As we leaf through the pages of the High Holiday Mahzor, what feelings does it leave us with? Some prayers help us to soar and fill us with hope. Others remind us of the finiteness of life. Still other prayers remind us of our moral and behavioral failings. Many of the prayers the Talmudic sages composed and passed down to us emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check. Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others. The Spanish mystic and philosopher Nachmamides, gave this advice to his children in his Ethical Will: “Let your voice be low and your head bowed; let your eyes turn earthwards—every man should seem in your own eyes as one greater than yourselves.”
Candidly, that’s not a very uplifting or cheery idea to ponder. Do any of us really want to spend these days being told that we are nothing, that we should walk around with our heads bowed low, deferential to everyone we meet, positioning ourselves as a doormat for others to walk across? Don’t we want to go home from these days of prayer and celebration feeling strong and content?
Reading between the lines, we can see the message that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up as we sit in the pews and pray with the congregation. In a famous Talmudic passage, we read of the legendary “Three Books” that are opened on Rosh Hashana:
Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana: one is of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one for those inbetween. The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life, the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death, and the “beinonim” (inbetween) hang in the balance from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are written for life. If they do not merit it, they are written for death.” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b)
When I read that passage, what comes to mind is that the first two books are useless. I don’t know anyone who is either completely righteous or completely wicked. Our tradition teaches that human beings are imperfect. In fact, we are taught that it is sacrilegious even to strive for perfection. Instead, we are expected to live with the fact that we are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil. Most of us are average or above-average people who do a lot of good things for others and for our community. But none of us are entirely good or entirely evil. (For what it’s worth, I presume that Rabbi Kruspedai knew this and wrote his derash about the three books to encourage people to consider their behavior and make a special, concentrated effort to repent during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.)
My take-away from the legend of the Three Books is this: give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up as you make your way through the High Holidays. You’re not perfectly good, but you’re not perfectly evil either. If you’re like most people, you’re a basically good person who possesses some flaws that need to be corrected. Accept the fact that you won’t be able to correct all the flaws you possess. If you’re trying to reinvent yourself as a perfect human being, whether during these sacred New Year days or afterward, you should know in advance that such a state of being will never, ever be achieved by any of us.
Rather, use these days for some reasonable introspection and honest self-examination. Pick two or three negative qualities you see in yourself and meditate on them, thinking about ways to change or eliminate those behaviors. The result will be a better, if not perfect, you.
I imagine that the first two of Rabbi Kruspedai’s Three Books are thin and contain few if any entries. It’s the third book, the one of average people who are trying to be better people, that is filled with names of God’s creatures, His good but flawed human partners on whom He relies to make this a better world. Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect, let’s spend these days trying to be just a little better than we were last year. The world will be a better place for our efforts.
I wish you a Shana Tova- a year of fulfillment, blessing and good fortune. I look forward to sharing these sacred days with you and your loved ones as we gather to usher in the New Year.