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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - September 2018
From the Rabbi - September 2018 PDF Print E-mail
One of my favorite musicals is "Les Miserables" and one of the most memorable songs is "Who am I?" In it the hero, Jean Valjean, sings of a significant personal and moral struggle. Valjean is a reformed criminal but  and then it continues where i left off the crossing out on his path to reform he took on a new identity to avoid being trapped in the expectations of the people who would not let him be anything other than a criminal.  This technically makes him a fugitive and he is faced with a terrible dilemma when a person who looks a lot like him is arrested and may go to prison in his stead.  He asks “Who am I? Can I conceal myself for evermore? Pretend I'm not the man I was before?... How can I ever face my fellow men?  How can I ever face myself again? Who am I?”  He must decide to face up to who he really is and accept the consequences, or pretend to be this new person who has built a good and righteous life for himself, but let it be based on a lie that causes another person’s suffering.  

This may not seem like a dilemma that relates to the daily lives of most of us today but at its core it is very much the dilemma we all face on a regular basis and which is at the heart of the High HolyDays.  That challenge is that as human beings we are very good at knowing who we WANT to be but much less able or willing to know who we really ARE. We become enamored of an image of ourselves and then become invested to protecting that image against all critique, however true. If we don’t like what we hear we find ways of dismissing it, minimizing it, or simply ignoring it so that we can continue to see ourselves how we want to see ourselves, and not as we truly are.  

And this is what the High Holydays come to change in our lives.  The prayers and readings of the Days of Awe, if we take them seriously, remind us that to improve ourselves we must first be honest about ourselves.  They force us to be realistic about the gap between who we want to be and how we actually live our lives.  They challenge us to not reject such critique but to embrace it so that we can truly start the work of becoming who we truly hope to be and not just imagining ourselves that way.  

Our tradition understands that this isn’t easy and won’t happen all at once.  That is why the High Holydays come around every year, so that every year we can measure our progress and judge ourselves based on how far we have come and far much further we have to go.  And our tradition understands that if we keep our minds open to the words of the prayers, and our hearts and souls open to the presence of G-d in our lives we will be pushed ever forward to improve ourselves, morally and spiritually.   

The song “Who am I?” ends with Valjean singing: “My soul belongs to God, I know, I made that bargain long ago, He gave me hope, when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on. Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!” The Jewish people made a bargain, a covenant, long ago to strive towards the higher angels of our nature no matter how hard it might be to face up to hard truths we might have to face about ourselves  and we are reminded at the High Holydays that our self-critique at this time of year is not to bring us down but to give us hope to journey on from year to year and strength to strength.  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel


 

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