There is a story told by the Yiddish author I. L. Peretz about a rabbi in the small village of Nemirov. He was a respected scholar, and an excellent spiritual guide, except for a single peculiarity. Every Friday, in the month before Yom Kippur, the rabbi would disappear.
Now this made no sense at all. On the holiest evening of the week, in the holiest month of the year, the rabbi was nowhere to be found. You would have thought he would be with the people, helping them number their sins so that they might seek forgiveness from God and one another before the Day of Atonement, but the rabbi disappeared, and he would never answer any questions about where he had gone.
Something had to be done, so on a Friday in Rosh Hashanah the people went to the rabbi’s house, only to find the front door wide open and nobody inside. Astonished, the villagers could come to only one conclusion – their rabbi must be going to Heaven to intervene for them directly with God. After all, he was a deeply spiritual, holy man. What other explanation could there be?
But a stranger in the village, laughed at this ludicrous explanation. “A rabbi is just a man!” he roared, “Even Moses himself never ascended all the way to Heaven!” Still, the stranger was curious.
That evening, the stranger snuck into the rabbi’s house and hid under the bed. When the rabbi woke an hour before dawn, dressed himself in peasant clothes, and turned to leave, the stranger followed him. The rabbi walked quickly and quietly, keeping to the shadows of houses, with the stranger ghosting after.
At last they entered the wood, just beyond the edge of town. The stranger watched, bewildered, as the rabbi took an ax from his belt, cut down a tree, chopped it into a bundle of firewood, returned to the village with the bundle on his back.
He entered the dark and cold house of a poor, bedridden woman. “Who is it?” asked the frightened old woman.
The rabbi made his voice husky. “It is I, Vassil the peasant, with wood to sell.”
“Now how would a poor widow find money to buy wood?” demanded the ailing woman.
“I will lend you the money.”
“How will I pay it back?”
“I will trust you,” said the rabbi, and without another word he loaded the stove, lit the fire, and left.
The stranger stayed in the village from that day forward, and he became the rabbi’s student. And for the rest of his life, whenever he heard one of the villagers describe how their rabbi ascended to Heaven during the Days of Awe, he would simply say, quietly, “If not higher!”
This is the season of taking measure. In Jewish tradition, the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are a time for accounting all that we have done, the good and the bad. They are a time for paying off debts of the spirit, and through the confessions of the entire community, these days are a time for cleansing the soul so that we may begin the new year at peace with ourselves, with one another, and with the Divine.
The words of this season – terms like “penitence,” “repent,” and “atonement” don’t tend to be comfortable ones for many of us. Are human beings so debased, we might wonder, that we should be judged for every minor transgression against an arbitrary doctrine?
I see this time differently. For me it’s not about judgment; it’s about opportunity. What we have done is done; it’s over. We can only choose where and how we will go from here. Taking measure of our selves and our souls gives us a chance to look deeply at who we have been and how we might choose to change. If we have made mistakes; if we have neglected some and hurt others, this is a chance to put that right. For me, atonement is not about falling into line in some way. It’s about becoming more fully human, and becoming the human that I want to be.
It’s an important spiritual practice, because so often we measure ourselves in exactly the wrong ways. We determine our worth based on how much money we have, or how much status, or how much education, or how many awards we have received. A banker or an entrepreneur might have millions of dollars to spend, and a home health aid or a teacher’s assistant might struggle to pay the rent, but what crazy calculus places one above the other?
Sometimes it is easy to fall into the trap of judging ourselves by our most visible accomplishments. This happens in my chosen field of ministry as much as anywhere else, I’m sorry to say. Too often clergy judge our success or failure by the size of our congregations, the increase in our annual program funds, how many of our writings have been published in the past year, how many column inches our congregations have garnered in the local press. These things have their place, and they are important, but they are not what is most important. The really important accomplishments never make it on to the lists – the child who felt encouraged and loved, the man contemplating divorce who knew he was held and cared for by his community, the right word spoken at the right moment, the right silence when silence was needed, the hungry fed, the suffering eased, the love given.
These are not easy things to measure in the moment. Who can say whether a given word was the right one, or whether what we did made the crucial difference in another person’s life. It would be far easier to measure success by column inches, or by membership numbers.
I think that’s why the practice of making time to measure our souls is so important. Once a year, we ask ourselves to look within, and to measure ourselves based on our intentions, not on our accomplishments. Once a year, we ask ourselves to consider not what we have achieved, but who have been. Once a year we give ourselves the opportunity to turn from all that leads us away from the people we want to be and to find again the giving, loving, caring and compassionate human beings that we are.
It doesn’t need to take place during the Jewish New Year; any more than it needs to take place during Lent, or Ramadan. We all have our own timetables, but I submit that whether or not we follow a family or theological tradition that sets apart such time, we need to make the time. We need to stop for awhile, take stock, and give ourselves the chance to become more fully human.
That doesn’t mean we should beat ourselves up over our flaws, or seek some kind of punishment for what we have done wrong; it’s not about that. The word “repentance” means “turning” and that’s all we need ask of ourselves. Can we turn, and turn again to ourselves, as we would choose to live?
It also doesn’t mean that we should stop being who we are, or that we should smooth out every aspect of our personalities. In New England they have an expression, “We’re all a little different,” and it’s true, we are. The measure of our souls is in the balance of the good we do and in our intentions. Effort is good; perfection is not required.
My colleague James Ford talks about the Days of Awe as a time for healing. “This season,” he says, “is about facing our wounds, those cracks in our being.” He goes on to talk of those wounds as spiritual and not just psychological. He says, “They have to do with how we stand in the world, how we relate to each other in the deepest sort of way. And healing in this sense is letting the light shine through them.” “That light,” he says, “is some deep knowing about who we are as individuals, and more than that, how we relate to each other, indeed to the whole precious world.”
The wounds may still be there – the art is in learning to let the light – our light – shine through them. I think of a friend who is a gruff man. He is sarcastic, intimidating, and he likes to challenge people. If you make a suggestion to him, or ask him for help, he will give you 51 reasons why it won’t work. With footnotes. And then he will turn around and do everything in his power to make that idea succeed. He’s a little different, yes. His wounds show, yes. But the light shines through them, and I cannot think of a finer human being.
The measure of a soul is not in perfection or achievement or even personality. The measure of a soul is the love with which we live, whether we call it that or not.
The measure of a soul is not even our sense of spirituality or our communion with God. Think of the rabbi in the village of Nemirov. The measure of a soul is in the good we do for the person in front of us.
And when we come together, people of goodwill, people who make the time to look within, who want to become more fully human, and live that kind of sacred life, what we can do in this world is multiplied a thousandfold. The light shines through, the measure is taken, and it is good.