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September 22, 2015

Unpolished (Yom Kippur 5776)

Stephanie D. Kolin

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I’m a bit of a nervous flyer.  Not a fan of turbulence, takeoffs, or what I determine to be alarming noises coming from what people say is the landing gear extending, but which I am fairly certain is the landing gear malfunctioning, breaking off, and tumbling to the earth. 

While on the plane, I try not to let my anxiety show—I keep it real cool.  And if you’ve ever flown with me, you know that is an enormous lie.  Being “cool” on a plane is not my strong suit. Panicking and sweating a lot—that I’m pretty good at.  And when the bumps start—it’s pretty obvious that I’m terrified. 

So I was on a flight from Denver to Los Angeles when the pilot put on the seatbelt sign because we had hit some “bumpy air.”  I did what any rational person would do: I took out my prayer book and started praying like a maniac.  And when it got really bad, I felt the tears roll down my cheeks. And I was so embarrassed.  Everyone else seemed fine.  And I wished I wasn’t afraid, and I wished it didn’t show, but I was… and it did. 

And then the wildest thing happened.  The woman two seats over said to me, “I used to hate flying, sweetie. I totally understand.  But we’re okay.” And then a big guy covered in tattoos leaned across the aisle and said, “I have to pretend I don’t care”—he motioned to his size and his ink—“but inside, I am freaking out.  Let’s just breathe through this.”  And suddenly, I was not alone hurtling through the sky.  And I can’t tell you how grateful I felt for the lifeline these people extended to me by sharing their own fears. They were like angels for me on that flight.

That inclination I had, to disguise my feelings—and my embarrassment when I couldn’t—it’s not just a phenomenon that happens at 35,000 feet.  I think it happens all the time.  I think we are so very hesitant to reveal our rough edges—those very real struggles we have just beneath the surface—in our families, in our jobs, in our bodies, or in our hearts.  We imagine: if I lift the curtain, the consequences will surely be dire. 

I feel certain that the reactions I’ll get will only confirm my suspicions that I am, in fact, the only one going through some hard thing.  We fear the inevitable looks of pity or judgment.  Or worse, that that person we confide in will go home and say, “Thank God that isn’t me.  Thank goodness I have beautiful, straight-A children who never talk back, and a loving spouse with whom I never argue—Thank God that isn’t us.”  And then that person will maybe go on to avoid us… because sadness and struggle are contagious, right? Because my rough edges might chafe your smooth ones. 

And so we each build our fortress—or try to, and—at great cost to ourselves—we present only a pristine version of who we are. 

I recently spoke to a friend who had a new baby.  She was crying all the time and wasn’t even sure she could love this child—typical, albeit terribly painful, symptoms of post-partum depression.  But when well-meaning coworkers asked her, “Aren’t you just the happiest you’ve ever been?”  She would smile and say it was the best time of her life.

I’m sure we all know someone—or have been that person ourselves—unexpectedly in a job search that we keep secret, quietly worrying about a sick parent or child, part of the silent sisterhood of miscarriage, or masking our anxiety about a mortgage or a rocky time in our marriage. Maybe we are the one longing to be in a relationship, hiding our loneliness because everyone else seems to have found their soulmate.  Or the mother or father of a child with debilitating anxiety, who keeps hearing from fellow parents about how taxing their kid’s busy sports schedule will be this year. So we don’t talk about it.

Instead, we more often present the polished picture that we think is expected of us, that cloaks us, a safer picture. 

And that pretense might be business-as-usual outside these walls—where it is just September 22/23, and where being in real relationship with one another is not the standard measure of success. But in here, it’s Yom Kippur, and we are a Jewish community during the days of greatest self-reflection.  In here, real connections and whether we are a community that can tell truths are very much our measures of success.  And you transformed today into a day of great meaning and power by choosing to be in here and not out there.  So in here, we ask ourselves: when we edit our truths down to the shiny polish of “everything is just fine”—what is at stake?  For our souls, for our family, for our community, for the world—what is at stake? 

There’s a curious text in the book of Deuteronomy.  The Israelites are preparing to enter into the Promised Land. Moses explains that when we cross over, we should build an altar there to give thanks to God. We might expect to be instructed to ornament it with shiny, colorful stones. But the text says: “Avanim shleimot tivneh et mizbach Adonai Eloheicha1—You shall build an altar out of unhewn stones for Adonai your God.”  Unhewn, unpolished, unshaped stones.2  Not smoothed down or made “better,” but just use stones as they naturally are. Why? Because it is the unhewn and rough stones—not the polished and perfected ones—that are strong enough to build holy places.

You’re thinking, “Really, rabbi?  You’re an expert in stone masonry now?” Building with unhewn stones actually seems like a recipe for disaster, for a weak and unstable structure. Well, that’s what I thought, too.  So naturally, I called the New York State Concrete Masonry Association.3  And I spoke with a surprised, but very kind and knowledgeable guy named Nick Caparelli.  And I asked him the difference between hewn and unhewn stones; that is, between polished and unpolished stones.  Here’s what he explained: a hewn stone, one that’s been cut, shaped, and polished, is more fragile than an unhewn stone.  Why?  Because a hewn, polished stone is pounded on in order to perfect it, which creates micro-cracks that make it more vulnerable to the elements. Eventually, water gets in, freezes and thaws, which causes deeper cracks to run through the stone and break it.  Ultimately, he explained, the stone’s perceived perfection is its weakness. 

And so it is with us.  When we neaten our lived experiences by hiding our rough edges from each other, we just pound on ourselves.  We exhaust ourselves, trying to hold it all by ourselves—and eventually, like those fissures in the pounded stone, we break. 

The Hebrew for “unhewn stones” is not broken or weak or pitiful stones.  It’s “avanim shleimot—whole stones.”  Sharing our unfinished edges makes us whole, not fragile.  This is not about airing our every problem or walking around weeping.  It’s about pausing before airbrushing—not editing out the hard stuff because we think we will be judged for it.  Offering up our joys and our struggles, our victories and our defeats.  Because when we allow ourselves to be a little messy, a little more human, we discover—as I did on that bumpy Denver flight—that we are not hurtling through the sky alone.  That others step up for us, step in towards us, relate to us in ways we might never have expected. 

And now the rocky plot thickens. 

Medieval commentator Rashi teaches that the stones we use to build the altar must remain unhewn, because to cut and perfect them, we would need to use a cherev, a sword.4  Swords were, in those days, wielded not just to do battle, but to refine stones.  But since a sword is a weapon of war, used to shorten life, Rashi says it’s the wrong instrument to build a holy place, which is intended to lengthen and strengthen life.  It does not just cut the stone it’s aiming at: it actually mars the holiness of the entire structure.  Rashi’s poetic language identifies a second problem that arises when we wield the metaphorical sword, polishing away our own flaws: we end up injuring those around us, to whom we appear flawless.

How so?  In 2013, a study out of the University of Michigan5 found that the more a person uses Facebook, the unhappier he or she becomes—an unhappiness attributed to a social phenomenon called “Fakebooking.” 6  Anyone here familiar with that term?  It’s when a person posts on Facebook only an extremely glossy version of reality. 

For example: your family wakes up on a regular Sunday morning.  The kids are screaming at each other.  You’ve already snapped at your spouse… twice.  No one has put away their toys.  And a shower is not happening.  Fakebooking is when you take one snapshot of that morning—the picture of the two minutes when everyone is sitting at the table eating pancakes and laughing.  The littlest one has syrup on his chin.  The sun is streaming in the window at the perfect angle.  And even though you are feeling frazzled and frustrated, that’s the one picture you post on Facebook, with the comment: “Just another Sunday morning with the family.”  And here’s the rub: every similarly frazzled parent who sees that post feels deflated, inadequate, the only one whose family doesn’t look like that.  That sword we’ve used to polish our own picture just pummels the stones around us.  Not because we intend to hurt one another—but as a by-product of trying to protect ourselves. 

In this Culture of Polish, we perpetuate a cycle of perceived flawlessness—increasing envy, self-doubt, and what the writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer calls “frenemies”—friends who may as well be enemies because their life appears so sunny that we don’t dare reveal our darkening clouds.

This phenomenon exists off social media, too.

Now I want to add an important caveat: sharing the joys in our lives and expressing gratitude for all the good moments—on- and offline—is wonderful and a true Jewish value.  The challenge is when we edit out all the hard stuff, until each one of us is comparing our blooper reels to everyone else’s highlight reels, assuming we’re the only one with outtakes. 

There is another way.  A braver, kinder, truer, and unhewn way. 

It was only because I cried on that plane—even as I begged my body not to betray my fear—that my fellow flyers were able to reveal to me that they, too, were frightened.  And in the opportunity to unmask ourselves—we found that none of us were alone. 

Think, if you can, of a time when your rough edges were revealed, and instead of the judgment or pity or indifference you expected, someone responded with empathy, their own story, their own cracks.  As that lifeline extended to you… can you still feel the enormous weight that lifted off your shoulders when you realized you were not the only one?  And if you were the one to extend your hand, can you still access what it felt like to be a healer in that moment? 

If we can generate the courage to reveal our own vulnerabilities in the face of someone else’s, we can be like angels to one another.  And that can change everything.

Because what is at stake is not just our selves and the people around us (which would be worthy enough), but the very altar that we’ve been called to build as Jews.  So what is this altar?

For our ancestors just entering the Promised Land, it was a delineated holy structure that they built out of rocks, at which they gathered together to perform a communal ritual. There, they gave thanks to God for the miracle of their journey and marked together the adversities they had faced along the way.  I want to offer that today, the altar we build, our delineated holy space in which we gather for communal rituals (like right now), in which we give thanks for the miracles in our journeys and to mark the adversities that we face along the way—our altar is our Jewish community.  And instead of building it with rocks, we are those avanim shleimot, those whole stones, placed side by side, rough edge to rocky crag, aligned and allied. And just as with the altar of those traveling Israelites, which stood strong for its whole and imperfect stones—similarly the only community that can endure—and support us all—is one built on telling truths and sharing our imperfections. When we reveal our genuine stories, we become the stones strong enough to create holy places. 

An example from my Boston days7: picture a circle of fathers and mothers with their eyes cast downward.  I’d asked if any of their children experienced bullying in school.  A few people shrugged with feigned nonchalance.  The seconds ticked by.  Until one mother lifted her eyes and shattered the silence.  She told her fellow congregants that each day when her daughter came home from school, she wouldn’t play, she wouldn’t talk.  She’d hardly eat.  And that each night, her daughter would beg not to go to school the next day because of the kids who made her just miserable.  The night before, her daughter had said to her, “I wish I could be invisible.”  She looked at the other parents and said, “My beautiful daughter wants to be invisible.  Something has got to change.”  And one by one, each parent spoke—angels in their own right. Their child had been bullied or their child was a bully and they had no idea what to do about that.  The veneer broken, a deep sigh of relief spilled into the room.  Not only did this group become a true community to one another, but they also went on together to pass anti-bullying legislation that protected kids across Massachusetts.  From hiding to relating, from polished to honest.  One unhewn stone built upon another until they were a strong and unbreakable altar—reaching higher than any could have alone.

Now you and I don’t really know each other yet—and I am truly looking forward to changing that—but I’d like to offer two ways we can practice this in our own lives:

First, there is a classic saying: “The most important thing is to be yourself.  Unless you can be Batman.  Then always be Batman.” 8  Generally, I can get behind that theology, but even Batman has trouble taking off his mask.  So perhaps our challenge this Yom Kippur is, without mask or polish, to ditch the Cliff’s Notes version of our stories and be a little more unabridged.  We will each choose when and with whom, and it won’t be all the time.  But perhaps we can agree to err on the side of proactively finding times to take the risk and say, “It’s not all smiles and pancakes in my house.”  Or, “It’s stressful to be the primary breadwinner for my family.”  Or, “Aging, for me, is not quite as precious as it looks in Hallmark commercials.”  And feel ourselves gratefully caught up in a sticky web of connection that materializes when we are real with each other.

And second: when we see someone’s rough edges show, by accident or because they’ve trusted us—be an angel to that person.  Extend them a lifeline.  Whether they are in your family, in this community, or outside our walls.  Say, “I’ve been there.  You are not the only one.”  It is an act of great compassion.  Who needs you to be their angel right now?  We have the power to lighten each other’s burdens, to strengthen each other’s lives with our own imperfection.  With our courage.  If we are willing. 

A final story about stones.  When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the first set of stone tablets, he found us in flagrante in Golden Calf worship. In anger, Moses shattered those tablets.9  We received a new set, but midrash10 teaches that when we continued on our journey, we did not just pack up our shiny new slabs of stone.  We also took with us the broken shards of the first set, carrying them for 40 years. 

Like those broken commandments, our rough-edged stones, our struggles, are not just extra weight we lug around.  They are holy.  They are essential.  They have shaped us and taught us. Maybe they are still teaching us, jabbing us in the side with their jagged edges.  They are ours.  How polished do we really want to be as we build this spectacular altar together?  Instead of being signs of weakness, shameful things, or failures of character… our rough edges are superpowers—of empathy, compassion, and connection.  For if we use them, they give us the power to heal and the power to build holy places. 

Shanah tovah and g’mar tov.


1. Deut 27:6. (back to text)

2. Inspired by a beautiful drash on this text by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Co-Director, Resetting the Table. (back to text)

3. Nick Caparelli is the director of the New York State Concrete Masonry Association. Mr. Caparelli was very generous with his time and wisdom, for which I am grateful.(back to text)

4. Rashi on Deut 27:5. (back to text)

5. (back to text)

6. For a great article about Fakebooking, check out Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s article, “We Need to Quit Telling Lies on Facebook,” (back to text)

7. This conversation took place during a community organizing campaign on protecting our youth at Temple Israel in Boston. (back to text)

8. Attributed to many different people—no one seems sure who said it first. I wish it had been me, but it was not. (back to text)

9. Exodus 32:1-19. (back to text)

10. From Sefer Ha’aggadah 89, from Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:1. (back to text)