Yom Kippur 5768: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Hayom Harat Olam. Each of Us is a World: The Jewish Task of Perfecting Our Souls

This time of year, during the Holy Days, we are prone to thoughts of change; how we might transform ourselves. How might my life be different? How might I be different? We create resolutions for ourselves. We make promises. We even devise carefully thought out plans to effect these changes that will alter our lives: I will no longer be this kind of person or that kind of person. I will no longer do those things…eat too much, be so impatient, be sloppy, be lazy…fill in the blank with your own favorite. But, ultimately, I have come to realize that our expectations about change are quite often unrealistic, if not impossible. We are who we are. And we have to live with that fact. Can a radish become a sunflower? Can a kugel become a latke? Can we expect ourselves to transform into something we aren’t?

So, Rabbi, you’re thinking, “What am I doing here, then, davening, fasting, pouring out my soul, if there is no hope for change?” Don’t despair. Don’t pack up your tallis and machzor yet. Part of the problem is not change per se, but the way that we approach change and the way that we think about it. The Alter Rebbe of Novarodok, Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, a disciple of the great Rabbi Israel Salanter, once mused: “The problem with people is that they want to change overnight and have a good night sleep that night, too.” (Everyday Holiness, Morinis, p. 37) We expect change to happen immediately and with little effort. We like quick fixes that don’t demand much of us. And, if it takes too long or requires too much, there is a good chance we’ll lose interest, and change will remain only a dream.

Change, to me, as we often use this word, implies a sudden shift from one thing to another, a radical departure from what is. I think the Days of Awe are really about something else. We may not be able to effect fundamental changes in who we are, but there is still plenty of room for growth and improvement, which is a very different kind of change. An apple tree grows yet remains an apple tree. A pianist may improve but that doesn’t require her to become a guitarist, she remains a pianist, but gets better. This kind of change, which emerges out of who we are not in spite of who we are, requires careful reflection, discipline, and dedication over time. This kind of change is slow and deep, almost imperceptibly so at times, yet the impressions left on the soul are enduring and real.

A rabbi once remembered a beautiful spring day, when he was a young student at the Mir Yeshiva in pre-war Europe. Suddenly, his teacher came running into the class, very agitated. The teacher cried out, “I just came from the street, and I saw that all around me everything was growing. Why are you not growing?” The rabbi, now much older, can still hear the voice of his teacher roaring, whenever he gets too comfortable in his life, “Why aren’t you growing?” (Morinis, p. 37) This is the life work of the human soul, to always be growing. This is the work that we are engaged in today on Yom Kippur, an opportunity to encounter and grow our souls.

A very old Jewish spiritual path, known as Mussar, dedicated to guiding individuals in this type of soul work, is attracting significant attention and interest across the spectrum of Jewish life. Alan Morinis, author of Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and more recently, Everyday Holiness, (two books he has written about mussar) has been one of the major champions of the Mussar path. According to Morinis, “the goal of Mussar practice is not to develop some pre-ordained characteristics or qualities, but to become the most refined, perfected, elevated version of the unique person you already are.” You see, we do not seek to change who we are, only perfect the person we have always been becoming.

Hayom Harat Olam. Today the world is born. The midrash asks why the world was created with only one person, Adam. The rabbis’ answer explains that the reason is to teach us that each life, each person is equivalent to a world. Hayom Harat Olam: Today, every day, we have the potential to be born, to grow and develop in new ways. We are, of course, all familiar with the concept of Tikkun Olam, healing the world. Mussar calls on us to apply this kind of tikkun, healing, to our own souls; for each one of us is an olam, a world, unto ourselves. If we embrace the imperative to repair the outer world in which we live, how much the more so is it of fundamental importance for us to dedicate ourselves to caring for and healing of the inner-world of our soul.

Mussar, as described by Morinis in Everyday Holiness, imagines the soul as having three distinct aspects, but this is only metaphor so we can better appreciate the path to healing and growing our soul. The Mussar teachers insist that in reality the soul is an undivided whole. The innermost core of the soul in this design is called the neshama. (As in a gutte neshama) It is inherently holy and pure and can never be tainted. This dimension embodies and reflects the divine spark that glows within each of us. Surrounding the neshama on the next level out is the ruach. This aspect of the soul is the “spirit of life” and expresses our moods, energy and consciousness, such as when we are excited, depressed or anxious. The outermost circle of the soul, which functions like the atmosphere around our world, is called the nefesh, and it is here that all of our various personality traits and characteristics reside.

But the amazing thing is that we all possess from birth every single imaginable character trait, or middah, which literally means measure. Morinis explains it this way in his book, Everyday Holiness: “What sets one person apart from another is not whether we have certain traits while someone else has different ones, but rather the degree, or measure of the traits that live in each of our souls. The angriest person, for example, has an excess of the anger trait, but Mussar insists that there must be at least some degree of calm within that raging soul.. So must there also be a touch of anger in even the calmest individual. The stingiest person still has at least a grain of generosity, and so on with all the traits.” (Everyday Holiness, p. 19)

The holy and radiant light that naturally emanates from our neshama would shine constantly in our lives and through us into the world were it not for the fact that an imbalance in our character traits creates a veil that blocks the light from getting out. When one of our traits tends to one extreme or another it is like a cloud blocking the sun. The sun is still shining, but its light does not penetrate into the world. Every middah is inherently good and we cannot remove or obliterate any traits from our souls; but problems will arise when the measure of our trait is unbalanced. Humility is good, for example, but if we have too much our self-esteem will suffer and a veil appears. Discipline is beneficial but too much can make us rigid causing a blockage to form. Even qualities like jealousy and anger have their place, in the proper proportions. Each one of us has our own unique soul curriculum to follow in order to achieve the balance that is just right for us. Our goal for ourselves, for our souls, is to remove as many of our veils as possible by balancing our middot, our character traits, so as to become the clearest vessels for God’s light that shines through each one of us.

This is the kind of change that we are striving to begin during these holy Days of Awe; for this is the work of a lifetime, not of the moment. This change is not a change on the surface, but a change at the deepest levels that touch the very core of our souls. And when we are filled up with the divine radiance of our neshama, then our light will spill over into the lives of others, spreading blessing, joy, contentment and peace. May all these be ours as we grow into and become the change we are seeking.

Ken y’hi ratzon

Rabbi Greg Wolfe