August 11, 2023
Embracing the Self
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
Embracing the Self
Cantor Jenna Pearsall
The story usually goes something like this: I’m running at full speed toward the stage, after just being told I need to go on for the lead role in the musical we’re putting on. I burst through the curtains, enter from stage left, and WHOOPS! I don’t have my costume. OR I don’t know any of my lines, full panic-mode setting in as I look at a packed audience of people about to judge me to my core.
And then, POOF, I wake up, breathing heavy, knowing that I just transported a decade back to my high school musical career. Yep, you guessed it. I was having a stress dream, typically plaguing my sleep around the High Holy Days as I am a perpetual worrier, even, apparently, when unconscious.
A comment I frequently get after services from people attending for the first time is, “Wow, it’s just like a Broadway show!” Which I totally get, because to my left are nine Broadway-caliber musicians, some of whom literally leave here to take their spots among the orchestra for shows like Camelot and Parade, just to name a few.
When I get this comment, my initial reaction is, “I’m so glad it isn’t,” knowing that I intentionally did not go down that road. The shining lights of the stage brought me so much joy as a teen, but it also brought pain and heartbreak that still wakes me up in the middle of the night after I’ve transported there in a dream that feels way too real.
In Parashat Re’eh, we are told that throughout the three festivals, the Israelites would need to present themselves before God, not showing up empty-handed, each with their own gift according to the blessing that God gave them. In other words, no one could bring two gifts that were alike, due to God blessing each of us with unique skills, talents, and purpose upon our creation. The Mishnah Sanhedrin backs this up, stating that “When God stamped all people with the seal of Adam, the first human, not one person was made similar to another.” I read this and asked myself—"Why would we waste time striving to be anyone but ourselves knowing that each of us is individually blessed by God to be unique?”
There’s a Chasidic tale in which this question rings true.
Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his rebbe, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and almost as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the heavenly tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?’ But rather God will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential? Why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine?
Zusha knew that God would not bother asking how he had strived to be like others. God would want to know how Zusha used his unique gifts to impact the world, carving out his own path.
Back in high school when my life centered around auditioning and dreaming of getting a lead role, I asked myself so many questions—Why can’t I be the ‘It-girl,’ getting any part I wanted? How can I force myself so far out of my comfort zone that they will finally give me the part? When will it be my turn? When would I be enough? I was praying for the demise of others who were auditioning. They were the competition, but also people I had been friends with since elementary school. I was stuck in an endless cycle of comparing myself and stoking the fires of jealousy when others got the part or the solo over me, desperately wishing I could be someone else. Someone who was chosen.
I went to a summer theater camp where the director picked apart my appearance in front of the whole cohort, telling me all the things that would detract from my ability to get parts, all the things I couldn’t change about myself—my height, my build, my hair and eye color. I was labeled by this man as too average. I wish I could hug that 16-year-old hearing those words, words I’m sure the director doesn’t remember now, but words that would echo throughout the unfolding years. In that moment, that girl wanted to be anyone but herself. It would take time and years of healing to overcome the insecurity caused by those critiques.
If only I had realized what I know now—that my strengths, talents, and skills would be embraced somewhere entirely different, and that the path to a happy life was simply finding myself and embracing the unique blessings God gave to me. Embracing ‘Me.’ Once I accepted who I am and realized the power I had inherent within me, that would be when I would thrive.
We are in an age where we can endlessly scroll through our social media feeds, seeing our friends’ perfectly curated photos and posts fly by, wondering to ourselves how they could have it all figured out. It can be hard to embrace yourself and your own identity when it seems like everyone around you has bought the house in the Hamptons, gotten the promotion, or adopted the golden retriever puppy.
When we remind ourselves what the Torah teaches in this parashah, that we each show up with our own gifts, our own timelines, and our own purpose, we can push aside the negativity and the comparisons that get us nowhere but feeling down on ourselves and feeling like something is wrong with us.
Last week I was in Oregon with my husband on vacation. And on our last day, we stopped into the famous Powell’s City of Books, a gigantic bookstore with countless rooms, floors, and thousands of books. I stumbled upon the self-help section and found a used book on sale written by Dale Carnegie in 1948, called How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. I cracked it open, hoping to unlock the secrets to leading a less worrisome existence, knowing the season of stress dreams was fast approaching. There I found a quote, highlighted by the previous owner, as if it were waiting for me. It read: “You can sing only what you are. You can paint only what you are. You must be what your experiences, your environment, and your heredity have made you. For better or for worse, you must play your own little instrument in the orchestra of life.”
Reading that quote, I felt like I had cracked the code. All we can strive for in this life is to bring our own gifts to the table, contributing the music of our own souls, playing our own tune, and coming into ourselves without adapting the melody of another. Your instrument may literally not be able to play the tune someone else is playing—and that’s okay! Your instrument has its own range, tuning, and style, unique unto itself. Your instrument holds power, as it was given to you by God, a blessing only meant for you.