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Rabbi Nicole Auerbach
Stepping Back/Stepping Up (Rosh HaShanah 5777)

Rabbi Nicole Auerbach  |  October 3, 2016

In a few moments, we will recite the words of Avinu Malkeinu. For many of us, even if we completely reject its image of God as father or king, the majestic sing-song melody of this prayer is what signals our soul that we have reached another Rosh HaShanah. I love the sound of this prayer. And yet, every year, when we reach the English translation at the end, I cringe. “Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious and answer us, for we have little merit.” Ugh. There is something about the groveling tone of “for we have little merit” that always gets under my skin. Perhaps it’s that it rings false. How many of us truly believe we have little merit? Or is the problem that much of the time – particularly when I take the time to search my soul – I don’t need help feeling like I have fallen woefully short of what is expected of me. I don’t need his prayer to rub it in. Most likely, both are true.

I am a relative newcomer to Central Synagogue, as, I imagine are many of you. When I think about the High Holy days, it is not this book I picture [holding up Central Synagogue machzor], but this one [holding up Gates of Repentance]. There are many advantages to Central’s machzor, not least of which is that we are not constantly reading out page numbers. But one of the real advantages of Gates of Repentance is that there so many extra texts and meditations in the front. So when I was where you are, if some piece of the liturgy wasn’t grabbing me, there was always something else to read.

My favorite of these teachings – the one I always came back to – was this one: “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ And the other: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

Like the text that states that “we are of little merit,” this Chasidic teaching is about humility. But instead of encouraging a show of self-abnegation, it seeks a balance that allows both for an appreciation of our smallness and a recognition of our potential.

The teaching about the two slips of paper illustrates the Jewish concept of humility, or anavah. As one scholar of Jewish ethical tradition, Alan Morinis, notes, unfortunately in English “humility” sounds a lot like “humiliation.” But in the traditional Jewish understanding, “humility has nothing to do with being the lowest, most debased, shrinking creature on earth. Instead, it is a point of balance on a continuum between self-abasement, at one extreme, and arrogance, on the other.”

Morinis offers a helpful metaphor to help us understand the Jewish concept of humility: Humility is a matter of taking up the right amount of space for a given situation. Morinis writes:

“Arrogance has an insatiable appetite for space. It claims. It occupies. It sprawls. It suffocates others. Every statement in its voice begins with ‘I.’ The opposite extreme is self-debasement. Shrinking from occupying any space whatsoever, it retracts meekly inside itself. Its statements would never dare to being with ‘I’ although, if we listen carefully, they all do, because, whether we see ourselves as nothing or as everything we are still preoccupied with the self, and both of these traits are, therefore, forms of narcissism. In Jewish terms, they are two variations on the theme of idolatry. Both extremes - whether we see ourselves as a god or a worm – are severe distortions of the truth. The truth is toward the middle range, where there is room for the self and the other.”

Humility means asking how much room we are entitled to take up, and then stepping up or stepping back accordingly.

Consider Moses, who, our tradition teaches, was more humble than anyone else on earth. If this can be said of our people’s most iconic leader, then it is clear that practicing anavah does not mean being a shrinking violet. In fact, Moses learns this directly from God at the burning bush. When God first calls on Moses to go to Pharaoh to demand his people’s freedom, Moses answers, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God says that God will be with him. “But what if they don’t believe me?” Moses says. God gives him signs to show the Egyptians. “But I’m not a very good public speaker!,” says Moses. God reminds Moses that God will help. “Please, make someone else your servant,” Says Moses. And finally God gets angry. Moses wants to step back, but God needs him to step up, and to lead. Answering that call is the beginning of a life of humble service and extraordinary leadership.

In his book “The Road to Character,” David Brooks decries the absence of humility in modern America. He argues that we, as a culture, have shifted from a veneration of goodness to a hunger for greatness. Our problem, he says, is that we “have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”

For Brooks, one of the culprits in our moral decline is our focus on self-esteem and self-realization. “Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great.”

Forget the world being “made for your sake,” he seems to argue. Stick with “I am but dust and ashes,” for you are of little merit.

I submit to you that we need both slips of paper, and that our task, not only over these next 10 days, but for the rest of our lives, is to figure out when we need each one.

When we are puffed up with pride, we need to remind ourselves that we have been able to do what we have done only as a result of the many blessings we have received and the privilege we have enjoyed.

And when we are feeling small, and powerless, we need to remember that those blessings carry with them an obligation to step up, and take our space as leaders.

What might this look like in action?

In our personal lives, it means becoming attuned to how much space we are taking up. Whether in conversations, in meetings at work, at your book group, consider whether you are taking up your rightful space. If you tend to dominate conversation, practice anavah by stepping back to honor others’ contributions. Don’t be the verbal equivalent of that guy on the subway two takes up three seats. If you tend not to share, practicing anavah means being like Moses, and stepping up and take up your share of the space, even when it is uncomfortable.

We can think about when we choose to lead, and when we leave room for others. Are you the chair of every task force? Does the idea of someone else messing up cause you to volunteer for every opportunity? Practice anavah by stepping back. Are you instead a free-rider, who is happy to have others do the work for you? (That’s me at my kids’ PTA). Time to step up.

On a societal level, we have even more work to do. We are currently at a critical moment in the struggle for racial justice in this country. Not since the 1960’s has there been such a palpable sense of crisis and heightened awareness in the mainstream media of the deeply entrenched systemic racism that continues to plague our nation.

If you ask many Reform Jews about the role of Jews in the civil rights movement, they will refer to the iconic photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his statement that at that moment, he felt like his feet were praying. In fact, just a week or so ago, in my Facebook feed, a friend referred to this picture, and said, “Remember that picture of Heschel? Our kids will ask us what we did in this moment. It’s time to act.” I hate to break it to you, but it is highly unlikely that any of us is going to be the next Heschel. If we wait for the opportunity to be there at an iconic, historic, moment in history, we will miss our chance to create change. Images like that become iconic only in retrospect, and if we wait to act until we feel like we can be part of something great, we will miss out on the chance to do something good.

So what are Jews who are not people of color supposed to do?

We can start off by practicing anavah. Anavah means recognizing that we are not going to set the agenda of this movement, and that is as it should be. It means admitting what we do not know about how systemic racism operates in this country, and taking it upon ourselves to learn more. Not by asking people of color to educate us, but by stepping up and educating ourselves. It means being aware of how much room our voice is taking up, whether at work or in a meeting about fighting racial injustice, and stepping back to allow room for other voices to be heard. More importantly, it means lifting up those voices. There is a lot of stepping back that needs to happen for us to go forward.

But we also need to step up. Because anavah is not about wallowing in guilt. It’s not about throwing up our hands and saying “oh, we are of little merit,” and then watching from the sidelines. Like Moses, we are being called on to step into our power. This may mean bearing witness to prejudice or inequality we see in our workplaces or our cities. It may mean showing up when our friends who are people of color ask us to do so. It may mean using the power and privilege we have to make change that is solely in our hands.

But be warned. As one activist, Ricardo Levins Morales says, “You may not get the validation you hunger for. Stepping outside of the smoke and mirrors of racial privilege is hard, but so is living within the electrified fences of racial oppression – and no one gets cookies for that. The thing is that when you help put out a fire the people whose home was in flames may be too upset to thank and praise you – especially when you look a lot like the folks who set the fire. That’s OK. This is about something so much bigger than that.” In other words, practicing anavah means realizing that you will not be the next Heschel. The reason we talk about unsung heroes is that mostly, this work goes unsung. And that is ok. While this work is up to us, it is not about us. Let’s not spend so much time chasing after the feeling of being great that we forget to do the work of being good.

On this Rosh HaShanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world, let us remember that we are but dust and ashes and that the universe was created for our sake. As Carl Sagan taught, “the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” We give praise to God for allowing us to stand here today because we are aware that we are not of our own making, and marvel at the wonders that have allowed us to live. As Sagan says,“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” How much more so a human life. But let us not allow our awe at our tiny place in the universe let us shrink back from our obligation to change our world.

Consider this Hassidic teaching, brought by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber: “Every person should know and consider the fact that you, in the particular way that you are made, are unique in the world, and no on like you has ever been. For if someone like you had already been, there would be no reason for you to be in this world. Actually, everyone is something new in this world, and here we must work to perfect our particular being. For because we are still imperfect, the coming of the Messiah is delayed.”

We are but dust and ashes. The same dust and ashes that created the stars. And whether you agree with Buber’s theology or not, whether you believe there is a “reason” for you to be in this world, here you are, with all of your strengths and gifts and flaws. How will you inhabit the space you have been granted this year? When will you step back, and when will you step up? When will you acknowledge that it is not all about you, and when will you realize that it is up to you? This year, Avinu Malkeinu, we pray that our deeds will not be of little merit. Instead, ” Aseh imanu tzedakah v’chesed, v’hoshieinu” – we pray that you will be with us as we act with justice, compassion, and toward a world redeemed.

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