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My sophomore year of college, I decided that it was a good idea to take Organic Chemistry. Anyone in here who’s a science major or premed is probably groaning in sympathy. I was neither. I just liked chemistry. I was also a smart kid used to the idea that if I could just work hard enough, I would “do well.” And then I took the Orgo midterm. I still remember what it felt like, getting our exams back at the end of the following week’s class, walking out into the crisp fall air, steeling myself to look at the inside of the test booklet. I wasn’t expecting an A. Barely anyone got an A on an Orgo exam. I would take a B. Heck, I told myself, I would even take a C! I turned to walk down the street, took a deep breath, squinted my eyes, and flipped the page open.
Thirty nine. I got a thirty-nine. I think there was actually a moment where I turned the page upside down and thought—sixty three! Sixty three isn’t so bad.
The moment of seeing those numbers on the page exploded the way I usually understood myself. You see, I allowed myself, often still allow myself, life on a spectrum with only two possible points. Either I am brilliant, or I am an idiot. Either I am kind, honest, compassionate, caring, or I am the worst person ever. Either I succeed, or I fail. Suddenly I had to find a way to reconsider those binary expectations. To ask myself to keep trying, keep studying, keep valuing myself, while acknowledging that if I failed another exam I would still be smart, I would still be kind and honest, I would still be me. I would just be human.
At this time of year, though, it can be particularly hard to extract ourselves from the world of “either-or”. The beginning of a new semester at school, and the beginning of this High Holy Day season cause us to assess how it is we’ve lived our lives, how it is we want to grow and improve. It’s easy to see all the ways we haven’t lived up to our best selves. Easy to take all the ways we’ve missed the mark as indications of our worst.
If you are like me, you are using this season of rebirth, this marking of a new year, to set some resolutions for the year to come. I don’t want to suggest that setting new goals and expectations is, at its heart, a dangerous activity. But researchers at the University of Scranton have found that only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are successful, indeed that less than half of those who set expectations at the secular New Year last beyond six months. That doesn’t mean that we should stop expecting things of ourselves. Yet maybe there is a way to blur the lines a little bit, to smudge the boundaries of a model centered around success versus failure, to better inhabit the vast space between Either and Or.
Certainly the language of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy doesn’t always help with this challenge. We have ten days, and ten days only, to make a change of existential significance. Our prayers confront us with the idea that either we will be sealed into the Book of Life or not, either we will enter the gates of repentance before they close, or we’ll be shut out. The unetaneh tokef prayer, which we heard earlier this morning, opens a haunting section with the question: Who will live and who will die? Either life, or death. Sometimes this language squeezes us into a system of expectations that leaves no room for nuance. No room for the capacity we have to fail and to grow, to muddle our way through life doing what we can.
But if we were to throw out all of the language of this season by declaring it rigid and unyielding, we would be buying back into that either-or system. And there is much within Judaism that recognizes the sacred messiness of human effort. Why else would we set aside time each year to apologize, if not for the fact that our tradition knows we will continue to fall short? I find one of the most compelling models for a more pluralistic approach in the liturgical refrain we recite throughout these days of awe: Avinu Malkenu. The words of Avinu Malkenu describe, in one simple phrase, a God who is unified across duality. God is a parent and a sovereign. Comforting, personal, close, and powerful, majestic, transcendent. Each time we say Avinu Malkenu we remind ourselves that God is not either-or. God is One. God is many things, and One. And we, human beings, made in the image of God, are full of that same complexity and completeness.
Many years ago I read a poem by the contemporary Israeli poet Dana Marcovich. She writes:
“Hakol lo ba’rosh,” “Everything in my head says no. No you’re not able, no you’re not a champion, no you’re not a cannon, not a bulldozer, not a tiger. But then again, why should I be able, why should I be a champion, why should I be a cannon, why should I be a bulldozer, why should I be a tiger, when it is possible to be human?” The cannon, the bulldozer, the tiger—all are created entities, but only human beings are said to be b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. To be made in God’s image charges us not to strive for perfection, but for wholeness. It means embracing all the parts of ourselves that fall between the two poles of Avinu and Malkenu, of success and failure. For I find that it’s only when I accept my human wanderings as part and parcel of my holiness that I’m able to continue reaching for a greater purpose.
In case you’re wondering—in the end, I passed Organic Chemistry. It took a lot of work. A lot of extra problem sets, done to the same OneRepublic song on repeat. (Whenever I hear it, I still find myself thinking of hydrocarbons against my will…) But it also took the moment of getting that thirty-nine and choosing not to label myself a failure. Because stepping outside of the world of Either-Or and embracing my humanity allowed me to keep striving with kindness. It opened me up to the process, not just the end results. It let me enjoy the preciousness of learning, in all of its forms.
My hope for us all this New Year is that as we set our goals and resolutions, as we look at how we want to grow closer to our best selves---and we should! Because being in relationship with our tradition, and our community, and our God; repairing the world, these things require us to expect big things from ourselves—as we enter this year of 5784, let us approach our endeavors with more gentleness. So that in six months, when we realize that we’ve only succeeded with half of them, we’ll be able to smile, let go, keep trying. Let us seek the fierceness of a tiger, the strength of a bulldozer, the grace of a champion, the power of a cannon, but at the end of the day, let us be exactly what we are: wholly, beautifully, perfectly human.