A Rosh Hashanah 5776 Sermon: Becoming Real is No Fairytale

Almost all of us have a cherished fairy tale or children’s story from the time when we were young. What is your favorite? Is it The Giving Tree, James and the Giant Peach, or Harriet the Spy? Or might it be Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, or maybe Where the Wild Things Are? There are so many wonderful children’s classics that it would be difficult to choose just one.

While I love lots of children’s books, there is one that has a very special place in my heart. Ironically, I did not read it until I was in my early thirties; my wife, Susan, introduced it to me. Perhaps because I lacked childhood associations with the story, the profundity of its inner wisdom struck me more forcefully. However one explains my love for this work, to this day I periodically reread it and ponder anew each and every time its poignant message.

The book I’m referring to is Margery Williams’ classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. Acclaimed by the public almost instantly when first published in 1922, it is the tale of a small boy whose Christmas present is a toy rabbit. After playing with it for a few hours in the holiday hustle-and-bustle, the boy quickly discards the toy. In the nursery the rabbit is looked down on by the fancier wind up toys, but a skin hobby horse tells him that, while the those other toys will eventually break, the rabbit has the potential to become real.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Sometime later, when the boy can’t find the china dog with which he always slept, his Nana gives him the toy rabbit, and he comes to adore the toy, making it his inseparable companion. This happy relationship continues until the boy contracts scarlet fever. Of course, in 1922 there were no antibiotics, and given the contagious character of the illness, there was no choice but for the doctor to insist that all the toys with which the boy has had contact be burnt. While waiting in a sack with the other toys consigned to the flames, the rabbit sheds a tear . . . a real tear from which a fairy emerges. The fairy explains that while the rabbit was real to the boy because the boy loved him, she will now make the rabbit real to the world, and he becomes real at last, at home with the wild rabbits in the garden. At the story’s end, months later the boy catches glimpse of the now real velveteen rabbit, and thinks to himself, “Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!” Little did he know that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.

Margery Williams was not Jewish, but her book can be read as a marvelous midrash on the Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe. Though most of the time we pass through the season and return to our lives unchanged, the High Holy Days can be a journey of transformation, one whose central question is, “Am I REAL?” Yes, we all exist . . . but are we real? And do we want to be?

We live in an era where reality is no farther away than our smart phones. Consider just a few weeks ago the shooting of TV reporter, Alison Parker, and cameraman, Adam Ward. Wearing a device that weighed no more than a few ounces, Vester Flanagan shared the gruesome reality of his murderous act with a million viewers as it happened. Yet despite the proliferation of HD imagery on our screens large and small, despite the popularity of that which we oddly call “Reality TV,” ours is an age of smoke and mirrors, a time in which illusion and superficiality supplant the real.

“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” — so says Polonius to Laertes in Act I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet our generational maxim is: “This above all: to external objects and beliefs be true, to the notion that success is measured by material wealth, by social standing, by your concerns of what others will think, by how young you look, or how impressive your resume looks. Children lament at the expensive toys their friends and their friends’ parents have, and feel they are lacking in comparison; successful parents with graduate level degrees and high power careers tell their children they can be anything they want, yet if their child became a sanitation worker or a housekeeper would they be happy so long as their children were? Would they boast to their friends, “My kids are earning an honest living and I can see they are content with the lives they’re leading”? Or would they secretly hope for it to be a passing phase?

About ten years ago, Toni Raiten-D’Antonio, a psychotherapist, wrote a book entitled The Velveteen Principles; A Guide to Becoming Real. She observes, “In our world, the standards used to determine a person’s value generally include wealth, beauty, public acclaim, power and popularity. As a result, the most valued people fall into a very narrowly defined group. They are the same — generically pleasant but boring in the way they look, act and talk. They are the leading citizens of an imaginary society I call the ‘United States of Generica.’.”

It is not for me to say that one can’t possibly be happy living in the “U.S. of G.” But in a society where so many are in therapy, a culture in which escapism is a mega-industry, and one out of two marriages ends in divorce, I suspect a lot of us wish our lives were different in some way. Deep down the words of the Psalmist resonate in us for we know them to be true: “הַבֹּטְחִ֥ים עַל־חֵילָ֑ם וּבְרֹ֥ב עָ֝שְׁרָ֗ם יִתְהַלָּֽלוּ, אָ֗ח לֹא־פָדֹ֣ה יִפְדֶּ֣ה אִ֑ישׁ לֹא־יִתֵּ֖ן לֵאלֹהִ֣ים כָּפְרֽוֹ — Those who trust in their success, who glory in their great wealth — it cannot redeem a person, or serve as a ransom to God . . . כִּי־נַ֭פְשׁוֹ בְּחַיָּ֣יו יְבָרֵ֑ךְ וְ֝יוֹדֻ֗ךָ כִּי־תֵ֘יטִ֥יב לָֽךְ תָּ֭בוֹא עַד־דּ֣וֹר אֲבוֹתָ֑יו עַד־נֵ֝֗צַח לֹ֣א יִרְאוּ־אֽוֹר — for when a person dies his goods will not follow him. Though others congratulate him for his good fortune, he must still join the company of his ancestors who will never see daylight again” (Psalm 49:7, 8, 19, 20). What could be more horrible than feeling we had not really lived for something that truly mattered?

But becoming real to ourselves is no picnic; in fact, it can be downright painful. It is to realize our flaws, our imperfections, to see that we’re bald, lumpy or pimply; to see that we can be impatient, selfish, domineering, intolerant or paranoid . . . to REAL–ize all this and still to love ourselves, not despite our flaws, but with them. To develop self-acceptance and self-empathy in a way that does not deny our mistakes, but refuses to be defined by them.

Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, would hold an audition for potential shofar blowers. The saintly rabbi was not simply seeking an individual capable of blowing the ram’s horn like a virtuoso, but also whether or not this person could master the elaborate kavannot, prayers of mystical intention, necessary to ensure the sounds of the shofar had their intended effect on the heavenly realms. Those who wished to be considered for this highly selective position would practice for months. In the case of one man, he longed so deeply to blow shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov that he had practiced for years. Yet when his turn came and the moment he had waited so long for had arrived, he choked and froze. His mind became a blank and he could remember nothing at all. Instead he stood before the great rabbi in utter silence, and then, when he realized the enormity of his failure, he began to weep uncontrollably, his body wracked by heart-breaking sobs.

“You are hired,” the Ba’al Shem Tov said quietly. The man was bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I failed miserably. I couldn’t even remember a single word!” And so the Ba’al Shem Tov told him a parable about a king in whose palace there were many secret chambers, each with its own unique key. Yet there is one master key capable of opening all the locks: an ax. Specific commandments and particular prayers have the ability to unlock certain doors within the soul, but the ax that can open every door and bring us directly into God’s presence is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “קָר֣וֹב ה’ לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי־לֵ֑ב –God is close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:19).

The Ba’al Shem Tov picked the man because in that transformative moment of realizing his inadequacies and flaws . . . he became real.There is no sequel to the tale of the shofar blower, but I imagine that when that deeply meaningful moment passed, he still had to struggle with preconceptions and false thinking. The memory of his experience with the great rabbi became a touchstone, powerfully capable of getting him back on track when he strayed from the path of being real. You see, real is the work of a lifetime. There’s no book, no CD, no program with five easy sessions to get us to where we need to be.

Indeed, the only way to become real is to live life in real time, falling down and getting up. Learning from our mistakes and catching ourselves as we  stray into negative thought patterns. I am reminded of what a recovering alcoholic once said to me: “I used to think that my problem was the inability to handle drinking and that once I got it under control, all would be fine. I finally realized that my real problem was an inability to handle sobriety as a way of life.” To become real is to understand, as the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, is alleged to have said, that “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Yet there is a silver lining. If we are willing to accept the hard work and the failure that comes with the quest to be real, we discover the gift of flexibility. In The Velveteen Rabbit when the toy bunny first encounters real rabbits, he is puzzled at the absence of seams along the contours of their bodies. He finds their ability to jump, hop and run nothing short of amazing.  Were we truly to inhabit our own skins, we, too, would discover the flexibility that comes when we no longer feel it necessary to jam ourselves into the contours of some predefined perspective that we do not truly own. To be real is to be adaptive to change, to be willing to take chances and try new things without fear of failure, because if we are not afraid to fail, then failure need not be cause for shame, but can instead become a teacher. To be real is to be resilient.

The ultimate significance of being real, however, is experienced in relationship. It is through only through our love of someone else that we truly become real. When a couple first dates, there is a tendency to idealize, even idolize one’s romantic interest. Romance is a time when the world shines, when the skies are at their bluest and the flowers appear more colorful. It is a time of illusion as we exult in having found the perfect person: “She lets me make the decisions”; “He is so easy going”; She is amazingly organized.”

But such love isn’t yet real. Disillusionment is bound to set in once we’ve become more comfortable with one another for the simple reason that each of us is flawed in some way. And so, “She lets me make all the decisions” morphs into “Doesn’t she have a mind of her own? I never expected that I’d have to make all the decisions in our day-to-day life.” “He is so easy-going” turns into “Does he even have a backbone?” At that moment we reach a cross-roads in our relationship, for if we can’t hack disillusionment, then it’s all over.

Our ability to accept that disillusionment is exactly what our relationships require to become real: she has bad breath in the morning . . . he is a slob — and yet you consciously make a decision to love. In self-empathy you find the power to be empathetic to others. In truly loving someone with flaws, you further your own self-acceptance. Beyond our partners in life, we give our friends, our relatives, our colleagues the permission to be real, because we give ourselves the permission to be real. According to Maimonides’ Hilkhot Teshuvah, the Laws of Repentance, we are not only required to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, but must also be willing to forgive them. We do not deserve REAL for ourselves if we cannot help others attain it for themselves.

Being real allows us to separate good intent from negative outcome, or if I can deliberately misquote the old proverb, “The road to real is paved with good intentions.” So often outcomes are about externals; in our preoccupation with undesirable results, we sometimes forget the positive emotions that inspired someone in our lives to attempt the effort to do good. A husband cleans up the kitchen, but he mistakenly puts the objects his wife will only wash by hand in the dishwasher. Should her first reaction be anger at doing something the wrong way, or appreciation of the good intention? Our children make us breakfast in bed, but accidentally smash an expensive teapot that we treasure? How would we frame our response? I’m not suggesting that caring about damage to treasured items is petty or that there is no way to guide others gently into better care of the belongings we value, but where do we go viscerally when these things happen? Are such reactions from the core of REAL being, or do they distract us from the REAL people we want to be?

The Talmud tells a story about the sage Ben Zoma, who reflected upon the variety of individuals in the world and exclaimed, “ברוך שברא כל אלו לשמשני — Praised is One who created all that serve me.” He then continued, “Behold how much labor did Adam, the first man, have until he could could eat bread: he had to plow, sow, reap, thresh, winnow, grind, knead and bake; yet I arise each morning to find all this prepared on my behalf. Behold how much work did Adam have before he could wear clothing: he had to shear the sheep, whiten the wool, spin, weave, dye and sew the fabric, yet I find my garments each day ready to wear.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a).

Gratitude is both an effect of REAL as well as what helps us become real. But gratitude isn’t just about teaching manners. We teach our children manners, but often incorporate pressure and guilt into the lesson. A little girl gets a gift and the first thing we ask, “What do you say?” Suddenly a positive moment becomes a pop quiz. Worse, at one time or another in a moment of frustration with our children we may sometimes say, “This is the thanks I get? I’ve given you so many things? Why can’t you show an ounce of appreciation?” In doing so we run the risk of turning gratitude into a thing that can be demanded, when in fact, it can only be nurtured.

Don’t get me wrong. Our kids need to write thank-yous, whether or not they feel like it. And we have a responsibility to teach them to be civil and courteous. But that’s not how we show them what gratitude means in the deepest sense. To do so requires that we be alive to the miracle of existence; and to be deeply aware to even those things we don’t see unfold, You walked into a synagogue this morning ready to receive you.  How did all these chairs get into the social hall and gym? Where did the apples in the lobby come from as a way of wishing you a sweet New Year? Who put out all these prayer books? Watch the rain with your child on a stormy day and express your appreciation of how the drops nourish the earth; savor an ordinary weekday evening dinner and the fact that your loved ones surround you. This is the gratitude that comes from being REAL and it is what makes us REAL.  And this is why Judaism is suffused with countless to opportunities to recite blessings over the fragrances we smell, the foods we eat, and yes, even the act of successfully going to the bathroom!  In cultivating gratitude for what is REALLY amazing and amazingly REAL, we discover genuine happiness.

To be REAL is what it takes to experience a God that is REAL. A God that is a verb rather than a noun. A God that accepts our imperfections and challenges us to be more. The Psalmist writes, “מָֽה־אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ:  וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ –What is humanity that You are mindful of, mortal beings that You take note of them? Yet you have created us little less than divine, and adorned us with glory and majesty” (Psalm 8:5-6). God knows our frailties, but also our capacities to transcend them. As for us, we are not asked to relate to an Infinite and Eternal God who lives in a realm of the perfect, but rather to feel the Divine Presence in the imperfect and very real world God has given us, a world all the more precious because of its fragility and transience.

A few years ago I was at a rabbinic retreat in the Maryland countryside with my colleague, my teacher, my friend, Rabbi Alan Lew. On the third day he went for a walk after breakfast in the cold and crisp air of a January morning, and died suddenly of a heart attack. Alan was one of the most real people I have ever met. I don’t know if he ever read The Velveteen Rabbit, but he did write these words: “God made a profoundly mixed world, a world in which every second confronts us with a choice between blessings and curses, life and death; a world in which our choices have indelible consequences; a world in which life and death, blessing and curses, choose us, seek us, find us every moment. And perhaps we have chosen arbitrary spiritual language to express these things, or maybe God made human culture so that we would express these things precisely as we have in every detail. It makes no difference.”

What makes a difference is that it’s real and it is happening right now and it is happening to us, and it is utterly inescapable, and we are completely unprepared. This moment is before us with its choices, and the consequences of our past choices are before us, as is the possibility of our transformation. This year some of us will dies, and some of us will live, and all of us will change . . . And we have nothing to offer but each other and our broken hearts.”

And for those who choose to be real that will be enough.

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