At Mishkan’s 5783 Rosh Hashanah service, Rabbi Steven delivered a moving and deeply personal sermon reflecting on his recent divorce. If you would like to attend Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur with Mishkan, virtual tickets are still available. Donate to Mishkan’s High Holidays Campaign to help us create radically inclusive spaces where people are supported in finding their own unique Jewish identity.
One of the best and most cherished memories of my wedding was a brief moment, standing under the chuppah, when I looked out at all the people who had come to celebrate our marriage. These were friends and family who had traveled across oceans and continents to be there, each carrying a piece of the story that had led my husband and me to that particular place on that particular day as we began to write a new chapter of our lives together. There was so much love in that room, wearing its many and varied faces: mother, sister, uncle, childhood friend, grandmother, half-brother, college roommate, cousin, stepparent, aunt. And so as we said our vows the love we offered one another was, in some ways, not our own – but the sum of that which we had been given by every person present.
Perhaps it’s a bit odd to share this memory, considering my husband and I separated this past January and finalized our divorce just a few months ago. Remembering my wedding still brings me joy, but a joy that has become entangled with grief, doubt, and anger.
In the months following my divorce – as I began to slowly share the news with the concentric circles of friends and family, coworkers and congregants – the first thing most people said was “I’m sorry.” There are many reasons to be sorry about divorce, reasons some of you may know all too well; it is a difficult process that, even in the best of cases, strains your patience, compassion, and resolve. And I’m sure that most of the time, people said “I’m sorry” from a place of care and concern – but I was so caught up in my own mess, my own heartbreak and self-doubt, that what I heard were two distinct messages.
The first message I heard was “I’m sorry that your marriage is broken.” And they weren’t wrong. My marriage was broken. Despite the seven years that we had put into building a relationship that could endure the challenges that accompany the simple fact that we are alive, it had only taken a few difficult and contentious months to dismantle it. Assets were divided. We each took a pet. Bank accounts were closed. Names were changed on deeds, wills, insurance policies, loyalty programs, and emergency contacts. Threads that had tied us together – both important and trivial – were deliberately, painfully unknotted.
The second message I heard was “I’m sorry that you failed to fix it.” That you couldn’t work it out, that you couldn’t piece it back together, that you wasted seven years and, now that it’s over, you have nothing to show for it but a half-empty house, a stack of legal bills, and regret. We tried couples counseling, but somehow the conversation could never move beyond finger pointing. We attempted sleeping in separate rooms, thinking that some time apart could let us sort through whatever was bothering us – but a lack of proximity only widened the gap between us. And so when one of us said, for the hundredth time in the hundredth argument, that maybe we should just get divorced, we had become so exhausted by failure that the other could only say “yes.”
I’m sorry your marriage is broken. I’m sorry you failed to fix it.
On Rosh Ha’Shanah we stand at the inflection point between two years. One of the tasks of this moment is to look back at the year we are leaving behind, with both its blessings and its hardships, and consider how we might not have been our best selves. What promises did we break? What responsibilities did we neglect? What wounds did we inflict – on the world, on others, on ourselves? Left holding the broken pieces of my marriage, so aware of my failure to fit them back together, I began to suspect that the problem was me all along. Perhaps I am the broken thing. Maybe I am the failure.
One of the stories we tell on this holiday is about a woman named Hannah. She had been married for many years to a man named Elkanah, who – in the custom of the time – had taken a second wife named Peninah. While Hannah was loved deeply by her husband, she had been unable to conceive. Peninah, on the other hand, had been blessed with several children. And so Hannah felt a deep shame every year they made the journey to Jerusalem, as Elkanah offered sacrifices on behalf of each member of his family: one for Hannah, many for Peninah and her children. Other women looked at her with pity. “I’m sorry,” they said to her as they gathered outside the Temple. I’m sorry that you’ve failed to conceive, that you’ve failed in your duty as a wife, that you have failed to make your husband happy. Hannah began to dread the annual pilgrimage, her tears coming sooner and heavier each time they approached the holy city. One year, Hannah had become so inconsolable that she was unable to take part in the festivities and sat apart from her family. “Why are you crying,” Elkanah asked. “You are more precious to me than children.” But Hannah, so consumed by her sense of failure, was unable to understand how her husband could still love her. Desperate to get away from everything that reflected her shame, Hannah runs to the Temple and throws herself to the ground.
And then something miraculous happens. Hannah begins to pray. She cries and she sobs and she moans. Her lips move but no sound emerges. She stands. In one moment she is still, in the next her entire body rocks with the force of her prayer. Hannah pours out her heart before God – and she slowly begins to understand that God is listening. That God is listening because she is speaking. That she is speaking because she deserves to be heard. And through the cracks of her broken heart, Hannah glimpses a courage and resilience that has been there all along, carrying her through the years of shame.
So when the High Priest (who has been watching her this whole time) walks over to her and says, “Woman, are you drunk? You should be ashamed of how you’re acting in this sacred place” – Hannah looks him straight in the eye and responds, “I’m not drunk, I’m in pain. Do not take me for a worthless woman. I am speaking out of my heartbreak.” And what I hear her say is: You have no right to render judgment about things you don’t understand. I am a reflection of the divine image, a being of inherent worth who deserves to be treated with dignity. While things may be broken, I am not a broken thing. While I may have failed, I am not a failure.
While things may be broken, I am not a broken thing, While I may have failed, I am not a failure.
When speaking on how we respond to the inevitability of failure, the sociologist Brene Brown makes a careful distinction between guilt and shame. She explains that guilt says “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” while shame says “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Guilt tells us that what we did was bad. On the other hand, shame tells us that we are bad.
One of the refrains of the High Holidays is the vidui: a litany of ways that we have, as individuals and as a community, broken things. A litany of ways that we have failed. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi… we have transgressed, we have done wrong, we have stolen, we have used our words to hurt. Would that we could say, we have not sinned – aval anahnu v’avoteinu hatanu, but we, and all those who came before us, have sinned. How could we not feel a sense of shame? Year after year we recite the vidui, beating our chest at the mention of each transgression and promising to do better – and yet, year after year it remains the same. Whether we have committed one of these sins, or whether we have tolerated these sins in our midst, we just can’t seem to get it right. And because we keep coming back to it over and over again, because this list doesn’t change, you might begin to suspect that this is just the way we are. Maybe we do bad things because we are bad people.
But this is the problem with the word sin, so encumbered by the idea (inherited from Christianity) that human beings are fundamentally flawed, constrained from the first few days of our existence by the “original sin” of Eve and Adam. This idea is anathema to Judaism, which believes that we’re alright. In the morning liturgy, the rabbis included the prayer: Elohai neshamah sh’natata bi tahorah hi – God, the soul you placed within me is pure. It is good. And because it’s good, our tradition posits the possibility of teshuvah, the idea we can reflect on our behavior, things we might feel guilty about, and – rather than become mired in shame – work to change how we act. The vidui is a list of chataim – of sins, of behaviors – not character flaws.
Our sins are what we do, not who we are.
Chet, the word that we unhelpfully translate as sin, would be better rendered as “missing the mark.” It comes from the same family of words used to describe archery. We knocked the arrow, we drew it back, and we let it fly. Yet because we lacked conviction, or because we were distracted, or because we were afraid, or sad, or angry – the arrow didn’t hit its target. And yes, more often than not it is our fault when our aim isn’t true – and this should make us feel guilty, so that next time we are a bit more honest, a bit more focused, a bit more thoughtful… but it should not lead us to shame. You are the archer. You are the force behind the bow. You are the hope and courage to let the arrow go. But you are not the arrow, neither the one that successfully meets its mark nor the one that lands somewhere in the field beyond its intended target.
Our capacity for good is balanced by the fact that sometimes we do bad things. And the good we experience is tempered by the reality that bad things happen to us – both those which we bring upon ourselves, and those we don’t deserve. Standing at the cusp of a new year, our tradition invites us into this mess; this is neither a time to pretend we are flawless nor a moment to become paralyzed by the belief that we are irredeemable. Instead, we grapple with the fact that we are human beings living very human lives. We are Yisrael, after all: those who wrestle with God – a name inherited from our ancestor, Jacob, after he fought with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok River. The name was a blessing, to be sure, but one given at a moment of uncertainty and doubt. Jacob stood (quite literally) between the consequences of his actions, good and bad – his wives, his children, and all that he had worked so hard for on one side of the river and his brother, whom he had wronged so many years ago, on the other. The rabbis say that perhaps Jacob didn’t wrestle with an angel at all, that instead the mysterious being he grappled with through the night was, in fact, himself as he worked to reconcile the person he had been with the person he hoped to become. To strive – not despite but because of the mess of being human, of being alive – is our birthright.
Each of us holds the pieces of broken things. Each of us has failed. And it would be easy to look at the scattered arrows left in our wake and wonder if they meant anything. This arrow: divorce. This arrow: being fired from your job. This arrow: another unsuccessful round of fertility treatment. This arrow relapse and this arrow remission. But you are not the arrow. You are the archer who took the risk of loving someone. You are the archer who showed up to work, even when it was hard. You are the archer who had the courage to walk back into the fertility clinic, who had the humility to admit you struggle with addiction, who had the resolve to fight the cancer because every single second you got to spend with your children or grandchildren was worth the pain of treatment.
But the marriage still ended in divorce, you tell me. I no longer have my dream job. I don’t have the family I had hoped for. I am still picking up the bottle. The prognosis doesn’t look so good. Was all that effort worth it?
It is easy, when enjoying the fruit of our labor, to assign meaning or purpose to our lives. Yes, you say to yourself, this is why I worked so hard, why I fought that battle, why I let arrow after arrow fly because I finally hit the target. It’s harder to find meaning when we don’t have what we want. When something happens, when something gives away and you realize that no, this actually isn’t it, this isn’t where I want to be – and all we are left holding is our regret. If I have nothing to show for it (or perhaps worse, I’ve come out on the other end wounded and heartbroken) maybe I shouldn’t have tried in the first place.
A few months after making the decision to get divorced, I found myself on a cruise ship sailing around the Mediterranean. What was supposed to be a vacation shared with my soon to be ex-husband was now an unexpected mother-son just-us-single-ladies bonding trip. Watching the sun set over the ocean, on our second or third glass of wine, my mom asks if there’s anything I will regret about the past seven years. A million things come to mind. All those times I missed the mark, when I could have been more honest, or more brave, or more compassionate. Moments when I should have stood my ground, or given ground, or taken a step back and realized that whatever was gained or lost wasn’t worth fighting about. Days when I should have been happy, but found myself in tears instead – or all those tears I swallowed, when I should have felt safe enough to share them.
But for all that could have been an answer to my mom’s question, I realized that I didn’t want to regret those years because I like who I am now. I like who I am now, broken and pieced back together, scarred but stronger, wounded but capable of a care and compassion I didn’t know was inside me until the pain of divorce broke me open. I don’t know if I would be here, surrounded by the abundant and unconditional love of my chosen family, without having experienced the loss of love that comes with separation. Maybe I would have been better, able to share a happier story than the one I am telling you today. But maybe I would have been worse. I don’t know. However, I do know where I am now. Within the brokenness there is blessing, even the simple blessing of understanding my own strength, my own courage, my own tenacity a little better than I did before. For all the mess that is around and inside of me, I am beginning to see – perhaps for the first time – elohai neshamah sh’natata bi tahorah hi, the soul that God has placed in me is pure. It is good. And that is a blessing I cannot take for granted.
Sometimes our blessings come with wounds. Wrestling with the angel gave Jacob a new name, Yisrael, and a deeper understanding of himself – but the struggle also left him permanently injured. Vayizrach lo ha’shemesh… v’hu tzolea al y’reicho, the sun rose upon Jacob as he limped away from the riverbank, his hip wrenched from its socket. He is transformed in both body and spirit, bearing the scars of his past but with a clearer vision for the future – not just for himself, but for every person who will hear themselves called in the name Yisrael: all of us God-wrestlers, who emerge from the messiness of living with both wounds and blessings.
For some of us, these wounds are easy to see. Like Jacob, we limp. Yet others have gotten really good at hiding their scars. But they’re still there. We are surrounded by brokenness, both that which we carry openly and that which is buried deep within us. I am sorry for whatever brokenness you are carrying from this past year, whether it’s because you made a bad decision, or because somebody wronged you, or because life at times isn’t fair. I’m sorry, not because you are broken or because you are a failure – but because it’s hard.
In the Torah, Rosh Ha’Shanah is called Yom T’ruah, a day of sounding the shofar. And we do sound the shofar, one hundred times over the course of this holiday. We begin with tekiah, one long blast. It is followed by shevarim, a set of three blasts, or t’ruah, a set of nine very short blasts, and sometimes both, three blasts then nine. Each time we end with tekiah, a final long blast. The rabbis ask: where do we get the peculiar notes of the shofar – are they a battle cry, a clarion call, or perhaps the sound of weeping? The 17th-century master, the Shnei Luhot ha’Brit teaches that they are the sound of heartbreak and resolve. Tekiah, we are whole. Shevarim, we are broken down – whether through our own decisions or the obstacles we face. T’ruah, we are sometimes surrounded by brokenness; the way forward is hard to find. But then Tekiah, we emerge wounded but stronger, braver, kinder, blessed with a deeper understanding of who we are and who we want to be. Whole, broken a little, broken a lot, whole again. Then finally, at the end of Rosh Ha’Shanah one final note: the tekiah gedolah, a single blast held as long as possible – and in it, the triumphant and powerful conviction that we are able to rise from the brokenness because, even when it seems to be all around us and inside of us, we are not broken.