“What I learned from breaking my ankle”
RH Day One
Rabbi Aviva Bass
Temple Sinai 5779
A couple of weeks ago, just as I was preparing my sermons for Rosh Hashanah, I fell from a step outside of a house and broke my right ankle in three places, a trimalleolar fracture it is called. I really did a number on it—broke it on three sides of the ankle, and so badly that the bone was pressing on my skin and almost went through it. I also fell in such a way that my other ankle twisted, and so it was sprained. Basically, for the next several days I was incapacitated as I awaited surgery on the broken ankle, since my other ankle also was unable to support much weight. I was unable to use crutches or a walker because my left foot could not support me while it healed. The up-side to this story, if there is one, is that because I was incapacitated by this accident, I was forced to lie in bed for days on end, providing me with ample time with nothing to do—other than thinking and writing, preparing for the High Holy Days. So, this is what I learned about Rosh Hashanah from breaking my ankle.
Throughout our liturgy on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, is the U’netaneh Tokef: Who shall live and who shall die. It is said in our liturgy that during these days, G-d decides our fate and what is written in our Book of Life for the coming year: who shall live and who shall die. . . but that teshuvah (repentance or return), tefillah (prayer), and tzedekah (righteous giving) avert the evil decree.
Although the text says literally “Who shall live and who shall die,” the challenge of these High Holy Days is to recognize our own mortality. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein suggests, we should read it, “I will live, and I will die.” We come face to face with our own mortality, and this is the time when we decide how we will best utilize the life we have while we have it. And the recipe of how best to accomplish this is in the liturgy as well, “And teshuvah, (repentance or return), tefillah (prayer and community worship), and tzedekah (righteous giving), avert the evil decree.” Rabbi Feinstein understands this part of our liturgy as follows. He says that these three aspects that we can fulfill are “three divine gifts that enable us to transcend the limitations of the human condition.”
There is much suffering in the limitations of our human condition. There is a randomness to life as we know it. It seems that there is much that is out of our control. From the circumstances of our birth—where we are born and into what family and socio-economic condition—to many of the circumstances of our lives, until the moment of our death—there are many factors out of our control. There is a famous Jewish folk tale retold in the story “The Tree of Sorrows” from: Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales, (edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, 1989).
In a small village in Poland there lived a wise rabbi. His followers loved him and came often to tell him of their woes. After a while the rabbi grew tired of hearing each one claim that their lot in life was so much more difficult to bear than their neighbor’s. They were constantly asking, “Why doesn’t she have to suffer as I do? Why doesn’t he have back problems like I do, and why don’t they have children still living at home contributing nothing to the family’s income?
On and on it went until the rabbi came up with a plan.
He sent out word that there was to be a new holiday celebrated.
“Bring your sorrows and troubles,” he announced. “bring them in a bag with your name on it and hang the bag from the great tree in the center of the village. All will be allowed to exchange troubles and to go home with those of your neighbor rather than your own.”
The villagers were excited, imagining how much easier their lives would be from that day on. When the day came, they assembled beneath the tree with bags in hand. With bits of rope they tied their bags to the low branches of the tree so that all might inspect them.
“Now,” said the rabbi, “if you will all move about inspecting the bags, you may choose someone else’s troubles to take home, thus freeing yourselves from your own.”
The villagers rushed at the tree and began grabbing at and peering into bags, one after the other, around and around, around and around the tree…
Finally, quite tired out and feeling both foolish and wiser, they each sought out their own bags and walked home. The rabbi smiled. It was just as he had hoped. The villagers had seen the sorrows of others as they really were, and had decided to stick with their own lots in life because, at least, they were familiar.
We all go through some amount of tsuris, pain and suffering, in our lives. We cannot get through our lives without some measure of pain. The question of whether or not or to what extent the factors of our lives are determined and how much control we have to change the circumstances of our lives is a theological question debated for centuries.
Many books and movies explore this theme as well. In the movie Sliding Doors starting Gweneth Paltrow, the main character is shown living her life in two different ways: one shows what happens if she catches a subway train that she is rushing to get on. The other imagines how her life would ensue if she did not catch the subway train. The conclusion of the movie is that regardless of which circumstances happened, the main character was destined to meet and to fall in love with the same man. It poses the possibility of pre-determinism. And there is much that is attractive in that view.
However, as Jews, we also believe in free will. If we could not change our lives then why would be be here on these High Holy Days? We are not just mouthing words. We are meant to be getting in touch with that within ourselves that needs change; to fix that which is broken within us.
With a broken ankle, it is relatively easy to mend it. Stick in some pins and voila! The human body does the rest, enabling it to heal. However, with a broken heart, or a soul in need of repair, it is not so easy. There is no magic pin we can put in to make it whole again. We need to do the hard work of teshuvah, or return.
Teshuvah not only means asking for forgiveness. It means granting it. Sometimes that can mean granting it to ourselves as well. For some of us, the liturgy of the High Holy Days makes us beat ourselves up in an unproductive way. True, it is good for us to learn from our mistakes and to grow from them, but misplaced guilt (a common Jewish trait) is neither encouraged nor helpful.
Since the moment I tripped and fell off the step and broke my ankle, I have not only been in pain from the physical injury, but also from the emotional wound this has caused in my psyche. I keep wanting to rewind to that frame of the movie of my life and to change it. Why was I so stupid? Couldn’t I watch where I was going? I’m such a klutz! These thoughts, while pervasive, are not helpful and, in fact, are counter-productive. Unfortunately, I cannot return in the sense of going back and changing the facts. No, my teshuvah is more of a return to the basics of what life is about, within the parameters of my new limited, and G-d willing, temporary physical impairment. I cannot turn to the past nor count on the future. I need to return to the present and deal with the circumstances as they are now. And I need to forgive myself for having had the accident that caused my incapacity. Accidents happen. And thank G-d, it was not worse.
All of us have done things we wish we had not done. Some of these misdeeds have caused harm to ourselves; others have caused harm to others. The goal of teshuvah is to come to terms with what we have done, and to make amends where necessary. While guilt is a natural byproduct of the soul-searching that we do, it can be overdone and actually cause shame, which gets in the way of doing the true work of teshuvah, of really looking at ourselves and becoming a better person.
What I did not mention in my description of my accident was that it occurred just as I was reaching to kiss a mezuzah outside someone’s house. I looked up at the mezuzah and reached out to kiss it, when I stumbled and fell across the step I did not notice was there. What irony! A rabbi goes to kiss a mezuzah and is rewarded with broken bones?!? There must be a reason for this.
A mezuzah is meant to be a reminder of G-d’s Presence. However, it is NOT actually G-d’s Presence. We cannot reach out and touch and kiss the Divine. The mezuzah exists to inspire our godly thoughts and actions, to remember to love G-d wherever we are.
Even a Sefer Torah, a holy Torah scroll, is only a pointer and a guide to holiness. It is NOT the locus of holiness itself. I have known Jews who have dropped or have torn a Torah scroll or who were in charge of the Torah when it fell or ripped. There is often an overwhelming sense of guilt. That is why traditional Jews fast when a Sefer Torah is dropped, in order to do something to help to assuage our guilt when that occurs.
And yet, while obviously we should avoid dropping a Torah scroll, when and if it happens, we have not desecrated the Holy One. The Holy One is not found in a mezuzah or in even in a Torah scroll.
My mistake, reaching out to kiss the mezuzah, was in making the object, the reminder of G-d, more important than G-d’s call to life itself. I looked at the object and for a moment forgot that G-d gave me eyes to look where I was stepping. G-d gives us the means to live in such a way as G-d demands of us. G-d is not in the mezuzah. As we are reminded by the story in the Torah in Bamidbar—G-d is not in the thunder and the lightning either. G-d is in the still, small voice—kol d’mama. And this still small voice tells of G-d’s desire that we “choose life” at every moment.
As Jews, we do not aspire to an austere, monastic lifestyle. We do not believe that G-d wants us to have a prayer life separate and apart from our everyday existence. Spirituality occurs everywhere and in everything. Jewish mysticism teaches the concept of avodah b’gashmiyut: that prayer and spirituality can exist in everything involved with our lives. Even walking. Even breathing. Every act is an opportunity for greater consciousness, to hear the still, small Voice of the Divine.
Tzedekah: righteous giving. As a rabbi, as well as being a mother, I am used to giving to others. Unfortunately, the situation I have found myself in with this injury is that I am entirely dependent on other people. Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband and family who have gone above and beyond to take care of me. But it is difficult psychologically to cede this control. The gift in this is a two-fold lesson: I have much more empathy towards many of you who are forced to contend with similar circumstances in your lives. Many of you see yourselves as young and vibrant. You are intellectually capable of making a positive impact in the world. And yet, your body may be betraying you by impeding you from doing what you wish to do. You are dependent upon others for many of the basic tasks you are accustomed to performing on your own. I can relate to that in some small way from having had this experience. In addition, as a result of this accident, I feel abundant. I recognize the many gifts I have in my life. And when I walk again—G-d willing and soon—I will never again take for granted the blessing of that ability. As we say in the Morning Blessings “…who makes firm each person’s steps.”
Tzedakah is righteous giving. We are obligated to give to others regardless of the circumstances of our lives. However, it is much better to do so with the ability to step into another’s shoes and to give from a place of empathy and compassion. This also requires the ability to see oneself as abundant, as having enough. To be able to say, as the psalmist declares, “my cup overflows.”
My own experience now of not being able to ascend this bimah as your rabbi has also made me more determined than ever to make this synagogue as accessible as possible to all who come through its doors. If you are interested in helping with that endeavor, either with your energy or financial resources, to make our bimah or our synagogue more accessible to those with differing abilities and needs, please talk to me or to members of the Board after the holidays.
There are many circumstances in our lives that we cannot change. We are mortal and therefore fragile, and the knowledge and the acceptance of our mortality is part of what we recognize communally on these High Holy Days. And yet, the three gifts of Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedekah enable us to transcend our limitations. Through teshuvah, we may develop our moral character; through tefillah, we see the holiness inherent in everything and everyone we encounter; through tzedekah, we gain greater empathy for others and their plight, and we recognize our many blessings.
In our High Holy Day liturgy, we also call today, “Hayom Harat Olam.” This is usually translated as “Today is the day of the world’s birth.” However, a colleague [name?] pointed out recently that “Harat” can refer to pregnancy. And “olam” can mean both the world or universe AND eternity. So when we say “Hayom Harat Olam,” we can mean “This is the day which is pregnant with eternity.” May our serious understanding of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedekah of the High Holy Days help us to develop a perspective that enables us to have a good and meaningful year, whatever circumstances we may encounter. Hayom Harat Olam. This day is pregnant with possibilities.
L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a Good and Sweet New Year. [Choir sings “Hayom Harat Olam.”]