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Parshas Ki Savo (5770)

Labels are for Garments

The Hebrew month of Elul – the twenty-nine day period leading up to the High Holidays – is traditionally considered to be a time of reflection, introspection and change. A Jew knows that Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is fast approaching, and that he needs to make certain changes and improvements in his life if he is to gain a good verdict and a sweet New Year.

Problem is … it’s so hard to change. Especially things that we have been doing for a very long time. Which brings me to the issue of labels.

Anyone who knows anything about child psychology knows that if a parent or other authority figure labels a kid “lazy” or “no good” (G-d forbid), the child will likely turn out that way and live up to their expectations of him.

The truth is that we adults do the same thing to ourselves. There is a very small window of time during our youth when we feel like we can work on ourselves and change things in our lives (and in the world around us) for the better - and then adulthood sets in. At that point (of course, it varies with each person) we often set ourselves and define ourselves a certain way, and we then coast through the rest of our lives at that level. And we label ourselves with whatever negative character trait we have – “I’m an angry person – that’s just the way I am” or “I am always late – it’s in my genes” etc. etc. – often as a cop-out so that we don’t have to actually work on improving ourselves.

This all-too-common phenomenon is powerfully illustrated by the Kotzker Rebbe ZT”L in a novel interpretation of a Midrash:

In the beginning of Koheles (Ecclesiastes), one of the twenty-four books of Scripture which is traditionally read publicly in the synagogue on the holiday of Sukkos, King Solomon seven times calls the physical world a place of ‘hevel’ -- vanity or futility.

The Midrash (in Koheles Rabbah 1:3) relates this to the seven stages of a person’s life: At one year of age, man can be likened to a king, doted upon by all. At two and three he is like a pig, groping around in the garbage and putting everything in his mouth. At ten he prances around like a baby goat, never sitting still for even a moment. At twenty he can be compared to a horse, preening and grooming himself in search of a mate. When he takes upon himself the responsibility of marriage, he is like a donkey that carries a burden on its back (a good burden though it may be). When he has children he becomes brazen as a dog trying to find food and money to feed his family. And when he gets old, he becomes like an ape.

Most commentators understand the comparison of man to a monkey in his final stage of life to mean that he becomes hunched over and senile, somewhat resembling an ape running around in the jungle.

The Kotzker Rebbe ZT”L understood this Midrash differently. He explained that the nature of an ape is to imitate. Just as it is the way of an ape to imitate humans, so too, a person, when he has become old(er), imitates himself, and does what was his manner previously. In other words, most of us, at some point in life, either consciously or not, become satisfied with who we are and what we’ve become – and we label ourselves as being at that level. As such, we stop trying to improve ourselves and attain greater spiritual heights. We are content to live out our remaining days as a mere imitation of ourselves!

Labels inhibit personal growth because we hide behind them. And this applies not only to bad character traits and other such negative behaviors – it also impacts our spiritual growth and self-definition as Jews.

We all know that there are many different types of Jews out there – some Jewishly knowledgeable and some Jewishly ignorant, some totally observant and some totally unaffiliated, and everything in between. And for every type of Jew there seems to be another label.

For starters, we have Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. And if that’s not enough, within Orthodoxy there are different labels for different types of Orthodox Jews. We have Modern Orthodox, Centrist Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, etc. And here are some more that I bet you’ve never heard before:

~ Hardcorethodox - You wear your black hat on the Free Fall ride at Six Flags.
~ Snorethadox - You always sleep through the rabbi's sermon.
~ Doorthodox - You kiss every mezuzah you see.
~ Christian Diorthodox - You are not sure what holiday is coming up, but you already have the outfit picked out for it.
~ Chorethodox – You’re at the synagogue praying for the entire Yom Kippur but you’d rather be golfing.

And how about the “Cardiac Jew” – he’s the Jew at heart. Then there’s the “Gastronomic Jew” – this guy’s in it for the chulent and the kishka. Of course, my favorite is the “Alimony Jew” - he is willing to support Judaism but doesn’t want to live with it.

So many labels we Jews have for ourselves, no? I believe it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L who once said, “Labels are for garments, not for people”. When we label ourselves and define our Judaism a certain way, we are actually boxing ourselves in and greatly diminishing our ability to change and grow beyond our self-definition.

This often happens around the High Holidays when a family will attend services that they cannot stand and which are incredibly boring and totally irrelevant to their lives – simply because that is where the family has always gone for generations – even though they would thrive and grow immeasurably at a different synagogue.

With this idea we can explain something that is quite troubling about the Viduy confession we repeat several times during the long Yom Kippur services. At the very beginning of the confession, we say the following words: “Aval anachnu v’avoseinu chatanu – rather, we and our forefathers have sinned”.

Now it’s one thing for us to confess our sins on Yom Kippur … but to confess our forefathers’ sins?! What a chutzpah we have to stand there in front of G-d on the holiest day of the year and to talk about our parents’ and grandparents’ indiscretions?

The answer is that we recognize that many of our ‘sins’ come as a result of accepting family ‘traditions’ (or the lack thereof) as a proper way of life simply because “that’s the way our parents and grandparents always did it” – without bothering to investigate whether those traditions have independent merit or not. We thus acknowledge in our confession the ‘sins of our forefathers’ as a possible source for our own sins.

It is interesting that the Hebrew name that we give for the Jewish New Year is Rosh Hashanah, which, when translated literally, means the “head” of the year. Shouldn’t it rather be called Shanah Chadashah, the “new” year, or maybe Techilas Hashanah, the “beginning” of the year?

The commentators explain that the holiday of Rosh Hashanah is meant to function like a person’s head. Just as the head plans out the body’s actions and makes them meaningful and not random, so, too, is Rosh Hashanah the “head” of the year – the time when we stop and think about our actions of the previous year and plan our moves for the coming year – instead of just doing this year what we did last year because we did it last year.

This Rosh Hashanah, may G-d give all of us the courage to rethink all those confining labels and self-definitions we have given ourselves in the past, and to change and grow accordingly.

And if we do need to label ourselves at all, let it be the way I once heard a fellow respond when asked what type of Jew he is: He said, “I am an ‘Underconstructionist’ – a work in progress”.

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