Some say the most important sermons that Rabbis give are the ones that we, ourselves, need to hear. And so tonight, I find myself deeply drawn to sharing with you a story… the story of a woman named June.
June was a first generation American, her parents, like so many Jews of their time found their way here from Eastern Europe. Having faced the pogroms in his native Lithuania, her father took particular pride in his American Jewish identity – he fought in both WW’s I and II – he went to City College, and even became a 5 -sport letterman. Her mother, a retail professional turned homemaker, helped maintain their Orthodox, Jewish religious practice as they made their home. But June, growing up as a tough-as-nails girl from the Bronx, wanted nothing to do with it.
June was smart…really smart – book and street smart, though some might say she often got herself into trouble with those ‘smarts’ throughout her youth – cutting class, going to nightclubs – the quintessential rebellious teenage exploits. Her frustration filled the house, so much so, that to her, graduating HS meant it was time for her to forge her own path. So she left home at 18, not to return until 10 years later, married… and pregnant.
In this, her first pregnancy, she experienced what was diagnosed as a miscarriage, only to find out two months later that she was still pregnant – fraternal twins, who knew it was possible? But indeed, the lost pregnancy had been ectopic, yet a twin healthy baby remained thriving and still growing. A blessing, she thought, but internally, she was struggling – with life, uncertain about her intended path and the unknowns of being a mom. After giving birth, she never fully settled comfortably into motherhood. She did the mom things: taught her child to focus on education and learning; instilled invaluable lessons: be kind to all, especially those that go without; never forget your blessings, but don’t count on them either; if someone is in need, you help, no matter what you have in your pocket…and…have fun because “you only have this one life”. Her career was key too, and she was the top in her field as a paralegal and legal assistant rising in her position with one of the most successful firms in her area. But, juggling the tasks of work, a rocky marriage and motherhood became too much for her and her family. So much so, that she leaned on drugs, heavy drugs, to get her through her days and nights. She almost managed to hold it all together without anyone knowing, but life started to take its toll on June. Days, weeks, years passed… life’s memorable moments of friends and family, travel and laughter were punctuated by crisis moments of overdoses and ER visits.
Divorce would be her wake up call to get clean, and that lasted…for moments and stretches of time. While her substance abuse ultimately subsided, her troublesome actions and deep inner battles remained throughout her life until her early passing. Yet, for all of her struggles, her greatest blessing was how much of her goodness and critical life lessons she taught her child. Those powerful and selfless acts she partook of, that she modeled and were truly the core of who she was under the pain, these live on in her son – her son who stands before you tonight.
June Shapiro Nevarez, my mother, was a beautiful and painfully complex woman who struggled most of her life. One of the most generous human beings I have ever known brought deep wounds into my life; woundedness I thought would forever restrain my potential. Name the emotion: pain, sorrow, shame, anger, sympathy as well as joy and connection – the relationship with my mom encompassed it all. Yet, what I didn’t realize in those earlier years is that all of the woundedness I experienced would come to serve as my greatest teacher and model for empathy and resilience.
Rami Elhanan, an Israeli peace activist said of the harnessing the power of pain: “We have an enormous ally on our side: the power of pain. It is very much like nuclear energy. You can use this energy in order to be in darkness and destruction and pain, or you can use this energy to bring light and warmth and hope.”
Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated the birthday of the world – 5783 years to be exact – give or take a few billion! When we encounter the Creation story, we first learn that God created light, creatures living in harmony. We recall Adam and Eve living in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). In other words, it appears to the Torah reader that God creates a world of perfection. But soon enough, we learn of the serpent, the forbidden fruit, the shame in the first humans’ nakedness, and human beings find themselves kicked out of the garden, and we, you and I, spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to where we began – Gan Eden.
Especially at this time of year, I often reflect on creation projects that have been part of my life: my childhood, my kid’s birth, home renovations, moving across the country to help lead this beautiful community, even writing sermons like this; and in my experience, all of them are perfectly…. imperfect! If we continued to measure ourselves against a state of perfection, we would never escape our own inadequacies or deficiencies. We could even, perhaps, feel eternally wounded.
Lucky for us, our tradition offers us a more nuanced and realistic understanding of creation: In the beginning, the mystics present a God whose presence filled the universe, and God was everywhere. There was no room for anything else. So, God had to contract in order to make space in which to create the world. The mystics called this contraction tzim tzum, and in that newfound space, God creates darkness. God then pours a stream of divine light into 10 vessels, but these vessels are not strong enough to hold this energy – so they shatter, and those sacred, holy sparks splinter everywhere.1
Human beings, we learn, were created to find those splinters of Divine light and to make a tikkun (repair), by helping God gather them together, to lift up the broken pieces, in order to restore the world.
What a painfully unique and powerful teaching – one that acknowledges the imperfections of our world and asserts that our brokenness, our woundedness, and not perfection, is our true divine inheritance. Our task, then, is to seek out tiny sparks of light in the Divine debris all around us and within us. To find holiness in the broken, in the wounded, in the imperfect, particularly within ourselves.
Throughout much of my childhood and early adult years, I wasn’t able to escape my mother’s defects and yearned for a different model of a parent: I didn’t have a mother who loved the way I needed to be loved. She seldom took interest in the daily happenings of my life. Her internal pained spilled out everywhere, and in turn, left little space for who I was, or wanted to be, and often, I felt no tzim tzum, no contraction on her part.
As I got older, I had to ask myself the tough questions: “How connected do I want to remain in this relationship? How much grace do I have [or want] to show my mom, even after all I experienced, all that I endured? How forgiving can I/should I be of what I regarded as her missteps, her prejudices, her unhealthy habits? How do I still look to her as someone I honor with my caretaking, even as I, so many times, felt dishonored by her disease?
In those early life years, I did not know that my woundedness was the gift I never saw coming. I could not have known then that my pain, my shame and my isolating experience of uniqueness would enable me to expand my perspective, knock me out of my comfort zone, and force me to examine my own expectations as to what I wanted or needed in this all-too-short, precious journey we call life.
Our woundedness comes in many varied forms throughout out lives: a health diagnosis, the loss of a job or a loved one; neglect by someone we love and admire, physical or emotional lack of safety, losing something we had (or wished we had). Any of these can feel like we will never recover from them, and it takes will and courage to grow from our woundedness.
Here’s the thing I’ve come to understand: our woundedness is actually our superpower. The psalmist reminds us: “Karov Adonai l’mishbero lev – God is close to the broken-hearted.”2 To be able to make peace with my mom, with all of her perfect imperfections; to recognize what she gave and continues to give to me, I needed my woundedness superpower to be a portal for growth, healing and a new, evolved version of myself. I needed it to thrust me into an imagination of potential: the life I wanted and the father, husband, and the rabbi I had the potential to be.
In psychotherapist and Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s powerful book, Wounds Into Wisdom, she teaches the following: “Central to all the ways we have of adapting to overwhelming experiences is one central component: our survival. Whether it’s an individual on the street or an entire ethnicity that has been targeted, research shows that the effect of trauma—both the immediate physical symptoms of trauma and its long-term effects on the body and psyche— are mobilized by our deep instinct for self-protection. Like animals, we are simply hardwired for survival.
It’s ironic then… the very strategies that initially protect survivors of trauma [from their woundedness] don’t really help in the long run. In fact, behaviors that are most common, like isolating ourselves, becoming hypervigilant, and numbing ourselves against overwhelming feelings may actually perpetuate rather than spare us and others further injury.”3
Therefore, it’s not an automatic that a wound becomes a path to growth, healing and evolution. Rather, transforming woundedness into a superpower requires our footwork.
A midrash, a rabbinic teaching, notes the following: “Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen. Had I not sat in the darkness, I could not have beheld the light.” 4
The sacred threshold to Yom Kippur mandates our deep work: to dive into the darkness, into the depths of our souls and examine the inventory we began ten days earlier, allowing this time together to serve as our annual antidote to the isolation and numbing; a time and space to taste the spiritual medicine needed to lift up the broken pieces.
“Nothing is more whole than a broken heart”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk teaches. The mystical story of creation I shared helped me to better understand that my/our achievements and evolution as deeper humans in the world do not necessarily come from our genius nor directly from our handicap (whatever they may be). Rather, it comes from those broken shards where the Divine sparks reside. Every one of us is an unfinished vessel. All too often, we see our shame, our woundedness as deficiencies, but what if the cracks in our lives, as Leonard Cohen so aptly reminds us, are what enable us to see our light?
Woundedness can help bolster our resilience.
Through the footwork and healing time spent, I was ultimately able to see the person that loved me more than words describe, who worried about me; who wanted me to enjoy every blessing; who, in moments, helped me navigate loss and disappointment. Over time, I was able to mourn the version of the mother I had seen in other mothers because humanity and passion and love come from our ability to accept life on life’s terms.
I’m sure it would be easier for me, for us, to seal up the cracks and use the strategies of isolation or numbness to help us forge forward in life. Our society even encourages us to keep our wounds hidden: financial challenges, mental illness, family strife, addiction. And, we are holding so much. I feel it for myself, my family, my loved ones, this place…and you know…the Jewish people – all are enough to say, “seal it up”. But you and I, we have both the responsibility and agency – to break from our obligations in order to do the heavy lifting and harness the best of us.
In these few years as one of your rabbis, I have witnessed and been inspired by many of you. You have found that Divine spark through your life’s journey. You support and heal one another. You have and continue to teach me that the world is made more beautiful by our uniqueness and imperfections, and by harnessing that light.
Looking back, it is clear now that my very identity has been most shaped in those darker moments – the darkness where I was able to access the Divine light and strengthen my resilience. And our tradition, the whole reason why we gather in this and in many other sacred moments, is to make whole what is broken and, sometimes, to break what feels whole. And in these 25 hours, even more so.
In the Vidui of Yom Kippur, which we just sang and recited, we peel off our customary layers of denial and rationalization to admit that we have not been who we could and should have been. In this vein, a Chasidic Rebbe said that we should not smite our hearts punitively in the Vidui, but rather knock gently upon them so that they may open us up to acknowledge our authentic truth.
For June, and for my Divine truth on this holiest of nights …. I offer this vidui:
For those moments I once gave up on you and me,
Salach Li – forgive me.
For the times I lied, said I was fine,
and disrespected my inner truth,
When I took your pure love for granted,
mishandled your divinity,
For those instants of falling in love with my own woundedness,
For prioritizing my shame in the darkness,
unable to awaken to the full brunt of its outcome.
For dimming my light and denying my own power,
For lacking faith,
For not trusting,
For all these things (and so much more), forgive me, pardon me, grant me atonement.
And while we continue on life’s journey, strengthen my and our collective superpower to grow stronger from pain and adversity, to forgive, to be ever learning, to choose to heal, and to love.
1 Retelling of the creation narrative inspired by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl:
2 Psalms 34:18.
3 Firestone, Tirzah. Wounds into Wisdom (p. 37). Monkfish Book Publishing.
4 Midrash Socer Tov 22:7.