A lesson of the High Holidays

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman 

No one is perfect. In fact, Judaism doesn’t expect us to be perfect. If you’re shaking your head wondering how I came to that conclusion, it’s simple: Yom Kippur, a day when we’re required to confess our sins. The verses found in the book of Leviticus call it an “everlasting statute,” meaning it must take place every year forever. It’s as if the founders of our religion knew we were going to make mistakes and that we would need a time to regroup and look at our lives every single year.


There is also another aspect to the day, though. If we accept the fact that we will never be perfect, then we must also accept that is true for everyone. That’s actually not easy. We have expectations of others, sometimes expectation no one could ever meet. If we learn this lesson, the results could be far ranging, changing how we relate to everyone from family members to those who post on social media sites to politicians/actors/musicians, etc. who are in the public eye.

One of the hardest things for children to learn is that their parents are not perfect. It’s so easy to blame our parents when something goes wrong in our lives. If we think clearly, though, we have to recognize that our parents had parents who were not perfect and may have left them scarred. But before we blame our grandparents, we also have to acknowledge that they also had parents who weren’t perfect and those great-grandparents also have parents who weren’t perfect.... I think you get the idea. What’s funny is that many parents try not to make the same mistakes they felt their parents made. That just means they make different mistakes. Maybe it’s time to wipe the slate clean, to say, “We’re no longer going to review the past because we’re different people now. Yes, we’ll make new mistakes, but we should give each other the benefit of the doubt that we are trying our best and forgive those mistakes too.”

Social media is another area where we need to realize that people aren’t perfect. It’s so easy to be nasty and mean when we can hide our identities. Read the comments on any newspaper site, Twitter account, public Facebook page, etc. and you will be horrified by what people say when their identity is concealed. We need to consider what a person meant before we post a comment. Are we willing to give them the benefit of the doubt? Are we willing to accept that they can have a different opinion and still be a good person? It’s also important to remember that social media sites are not a good place to have a real conversation about issues. In the New Year, we should pause before we post something. Is it nice? If it’s critical, is it an accusation or an attempt to really understand what the person means? Too many friends have been lost and too many families divided because people are listening to sound bites, rather than actually talking to each other.

I don’t envy those who are in the public eye. Yes, they’ve chosen those professions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to privacy. Politicians and celebrities shouldn’t be allowed to hide misconduct; that needs to be rooted out and punished. But just think what it would mean if everything you did was made public – that everything you wrote or did– even as a child or a teen – made headlines. Everyone has something embarrassing about which they would rather not have the world know. Actors, musicians, politicians, etc. make the same mistakes we do, but fortunately our actions aren’t going to appear on page 1 of the newspaper or on a million news websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc. It’s important to remember that they, too, are not perfect, nor should they be expected to be.

Yom Kippur is a time when we get to start new – that is, if we are willing to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. Of course, we’ll stray from the course again, but, because of that, we should give others the same benefit of the doubt about their intentions we hope that they will give us. Judaism knows we are going to sin, to make mistakes, to stray from the correct course, but it also allows us a chance every year to return to the correct path. This year, let’s include a promise to treat others’ feelings as carefully as we want them to treat our own.