One of my favorite Hasidic stories is about the rebbe who kept two slips of paper in his pockets. On one was written, "for you are dust and to dust you shall return," and on the other, "for my sake was the world created." I find a lot of resonance in the notion that we're all always carrying both of these ideas around with us at once. On the one hand, the ego insists that I am important, that I am the center of my own experience. And on the proverbial other hand, I know I'm only an insignificant speck in the grandeur of the wide universe.
I thought about this tension a lot when I was beginning my hospital chaplaincy internship. On the one hand, who on earth am I to imagine that I might have something to say to people who are experiencing the intense adventures of birth and death, people who are struggling or suffering in profound ways? (That's the "I am dust" end of the spectrum.) And on the other hand, who am I not to reach out when there are human connections to be made? Really meeting one another, even in moments of difficulty, seems to me to be exactly what we're here in this life for. (That's the "for my sake was the world created" end of things.)
The Days of Awe are a time of year when this tension is much on my mind.
We have now come full circle in our studies of the months of the year, returning to the first one, Tishrei. Its astrological symbol is Libra (Moznayim), the scales. Traditionally, these are seen as the scales of judgment upon which the Almighty weighs the deeds of each person on Rosh Hashanah. But perhaps it can be seen differently: as a scale of balance, of reconciling two opposites, of knowing how to weigh the Rebbe's two slips of paper in a balanced manner. To know how to avoid despair and fatalism; and equally to avoid the arrogance of thinking that I am master of my fate and none can stop me.
That's from Rosh Hashanah - Tishrei (Months), a post at Hitzei Yehonatan last year around this time. We've entered the month of Tishri, the month which contains Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Hoshanna Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (This month is seriously loaded with holiday goodness. Fortunately for the sanity of rabbis everywhere, next month is wide-open and empty.) Scales seem like an appropriate symbol for the time of year when it's traditional to focus on teshuvah, the hard thinking and hard work of figuring out where we've missed the mark and who we want to be in the year to come.
We're balancing our sense of ourselves on a set of scales. Holding the tension between thinking too highly of ourselves, and thinking too poorly of ourselves. Between imagining that we're completely insignificant, and imagining that we're the be-all and end-all of everything. Because the truth of the matter is, we're neither. Jewish tradition calls us to an awareness of being in-between. When we can hold both of these ideas in balance without skewing to one side or the other, then everything's in alignment. Balanced and complete.
As we approach Yom Kippur, which begins on Wednesday night, I wanted to point again to the Grab-bag of resources for Yom Kippur I posted two years ago at this season. It contains links to liturgy, poems, music, divrei Torah, and other holiday-oriented material; I hope it's helpful to anyone who needs such things at this time of year.