Rabbi Julie’s sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 2023/5784
In my first year as a rabbi, I had to say ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I messed up’, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ more times than in the first 32 years of my life combined. In my lifetime, I have apologized privately in person, by phone, and in writing, and on one occasion, publicly to thousands of people at once. Even though I have a lot of practice apologizing and it comes relatively easily to me, I never look forward to it – it still feels embarrassing, painful, and humbling, even at times, humiliating.
One of my favorite short stories about the real-life challenge of saying, I’m sorry, was written by one of Israel’s best-known authors, Etgar Keret, whose work has been translated into 46 languages. This story is part of a memoir that highlights vignettes from the “seven good years’ between the birth of Etgar’s son Lev and the death of his father. The story takes place in a monit, an Israeli taxi, that is driving Etgar and his son Lev to Ramat Gan, the suburb of Tel Aviv where Etgar was born in 1967. If you’ve ever ridden in an Israeli taxi before you know that Israeli taxi drivers can be very expressive and they don’t hold back their opinions. Neither does Etgar Keret, whether he’s in the backseat of the taxi or at the podium of the months-long democracy demonstrations happening in Israel.
* * *
Etgar writes, “The minute we got into the taxi, I had a bad feeling. And it wasn’t because the driver impatiently asked me to buckle the kid’s safety belt in the backseat after I’d already done so, or because he muttered something that sounded like a curse when I said we wanted to go to Ramat Gan. I take a lot of taxis, so I’m used to the bad tempers, the impatience, the armpit sweat stains. But there was something about the way the driver spoke, something half violent and half on the verge of tears that made me uncomfortable. Lev was almost four then, and we were on our way to Grandma’s. Unlike me, he couldn’t have cared less about the driver and focused mainly on the tall, ugly buildings… He sang “Yellow Submarine” quietly to himself with words he made up that sounded almost like English, and waved his short legs in the air to the rhythm. At one point, his right sandal hit the taxi’s plastic ash-tray, knocking it onto the floor. Except for a chewing gum wrapper, it was empty, so no trash was spilled. I had already bent to pick it up when the driver suddenly brakes, turned around, and with his face really close to my three-year-old son’s, began screaming, “You stupid kid. You broke my car, you idiot!”
“Hey, are you crazy or something?” I shouted at the driver. “Yelling at a three-year-old because of a piece of plastic? Turn around and start driving or, I swear, next week..you won’t be driving any public vehicles, you hear me?” When I saw he was about to say something, I added, “Shut your mouth now and drive.”
The driver gave me a look that was full of hatred. The possibility of his smashing in my face and losing his job was in the air. He considered it for a moment, took a deep breath, turned around, shifted into first gear, and drove.”
Five years ago I gave a sermon about the most difficult apology I’ve ever given. I was still smarting from the experience and wanted to convey with a little bit of humor that no one likes to apologize but sometimes we just have to do it anyway. I’ll call that my ‘eating crow’ sermon, after the uniquely American expression from the 19th century that links eating crow (which apparently tastes disgusting) with the humiliation that comes with being proven wrong or admitting a mistake. With a little distance, and upon further reflection, I think this metaphor doesn’t really fit with a Jewish conception of repentance and repair. First of all, Jews don’t crow eat crow because crows aren’t kosher. But more than that, in Judaism, being imperfect isn’t meant to be humiliating. After all, imperfection is part of God’s design for the world in general and for human beings in particular.
In the beginning of the Torah, all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, but even so God only declares humans to be tov m’od, very good, but not perfect. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, perfection was never the goal, because perfection only exists in the realm of the divine. Therefore, we should strive, in Heschel’s words, “only to rise again and again beyond the level of self” and “not despair” when perfection is unattainable.
Furthermore, one of our sages, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman taught in a midrash, when human beings were created and declared tov m’od, very good, the word good refers to the yetzer hatov, our good inclination, and the word very refers to our evil inclination. The tricky thing is the same inclination that causes us to create and compete, can also cause us to do harm. Without the impulse to evil, our tradition teaches “a person would never build a house, fall in love, have children, or engage in business.” No wonder the Talmud teaches that God created seven spiritual tools including teshuvah before creating the physical world.
For without repentance, as imperfect beings designed with competing impulses for both good and bad, how would we make amends when our actions fall short of our values? Teshuvah was always meant to be a part of human nature, teaches Rabbi Or Rose, because “the Divine understood that without failure there would be no growth, and without growth life would be meaningless”.
* * *
On the taxi’s radio, Bobby McFerrin was singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but I felt very far from happy. I looked at Lev. He wasn’t crying, and even though we were stuck in a very slow-moving traffic jam, it wouldn’t take long to reach my parent’s house. I tried to find another ray of light in that unpleasant ride, but couldn’t. I smiled at Lev and tousled his hair. He looked at me hard, but didn’t smile back. “Abba,” he asked, “what did that man say?”
“The man said,” I answered quickly, as if it were nothing, “that when you’re riding in a car, you have to watch how you move your legs so you don’t break anything.”
Lev nodded, looked out the window, and a second later asked again, “And what did you say to the man?”
“Me?” I said to Lev, trying to gain a little time. “I told the man that he was absolutely right, but that he should say whatever he has to say quietly and politely and not yell.”
“But you yelled at him,” Lev said, confused.
“I know,” I said, and that wasn’t right. And you know what? I’m going to apologize now.”
Judaism doesn’t believe in intermediaries when it comes to repentance. When we hurt another human being, we can’t go to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness, rather we are expected to directly apologize. As it states in the Mishnah, prayer and fasting can atone for sins against God, but when it comes to people to people conflicts, we have to own our harm and ask for forgiveness directly. And the Torah ends by saying, lo bashamayim hi. The key to repentance, “is not in the heavens”, nor is it “beyond the sea.” Rather, it is “very close to [us], in our mouths and in [our hearts]. Repentance is meant to be accessible and palatable, and even dare I say not only a negative experience, but also a positive one.
When I graduated from rabbinical school, my mentor, Rabbi Bill Lebeau gave me this advice. Julie, he said, just remember every time you apologize it’s an opportunity to build a relationship. I never imagined how frequently I would be able to use his advice, nor how valuable it would be. Five years ago, I had to meet one on one with all of our key stakeholders and take responsibility for a mistake I made. Our relationships were never the same after that. To my surprise, the highly successful Princeton alumni and parents I met with, grew in respect for me as a result of this encounter. I’ll never forget one hedge fund leader telling me that he only wished apologies were more forthcoming in the finance industry. And another woman, who served with me on Hillel’s International Board said with compassion, all people make a few significant mistakes in their lives but most of us are lucky enough to make those mistakes more privately. I discovered through this difficult experience, that my vulnerability, my sincerity, and my courage fostered a deeper connection than before I misstepped.
Back to the taxi. I leaned forward so that my mouth almost touched the thick, hairy neck of the driver and said loudly, almost declaiming, “Mr. Driver, I’m sorry I yelled at you, it wasn’t right.” When I finished, I looked at Lev and smiled again, or at least I tried. I looked out the window – we were just easing our way out of the traffic jam on Jabotinsky Street; the hard part was behind us.
“But Abba,” Lev said, putting his tiny hand on my knee, “now the man has to tell you he’s sorry too.” I looked at the sweaty driver in front of us. It was clear to me that he was hearing our whole conversation. It was even clearer that asking him to apologize to a three-year-old was not a really good idea… “Sweetie.” I said bending down to Lev, “you’re a smart little boy and you already know lots of things about the world, but not everything. And one of the things you still don’t know is that saying you’re sorry might be the hardest thing of all. And that doing something so hard while you’re driving could be very, very dangerous. Because while you’re trying to say you’re sorry you can have an accident. But you know what? I don’t think we have to ask the driver to say he’s sorry because, just by looking at him, I can tell that he’s sorry,”
I do believe every apology is an opportunity to build a relationship, but I’m under no illusion that the taxi driver and Etgar Keret will build a lasting connection as a result of Etgar’s half-hearted apology. But even if they never see each other again after they reach their destination in Ramat Gan, there is something important at stake.
Etgar built a different kind of relationship with his son Lev in that moment, and with himself – and even the taxi driver might have glimpsed something different when he looked at himself and his passengers in the rear-view mirror.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the most open and embracing Orthodox rabbis of our time, teaches that “the goal of not only Torah, but also the goal of all of life should be to make the divine image more visible.” Building off of a central teaching in the Talmud, he taught me, indirectly, after spreading this idea to teachers and students throughout the Jewish world, that to be created in the image of God is to be beloved, infinitely valuable, and unique. This aspiration, when applied to ourselves, can give us the courage to look at our shortcomings with humility rather than humiliation. And when applied to others, it can awaken the empathy that allows us to consider what happened from the other person’s point of view, that allows us to consider that something really hard might have been going on for that taxi driver that day.. When we allow our egos to dominate or beat ourselves up for the choices we’ve made, we forfeit an encounter, even for a moment, between two human beings who are not only fallible, but also manifestations of God’s image in this world.
We’d already driven into Bialik Street – now there was only the right turn onto Nordau and then a left to Be’er Lane. In another minute, we’d be there. “Abba,” Lev said as he narrowed his eyes, “I can’t tell that [the taxi driver] is sorry.” At that moment, in the middle of the incline on Nordau, the driver slammed on the brakes again and pulled up the hand brake. He turned around and moved his face close to my son’s. He didn’t say anything, just looked Lev in the eye (PAUSE), and a very long second later, whispered, “Believe me, kid, I’m sorry.”
One of the reasons I chose to come to Shomrei is because you showed me during my interview weekend that you believe vulnerability can be a mark of strong leadership, you believe that people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and you believe that we can all learn from our mistakes. After all, as my friend and mentor Rabbi Jeffrey Summit taught me, “it’s only a failure if we don’t learn from it. That’s why in the murky time before the world was formed, God created teshuvah.”
It is so very difficult to look in the mirror and see our imperfections, our shortcomings, our mistakes. But what if we could look in the mirror and see not only our limitations and fallibility but also the image of God looking back at us? What if every time we looked in the mirror, we saw the image of God in our reflections? Whether we find ourselves in the front seat or the back seat of a taxi, how might the glimmer of the divine image in the rear-view mirror, better reflect who we were born and reborn into this world to be? How might we then see each other and ourselves with more empathy and compassion? And how might the reflection of the image of God, of our infinite potential, be stronger than our imperfections? May we feel loved when we face our mistakes and may forgiveness bring healing not only to ourselves and each other, but also to this world. Shanah Tovah.
Inspired by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, “Recreating Ourselves Through Teshuvah, hadar.org
Rabbi Julie’s Videos
An archive of Rabbi Julie’s videos is available on our blog
Livestreams and an archive of all Shomrei videos is available on our YouTube Channel at shomrei.org/video
- Letter to the Congregation: Helping and Praying for Israel - Thu, Oct 12, 2023
- Yom Kippur, Sermon: Thank God it’s Shabbat - Thu, Sep 28, 2023
- Kol Nidre, Sermon: Ein Lanu Eretz Acheret – We don’t Have Another Planet - Thu, Sep 28, 2023