I’m a perfectionist. If I could spend weeks writing (and suffering) over each and every sermon, rather than just a few hours (or sometimes, much less time) I would. If I could meet with every wedding couple 8 times, I’d do that too. If I could spend my days mulling over every shiur and Torah study, and assembling the perfect teaching texts, I’d do it. And if I could make every congregant happy all the time, I’d try to find a way. But that’s not the nature of the job, especially in the congregational Rabbinate. And so I regularly have to let go of my aspirations, to forgive myself for doing the best I can in the time allotted.*
This week’s parshah, Vayikra, gives itself over to various sacrifices. But the sacrifice that’s always intrigued me most is the chatat – or ‘sin offering’, which, conventionally, has been understood in a negative light – a way of absolving ourselves of wrongs we have committed. But I believe we might also understand chatat psychologically, as a way of externalizing the letting go of grudges we may be holding against ourselves for mistakes we have made, or ways we have fallen short. Because, often, it turns out that the people who we have the hardest time forgiving when wrongs have been done are ourselves (and this is especially true of Rabbis, who, though they are constantly being judged by their communities, are often, ultimately, their own harshest critics). The sacrifice of a bull in Vayikra, therefore, may be better understood as the sacrifice of an idea or judgment of ourselves as flawed, as failures, as people who make hurtful mistakes. Gunther Plaut put it best: “Ceremonial atonement for unwitting violations of the law was a psychologically sound procedure. People are often deeply disturbed if they cause harm by accident, ignorance or oversight [and] sacrifice relieved a troubled conscience.”
My mom, a surgeon, used to tell my father, a congregational Rabbi, that if he needed to make everyone happy all the time, and be universally loved, he’d chosen the wrong career. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one can make everyone happy all the time. Not even Moses. (Not even God!) This is true. But what’s also true is that most Rabbis are born people pleasers. We go into this work because we love people, and want to serve them, and help them make meaning of their lives. When we fail – even in minor ways – in this holy work, there is no one harder on us than ourselves. When we miss a hospital visit, or forget a name, or give a less than stellar sermon or have to answer a question about Biblical history with “I don’t know.” It can sting, not just our egos, but our hearts.
And so how do we let go now that we don’t have sacrifices (or bulls, unless we live in Texas)? Might there be other ritual ways that we can – outside of Yom Kippur – forgive ourselves, let go of our mistakes, and bless ourselves with a blank slate? There are.
Here are a few ideas: what if, on a weekly or daily basis, at Shabbat services each week, or before we go to bed each night, we make a commitment to take 2 minutes to let ourselves – one last time – go over the mistakes we’ve made, and then let them go. Such that we make a habit each week of giving ourselves permission to just start over again. Such that we free ourselves from whatever burdens we have been carrying – whether it’s a disagreement with a loved one, or anger at ourselves for something as small as procrastination or as big as truly hurting someone (or ourselves) by acting negligently or thoughtlessly.
I believe this is one of the most powerful lessons of Vayikra: not just the obligation to sacrifice, to let go, but the blessing of it – and how, by letting one idea of ourselves go, we open ourselves up to becoming so much more. This is my blessing for all of you, my colleagues, this week. May you let something go, so that something new, and more beautiful, can take it’s place.
*(My daily insight meditation practice helps enormously with this – it teaches me over and over again, to let go.)
Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal.