2nd Day Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
September 11, 2018
Dr. Alissa R. Ackerman-Acklin
Hineini: Choosing to Live
“It is the human condition to experience pain and hardship in this world – hopefully, infrequently, but for some, in many of the moments of their lives… Ian MacLaren, a 19th century Scottish author and theologian, once wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” How sad it is that we often cannot and do not know the pain that others hold deep in their hearts. “Many people in our world live in utter darkness, stricken by one of many diseases that have such a stigma attached to them that they cannot even share their battle aloud for fear of being shunned or discriminated against. These people often fight through silent conflict, and their sadness is compounded by the fact that they feel completely alone.”
These are the words of Cantor Leah Elstein. When I joined Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington in 2014, Cantor Elstein had been on the pulpit for just under five years. It was Yom Kippur in 2014 when visibly nervous, she approached the podium, steadied herself, and began delivering the sermon with the words I just read above.
“These people suffer from mental illness, and their battles are devastating,” she continued. Now, Cantor Elstein was intimately familiar with the stories that so many of her congregants carried. Yet until this moment, nobody, except our rabbi, knew what her next words would be. “I am one of those people,” she disclosed, before speaking of her long-term struggle with bipolar disorder. As she spoke, she detailed the darkness and isolation she lived with. She did not hide behind shame or embarrassment. She stood firmly and unabashedly in her truth before her entire congregation. Being authentic and whole before herself and God was a holy gesture.
Not long after that sermon, I reached out to Cantor Elstein to see if she could meet for coffee so we could get to know each other better and we quickly built a friendship. We talked about God and faith. And kids. We talked about mental illness. We shared deeply and intimately, authentically and vulnerably. Leah was my clergy, my spiritual mentor, but most importantly, she was my friend.
It was a Sunday morning in mid-February 2016 when I received the email that my beloved Cantor Elstein had died in her sleep after complications from minor surgery. At just 39 years old, she left behind her husband Jacob and their two-year-old daughter. Hundreds of people attended her funeral and as a show of respect, almost every person participated in the ritual of shoveling a small bit of earth into her grave. As her funeral ended and the crowd thinned, I stayed behind with two other congregants. We looked at one another and knew what had to be done. Despite knowing the cemetery grounds crew would come through later to complete the burial, we took turns hand shoveling the entire grave. I shoveled the last particles of the dirt, flattened all the sod, and placed the first stone in the grass. In fulfilling this mitzvah, I recognized it as a crucial hineni moment in my life – a moment I stood before God.
Why is this story so pertinent today?
Rosh Hashanah is, for many, a holiday of joy and hope for the New Year – a holiday where we eat apples and honey to symbolically represent that hope. Yet, in my experience, many of us are High Holiday Jews only. Attending services on Rosh Hashanah is the rote completion of one ritual only to be followed by the separate ritual of observing Yom Kippur.
The joy of Rosh Hashanah contrasts with the difficulty of Yom Kippur. Purging ourselves of the darker aspects of our actions from the previous year can be confronting and sometimes downright excruciating.
The joy of Rosh Hashanah bolsters us for the purging that occurs on Yom Kippur. What if Rosh Hashanah holds within it another possibility – one we speak of, but rarely embody. What if Rosh Hashanah influenced how we behaved and, more importantly, how we thought about ourselves throughout the year? Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to take a real hard look at ourselves and determine who we want to be.
Leah embodied this spirit when she revealed to the congregation that she struggled with bipolar disorder. She did it by honoring her authentic self. In doing so, she found a level of healing and connection with herself and her community.
It is tradition for Jews to recite Psalm 27 from the beginning of the month of Elul through Sukkot. It begins, God is my light and my helper, whom shall I fear?
Perhaps, this is because change of any kind involves fear, especially change that requires us to be to be real, authentic and vulnerable in all aspects of life. Recently, I’ve turned to the work of Dr. Brene Brown to prepare spiritually. She writes, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
Being the best version of ourselves requires that we look inward and that we own all of the parts of who we are, even the darkest parts. On the High Holidays, we stand, stripped of the masks we wear, bearing our souls to God and to ourselves. What would the world be like if we shared our souls…our authentic selves with each other?
Yesterday’s Haftorah Portion was the story of the birth of Samuel, the son of Hannah. As the story goes, Hannah is absorbed in grief for over 19 years at her inability to conceive a child. The sadness and misfortunate of her infertility consumed her and she could not see other blessings in her life. On this particular day, Hannah weeps at the entrance to the Temple, bearing her soul, her grief and her vulnerability before God, praying that she gives birth to a male child. Her words have been interpreted to mean, “Let me not die, while I am still alive.”
According to Rabbi Herman Kieval, it was not the fulfillment of the prayer that changed Hannah, it was the bold act of her Hineini moment. She was standing before God and before herself. Absorbed in grief, loss, and despair, Hannah chose life. As long as we are alive, there is hope for a better tomorrow.
In early February 2016, Leah and I had planned to have one of our coffee dates at our favorite Tacoma Starbucks. It was during a time when I was struggling to manage my own mental health issues and I knew Leah would be the first person to see through my façade. An hour or two before we were supposed to meet up, I sent her an email that simply said, “sorry I’m not gonna be able to make it.” She responded, “No problem. Let’s reschedule soon.” I never saw Leah again. Less than two weeks later, she was dead.
When I chose to cancel that coffee date with Leah, when I chose to hide instead of letting her see me in my personal struggle, I chose not to be seen by one of the few people who would truly understand and honor me. I chose not to be honest with Leah about why I was canceling on her and I never had the chance to apologize to her. I never had the chance for the authentic and vulnerable conversations that would have ensued.
On Yom Kippur that year, I worked through some difficult and dark feelings about my lack of authenticity with Leah. I reflected on why I chose to hide from her. It may seem like such an insignificant thing, but I knew in my heart that I had totally missed the mark when I canceled that coffee date and now there was no way I could right my wrong.
In reality, the theme of purgation played out long before Yom Kippur. It occurred in the process of hand-filling Leah’s grave.
Kneeling in the dirt, I spoke to Leah through tears. I said all the things I had wanted to convey to her in life, but didn’t. As I remained kneeling, I made a promise to her and a commitment to myself to live in a way that honored her. I committed to speaking my truth and living my life as authentically as I possibly could, letting Leah’s courage and bravery be an example for me.
So many times I tried to make myself small. I tried to hide from my ugly truths. I made excuses for my actions, instead of taking responsibility for my behavior. But, in Leah’s death, I chose life.
Let me not die while I am still alive. These words remain apart of me every day. And I recognize that how Leah honored herself with that sermon is how we should all honor ourselves. I also recognize that in my own struggles, I have chosen life many times over.
I am a rape survivor. It is something I am open and public about. The part I rarely share publicly is that my rape happened because I am queer. The man who raped me made it very clear that this was the case, despite only meeting him 30 minutes or so before he assaulted me. In the aftermath, I walked away from Judaism. God had died in my eyes. My faith in anything had been completely decimated. I drank heavily. I self-harmed. I attempted suicide twice. I lived with constant flashbacks and nightmares…
I was a wreck. But most of all, I was ashamed. So much so, that I never told anyone about how much I was struggling. It was more than just the shame of being a rape victim. It was the shame of not being able to protect myself. It was the shame that I had hurt my family because I was queer. It was the shame associated with struggling with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. It was the shame of walking away from Judaism. It was like living in shame soup.
It took me 15 years to walk back into a synagogue. It was a Friday evening and I had just finished watching a documentary about Israeli beauty queen, Linor Abargil, who had survived a violent rape. Ten years after her rape she began the process of filming the documentary, Brave Miss World, to help other survivors. During filming, she went through a process of finding Orthodox Judaism.
The last scene of the film depicts Linor praying at the Wall.
The tears were flowing freely when I stood up, looked at my friend who had insisted I watch the film, and said, “c’mon, we’re going to shul.” I walked into Temple Beth El and Cantor Elstein greeted me at the door, making direct eye contact with me. In that instant, I was home. I knew she really saw me, all of me, all of the pain, all of the struggle, and all of the beauty and joy. She saw me in a way I could not see myself. And it was clear from that first moment that she honored me. For the first time in 15 years, I found that I could call myself a Jew again. For the first time in 15 years, I didn’t feel shame. I didn’t feel the need to divert my eyes so as not to let someone see me. I was home.
Each of us feels shame about things we have done or things that have been done to us. The first step to overcoming that shame is to own who we are. But sadly, many of us don’t know who we really are. The second step is to take responsibility for our behavior. When we hurt someone, we have a responsibility and an obligation to repair that hurt. So we must look at ourselves. We must look inward and acknowledge our failings. We must take account of where we have missed the mark. We must bear our souls before God and we must be authentic and vulnerable with ourselves and with each other.
A few years back during a session with my therapist, she asked me, “Alissa, who are you?” I responded with, “I am a professor, a mother, a survivor…” and I was reminded that these titles are not who I am, they are what I do or what has been done to me. They are labels I place on myself. But who am I under all these labels? And who are you under the labels you place on yourselves? What stops you from showing up authentically? From taking responsibility? From living with an open heart and an open mind? From owning your wrong doing? And what does it mean to make permanent change?
Earlier this year, I had to take a real hard look at myself. I was working with a psychiatrist to find the right anxiety and depression medication. I was on my fourth one in less than three years and it finally seemed to be working. I was sleeping through the night without bouts of insomnia for the first time in my adult life. I was enjoying time outside with my family. We planted a vegetable garden. We went camping. We had impromptu dance parties in our family room, but during the day, I couldn’t slow myself down. My mind went a million miles a minute. I had racing thoughts all day long. I overdrew our family bank account for the first time ever and I started self-medicating to calm down. It didn’t take long to begin mixing substances. It was on the night I drank a bunch of gin and mixed it with a muscle relaxer and some marijuana, that I realized that my behavior was not only unacceptable, it was dangerous for me, and for my family.
I thought back to the commitment I made to Leah as I filled her grave – no more hiding. So I had a really important talk with my wife, Angie, my psychiatrist, my therapist, Rabbi Heidi, Jodi Kaufman, and a few really close friends who have also struggled with substance abuse. And I got real with them. I knew that they would support me, love me, and help me hold myself accountable. Reaching out, making the choice not to hide, made it so much easier to deal with. When I saw my psychiatrist later that same week, she simply adjusted the medication. Things got better. No more racing thoughts. No more impulsivity. No more over drawn bank accounts. No more self-medicating.
We are not responsible for the ugly things that happen in our lives, but we are responsible for our behavior. It starts with owning the fact that we have a problem, or that we have done something hurtful.
So, Let me not die while I am still alive. This begins with the act of honoring our truest selves, as Leah did, as she taught me to do, and as all of us are capable of.
Rosh Hashanah is not just a holiday where we celebrate the new year. It is an opportunity to reflect on who we want to be in this world and it is the starting point for becoming that person. It took me over a year to answer my therapist’s question about who I am, but really, it is an answer I have been searching for my whole life… I am duality – holding both the darkest of pain and the most brilliant joy in the same breath. I am hope – that living a beautiful and meaningful life after trauma is possible. I am strength – holding a strong backbone, while taking off the masks and the armor – walking a path paved with vulnerability. Brene Brown wrote that true belonging means braving the wilderness. I’ve decided that I AM the wilderness. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I do know I wake up every morning and I choose to live. Authentically. Vulnerably. And Honestly. I hope you’ll join me.