Posted on October 6, 2022
A story is told of a water carrier, who had two pots on a very long pole that she balanced on her shoulders. Each day the woman left her home and walked down a path to the stream where she would fill the pots with water, put them back on her pole, balance the pole on her shoulders and walk back home.
Now one of the pots had a crack in it, so that every time the woman arrived home it was only half full with water. But she didn’t change her routine, every day she walked down to the stream, collected her water, and arrived back home with one pot full and the other pot half full.
The cracked pot felt sad and ashamed that it could only ever return half full, and it looked enviously at its neighbor on the other side of the pole. One day the cracked pot finally mustered up the courage to speak and said to the woman, “I am so sorry, I want to apologize and ask your forgiveness. All these years I have been unable to deliver a full load of water and I never provide as much for you and your family as my neighbor does.”
The water carrier thought for a moment, and then she pointed to the ground below. “Do you see all of those flowers on your side of the path? I have always known that water leaked from your crack, and so I started planting seeds along the way, and every day when we walked back from the stream you watered them. What you saw as a flaw was actually nurturing these flowers and bringing beauty into the world. So rather than you apologizing, I should have thanked you long ago for being a cracked pot.”
In our lives, how often are we the cracked pot in the story. We focus solely and exclusively on our flaws, on the ways that we are not living up to some supposed ideal, on the times when we fall short of what we might have wanted or imagined from ourselves. Often, before the world even gets involved or we receive any external feedback, we are beating ourselves up: I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough, I’m not smart enough – I’m not enough. All too often we are our own worst and harshest critic.
Whatever standards you might hold me to as Rabbi of this community; I am almost positive that I hold myself up to a higher standard and my internal critique is more pointed and direct than any of the feedback I have ever received. And I remember the bad sermons, the missed pastoral opportunities long after they are forgotten or at least forgiven. And I do this as a parent as well. I spend too much time dwelling on my mistakes, reflecting on the times I was impatient or raised my voice, thinking about what I could or should have done better. Rarely, if ever, do I celebrate a parenting success or the simple joy of being there for my children.
Our internal critic is bad enough, but then we also have the seemingly perfect pot on the other side of the pole against whom we are comparing ourselves. Social media exacerbates this problem because we now share our lives through a filter. We do not share photos of our kids having a tantrum, the picture where everyone is scowling, or the evidence of our failed cooking attempts. Instead, the pictures are curated; the perfect vacation, the moments of graduation and success, the times when things at least looked perfect. The Facebook ideal is unattainable because it is not real, but it still infiltrates our lives and leads us to compare our everyday experiences with another person’s peak moments.
On this day of Yom Kippur, our focus is on apologizing to those we have wronged, confessing our sins to God, and forgiving those who have wronged us. When it comes to forgiving others, our tradition is very clear on the way in which we must approach that task. As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote:
“You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it’s your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness.” (1)
When it involves the way we judge others and forgive them we are told to do it willingly, with kindness, and with compassion – always leaning to the positives that can be found. But as Rabbi Nachman continues:
“So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them — now go do it for yourself as well! … I know what happens when you start examining yourself. “No goodness at all,” you find. “Just full of sin.” Watch out for Old Man Gloom, my friend, the one who wants to push you down. This is one of his best tricks. That’s why I said: “Now go do it for yourself as well.” (2)
We are our own worst critics. If we view the world and others through rose-colored glasses, we often view ourselves through the darkest sunglasses we can find. Rabbi Nachman knew that as important as it was to encourage people to be charitable in the way that they view others and forgive them; it was equally, if not more important to encourage people to be charitable in the way they view themselves and forgive themselves.
This Yom Kippur, as much as this day is about our relationship with other people, I want us to really consider the way that we approach ourselves. I want us to be as kind to ourselves as we are to those around us, as compassionate with ourselves as we are to our neighbors, and as forgiving of ourselves as we are to those who have made mistakes.
At the heart of our Torah is the instruction: v’ahavta lere’echa kemocha – you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (3) We always focus on the external imperative of this commandment, the way that we are supposed to treat other people. But there is a first step to get there, love your neighbor as yourself begins with You, with loving yourself. This is not an instruction to vanity, arrogance, or ego, but it is a call for us to have a positive relationship with ourselves. It is about feeling happy and content with who we are; it is about having a positive sense of self-worth. This verse reminds us that we cannot approach another person with kindness and love if we do not treat ourselves in the same way.
I recently read about a man who carries in his wallet a picture of himself from when he was six-years-old. (4) It is there to remind him to always view the world with the wonder of a child, but also to forgive and love himself, just as he would the innocent child in the picture. It’s a wonderful aspiration, to handle ourselves with the same care we would a child.
And while this all makes sense in theory; societal expectations make it much harder to do in practice. Psychologist Kristin Neff writes: “In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves? … The desire to feel special is understandable. The problem is that by definition, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time.” (5) We set ourselves unrealistic and unattainable goals, and then we beat ourselves up when we are unable to achieve them.
We cannot be perfect and above-average in every single area of life all of the time – and this should not be the expectation. The quest for perfectionism is not about being our best, it’s a never-ending cycle seeking to avoid blame, judgement, and shame. (6) I like Brene Brown’s approach, who refers to herself as ‘a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist.’ (7)
We are not supposed to be perfect; by design we were created to be imperfect beings, and God still described us as tov me’od – very good. (8) We require this day of Yom Kippur because we are imperfect, because we will make mistakes, because we are all beautifully human with all of the positives and negatives which that word entails.
Over the last few years there are times when we have all been struggling, times when we have been frantically trying to keep our heads above water, times when we are dealing with feelings of inadequacy. We have been taught to put on a brave face, to have a stiff upper lip, to smile and wave – so we wear a mask to cover whatever shame, disappointment, or rejection we might be dealing with. And this exacerbates the problem. We create pressure on each other to live up to an unrealistic ideal, we judge ourselves harshly for not living up to someone else’s picture-perfect standard, and we isolate ourselves because there is no one with whom to talk to about what is really happening.
As we prepare to emerge from Yom Kippur, I want to shift our aspirations and expectations for the year that lies ahead. I want us to approach this year not aiming to be perfect, but aiming to be enough. I want us to know that even when we fail, struggle, and fall down that does not make us unworthy, unlovable, inadequate – it just makes us human. I want us to stop pursuing some unattainable ideal of perfection, and instead know that we are more than good enough. Life is not a competition to be better than those around us; no, it is a personal journey to unlock and release the unique beauty which each one of us possesses.
If the first step is accepting that I am good enough. The second step is to really change the way that we treat ourselves. As Rabbi Nachman said we have to “watch out for Old Man Gloom,” the voice within us that is hyper-critical, uncaring, and overly judgmental. We have to embrace what Kristin Neff calls self-compassion; learning to “treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter.” (9)
It is easy to fall into the trap of being overly judgmental of ourselves, but we have to imagine hearing our inner-monologue as though it were being spoken to someone else. We would never speak to another person with such harsh tones or cruel words; rather we would approach them with understanding, care and tenderness. “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves” (10)
On occasion my children have heard me voice my inner-monologue out loud as I berated myself for some mistake or failing. In those situations, they always look at me with their eyes wide open and immediately tell me to stop, offering me words of reassurance and comfort. The blow of whatever I have done wrong lessens immediately through their intervention and support. They stop the voice in my head and allow me to view myself reflected back in the way that they see me; through a lens of kindness, compassion, and love. Why can’t this be the default view we have of ourselves?
And just in case anyone is still doubting whether they are really good enough and worthy; let me remind you that you are created in the image of God. Each and every one of us possesses the Divine spark within us and when you look in the mirror it is not just your own face staring back at you, but it is an image of the face of God. How should we behave in the presence of something holy and divine? We know the answer. We talk about seeing the Divine spark in each other, but equally importantly we must see the Divine spark that is within ourselves.
I struggle as a Rabbi, I struggle as a husband, I struggle as a friend, and I struggle as a parent. I am not perfect in any of these areas, and there are moments where I have even
doubted whether I am up to the task. But as I enter into this year, I resolve to treat myself in the way that I would treat someone else. When I make a mistake, I will not allow the voice in my head to beat me up; instead, I will seek to hear a voice of reassurance and support, forgiving myself. When I fail in a task, rather than hearing words of condemnation and derision, I will speak to myself with encouragement that there will be other opportunities for success in the future. And when I feel like I am not good enough, I will remind myself that I am created in the image of God and I will seek to see myself in that way.
As we emerge from this Yom Kippur to enter the new year, my prayer for us is that like the cracked pot we have the opportunity to see the ways in which we bring beauty despite and because of our brokenness. That we can let go of the aspiration to be perfect and become comfortable with the knowledge that we are good enough. And that we can learn to treat ourselves in the way that I know you treat each other, with kindness, love, and compassion. Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be God’s will – Amen.
1: Likutei Mohran 282:1, translation attributed to Rabbi Art Green
2: Likutei Mohran 282:2, ibid.
3: Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18
4: Bits and Pieces, February 7, 2002.
5: Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, p.3
6: This is inspired by Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, p.56.
8: Bereishit/Genesis 1:31
9: Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, p.6