Yom Kippur 5774: Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches
“All of You in God’s Presence: Kulchem lifnei Adonai”
Two summers ago, I was working at a Jewish summer camp with a group of middle schoolers. On one particular evening, we gathered around a campfire for a program about communal gossip and personal insecurities. As part of this program, we had everyone write down a personal insecurity or two on a piece of paper. Then we folded up the papers, so that no one could identify the authors as a fellow unit head and I read these insecurities aloud to the group. After we read the papers, we threw them into the fire to symbolically destroy the things that were weighing our souls down.
Although the papers themselves turned to ash, their content lingered in my mind. I was amazed at what these campers wrote then as 11 and 12 year olds. Many of these young people felt insecure about particular aspects of their appearance, even if parents and friends said they were beautiful inside and out. Others worried about being loved and accepted for who they are. They feared rejection for liking the wrong things—the wrong activities, the wrong types of music, even the wrong types of people. The kids seemed amazed, too, at what their peers had written that day, though for another reason. They were amazed and relieved to discover that other people had basically the same fears and insecurities that they had.
What we shared that evening was sacred. It was a moment of revelation that connected our group, our community, on a profound level. That sacred evening came to mind again as I read the opening line of the Torah portion that most Reform Jews are reading this morning (in place of the traditional reading in Leviticus 16, though some will read the story of creation instead): Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem, lifnei Adonai eloheichem, meaning “You are standing today, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God.”
Classical Jewish commentators have many things to say about this opening line, but curiously little about one of its words, kulchem. This overlooked word, kulchem, is what stands out most to me. Kulchem means “all of you.” If the most famous Jewish commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki of 11th century France, who is more commonly known as Rashi, were from Alabama rather than France, you might expect him to define the word kulchem as “all y’all.” But he doesn’t do that. Actually, he doesn’t comment on this word at all, even though it seems redundant in this verse. The verse, Deuteronomy 29:9, already says “atem,” which a Southern Rashi would also translate as “all y’all.” Why, we might ask, does the Torah say both atem (meaning “all y’all”) and kulchem (meaning “all of you”) in the same sentence?
Some might explain the redundancy as emphatic pluralization, but I’d like to suggest that it has a deeper meaning. Kulchem could refer to every individual as a full human being, with both positive and negative attributes and experiences. It means all of you, all of us, all of our experiences, and the fullness of our lives.
Just as the word kulchem is largely overlooked by commentators, certain parts of our lives are systematically overlooked or even purposely obscured. Sometimes we overlook the positive qualities in others, because it’s easier to hate someone than to truly get to know them. Sometimes, we do the opposite and focus on the positive aspects so much that we ignore the rest of reality. It’s not fun or easy to confront flaws or imperfections, especially our own. But it’s necessary for our spiritual growth to acknowledge these realities and address them in a thoughtful manner.
As social media websites like Facebook have become increasingly popular, many of us have spent a tremendous amount of time cultivating the perfect online images of ourselves. We tend to post the most attractive pictures of ourselves, taken from the most flattering angles. Then we essentially brag about the exciting highlights of our lives. We share fantastic news of educational and professional achievements, pictures of our kids at their most adorable moments, and photos of the delectable gourmet dishes that we enjoy. But we seldom if ever post about embarrassing blunders that we made at work, or show video clips of our children throwing tantrums at the grocery store, or share pictures of greasy fast food that we bought when we just couldn’t find the time or motivation to cook a healthier meal. That is not the self or the life we want others to see. So we bury those images in a pit of shame, smooth over the surface and create the equivalent of photo shopped images of our lives. We do this online, and often in person, too.
It is so important and rewarding to share the positive aspects of life with our friends, families, and larger communities. But these ideal snap shots of our lives are not enough. They are incomplete without their imperfect counterparts. The past ten Days of Awe, and the spiritually reflective month of Elul leading up to them culminate today in Yom Kippur. This season of reflection serves to remind us of life’s bigger picture. At this time of year, we are challenged to confront the parts of our lives about which we feel shame. We begin by examining our actions over the past year. Whom have we wronged? In what ways? Why? How can we keep from repeating these harmful actions in the future?
But that’s not where self-examination ends. There’s an even deeper level to delve into, a level where all of the things about which we feel shame reside. Many of us feel the need to hide the struggles we have in our relationships with loved ones. We are afraid to admit that we’re going through a rough patch in a romantic relationship, or that our children are really struggling to keep up at school, or that our parents’ or grandparents’ abilities are not what they used to be.
A few weeks ago, I asked a number of my friends what secrets they kept out of embarrassment or shame. One friend shared that she felt like she had to hide her father’s dementia. Her father once carried himself with unparalleled dignity, but he is now incapable of taking care of himself even on the most basic level. My friend worries about her father’s wellbeing; and deep down, she also worries that his current mental and physical state will reflect poorly on her. This is often the case with medical conditions that we do not fully understand. People panic. Is it contagious? Is it genetic? Is it safe to be associated with someone who has this condition?
In addition to relationship and medical struggles, many of us are also ashamed to discuss our financial difficulties or mental health challenges. Many of us feel a tremendous amount of pressure to keep up with those around us, whether we can afford it or not. Another friend shared with me how ashamed he is of his tremendous credit card debt. Back in college, my friend tried to fit in with a wealthier crowd, who were the majority of students at his school. He knew he couldn’t afford to attend expensive concerts, eat at fine restaurants, and travel to Europe like they did. But he was ashamed to admit that he couldn’t keep up with them. So, he just put everything on a credit card and resolved to pay it back when he got his first big job. Now, years later, he is still struggling every month to pay the bare minimum, while the interest continues to accrue. He had to move back in with relatives and cannot pay for anything other than a few basic groceries. Even after sustaining a serious injury, he declined to go to the doctor because he could not afford the medical bill. And this lamentable situation was created by destructive financial patterns that he developed in secret shame.
Some of us engage in other sorts of destructive behavior out of compulsion. We may turn to food for comfort instead of working through and processing our complicated or negative feelings. We may drink more alcohol than we should, use drugs to escape the painful (or boring) parts of life, or even purposely injure parts of our bodies in secret. As a society, we have raised consciousness of these destructive behaviors among teenagers. But they are not age-specific. People of all ages struggle with depression, addiction, and eating disorders. But those of us who do, often struggle in secret. We are so embarrassed, so ashamed of our imperfections that we are afraid to seek help when we truly need it. Instead, we live in isolation, in exile from each other, from our true selves, and from God.
But we need not live in exile. There is a much better way to live, and the Torah can guide us toward this better life. The Torah reminds that we need to think in terms of atem, all y’all, and kulchem, all of you. It is not just you. It is all y’all. It is not just me. It is us. It is all of us, all of the positive and all of the negative in our lives. We are not meant to live in isolation. Instinct and our sacred tradition both compel us to seek out connections with others. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai sends his students off to investigate the best of what life has to offer. Rabbi Yehoshua concludes that life’s greatest gift is a chaver tov, a good friend. Rabbi Yossi also adds “a good neighbor,” someone else we can really count on as we face the ups and downs of life.
A different Rabbi Yehoshua, ben Prachya, instructs us in the same book of wisdom (Pirkei Avot 1:6) to acquire for ourselves a friend. And today, I am rearticulating his words: K’nei l’cha chaver. Acquire for yourself a friend, a true and trustworthy friend. Find someone you can trust fully with your secrets. If something—anything—is currently weighing down your soul, it is time to release the pain and end the exile. It is the perfect time of year to discuss our imperfections. Now is the time to reach out to someone, whether that be a trustworthy friend, a rabbi, or a therapist, and discuss what’s really going on. Find someone who will not judge you, and let your burden be lifted and replaced with the warm presence of HaRachaman, the compassionate God in whose sacred image we were all created. For when we gather together and share our full selves, we can end the exile of isolation and despair. Only when we create a community of acceptance and sharing, can we truly stand, all of us, in the presence of God.