When my brother and I were young, our mother of blessed memory read the parenting book Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim Ginott about thirty-five times. After that, she graduated to Between Parent and Teenager.
She said that the books helped her understand us.
When she wasn’t looking, I borrowed the books from her shelf and read them, so I could understand her better.
A few weeks ago, I was going through her memorabilia and I found a letter that I had written, at age 13, to Dr. Haim Ginott.
The letter begins, “Dear Dr. Ginott, I go to a Jewish Day School. I consider this very retarding to my development.”
Obviously you can see how my horrible experiences with Jewish education estranged me from Jewish communal life.
But the letter goes on, and it turns out that I really did not mind the school. I just did not like my classes. My father – who, I now realize, read the letter – easily solved the problem by suggesting that I apply to a bigger high school with more program options.
And the letter goes on. I describe some upsetting events in my extended family. Then I ask Dr. Ginott the BIG question, “Their behavior towards one another hardly sets an example. How can they tell our generation what to do?”
I now realize that my mother also read the letter, because she began to shield me.
Much healing has taken place since those events, but when I graduated high school, I dealt with them the way any responsible seventeen year old would: I fled.
I said to myself, “I want to learn all about the great wide world. I want to live anywhere except this claustrophobic, possibility-less town of New York City – anywhere except home.”
So, I lived in three different countries and eight different cities. I learned like crazy, attending five universities and three professional training programs. I was always on the move, physically and intellectually.
Until about a year ago, when my mother became ill. Then I wondered why on earth I went to the ends of the earth, when all I wanted to do was be back home, holding my mom like she held me.
And I did go home, as much as I possibly could. And I apologize for the many things I left undone for you during this past year.
Two days before my mother’s death, I made a collage. Without any clear idea of where I was going, I let myself be guided by the materials.
In the center of a spiral shaped paper, I glued bridal images from a fashion magazine.
To the right, I placed the words “Mom in motion to endless possibilities” from a women’s magazine.
To the left, a trap door from an Archie comic, where someone has just fallen with a “Foosh!”
And around the trap door, little dialog bubbles from a sticker pack: “I’m trouble!” “I didn’t do it!” “Help me!”
In other words: In the center, my anchor: my life as wife and mother, and my lifelong close family relationships.
To the right, my restless journey of learning and doing.
To the left, my crushing shame at the loose ends I left behind.
To the right, one of the things I most enjoy about myself.
To the left, a painful anguish I carry every day.
To the right, something I consider good.
To the left, something I consider terrible.
The right and the left; the exciting and the upsetting; the good and the bad…Any way you look at it, both sides are equally parts of my self.
They are, in fact, two facets of a single quality. Because in order to move on, I had to turn my back on the past. Had I lingered to sew up every loose end, I would have never moved forward.
Every choice in life has unintended consequences.
Every good thing about me has a shadow side. I cannot make the shadow go away.
Suppose I tried. Suppose I tried to do absolutely everything just right, predicting and preventing every negative consequence. People would experience me as rigid and controlling. No one would feel comfortable around my anxious and calculating energy.
This summer I realized – please don’t laugh at me – my lifelong hope to become a perfect human being would never be realized. And not just because of my character flaws.
The Talmud, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, offers a theory that there are three kinds of people in the world:
The tzaddik – perfectly righteous; the rasha – perfectly evil; and the beinoni – intermediate.
The tzaddik does mostly good deeds; the rasha does mostly bad deeds; and the beinoni is somewhere in the middle.
But the theory of these three types turns out to be useless. Because even the greatest of Talmudic teachers declares, “I am a beinoni – an intermediate type.”
Beinoni turns out to be a very wide category, wide enough for all of us to fit into.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that a beinoni is somehow mediocre.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, the eighteenth-century founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement, and the author of the spiritual development manual Tanya, says that beinoni is a very high spiritual state.
Not because of any balance of deeds – that’s not the right way to evaluate — but because of inner practice.
The beinoni is working on herself or himself all the time.
The beinoni lives at the cutting edge of teshuvah — reflection, repentance, repair and renewal.
Every person, says the Alter Rebbe, has a yetzer hara, an evil inclination, and a yetzer hatov, a good inclination. The beinoni is wise enough to know that the yetzer hara will never go away. And so the beinoni constantly struggles to put the yetzer hatov in charge.
You recognize this, because your yetzer hara is always at work, producing automatic negative reactions.
Suppose you worked hard to win a prize, and somebody else wins it. You feel envious. You want to sabotage them, or at least trash-talk them.
Suppose somebody asks you the same question sixteen times. You feel annoyed. You want to yell at them, or at least tune them out.
When the yetzer hara starts running its trips, the beinoni eventually wakes up to this, and triggers the yetzer hatov.
For example: When the awakened beinoni feels envious, he asks, “What does my heart lack? How can I heal the emptiness?”
When the awakened beinoni feels impatient, she has compassion for people who cannot retain information, or who cannot clearly articulate their real question.
This is the lifelong work of the beinoni: training the yetzer hatov to be in charge.
You know what it looks like to be a beinoni.
Lest you think that my opening story is purely self-indulgent, notice that every character in it is a beinoni.
The beinoni works on family communication skills.
The beinoni pays attention when he catches a glimpse into someone’s broken heart of hearts.
The beinoni knows that sometimes the best she can do is remove herself from a situation until she gains clarity.
The beinoni does not just run away from the negative, but runs towards the positive.
The beinoni gets to know himself, letting all parts whisper, so that he can gain proper perspective and change himself.
The beinoni knows it might take a long time to pay attention, gain clarity, find the positive, know herself and change.
The beinoni does not give up.
Our tough-minded Talmudic teacher Shammai focuses on the beinoni’s anguish. He says that the beinoni falls to the depths and then rises.
Over and over again, we slip, we see it, we suffer, we plan, we repair.
Our tender-hearted Talmudic teacher Hillel focuses on the beinoni’s progress. He says that, for the beinoni, God tilts the scales towards kindness.
Because the daily work really does make a difference and, over time, our inner scales tilt towards the yetzer hatov.
On the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah is Judgment Day. For the beinoni, every day is Judgment Day. Every day, we judge ourselves. Teshuvah is a habit of our being.
So, if we are all beinonim, why bother teaching about teshuvah on Rosh Hashanah at all?
Because: It’s really nice to have a holiday that celebrates our hard work.
A holiday that reminds us how worthwhile it is.
A holiday that tells us: Someone has noticed.
— Dvar Torah for Rosh Hashanah 5773