Choosing Our Character: A Yom Kippur Message

Delivered Yom Kippur morning by Rabbi Jill Maderer

A woman sits at an airport gate, reading her book and eating a bag of cookies… begins Valerie Cox in her poem, “The Cookie Thief.”  The woman at the airport realizes the man next to her– a stranger– is sticking his hand into her bag and eating her cookies!  How dare he do such a thing?  Her row is called, she boards the airplane, settles into her seat and reaches into her handbag for her book.  And there it is.  Instead of the book, she pulls out her unopened bag of cookies.  The bag at the gate belonged to the man.  He had quietly let her stick her hand into his cookies.  She was the cookie thief!

What was this man’s disposition, that he simply allowed a stranger to share his snack?  And what was this woman’s attitude, that she assumed the worst in someone else?  How much does a response to a small everyday, situation say about who we are?  Jewish tradition teaches that both the large life turning-points and those daily small moments reveal our character, or spiritually we might say, our soul.

This afternoon we will read from the Torah portion, Kedoshim: “You shall be holy.”  Our purpose in a nutshell.  Sounds lofty, yet tradition keeps it basic.  You aren’t holy because you keep the longest fast for Yom Kippur, and you aren’t holy because you keep still the longest in meditation—these are tools, but not the end-game.  You become holy because of what you do in the world.  Today, I’d like to focus on our most mundane moments, those choices that have the potential to move us towards holiness, to shape our character, our soul.

Imagine the most everyday parts of your life.  You interact with your spouse, your co-worker, tech support, the school dismissal plan coordinator… Picture the Whole Foods parking lot at Callowhill!  I know you shop there, because I see you there all the time.

I enter the crowded parking lot right behind you and we both follow the cones to the right.  Then, while you take the sharp curve to the right, I go straight.  We both approach that available parking spot right where the two paths intersect.  Whose spot is it?  Unfortunate for you, in that moment it has become my life’s ambition to park my car there.  So I need to be careful.  I have the potential to create a negative moment in my day, and in yours as I choose greed and try to cut you off.  Or, if I am paying attention to what is important in life, if I realize that my mundane choices profoundly shape my soul, I may choose patience.  If I make the better choice, I grow. My spiritual growth, my soul that day, is not tested in yoga.  It’s tested in my Honda.

“Natati lifanecha,” we heard from the Torah this morning, “I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Uvacharta bachayim: Choose life.”  Choose.  You can make a difference.  Everyday you have a choice.  If, you pay attention.

Often our choices determining blessing and curse lie not only in the dramas or the game-changing decisions, but really in the mundane moments.  Were we to leave our character development to the extraordinary moments in life, we could end up a medical aide hero on a mission to contain Ebola in Africa, who returns home and verbally explodes when the cable-guy is late.  The choices that can lead you to blessing or curse, wholeness or emptiness, growth or stagnation, can be the most everyday impulses, the small instant, when really, you could go either way on a decision.  Parking lot patience or parking lot restlessness.  Door #1 or Door #2.  The Hebrew for sin, chet, comes from archery.  When we miss the mark, often we need only a 2% redirection of our aim.  Doors 1 and 2 are so close together that it’s easy to inadvertently step through the wrong one.  That is why we need to awaken our consciousness and pay attention.

It’s years ago:  I am celebrating with a Bat Mitzvah, her father, and her step-mother, active members of our congregation, who feel at home here.  A few minutes after the service has begun, I watch as the step-mother of the Bat Mitzvah sees her husband’s ex-wife enter the sanctuary.  Not a part of our congregation, the tardy ex-wife, looks uncomfortable.  She must feel like an outsider.  In that instant, the step-mother—that is, the current wife– has a choice to make: She can pretend she does not see the ex, or she can help ease the ex’s way into the sanctuary.  Door #1 or Door #2.  In that moment she waves to welcome the ex-wife and then goes out of her way to make space for her in their row.

Offering that kind of generosity is a challenge for some. Bar Mitzvah after Bar Mitzvah, after wedding after bris after funeral—I see so many of you wrestle through the pain of divorce and family strife and I watch those struggles manifest through these family lifecycle events.

Yet in this Bat Mitzvah, this woman goes out of her way and chooses the door of kindness instead of the door of self-protection. Perhaps she realizes that her seemingly mundane choices profoundly shape her soul.

Natati lifanecha: I have set before you a choice.  The choices that can lead you to blessing or curse, wholeness or emptiness, growth or stagnation, can be the most everyday impulses, the small instant, when really, you could go either way.  Extend generosity to the ex-wife, or to someone with whom you share conflict, or in stinginess, withhold affection.

Each of us faces different obstacles in our work towards becoming better people—each of us has different character virtues that are out of balance and ripe to become vices.  Life offers you and me a pop-up curriculum, with potential every day to grow in character, to change our habits, to become more whole and more holy.

A few minutes ago, as we recited the confession of sins, were you able to think of someone in your life whom you hurt with one of those wrongs?  Or could you remember a time when you were not the best version of yourself?  Perhaps, the action you recalled, revealed to you something in your personal curriculum–a character aspiration on which you’d like to focus.

In his book, Everyday Holiness, contemporary scholar Alan Morinis tells the story of a man named Mark, who sought to strengthen his relationship with his teen-aged daughter.  As much as he wanted to be a loving father, this man found that as soon as his daughter did something that annoyed him, he exploded in anger.  Mark decided to turn to Mussar.  Mussar is an over 1000-year old Jewish practice, in which one engages in –meditation, journaling, visualization—something that helps you pay attention to the character virtues you need to develop so that you may practice self-restraint, and eventually even transform your natural impulses.   Mussar aims to help you close the gap between your ideals, and the life you actually lead.

In the midst of the teen-ager challenge, Mark immersed himself in the Jewish idea that every human being is inherently deserving of respect—even a teen-ager.   Mark determined that the next time his daughter ignited the spark that fueled his irritation, he would resist explosion.

Soon after, Mark’s daughter was re-painting her room and kicked over a can of green paint.  On the beige carpet.  Right in front of Mark.  “At that instant,” Mark says, “as the green paint was seeping into the carpet, I saw before me in my mind, two doors.  One was really familiar and well-used, and behind it I could see myself yelling ‘You clumsy fool!’ and a lot more.  The other door was a new one for me.  Behind it I saw myself saying, ‘What a mess; let’s clean this up together.’  And I saw that the choice was mine.”

Mark’s was not a self-help process designed to gratify a desire.  It was a process that, much like Yom Kippur itself, focused on an openness to change.  He re-directed his aim in order to be a better person.  Mark did not just change things for his daughter, he awakened his own consciousness, he changed his own habit.  Reflected in an instant that could have gone either way, Mark grew spiritually as he became a better version of himself.

Natati lifanecha: I have set before you a choice.  The choices that can lead you to blessing or curse, wholeness or emptiness, growth or stagnation, can be the most everyday impulses, the small instant, when really, you could go either way.  Extend honor to the person who pushes your buttons, or show disrespect.

Do you find, as I do, that some of the hardest things to learn, the most important things to pursue, sometimes seem to sound so simple?  Be patient, extend generosity, show respect.

The 18th century Mussar teacher Rabbi Moses Chayim Luzzato cautions us not to overlook everyday character traits, such as generosity, patience, respect, humility, compassion, trust, truth, enthusiasm, moderation–even though they seem obvious.   In fact, they are so obvious, he concedes, that you already know them.  You already know what it means to work hard or to walk upright.  Rabbi Luzzato says, “I’m not teaching you anything you don’t know.  I’m just helping you to remember it.”

None of us is perfect, Rabbi Luzzato teaches.  We all have habits that are out of balance and at risk of becoming hindrances to our spiritual growth and afflictions in our relationships with the people in our lives.  Generosity verses stinginess, patience verses restlessness, honor verses disrespect.

The teachings of Mussar remain profoundly relevant for our own day.  The world of 1000 years ago may have been different; but we aren’t.  We still face obstacles as we strive to come back—to remember– to be holy in our everyday choices. This year, our congregation will immerse in the wisdom of Mussar, when scholar, Alan Morinis comes to speak this month, and when we begin our first small Mussar study group next month.  Please contact me if you are interested in participating.  Together, we will endeavor to face our hindrances, to come back to what we already know, and to grow– in the parking lot, in the sanctuary, and in our homes.

Perhaps you have heard this quotation: “Pay attention to your thoughts, they become words; pay attention to your words, they become actions; pay attention to your actions, they become habits, pay attention to your habits, they become your character, pay attention to your character, it becomes your destiny.”  Pay attention– the Jewish spiritual journey towards blessing, wholeness, and growth can be that accessible–just pay attention.

“Natati lifanecha, I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Uvacharta bachayim: Choose life.”  In those challenging moments when you are teetering on the brink of a decision, the choice is yours.  You—every unique soul in this room–can make a difference.  If, you pay attention.

On this sacred day, may we begin to rediscover the paths that can profoundly shape our soul.



Rabbi Moses Chayim Luzzatto, The Path of the Upright

Valerie Cox, “The Cookie Thief”

Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness, story adapted