At Mishkan’s 5783 Yom Kippur service, Rabbi Deena Cowans delivered a sermon inviting us to bravely begin new things, even (especially!) if we aren’t very good at them at first. You can also listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast. If you have been moved by any of Mishkan’s High Holy Days services, we encourage you to donate to our High Holidays Campaign.
A few weeks ago, my brother, who is in business school, did something called the Marshmallow Challenge, a design thinking exercise, with his classmates. The rules are simple; in 18 minutes, each group can use 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow to build the tallest structure they can, with the marshmallow on the top.
My brother and his classmates fared like most MBA groups do: pretty terribly. Most groups failed to construct a standing tower at all, instead presenting a pile of broken spaghetti and a tangle of string and tape. Their problem was that their structure broke just as they put the marshmallow on top, with 2 seconds remaining. This happens to most groups, apparently.
So who does well at the Marshmallow challenge? Well, the best are architects and engineers, thank God. But second best? Kindergarten students. Business students, and most other adults, spend most of their 18 minutes planning and organizing, leaving just a few minutes for construction. When they put the marshmallow on top at the very last second, the tower collapses from its weight, game over.
Kindergarteners, on the other hand, treat the experiment like everything else: a chance to play. They build prototypes, experimenting with where to put the marshmallow, then build different prototypes. They’re not constrained by what a tower is “supposed to” look like, so they build creative spaghetti structures that look like elephants and bridges and spiders. This is not because they are trying to do the best at the experiment. It’s because this is a child’s natural approach to the world: try, play, ask why, make believe, try again. They are not yet conditioned to avoid failure, or to equate their actions with their self worth, thinking themselves better when they succeed and worse when they don’t.
At least, most of them aren’t. This was not my experience of childhood. When I was little, maybe 5 years old, I was such a perfectionist that it actually impeded my ability to function. I would get so upset with myself, so self-punishing any time I made even a small mistake, that I needed an intervention from the grown ups in my life. They came up with a plan: on top of every assignment, test or worksheet, I had to write GPMNP, which stood for “God perfect, me no perfect”, and whenever I started to get upset at a mistake, or when I didn’t know the answer to a question, the adults would remind me, G.P.M.N.P., and I would have to say back “GuP-MuhNuhP.” For years, this was their refrain: when I came home crying because I got a 97 on a test and I was so mad at myself for getting ONE question wrong; when I cried to my AP biology teacher for giving me an A- just before I sent off my college applications. I was a dancer from pre-school through junior year of high school, but gave it up when it was clear I wasn’t as good as my peers, even though I love to dance. I played cello in middle school, and also gave it up because I had very little musical talent. We all have stories like this: things we gave up because we didn’t think we were good enough at them to merit our time, or things we cried over because we weren’t as talented as we thought we should be. To these, I say: GPMNP. God perfect. Me no perfect.
Trying to do well is not a flaw, and it’s a great strategy for accomplishing big goals.
But, as little Deena started to learn, we cannot expect to always be perfect, nor should we. There is no joy in setting expectations so high that you can never exceed them, and there are so many things we will miss if we don’t try for fear of being bad at them. If we only focus on getting it right, we miss the thrill of feeling ourselves improve. I don’t still mutter “GPMNP” to myself, and I tend to give my parents stink eye when they say it to me (which they actually still do, so clearly I am still a work in progress on this), but this is a lesson I have been chasing my whole life- don’t turn away from the things you aren’t the best at. Don’t let your disappointment at not getting it right prevent you from trying again.
That is also what today is all about: embracing our shortcomings, not as an act of self-flagellation, but with the curiosity of a child, who sees every challenge as a chance to play and grow. Let today be about creativity, the chance to try out re-creations of a better us, without expecting that this will be the year that we nail it. We don’t have to nail it. We just have to try to do a little better.
Midrash Mishlei, a rabbinic text, claims that even in the messianic era, the Jewish people will continue to celebrate Yom Kippur. Take a second to think about how radical this is: even in a perfected world, we will still be works in progress.
The coming of the messiah, thing we’ve been wishing for for millennia = all of our problems will disappear… but we will still be imperfect, so clearly being imperfect isn’t a problem, it’s a privilege of being alive to do teshuva and work on ourselves
The rabbis of the Talmud claim that the two happiest days of the year were Tu b’Av, the late summer love festival… and Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the people would wait in the Temple precinct, anxious to see the Kohen Gadol come out alive from the Holy of Holies. When he did, they would fall on their faces and weep with joy, overcome with relief that they were fully accepted in their imperfection, celebrating the chance to try again. We who were socialized in a Christian society think of “sin” as something dirty, shameful, maybe even a character description. But as Rabbi Steven taught us on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish idea of sin is like shooting an arrow and missing the target- it is a description of an outcome of an action that fell short of its goal. To fail and try again is the whole point of doing teshuva. It is a resounding affirmation of our capacity to change. We will continue to fail or fall short, and we will continue to celebrate another attempt, for as many years of life as we are granted.
This is not a cop out on doing good, or being good. Think about the kindergarteners who do so well at the marshmallow challenge: they don’t ignore the prompt, they too are trying to build a tall structure. They just don’t expect to get it right on their first, or even fourth try. They’re comfortable with failure, and with trying again.
I think of the process of self and communal reckoning that we do on Yom Kippur like playing with play-doh: you can invest as long as you want in creating something out of the dough, but at the end of the day the best thing you can do to play-doh is squish is back into a blob and start again; if you leave it untouched and un-played with, it will dry out and crack, and you will not be able to play with it anymore. If we don’t do things that challenge our sense of competence, we create a vicious cycle, one in which we start to see ourselves as incapable of doing anything new, where we might begin to lose our capacity to grow and change. We must always be re-creating ourselves, lest we lose sight of our essential, play-doughy nature.
The prayers of Yom Kippur actually invite us to see ourselves like play-doh, or clay, or any other kind of malleable, creative material. In one of the iconic piyyutim of the day, we say:
כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר, בִּרְצוֹתוֹ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר, כֵּן אֲנַחְנוּ בְיָדְךָ
Here we are, like clay in the potter’s hand, expanded and contracted based on her will- so too are we in your hand, God.
The piyyut is based on a section in the book of Jeremiah, in which God invites Jeremiah to visit a potter. Jeremiah watches the potter begin to throw a pot, scrap it all back into a lump and start again.
“I do the same with you humans,” God says to Jeremiah. “If I don’t like what I see, I will remake you.” Lest we think we are fixed, this story reminds us that we can be fundamentally changed at any moment; that God is a creative force overseeing our evolution, and God might be in charge of how we change.
As we get older, we tend to become more attached to our identities, more sure of our strengths and weaknesses. Developmental psychologists hold that we go through a few cycles of coalescing our autonomy and our identity: once at 2 or 3 years old, when the most common word is NO and you’re likely to see a “threenager” out in public wearing what adults would consider a completely mismatched outfit because the child insisted on dressing themself. We go through another period of self-definition starting around age 12 or 13, leading to teenage rebellion and clashes with grown ups. At these developmental stages, we are engaged in defining for ourselves who we are, and practicing taking control of our identity in the world. By the time we become adults, this work of self-definition is largely done; only in response to major traumas or life milestones do we tend to reconsider our identity. Which is why the ki hinei ka’chomer piyyut can be hard to stomach: it offends our developed sense of self, teasing us that we can be remade at any moment.
And yet, every year we show up and proclaim our shortcomings in community; we carve out a whole day to set intentions for how we want to be different in the future. This is not because we are fundamentally bad; what Yom Kippur reminds us is that our essential nature is to be malleable, to be able to learn and grow for our whole lives. Rather than change being something we dread, what if we approached it as we did as children, before we began to see ourselves as fixed?
If we could not change, there would be no point to Yom Kippur. It is precisely BECAUSE we are inherently creative, changeable creatures that this holiday makes any sense. The goal today is for us to come out embracing our imperfections as an invitation to play, to create in new ways.
In 2017, I was working at Camp Ramah in the Rockies when The Lodge, the main building of the camp, burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Thank God, no one was hurt, but by dawn, the center of camp was nothing more than a pile of ashes and rubble.
My last summer at Ramah in the Rockies was 2018, the year after the fire, when we ran the camp out of temporary pop up sheds and shipping containers while the board and camp leadership planned how to rebuild the camp. It was incredibly difficult for me to be back that summer, where every day reminded me of the fragility of our built environment, and our lives. Everything could burn down and disappear without warning, including us. I spent much of 2018 being diagnosed with, and then learning to heal from, PTSD from the night of the fire. My brain was stuck in the trauma of the moment, reliving the destruction in every flashing light I saw, unable to picture a safe, rebuilt future.
So when I went back this summer to visit, I was astonished and delighted to see what looked like an entirely new camp in action: there is a new dining hall with a gleaming industrial kitchen, and so many new buildings around it. Unlike the old dining hall, the new one is actually waterproof, providing a safe and usable space for programming during the near-daily thunderstorms. Physically so much has changed, and still the camp thrums with laughter and music and kids on bikes and joyful Judaism.
After the fire, we could have said “this is it”, for the summer, maybe for the camp. Would people feel safe leaving their kids with us? Would they want to send them back next year?
We decided that morning to move the campers and staff to a different location, and continue to run camp. Later, the leadership decided together to come back the next summer and improvise, to engage in a capital campaign to build back not just what was lost, but something even better.
We have in front of us a choice. We live in a broken world, one that we have been trying to fix for so long. And we ourselves are falling short of our own best aspirations, despite showing up year after year for Yom Kippur, or making New Years Eve resolutions. It feels like so many of the issues we have been confronting are only getting worse- abortion access is being restricted, gun deaths are rising, the average life span is dropping, climate change is wreaking havoc on all corners of the globe, poverty is rising alongside inflation, our democracy remains threatened, and so on.
Facing these desperate problems, or facing our own brokenness, we might despair, or we might double down on our efforts, attending more protests, donating more money, writing more get out the vote postcards. Both are totally understandable responses to the moment- things have been broken for so long they might just be stuck this way, and things are so broken we might think we need to throw anything and everything we can at the problem. To mess around with creative solutions, to try out something we don’t know will succeed, feels like a slap in the face to the urgency of the moment. But as the adage says, the definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Whatever we have done so far has not fixed the problem, so what we need is a GPMNP mindset, a recognition that we probably won’t fix the whole thing in one go, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying even one thing.
We do not enter this day of atonement expecting that this will be the year we get it all right, and won’t need to come back next year. Even in the most perfected version of the world, we will continue to show up to investigate our own growth. Remember, God perfect. You no perfect. Rather, Yom Kippur demands that we continue to approach deep, pervasive issues with creativity, with faith that we will continue to grow, and even that we can have fun while doing so.
So, this year, forget about getting it right. Do stuff you’re bad at so that you don’t become like dried out Play-Doh. Do stuff that pushes you to be creative, to explore your ability to learn and change, so that you remember that you can always hit reset. Use the next few hours to ask yourself: What would you do if you weren’t worried about being good at it? What possibilities might that open for you, and for the world?
As proof of this concept, I want to share with you something that I literally could not do four months ago. I could barely do it a month ago. To be honest, I’m still not very good at it… but that’s the point. I may have started this learning journey picturing myself competently leading families at a Havdalah or other musical program, but it is now abundantly clear that I am nowhere near close to being able to do that. But also, I’m infinitely better than I was just a few months ago, and that reminds me that if I keep trying, if I keep practicing, I will only get better; and by the way, my guitar lessons the last few months have often been the absolute highlight of my week, so at least I’m having fun along the way. So… feel free to sing along. Actually, please sing along.
GRAB GUITAR! Doo do doo….*
*Note to Marketing: Please cut the note to self grab guitar and sing “doo do doo” and also this note to marketing.