We walked into the taqueria, hungry and tired from a day of travel. We sat down at the table, thrilled to finally be together and put some food in our bellies. We ordered some appetizers, but the restaurant was out of most of the listed options. We ordered beverages, and they never came. We ordered our dinners, and we waited, and waited, and waited.
Our initial excitement and enthusiasm gave way to frustration and irritation. “Where is our food? Where is our server?” we grumbled. I thought, “Gosh, our server is lazy. He doesn’t care about us at all. He’s rude and annoyed that we came in with such a large group.” I was about to continue with my litany of complaints and assumptions when it hit me.
Of course, if I ever move slowly or fail to respond to requests from others, it’s because my toddler didn’t sleep well or because there’s an unexpected power outage from a storm. But rather than assume that our server could have had any number of personal struggles or distractions taking place in his own life, I made all kinds of assumptions about his intentions and inner character. It was a good reminder that even though I teach and preach on motive misattribution and many other human tendencies that lead to toxic polarization, I have room to grow.
As a Jew and a rabbi, I am especially focused on personal growth because of where we are in the Jewish calendar. Recently, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Next, we observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and then on Rosh Hashanah itself, we begin a process of cheshbon hanefesh, an inner examination or accounting of our souls. We reflect on who we have been over the past year and how we hope to change and grow. On Yom Kippur, we atone for all of the ways we have missed the mark. Maybe we have hurt people who we love. Perhaps we have hurt the world. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as yamim noraim, the Days of Awe. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur serve as an opportunity to do the deep soul work and reflection that Jewish tradition asks of us. These days give us time to prepare for Yom Kippur.
However, this type of self-reflection can be hard to stomach. Perhaps, when we read the various wrongdoings during the service, we can find a way to gloss over the ones that fall into categories that we believe we do not need to consider.
If only it were that simple.
For instance, I might be tempted to skip over words that say, “Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha, we have wronged you with narrow-mindedness.” I don’t see myself as narrow-minded and I am proud to be a person who works to help others be more open-minded.
But the experience I had in that taqueria starkly reminded me that I have work to do, even in the areas to which I devote my time, and maybe most especially in the areas that, on paper, I have given myself a gold star.
It’s okay if the answer to that question is sometimes yes and sometimes no. We don’t have to be perfect, even when it comes to the qualities in ourselves we most cherish or the values we work hardest to uphold. We just have to be willing to look honestly at ourselves, to admit when we have missed the mark, and to be willing to change and grow.
G’mar Chatima Tovah. May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a Good Year.