Needless to say, as we approach the High Holidays, this has me thinking about my own “errors” in my life and the question of whether I can identify them and correct them. The errors I found in the Siddur are part of a finite collection of words. There are clear and specific rules with which I am very familiar and if I’m not sure, I know where to look them up. I have proofread these prayers at least 20 times in the last 15 years. Yet I still missed them! By extension, it seems nearly impossible that I would be able to identify and correct errors in my own thinking and behavior, which are not nearly as rule-bound as Hebrew grammar.
Reflecting on this situation, I’ve found cause for both pessimism and optimism. Even though I implied that my own life isn’t a closed, finite system like the words in the Siddur, in many ways my life is constrained by environment, habit and expectations. The range of stimuli I respond to is relatively limited and I tend to react the same way to the same prompts and cues. If the curse of maturity is not having as many options, the blessing is not having to figure out what to do about every single situation that arises. On the other hand, if it took me 15 years to locate and change these minor errors in 100 odd pages of text, what are my chances that I’ll succeed this year (or any year) with the elements in my life that need correcting?
We know that the process of Return - T’shuva - change for the better, is complex and never-ending. At best, we’re caught between two poles of insight: we don’t have to be perfect; we’re never going to get it right. The minor errors in the vocalization that I’ve been reading for the past 15 years haven’t changed the meaning of the text and haven’t had any effect on my attention to the prayers. Once discovered, they are a lot easier to fix than the instinctive and regrettable reactions I have to certain situations that I find myself involved in over and over again. And yet, they’re still mistakes.
The High Holiday liturgy can make us feel as if our lives are a morass of failure to meet God’s (and our own) expectations. On Yom Kippur, we pound our chests and recite an entire alphabet of misdeeds. We make resolutions that we suspect we won’t keep. We resolve to try to “fix” aspects of our behavior that have been broken for decades. Do we really think we’ll have nothing left to change next year?
The High Holiday season is a time to engage deeply in the examination of our shortcomings and also to rejoice in the renewal of creation. Many of our “mistakes” aren’t so important in the scheme of the whole of creation. Some of them are more devastating and have had far ranging consequences. These are the ones we should spend the most of our energy acknowledging and endeavoring to correct. This is also the time to spend contemplating our unthinking reactions that lead us to the same regrettable behaviors again and again. Can we think of any of them in a different way so as to respond differently? Can we give up on any of them with the understanding that they reduce our level of “perfection” but they don’t change the pronunciation of who we are? Can we be grateful that we have been given this time to meditate on who we are, how we behave and the potential we have for change?
May this season be for all of us a time to braid together reflection about our sins and renewal of our place in constant creation, remorse for our failings, and revitalization of our desires to be more of a light and a hope for ourselves, our friends and families and our world.