The Spirituality of Being Human
Many years ago, in Chicago, Arthur and I went to a learning session with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose most recent accomplishment was translating the Babylonian Talmud into Modern Hebrew. He made several controversial comments about the Jewish People. The one I found most interesting and that has been most helpful to me was, “we Jews are more proud of our sinners than our saints.” I thought, “that was refreshing insight! I wanted to know more about this.
During my first year of Rabbinical School I met an interesting rabbi who had founded a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, primarily for underserved Jews struggling with addiction. I also read his autobiographical book, “The Holy Thief.” Before becoming a rabbi, this man had conned countless people out of millions of dollars, had gone to jail, encountered the prison chaplain, Rabbi Jonathan Omer Man and studied Torah while in prison. After being released from jail, he initially fell back into his old life, but, one day, before scamming another innocent person, he had an epiphany. He started shaking uncontrollably and realized that if he continued along this path, he would die. He became intensely sorry for the lives he had ruined, but there was no way he could make teshuvah — no way he could make restitution or even begin to make things right.
With this legacy of guilt, and nearing 50, he began studying his way out of the life he had created for himself. When he became a rabbi, he founded Beit Teshuvah, (House of Return), which now helps people in the greater Los Angeles community reclaim their lives by overcoming addiction. A man who used to steal people’s lives from them, is now giving others their lives back.
Why am I telling you this story? Because it is profoundly important to our spiritual lives to realize that no matter where we are on our spiritual journey, we are all capable of change and tremendous spiritual growth — despite our human shortcomings. To paraphrase Rabbi Samsom Raphael Hirsch, “The Torah does not attempt to hide the faults, errors and weaknesses of our Biblical heroes and heroines. Knowing about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from their spiritual greatness. It adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more helpful to us. If they had all been portrayed as models of perfection, we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not given to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, they would not be credible human beings that we could ever hope to emulate.”
Last month we began our annual Torah reading cycle. We read the familiar story that while in Egypt, Abraham was afraid that if the Egyptians knew he was Sarah’s husband, they would murder him so that they could take his beautiful wife. Abraham asked Sarah to say she was his sister, instead of his wife. Either because of or in spite of this survival strategy, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. Abraham was made fabulously wealthy. When God afflicted Pharaoh and he realized that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh was outraged over Abraham’s deception and expelled both of them from Egypt.
Abraham doesn’t come off well at all. He asked his wife to participate in a lie. He let the Egyptians carry her off to Pharaoh. He reaped enormous financial gains while she was held captive in Pharaoh’s house.
Moses, also, is not perfect. He loses his temper at least three times that I can count in Shemot, (the Book of Exodus), and he pays a huge price for it. That doesn’t negate the service he provided or the example he sets for us. It just makes him human.
Before I went to rabbinical school, I held rabbis to impossibly high standards. One word of frustrated lashon harah from our exhausted, spread-too-thin rabbi blossomed in me, into a long period of distrust. I projected perfection on my mentoring rabbi in Rabbinical School. How dare he have any human shortcomings and be a rabbi!
I was guilty of distorting the reality of the human condition. The Torah, however, does not do this. It doesn’t whitewash our spiritual role models. They don’t need apologetics. They just need a little compassion, as do we all. Their stories reflect real feelings, and real conflicts. Many times they act beyond any human expectation. Sometimes they fall short.
I now understand Adin Steinsaltz’ point on many levels. We can marvel at and appreciate great spiritual qualities in our leaders, but we learn a more complete truth about what it means to be human from their failings.
Here’s where I’m going with all of this. At the Congregational Meeting last month, you, the Temple Beth David community, renewed my contract with an overwhelming vote of confidence. I am deeply grateful to you and honored to be asked to continue to be your rabbi. It is my deepest hope that you voted for me knowing that I have lost my temper three times since I have been here, that I have sometimes heavily relied on the rabbi support committee that you so graciously provided me, and that I continue to have much to learn about being your rabbi.
Abraham is my most direct spiritual ancestor. Like him, I am an immigrant. Like him, I will work harder than the average bear and if, God forbid, somebody kidnaps you, I will help find you and bring you back no matter where you are! I will continue to work on finding ways to work for social and personal justice without scorching any earth.
Finally, I want you to know that Arthur is my husband, not my brother, and that you are always welcome in our home. Our tent, literally, is your tent.
Rabbi Aviva Berg