Judaism Your Way


Rabbi Amanda Schwartz’s 2022 Yom Kippur Sermon

For those of you who have been with Judaism Your Way in previous years, you may have noticed that we read different Torah readings every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We do this because for most of us, this is one of, if not the only time we will hear the Torah read this year. There is so much wisdom in the Torah, so we like to draw from different parts each year.

This year as our rabbinic team sat down to select Torah readings connected to our theme of “Returning to Joy” our rabbinic intern, Dan Yolles, suggested reading from the portion known as “Re’eh,” which means to “see.” Dan thought this was a wonderful portion because one of the often repeated words in the parsha is “simcha” or joy.

Initially, I was opposed to choosing this portion because, although the text mentions joy, it also mentions some troubling things. Keep in mind that the Torah is thousands of years old and often there are things in it that conflict with modern values.

One such example can be found in this Torah reading where it describes that when the Israelites enter the Biblical land of Israel after wandering for 40 years, they should destroy all of the idols of previous inhabitants.

On face value, this idea was horrifying to me considering that the work of Judaism Your Way is to welcome anyone who seeks meaningful Jewish connections and many of those seekers come from homes where more than one religion is practiced.

One of my favorite teachers, Rabbi David Levin Kruss, taught the following about what to do when encountering something in Judaism that we disagree with, in other words it “feels icky” to our modern sensibilities. Here are the three options he offered:

  1. Reject it
  2. Ignore it
  3. Reinterpret it

My initial reaction when reading this texts injunction to “burn the idols” of the lands previous inhabitants was to reject and ignore. Luckily, one of my Be Mitzvah students, Julia Bograd, had this Torah portion for her Be Mitzvah and so looking at the text with her, pushed me to read this portion in a new way.

There is a teaching in Judaism to “turn and turn” Jewish texts, meaning read them again and again, because new insights can be found in the turning. That was what happened for me when Julia and I were studying together. So today I’d like to offer you my reinterpretation of this text and why I came to see it as the perfect Yom Kippur reading for this year.

So much of the Torah is about developing a unified people and religion out of many different ethnicities and traditions. It’s very challenging to have a cohesive group without common norms. For example, if some of us in the United States drove on the right side of the road and some of the left, there would be even more accidents than there already are.

In this morning’s Torah reading, it sounds as if the instruction is to tear down idols that are sacred to others. Those OUTSIDE the group of Israelites. However, I suspect that the author and editor of the text is really making a case for eliminating other forms of worship WITHIN the group of Israelites.

Just thinking about Moses’ family, which was not unlike many of ours, he was raised in an Egyptian home, went to live in the desert, where he married a Kushite woman whose father is a priest of another tradition, and then later in life he becomes connected with his Jewish identity. I can only imagine how many different types of religious ritual objects would have been found in his home alone.

What I believe the author to be saying in this text is: Hey, all of you who are part of this community, not yet, but when we get to the location where we are going to have a unified religion, we need to get on the same page about our practices.

Though the text may really sound like it’s about outsiders, I’m confident, it’s really addressing the insiders, the Israelites.

While this understanding of the text made me feel a little better, it still gave me pause, so I thought more about the text from the lens of what might this text be teaching me, today, about destroying idols in my own life and how this teaching connects to Yom Kippur.

So what exactly is an idol? Well, in the context from the Torah, it’s likely describing a physical object that is worshiped.

But we use this phrase as well in our society to describe people who we put on a pedestal for some reason. While we usually think of idols as being those outside of us, people who we revere, I’d like to suggest that each of us have idols within us too and these idols can be very dangerous.

What are these dangerous idols inside of us? They are what, my Rebbe, Brene Brown calls “ideal identities.”

All of us have identities and they can serve us well.  Many of you are likely here today because one of your identities is of a Jewish person or, as one of my Be Mitzvah dad’s recently described himself, as “Jewish adjacent.”

The problem is with “ideal” identities meaning ones we imagine should be perfect and, therefore, are not achievable. When one of our ideal identities gets called into question, it is a major shame trigger and shame is toxic.

Over the past year I have realized one of my ideal identities. An idol, who I had worshipped for probably twenty years without realizing it.

When I first discovered her, I didn’t realize how dangerous she was. If anything, I thought she was going to help me.

I discovered this idol thanks to a secular New Years staff workshop last January, facilitated by Judaism Your Way’s Executive Director, Jeremy Anderson. Here’s an abridged description: First, we needed to think about our vision for the coming year, write it down and beautify it. Then, we were supposed to burn it.

The word I wrote down was “Together.” This word captured many New Years hopes for me:

  • More time with loved ones
  • A prayer that world leaders would work more collaboratively for the greater good
  • But mostly it meant getting my act together.

It meant being more like my friend Shoshi, and having an organized home. It meant becoming like my friend Anna, who is so good about sending cards for every occasion. Or, like my friend Kianna, who gets up every morning and exercises. And, it meant having time every week to bake challah for Shabbat, like all those nameless model Jewish parents out there, who are not me.

I felt so attached to this word that I absolutely could not burn it, instead I hung it on the wall of our dining room to serve as an idol, I mean a reminder.

It wasn’t until I began learning about ideal identities and how much shame they trigger that I began to realize how much I idolize my identity of being “together.” In other words, how having it “together” was my IDOL IDENTITY.

Here is a play by play of one of the many examples that helped open my eyes to my “together” idol.

One morning not so long ago, my husband asked if I knew where the car keys were because they were not in their designated drawer. I hear myself let out a loud, annoyed exhale.

I go and look in my purse. Not there. I can feel the yucky feeling inside of me begin to rise.

I go and look in my backpack and find, not one but both pairs of the car keys. The yucky feeling is getting harder to contain.

I aggressively hand the keys to him and say “I needed both sets of keys because one of their batteries is almost dead.”

I then go into a total shame spiral where I begin thinking things like: ugh, how am I so disorganized?   Everyone else is able to put their car keys away and replace their batteries but not me. I’m a terrible role model for my children, horrible spouse, bad Jew and also a bad rabbi.

This may sound ridiculous, it certainly felt that way when I was writing it, and that’s the way of idol identities and shame. They are not rational.

Shame and guilt are often confused but they are very different. Guilt is feeling badly for an action. If in the story I felt badly for not putting the car keys away, that’s guilt. And, that guilt, might have had a positive impact. It might have helped me develop a new practice of putting the keys away.

Shame is when an experience causes us to believe there is something wrong or unworthy about us.  Unlike guilt which can cause positive changes to occur, shame does not lead us to positive change. Ever. It just makes us feel terrible. Shame gets us stuck in muck.

The Yom Kippur liturgy forces us to own up to mistakes we’ve made. It’s designed to make us feel a little guilt with the aim at helping move us forward in becoming better humans.

For example, if Ashamnu reminds you of a news story you read about school lunches for all being cancelled and reminds you that you wanted to get involved in organizing around this issue so following services you get online and sign up to volunteer. Excellent, that’s guilt having a positive impact!

If, on the other hand, Ashamnu reminds you of that same news story, and then leads you to think about how you never follow through on your intentions, and then you start feeling or thinking that you are a terrible person and are totally unworthy of all the good things you have in your life. That’s shame.

Yom Kippur, and Judaism in general, are not about shame. Guilt, yes, because it can lead to positive growth. Shame no.

So, going back to our Torah reading this morning. If the idol in the text can be understood as our idol identities, what might it mean or what might be the purpose of destroying these idols?

The answer to this question came to me one day as I was driving and listening to Glennon Doyle’s book “Untamed.” Here’s a snippet of what she said:

“Destruction is essential to construction. If we want to build the new, we must be willing to let the old burn.” (93)

I will not hold on to a single existing idea, opinion, identity, story or relationship that keeps me from emerging anew.” (98)

Our Torah reading this morning is about emerging anew and that in order to get to that point, we need to burn down the idols that are getting in our way of doing just that.

As I mentioned earlier, I was unwilling to burn my physical “Together” idol. And, metaphorically, deciding to burn our idol identities is even more difficult. Your idol identity didn’t emerge overnight and they’re not going to go away at the strike of a match.

However, one thing a fire does, is it allows us to see and, coincidentally, or perhaps not, “seeing” is the name of our Torah reading. So here’s something I’ve been working on that I hope might help you as well with your idol identities.

When I start to notice those yucky shame feelings coming up, I try and notice them. I reverse engineer to think about what got me to that feeling and then if I realize the cause is an idol identity I say in my head, “Hello, idol, I see you. It may seem like you’re helpful but you’re really hurtful.” By knowing my idol identities and acknowledging them when they emerge, it’s a little bit easier to dismiss them and move away from my shame.

In time, I hope I might be able to destroy my “together” idol identity. And, if I ever manage to find my “together” idol, which I ironically managed to misplace in our summer move, I plan to actually burn it.  Yes, you heard that correctly, I LOST THE SIGN THAT SAYS “TOGETHER” IN MY MESS.

But, like I said, and even like this parsha suggests, toppling our idols isn’t instantaneous. It’s a process.  So, in the meantime, I’m giving myself self-compassion about where I am right now.

In the coming year, may we all be blessed to “see” our idol identities. May we acknowledge their presence and how dangerous they are. May we remember, in the words of Glennon Doyle, “If we want to build the new, we must be willing to let the old burn.” And, may we be kind and patient with ourselves, when it takes a while to get that fire started.

Rabbi Amanda Schwartz