As we close out 5770, here are reflective words from Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar
The ‘I’ That Stands Between God and You
In Sefer Devarim (the book of Deuteronomy), Chapter 5, Verse 5, Moshe is describing the scene at Mount Sinai just before God reveals the 10 Commandments. He says: “Anokhi Omed Bein Hashem Uveineikhem Ba-et Ha-hih”—literally, “I was standing between God and you on that day.” But chasidic rebbes have a way of treating verses as a kind of sacred clay out of which to generate new insights, and this one is no exception. They suggest that a deep lesson is hidden in this verse, and it is that the “Anokhi,” the “I,” is what stands Bein Hashem Uveinekhem, that is, between God and you. The verse now reads: “Anokhi Omed Bein Hashem Uveineikhem” — it is the “I” that stands between you and God. What might this image mean to us as we enter the period of Teshuvah (repentance) this year?
Many of us are trapped all of the time, and all of us are trapped at least some of the time, by the notion of a frozen “Anokhi”— that is, of a fixed “I” that cannot change. We’ve all done it. “I am a person,” we say, “who responds to situation X with response Y… I know that response Y is less than desirable, perhaps even that its downright selfish or cruel, but that’s just how I am; in fact, it’s just who I am. I need you to accept me for who and how I am. I am a person who lashes out when I feel threatened or afraid; I am a person who goes along with behavior I know is immoral when people around me seem to think it’s OK; I am a person who yells at my spouse or boyfriend when I’m not feeling well, or secure, or whatever.” We spend a lot of time and energy working to convince ourselves and others that the way we are is the way we have to be, that where our deepest emotional and behavioral patterns are concerned, no change or transformation are possible.
Too often, we forget that between stimulus and response there is always the possibility of a breath, and therefore of a decision to do otherwise. On the one hand, Judaism is not naïve about how hard this can be. It is surely striking that Maimonides begins his laws of moral self-cultivation by acknowledging that a whole array of circumstances can conspire against our growth — we can feel stuck, and our actions can seem determined either by physical disposition or by learned behavior (Hilkhot De’ot 1:1-2). But Maimonides acknowledges all this precisely so that he can then re-emphasize the mandate and the challenge of growing and changing.
Despite every one of the obstacles, in the face of all of them, we are nevertheless free to choose and become otherwise. Our actions are influenced by countless factors, but they are not, despite what it sometimes feels like, determined by them. Judaism is relentless about being a religion of human freedom, a religion that says, “So you’ve done it that way 301 times. Time 302 can be different, even if it’s so hard that at this moment it feels pretty close to impossible.” “Anokhi Omed Bein Hashem Uveinekhem” — it is my notion of myself as a fixed, rigidly defined person that gets in the way, that stands as a seemingly insurmountable obstacle between God and me.
Teshuvah & Self-Actualization
In light of all this, what is Teshuvah? I would propose the following definition: to cultivate the awareness that the “I” is malleable and not fixed, and to act on that awareness. This is spiritual awareness from a Jewish perspective: to know that I am free to shape myself and the world around me, that neither I nor it are totally fixed and impervious to change. When we take that seriously and really strive to live it, we can discover the kind of Anokhi that is ready and eager to stand Lifnei Hashem, in the presence of God — ready and eager, that is, to do God’s will and to help bring God’s presence more deeply into the world.
Kehilat Hadar is an independent minyan in New York City. Kehilat Hadar holds spirited, participatory traditional High Holiday services (www.kehilathadar.org). Yeshivat Hadar offers an array of classes and lectures open to people from a variety of backgrounds and textual skill levels (www.mechonhadar.org).