Rosh Hashanah 2010/5771: Faces of Return

By Reb David Markus

Shanah tovah.  I hope the New Year is starting sweetly for you.

Tradition holds that the Book of Life records our lives.  On Rosh Hashanah, the Book opens to inscribe us for a new year, and on Yom Kippur the Book is sealed.  It’s a handy metaphor.  I’ve wondered lately if we’ve seen a chapter of the Book of Life: it’s called Facebook.

For those uninitiated in the ways of Facebook, think of it as an Internet library, diary and social club all in one.  Facebook hosts pictures, notes from friends, birthday wishes, event invites, videos and other mirrors of increasingly fast-paced modern life.  Some use Facebook to connect with family and friends, network for jobs, find long-lost acquaintances, and share life’s tiniest details.  Facebook has become one way that over 500 million people present themselves to the world: Facebook literally is a book full of faces.

And our society eats it up: after all, ours is society obsessed with faces.  Television and magazines barrage us with images of beautiful faces (some painted with concealer).  Someone perceived to be insincere might be called “two-faced.”  Someone with wounded pride might seek to “save face.”  Some leaders protectively ration their “face time” with others.  Faces are gateways to our souls, connectors to each other and calling cards to the world.  Facebook, it seems, is very aptly named.

Of course, Facebook is nobody’s whole Book of Life. Facebook users show only the image of themselves they want to project.  We put on Facebook only the photos we want others to see, and other pictures maybe we omit.  Each of us is far more than just our public face.

Facebook users or not, all of us are complex creatures with many parts, like precious jewels with many faces.  And sometimes not all of them shine as brightly as others: the face I show here today, in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, wasn’t the face I showed last month’s driver who cut me off on City Island Avenue.  I try to be a consistent, authentic me – the best me I can be – but still I have a synagogue face and New York driver face, a work face and home face, the face of a son and face of a friend.  Each is authentically me, just a different side of me, reflecting the complexity of modern life.

Our question today isn’t whether we live our complex lives with different faces: we do.  Our question is how can we bring our whole self – our family face, our public face, our private face, our job face, our New York driver face and all the rest – together to be fully present right now?  How can the different parts of ourselves hear today’s call to teshuvah, to return to repentance, to fuller relationship with loved ones, and to fuller relationship with God?

Sometimes our lives can feel like so many compartments, each its own world with its own face.  If we put our entire lives on Facebook, recording each minute, we might create not one Facebook page but several – one for home, another for friends, a third for work – each a different world with a different image, a different face.  We tend to put our best foot forward, so maybe we’d prominently display our best-behavior moments – the times we acted generously, ethically, gracefully, compassionately, showed grit when the going got tough.  As for our worst bloopers, maybe we’d have a small, forgettable Facebook page just for them, and hope nobody ever sees it.

But forgetting isn’t so easy, and not just because deep down we know the truth or because the Book of Life remembers what we forget.  A recent New York Times article, “The End of Forgetting,” reported that the Internet has become such a powerful tool, so inclusive of so much about us, that increasingly it shows everything and forgets nothing.  Sometimes we try to pigeon-hole different parts of our lives, but on the Internet everything is one World Wide Web.  If my friend posts online a picture of me doing something silly back in college, it’s there for the whole world to see – my boss, my parents, everyone.  Today some employers scan the Internet for anything they can find about prospective employees, to glimpse the private, imperfect selves behind the polished resumes.  Some even require job applicants to reveal their private Facebook accounts: they want to see all the faces.

Sometimes it can feel jarring to be so open, so naked – to lose the privacy we think keeps us safe, that keeps our secrets, that fragments our different worlds, that shields our different faces.  Of course, this happens all the time, and not just on the Internet.  There are moments in each of our lives when our worlds collide or defenses crack.  Our secrets leak.  Our real self emerges from behind the polished façade.  We bump against the unvarnished truth of who we are, and sometimes we don’t like everything we see.

When our world shrinks and our walls crack, it can feel a bit like Rosh Hashanah.  After all, this is the time of year that we dust off the snapshots of the past year – the ones we placed carefully in a drawer, when maybe we didn’t always live up to our highest ideals.  We see not just our shining moments, not just our best-foot-forward Facebook page, but our whole Book of Life, our whole book of faces.  And what a wondrous, richly human book it is – joy and sorrow, success and setback, gratitude and greed, passion and acceptance.

That’s our Rosh Hashanah journey in a nutshell.  Rosh Hashanah calls all of us – our private self, our public self, our work self, our family self, our New York driver self, our dignified self, our critical self, all that we are and all that we hope to be – to return to their single Source.  In the words of our Rosh Hashanah song, we “return again”:

Return again.  Return again.  Return to the land of your soul.  Return to who you are.  Return to what you are.  Return to where you are born and reborn again.

But how?  In one sense, returning is easy because we’re never far away: we’re as close as our memory and honesty.  After all, “Wherever we go, there we are.”  But sometimes return can seem very hard.  We expend so much time and effort in this topsy-turvy world running, just to keep in place, that not running may be the hardest thing we do.  When we feel most far from wholeness, forgiveness and relationship, the first step on our internal journey back home can seem the hardest one to take.  How to take that first step?  We hope that if we can just take a first step, the others naturally will follow.

Fortunately, that’s just what tradition teaches.  The Torah reading three weeks ago, during Elul, the month that prepares for this very journey, reminds us that when we see something lost, we should return it.  We shouldn’t close our eyes to someone’s stray pet, lost money or wrongly sullied reputation: we return them.  Torah tells us not only to open our eyes to what’s lost, but that we mustn’t hide ourselves when we see something lost – as if when we close our eyes, we close ourselves.  Torah goes even further: not only shouldn’t we hide ourselves – we can’t hide ourselves.  When we see, deep inside, we can’t hide: it’s not in our nature.  Our essential good nature is that when we truly see, the truth of what we see impels us to act.

Maybe Torah’s words are a psychological clarion call, what Rabbi Alan Lew calls a “mind fake” to rivet our attention – like an adult appealing to a child’s conscience with a knowing tone of voice, “You know what to do.”  But for me, these words also are a reassurance – that it’s our core nature to return, not to hide but to act.  Returning is easier than we think: we’re built for it.

And that’s our start.  We begin when we remember that returning to ourselves is part of our DNA, and that we’re created in the holy image of a God that is One, inseparable and indivisible.  Just like God, so are we – inseparable and indivisible.  That’s our first step: just remembering that we can return to the spark at our center automatically helps make our return happen.

Our second step is to do as Torah asks: return just one lost thing, one thing that strayed.  If we return one person’s dignity by apologizing if we hurt them, if we return one person’s generosity that we took for granted, if we return truth to one place that misplaced it – then we take a step out of hiding.  When we see and act, we’ll be doing just what we’re built to do: to return.  And the more we return what has strayed, the more our true face shines.  It feeds on itself, building momentum like water flowing down a mountain.

Rosh Hashanah is that mountain.  It’s a time when blessing and healing flow with special force, when our world conspires to aid our return, and when everything we do vividly expresses the truth of our lives.  A few moments ago, we returned the Torah to the Ark and sang, “Hashiveinu Adonai eleicha v’nashuva.”  God, Source of Unity, call to us and we will return.  When we hear the “Still, Small Voice” inside, when we return what has strayed, we’re already on our way.  We become One again, whole and holy.  And as each of us returns, we’ll know: each of us will see it on our faces, and on our neighbors’ faces.

So as this New Year begins, may it bring a very happy return.  May we be inscribed for a year of wholeness and holiness.  May we return to ourselves and to each other, returning what has strayed – knowing that our true face is right here calling to us, waiting to be found.

Shanah tovah.

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