On one end of the spectrum, I’m going to guess that for most of you murder is not a live option in your decision-making processes. If, let’s say, you really like someone else’s shoes and wish you owned a pair, you probably don’t weigh the pros and cons of killing that person in order to get their shoes. There are people in this world who would do that. But for you, that has probably not been a consideration. Even in moments when you’ve experienced deep betrayal and anger, even if you have felt so enraged and so hurt that you wanted to kill someone, most likely it has not been an act you actually considered carrying out. This is not a behirah point. You are not here.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are decisions and actions miles away from where you are today. Maybe on the map of generosity, you would give a donation to Syrian refugee relief. Maybe you would give away blankets and clothes that you don’t need anymore, but you probably wouldn’t move out of your home so that several refugee families could move in. There are people in this world who would do that. But if this option wouldn’t enter into your deliberations, then this is also not a behirah point. You are not here.
So, asks Dessler, where are you? For each middah, each of our moral attributes, can you mark the spot where the battle between firmly walking forward aligned with your values is striking up against pulls in the opposite direction, toward selfishness or arrogance? Can you point to the spot where light and dark press against each other within you in live tension? We are interested in refining our search for the behirah point, to zoom in on the map, and discern where real and meaningful decision is at stake.
In order to do this, we have to learn to see both the darkness and destructiveness that lives within each and every one of us, as well as the light and goodness that is alive within each and every one of us. This might seem obvious, but it is actually very challenging to hold a picture of ourselves that is accurate. Isn’t it? How many of you can tell that other people, often the people closest to you but not always, see you more clearly than you see yourself? How can we hold a picture of ourselves that is clear and honest, that isn’t inflated or degraded, a picture that isn’t distorted by self-protection or shame, keeping us from honestly facing the harm that we do, and a picture that also isn’t distorted by how often we feel bad about ourselves and are unable to recognize just how good and loving and brave each of us is.
So first, how do you come to know the edges of your own darkness, the particular patterns and pulls that lead you to speak and act in damaging ways? Twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes: “You cannot find redemption until you see the flaws in your own soul, and try to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be an individual or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of their flaws is shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
The rituals and prayers of the Days of Awe, and particularly Yom Kippur, are structured to create a mirror into which we can see ourselves with growing clarity. In a few moments we’ll chant the vidui – the prayers of confession – that are a lengthy inventory of sins and wrongs. We will stand together, tapping our chests with our fists, trying to loosen the walls we build around our hearts, and we’ll say: we have stolen; we have gossiped; we were arrogant; we went astray. The alphabetical litany of wrongs from Aleph to Tav, A to Zed, challenge us to take responsibility, not only for the wrongs we already regret but to confront the ones that we still bury under denial or shame.
The vidui is always said in the collective voice, in the ‘we’ of shared responsibility as well as protective anonymity, but the practice of the vidui, the experience it is summoning, requires your personal voice and your personal recognition of how you engaged in this sin in your life this year. It requires each of us to place our own arrow on the topography of that transgression. So when we say together “we have stolen”, you know you didn’t rob a bank or steal someone’s car, but did you let an accounting mistake that benefitted you go uncorrected? Did you use someone else’s idea without giving them credit? Did you say something belittling about another person or group or fail to stand up for them, thereby diminishing their dignity, stealing some of their humanity in the eyes of the other people present? How did this transgression appear through your actions? The words of the prayer are open-ended and general. Our task is to personalize these words with as much specificity and truthfulness as we can.
In a traditional shul, over the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, the vidui is repeated five times communally and five times in our individual recitation of the Amidah. At the DJC, we repeat it three times – tonight, tomorrow morning, and at Neilah. We repeat it and repeat it, not to say the same hollow words over and over, but in order to put meat on the bones of the words, fleshing them out with personal meaning and our lived experiences. As we fast and pray and stand and examine, we relinquish more and more of our defenses and excuses. It takes time to let go of our self-righteousness and resistance. It takes time to see clearly the terrain of our conscience, the decisions we actively made and the decisions we left to inertia and inaction. As more and more of the truth emerges, we each identify, with remorse and courage and clarity, ‘I am here’.
All mapping needs both longitude and latitude. Once we are familiar with the edges of what our darkness has been, we need to locate our light on the other axis. Can you hold up a mirror with just as much honestly and clarity to the ways that you have brought goodness into the world this year? How have you been a trustworthy and reliable friend? An encouraging parent? A thoughtful child? A loving partner? When have you bravely spoken difficult words of truth? Taken a risk for what is right? In what ways have you made the needs and concerns of others as dear to you as your own? What terrain have you illuminated on the map of empathy, the map of moral courage, of generosity, of kindness? We aim to remember the details – not just the big, triumphant moments, but also to stand firmly with both feet in the small and simple goodnesses that add up, that create the shape and contours of a life lived deliberately.
For many of us, recognizing our light is much more challenging than confronting our darkness. You can test this – when someone gives you a compliment, how often do you respond with a list of things you didn’t do well, a list of things that didn’t work the way you had hoped? How often do you think about what is clearly wrong with this person, where their judgment or standards are deficient so that their compliment doesn’t merit being taken seriously? How difficult is it for you to stand in the light of your own goodness, witnessed and appreciated? Right from the heart of hurt and fear come the distorted ways we see ourselves – all the lists we make of how we are not enough: not strong enough, not smart enough, not good or bold enough, all the ways we fail and disappoint, or whatever club we use to beat ourselves with. Right from the scars of hurt and fear, we compare ourselves to one another, seeing the light of the other person and seeing only our lack by comparison. And a lot of us confuse the value of humility with the distortion of feeling lousy about ourselves, belittling all the good that we are, minimizing and dismissing the good that we do. How can we possibly locate ourselves honestly on the map of our virtues amid so much dis-orientation?
This isn’t just a matter of shaky self-confidence or a dislike for boasting; there is a kernel of spiritual illness in it. We can lose perspective and become twisted versions of ourselves when we come to think that it’s all about us. The ego that won’t recognize beauty and bounty is just as self-absorbed and blind as the ego that won’t own up to fault and failing. Because you are not just here for your own sake, your goodness and light are not just yours.
The prayer Sim Shalom phrases the idea this way: Ki be’or panecha natata lanu Adonai eloheynu, Torah chayyim, ve’ahavat chesed u’tzedakah, u’vracha, ve’rachamim, ve’chayyim ve’shalom. “Through the light of Your presence, Eternal One, our Lifebreath, You have given us the Torah of life, a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, a love of life and peace.” That is to say, our light and our goodness come to us through the all-encompassing, inextinguishable Light of the Divine. They don’t belong to us to hoard or to hide. They belong to Life. They belong to our shared humanity and the very reason we are here at all – to manifest the best within us as part of the larger sacred, shining whole; to fall in love with the gift and blessing of being alive; to leave this world better than we found it. To lift each other up, with compassion and kindness, every one of us cherished, dignified and part of that same great radiance.
I don’t think sunflowers ever consider being less vibrantly yellow or downplaying how tall and magnificently wide-faced they are. They simply turn their faces to the sun and embody the light they are graced with. Can we practice doing that, deliberately choosing to turn our faces toward the light outside of us so that we can see and grow the light that is within us? Can we cultivate a love for compassion and righteousness, a love for life and peace, so when we see these qualities embodied in others, they don’t make us feel small; instead, they lift that light alive within us to meet them? When we make choices to be generous or kind, can we think of ourselves as channels for this Great Light to move through rather than individual dispensers of individual goodness? Then the question isn’t how good or not so good am I, but how can I get my ego and fear enough out of the way to let goodness flood through me? Maybe then, more and more of the truth of our beings can emerge so we take our brightly-coloured arrows in hand and each identify, with fortitude and clarity and delight, “I am here”.
So this brings us right back to the one point on the map that matters. The behirah point. At any given moment, the edge of our light presses against the edge of our darkness and we will need to make a choice. When we don’t appreciate and acknowledge how radiant we are, we won’t shine and share what fullness is ours to give. We will play it small. We will back away from the light of others and, when we hit a behirah point, we will expect much less of ourselves than we are actually already capable of. When we are alive with the inexhaustible radiance and peace and compassion that we are part of, we have the resilience to decide where we want to stretch and push and challenge ourselves next. When we are rooted in clear sense of where we get tempted or afraid or give up, then we know what resources we will need to call to our aid so we won’t give in to those dark tendencies, we will know what army of light we will need to herald to help us keep moving forward. You don’t need to become Gandhi. You don’t need to become Heschel. You are here to become the fullness of yourself, to keep tracking and guiding the flashing heartbeat of your goodness, embodying and amplifying the light you are graced with, one choice after the next.
Gmar chatimah tova – May we be sealed for goodness.
Copyright © 2013 – 5774 by Rabbi Miriam Margles