(A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779/2018)
Once, a young disciple went off to seek a great teacher. The old master had been hiding in exile for many years. Very few people even knew where he was. But the disciple was persistent. And when he did finally find the sage, the old man gave him a task to perform. One that seemed impossible. The task of lifting a heavy object using only his mind.
The disciple was sure that it couldn’t be done, but not wanting to disappoint the old teacher he skeptically held out his hand and tried to concentrate hard on moving the object. Of course, he failed. He turned to his master and declared, apologetically, “I can’t.” At which point the master reached out his hand in the same manner, and the disciple watched in awe as the object majestically rose out of the swamp and landed gently on the shore.
The young man peered down at his wizened old master and said, “I don’t believe it.”
To which Master Yoda replied, “That is why you fail.”
(You were expecting maybe the Baal Shem Tov?)
What better way to start Yom Kippur than with one of the world’s great stories of spiritual growth. We all know that Luke Skywalker will go on to become the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, fighting against the Dark Side and ultimately defeating the Emperor. But at this point in the story, he is so full of self-doubt that he seems destined to fail.
So how does Luke go from “I can’t do it” to guardian of peace and justice in the Republic? Well, as Yoda tells him, he needs to “unlearn what he has learned.” He needs to shift his mindset to believe in his own capability.
Luke believes he can’t do it. But Yoda knows that he just can’t do it yet.
We can all relate to Luke in this story. That sense that there is a task in front of you and you just can’t do it. And maybe this time of year most of all. Yom Kippur is a day of Cheshbon Nefesh, of honest self-accounting, where we look back over the goals we had set for ourselves, and assess how we’ve been doing. Where we judge ourselves for our capabilities and our accomplishments and our failures,
We’re often quite hard on ourselves at this time of year. We have high standards, and frankly we don’t always meet them. We spend these ten days focused on the ways that we’ve fallen short – in our work, in our relationships, in our personal lives.
But the truth is, we don’t need Yom Kippur to be hard on ourselves. The psychotherapist Roni Susan Blau writes,
“Since when does anyone need an excuse to beat up on oneself? We are all too familiar with our critical voice — the inner critic who is always willing to offer negative comparisons. Regrets. Should haves and not good enough.”
We are all our own worst critic. And It’s hard to enter into the new year feeling like a failure. It’s hard to feel like you didn’t live up to your own standards and plans. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could take a page our of MasterYoda’s playbook and adopt a different kind of mindset. What if we could know that it’s not that we can’t do it; we just haven’t done it yet?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, believed that this was possible. He wrote that our faults, and our failures, and our “sin[s are] not eradicated… but [rather] awaken a creative force that shapes a new and loftier personality.”
Our past failures can be the driving force in our future success.
According to Dr. Carol Dweck, having a growth mindset can change everything. Growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through efforts, strategies, and help from others.“
A lot of us tend to believe that our basic qualities are fixed. Some people are really smart; others, less smart. Some people have musical talent, or artistic ability, or are good at sports. And other people…not so much. How often do you find yourself saying things like “I’m just not good at financial stuff.” Or “I’m not really a math person.” Or “I can’t spell to save my life.“ We say these things all the time, usually without really even thinking about it. But it turns out that believing them actually makes them true. If you think you can’t do something, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I decide to take up basketball. I get out on the court, and I’m dribbling around. I shoot a three pointer… and I miss – wide by several meters. A terrible shot. (Those of you who’ve seen me play basketball know that this is not an unrealistic scenario.) What do I do? Well, if I have a fixed mindset, I’m likely to tell myself that I’m just bad at basketball. I’m too short, and I’m not in great shape, and anyway I’m Jewish – Jews don’t play basketball. And with all those thoughts in mind, I’ll abandon my efforts and move on to something more appropriate – like handball, or bridge.
But there is another possibility. What if, instead of the deciding that I’m simply not cut out for basketball, I decide that the problem is that I have a lot more to learn about it. Then what will I do? I’ll ask myself what I need to learn in order make that shot. Then maybe I’ll ask a friend for help. Maybe I’ll read up on technique. And maybe, most importantly, I’ll spend lots of time out on the court practicing. With all that, I’d say I have a decent chance of getting better at basketball. I may not ever become Michael Jordan, but maybe I’ll make that three pointer.
Our mindset influences our actions, and our actions affect our outcomes.
That is the difference between having a fixed mindset, and having a growth mindset. And research shows that it doesn’t only apply to our performance in sports. It applies to everything we do.
What do the voices in your head say?
“I’m not smart enough to take my career to the next level.“
“I don’t have the talent to learn to play piano.“
“I’m a disaster at relationships.”
“I just don’t know how to connect with my daughter / son / parent / sibling.”
Can you imagine a world where, instead of beating ourselves up for our insufficiencies, we saw them as opportunities to grow? Where instead of feeling ashamed of the mistakes we’ve made, we took a step back and asked, “What do I need to learn in order to do this better next time? Can you imagine that world?
Well, it turns out the Torah already did.
In the Torah portion we read tomorrow morning, the people of Israel are just about to cross over into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. But did you know that this is actually already their second attempt?
In the middle of the book of Numbers, we read a parashah called Sh’lach Lecha, which says that the Israelites reached the Promised Land the first time very quickly after the Exodus – a journey of only months from Egypt. There – and many of you know the story – Moses sends a group of spies to scout out the land. The spies enter the land of Israel, tour the whole place, and come back to the rest of the Israelites with a mixed report. They say that on the one hand it is indeed a beautiful land, but that on the other hand the people in it are big and strong and scary. The Israelites rebel out of fear, begging Moses to take them back to Egypt and back to slavery. And God punishes them for it, condemning them to wander in the desert for 40 years before they can finally enter the Promised Land.
We usually understand this as a punishment. The commentators say that the people were faithless and stubborn, that they deserved to die in the desert for rebelling against God. But there is another compelling view that says that it wasn’t a punishment at all. That the Israelites just weren’t ready to enter into the Promised Land yet. We were slaves, and we were still thinking like slaves. We still had a lot to learn. In that view, the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years wasn’t a punishment at all. It was the work we needed to do in order to grow into the task.
We all have a lot to learn. Think back over the goals you set for yourself last year. Maybe it was fixing a relationship, or advancing a project, or learning a new skill. Certainly some of our goals we have met, but we haven’t accomplished everything we set out to do. We haven’t yet reached all of our Promised Lands. If we look upon our failed attempts not with condemnation but with curiosity, then they become opportunities to discover what we still need to learn in order to be successful.
That’s not easy to do. It means shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Shifting from “I can’t get it right” to “I haven’t gotten it right yet.” And we do that by shifting from judgments to questions.
Rather than a judgment: “I’m lousy at finances,” we might ask ourselves “What is it about finances that is holding me back? What skills do I bring to it, and what support do I need to get better at it?”
Rather than a condemnation, “I always screw up my relationships,” we might wonder, “What role do I play in creating relationship challenges? Why do I act the way I do? And what types of relationships do I find satisfying?”
Rather than despair, “I’ve gotten myself stuck in a job I hate,” we might ponder: “What skills am I gaining? How will my current job prepare me to get where I’d eventually like to be?”
A Chinese proverb says that “learning is a treasure that follows your forever.”
This is a deeply held Jewish value as well. As you know, Judaism prizes lifelong learning above almost everything else. We are told in the Talmud that when we learn, God’s presence descends onto us. We are also taught “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam” – that a life of learning is equal to all of the mitzvot, because it leads us to be able to fulfill them better.
In fact, the midrash even portrays God as learning – and as learning from mistakes. In Bamidbar Rabbah (19:33), the midrash on the book of numbers, it points out that there are three times in the Torah when God learns something from Moses, and God changes behaviour accordingly. One of them is the episode of the Golden Calf. Early on after their escape from slavery, the people – scared and unsure at the foot of Mt. Sinai – build and worship an idol. God is incensed and threatens to destroy them. But, according to the Midrash, Moses talks God down, “Whoa, God,” he says, “How can you expect anything different from them? They were idol worshippers in the land of Egypt. Why would they do anything differently here.”
And God essentially says, “You know, you’re right, Moe. Limad’tani – you have taught Me something. And I will change my actions accordingly. I will not destroy the people.”
This passage is doubly interesting for our purposes. Because not only does it portray God as learning and growing. But what God learns in this episode is that the people also need a chance to learn. How could they possibly be expected to be good monotheists when they’ve never been monotheists before? How can they be expected to worship God in this new way when they’ve never practiced it? How can we possibly expect ourselves to overcome our flaws and our faults and our failings on the first try – or the tenth try or even the fiftieth try? It takes a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of practice to reach the Promised Land.
You probably know the joke: A tourist gets out of a cab at Times Square and walks over to a musician who’s playing violin on the street. He asks the musician, “Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The musician looks up at him and says, “Practice.”
In the end, becoming the selves that we would like to be is a matter of practicing being those selves. A matter of trying, and learning, and trying again. Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, teaches us that this requires making a plan and walking it out. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes:
יהא אדם שם דעותיו תמיד ומשער אותם ומכון אותם – A person should examine their traits, calculate them, and direct them [in the desired direction].
In other words, know yourself, know how you’d like to be, and make a plan for getting there. And then, he goes on:
יעשה וישנה וישלש במעשים – Perform these desired acts once, and a second time, and a third time, and do this constantly until they become easy.
The more we practice something, the more it becomes second nature. Maimonides makes it sound simple, right? Just envision yourself differently, and act that way. But what he’s really saying is that it takes many, many attempts to make a change.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle would have agreed. He said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit. “ And Albert Einstein, for his part, said, “It’s not that I’m smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”
I’m pretty sure Master Yoda would have agreed.
The most successful, influential people in history have all had one thing in common: they failed a lot. In that sense, we have something in common with Aristotle, Maimonides, Einstein, Babe Ruth, Steve Jobs. We also fail a lot. But that doesn’t make us failures. It means that we are learning and practicing. It means that we are on a journey – step by faltering step – toward the Promised Land.
The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was once asked whether he was in the practice of putting on t’fillin during morning prayers. Rosenzweig was a liberal and a skeptic, and at the time of asking he did not wear t’fillin. So he thought about the question, and he answered: “Not yet.”
“Not yet” is an affirmation that there might still be meaning for us to make, things for us to learn, growth for us to achieve. It is a recognition that we human beings are always works in progress.
Kol Nidrei v’esarei. All our vows and promises – tonight they pass before our eyes and God’s.
May we enter into the new year with compassion for ourselves. May we strive to look upon our stumbles not as failures but as opportunities to grow. May we replace our judgments with questions, our condemnations with curiosity. And may we hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are not standing still. That we are marching forward, learning as we go, keeping our eyes out for a glimpse of the Promised Land. Even if we don’t know how to get there….yet.
 Blau, Roni Susan. “Remember to Forgive Yourself.” Jewish Journal. September 11, 2013.
 Qtd in The Yom Kippur Anthology, p. ??
 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:4.
 Ibid 1:7.