I’ll never forget the day I arrived at my very first student pulpit in a small suburb of Toledo, Ohio four years ago. I walked into the coffee shop where I was to meet my host family. On my way in, I picked up a local newspaper from the stack in the entryway and lo and behold, there I was, staring right back at myself! My picture was in the local paper—evidently the arrival of the student rabbi each year was headline news. And if that didn’t provide a much-needed confidence-boost, next to my picture was a positively GLOWING biographical description of me. Boy, did I sound good on paper! I began reading over my accomplishments, my successes, my qualifications for the job, proofreading the article not only for accuracy of the facts, but for subtle changes in wording... because, you see, I had written it! The Temple president had requested a bio from me so she could introduce me to the congregation in their bulletin. I never expected that bio to end up in the local newspaper, but thankfully I had put my best foot forward. Because that’s just what we do when we’re trying to make a good first impression, right? Share the good things about ourselves? We share the shining moments. The things we’re proud of. 13 years in the business world taught me this. Interview in your best suit. Get a good haircut the day before. Be on your best behavior at lunch. Be crafty when they ask about your weaknesses – always pick something you can put a positive spin on, like, “Oh, I can be too much of a perfectionist.” Don’t hesitate to boast about yourself. You want the job, don’t you?
Well given that we’re so indoctrinated to show only our good side when meeting someone for the first time, I find the situation we’re in right now to be a little unusual. It’s an odd time of year to make a first impression. You and I meet each other tonight—many of us for the very first time—at the start of our Yamim Noraim, when as Jews we are called to reflect upon not how brightly we’ve shined over the year, but how we’ve failed to shine; where we’ve fallen short. With the Day of Atonement just ten days away, we are to contemplate whom we’ve harmed, come to terms with our behaviors that need changing, and plumb the depths of our humility in preparing to ask forgiveness. We’ll recite penitential prayers. We do all of this now, and in the days to come, so that when we stand together on Yom Kippur to recite ashamnu, bagadnu, we are guilty, we have committed offenses”—when we spell out our collective “alphabet of woe”—we will recognize which words apply to us and utter them with sincere remorse. What an odd time of year to make a first impression! How exactly are we to put our best foot forward, when we’re supposed to be so focused on how imperfect we are? “Hi, I’m Nicole, your new Assistant Rabbi. I’m full of flaws, and I’ve made countless mistakes this past year. Pleased to meet you. I’d reach out my hand to shake yours, but right now I’m using it to beat my chest.” It’s not unlike that episode of Seinfeld, when George decides to do the opposite of what his intuition tells him to do and approaches a beautiful woman in the coffee shop with the unconventional pickup line: “Hi, I’m George, I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” Not exactly putting his best foot forward… so it seems.
But you know, in that Seinfeld episode a surprising thing happens. The woman responds favorably—intrigued and flirty, interested in getting to know George better. It’s counter-intuitive! Laying his real, less-than-stellar self out on the line on the front end actually gets him a date? Maybe there’s something to this.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for a relationship to begin with honesty, humility, and realistic expectations. Sure, you’d never present yourself as flawed to a prospective business client. After all, who wants someone who makes mistakes, say, marketing their product or preparing their tax return? But we’re not here in this shul tonight—on this eve of our holiest days—to market products or to do each other’s taxes, thank God. We’re here entering into relationship. A relationship in which we each commit to helping one another become better people. A covenant. Through study, prayer, acts of loving-kindness, and through teshuvah—we’ll spend this year helping each other become the people we aspire to be, and the people God knows we can grow into. So it makes sense to begin this ‘covenant of striving’ from a place of humility, doesn’t it? It may be an odd time of year to make a first impression. But it’s the perfect season to enter into covenant. Face to face with where we’ve fallen short, we meet one another with a clearer view of what we’re striving for. Face to face with our failings, we can commit ourselves more devotedly to reaching our aspirations and helping others reach theirs.
Admittedly, it’s not so easy to start a relationship from a place of such humility—to admit to ourselves and to others, especially those we barely know, that we’re flawed. So fortunately, our tradition facilitates this process. It says that no one has to go first. The words of the vidui—the confession we recite on Yom Kippur—ashamnu, bagadnu, these words are all in the plural, not the singular: “We are guilty, we have committed offenses…” I can’t admit I’m not perfect, if you don’t admit that you’re not perfect too – so we do it together, all at the same time, in the same room.
Our tradition also makes it clear that no one is exempt from this covenant of striving. No one is exempt, and no one stands superior to his or her neighbor. On Yom Kippur morning we’ll read in our Torah: Atem nitzavim hayom culchem lifnei Adonai Elohechem—“You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God.” All of you—“your tribal heads, your elders, your officials; your men, women, and children; the strangers in your camp; your woodchopper, your water drawer…” Your rabbis, your temple president… Culchem, all of you, stand together l’ovrcha bivrit Adonai Elohecha—“to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.” We are all striving to become better people. There’s room enough in this covenant for all of us to grow. Relationship only works if we stand together in our humility. No one has to go first… but neither is any one of us exempt.
Finally, our tradition affirms that we need one another, especially at this difficult, soul-searching, chest-beating time of year. It urges us to move through this season together as a community, not in solitary confinement. Atem nitzavim—“you [plural] stand this day, all of you, before God…to enter into covenant.” We enter into covenant precisely because it is hard to stand alone in our failings, in our humanness. In striving to become the people God wants us to be, our tradition demands that during the High Holy Days we engage with our neighbors, not retreat from them in private seclusion. That we apologize to them, worship with them, study with them... In Jerusalem, people congregate in the streets on Yom Kippur, talking, hugging, making amends. It’s beautiful. We don’t have to stand alone in our imperfection, trembling in our sandals before God. We join in covenant because, God knows, we need one another’s support in the task that lies before us. No one has to go first, our tradition says, but neither is anyone exempt. Because we need each other.
We all like to put our best foot forward when making a first impression. It’s the natural thing to do… ordinarily. But this time of year and the nature of the relationship we are entering into are anything but ordinary. The days ahead are Holy Days, and the covenant we are forming tonight is a sacred one, I believe. Both demand the utmost humility, and both demand that we stand together. With our tradition’s wisdom as our guide, with compassion and gentleness in our hearts, and with one another’s companionship, the year ahead can bring true blessings and growth. It’s an odd time of year to make a first impression. But it’s the perfect season to enter into covenant. I’m deeply humbled to stand before you tonight, and I look forward to standing in covenant alongside you in the Days, weeks, and months to come. May it be a shana tova.
Rabbi Nicole Roberts is Assistant Rabbi at North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW.