Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yom Kippur: Mistakes?

... I may be naive, but I don't know anyone who begins a major venture in their lives by saying: I know this is a mistake, I'm pretty sure, it's going to end badly, but I'm doing it anyway...
There’s an elm tree in Beulah, Michigan. Beulah is on Lake Michigan and is due east of Green Bay that people say is magnificent. It's big: its branches spread across sixty feet. The trunk's circumference measures twelve feet!

But it's an odd tree. A deep scar encircles it.

No one knows exactly how old it is, just that it was planted on a family farm in the first half of the twentieth century.

Back in the fifties, the family living there kept a bull chained to the tree. The bull spent his days pacing around the tree -- circling it -- and dragging his chain. Eventually, the chain engraved a trench around the tree trunk, about three feet from the bottom. Over time, the trench developed into a gash and looked like an ugly scar.

Eventually the family sold the farm. Before leaving, they cut the bull's chain. At that point, much of the chain was deeply embedded in the tree. So the family   left the chain, took the bull, and moved.
Meanwhile, the elm grew and thrived -- rusting chain and all. Bark slowly covered the chain.
But the gash remained ... an unsightly scar on an otherwise majestic tree.

Then Dutch Elm Disease came to Michigan. The blight took a heavy toll of elms. But this scarred tree survived. Moreover, it was one of of the few elm trees in that area that did survive.
Researchers from Michigan State University went there to examine it. Why did this tree thrive when so many others did not?  Especially since that particular tree had earlier withstood the bull pacing around it with his chain.

And the scientists opined, that was probably why this elm survived the deadly fungus -- because of the embedded, rusty chain. You see, over the years, the tree absorbed iron from the chain. Evidently, the iron boosted the tree's immune system. That tree became one of the few trees in that area that withstood the deadly fungus killing so many other elm trees...

Back to the beginning. A family had a bull and needed a place to keep him. They chained him to a tree. That could not have been good for either the tree or the bull.

The family meant well -- surely did the best they could -- but:

Mistake number 1. This was not a good way to care for the bull. The animal needed more space, needed to roam - and not spend his life chained to a tree.

Mistake number 2: I can't imagine that it was good for the tree to have a bull constantly pulling on the tree to the point of embedding the chain into the trunk.

Mistake number 3: The family moved and cut the bull loose, but didn't extract the chain from the tree trunk. They probably couldn't by then. But -- at least from outward appearances -- they didn't give a whole lot of thought to the elm tree's condition.

And for me personally, this is the first time I ever gave any thought to a plant's immune system.
Basically, in people, when a harmful substance -- say a germ or a virus -- enters our body, we generally produce antibodies to fight it. The antibodies might not keep us from getting sick, but they do help us get well.

And when I read about this elm tree, and realized that -- of course! -- immune systems are universal -- across all life. Without the immune system, life -- plant, animal ... human --simply could not continue.

So far, we've talked about physical life.

But why wouldn't spiritual life work along the same principles? Can we strengthen our spiritual immunet systems? In other words, we can make our own souls healthier and stronger.

To that point -- spiritual health -- the great medieval sage -- and physician --  Rambam -- wrote extensively about spiritual sickness. In his day, doctors new a lot less about the immune system.
But Rambam correctly identified both physical and spiritual factors leading to illness. For this physician/ rabbi, illness affected the mind and soul as well as the body. So the concept of spiritual immunity and healing the soul really isn't new in Jewish thought.

But ... how do we heal? How do we maintain and improve the health of our souls?

Let's go back to the "mistakes" we noted from the Michigan family. We should assume that the family did not think they were making mistakes. We should assume they were doing they best they knew how. Still, we would have expected their actions to harm the bull, the tree, or both.

The opposite happened. The tree thrived because of their mistakes.

For us -- we also make mistakes. And for us ... they're almost always unintentional.
Boy, it is really hard to admit mistakes. Generally, if we suspect that maybe we possibly did the wrong thing, we work even harder to justify ourselves.

It's hard to admit mistakes this to others -- and to ourselves. We don't want others to see us as weak; we don't want to see ourselves as weak... or God forbid, foolish.

Don't we all see ourselves here?

But ... to build up our spiritual immune system, we start by admitting our mistakes.

Definitions matter here. Hindsight might cause us to wince, but not so much if we clarify the difference between failure and mistake...

Nothing positive comes out of thinking we failed. Failure doesn't lead to emotional and spiritual growth. Just thinking in those terms takes us backward.

However, we do learn from mistakes...

Back to our elm tree. If the family had not made the mistakes we cited, the tree would have died of Dutch Elm disease.

So we cannot call their actions failures. Mistakes? Yes. They didn't do things properly. But from their mistakes, the tree thrived when by all rights it should have died!
And when we gather the courage to recognize our mistakes ... like the elm tree, we can grow... to great heights.

In fact, once we acknowledge -- openly -- that yes, we really do make mistakes ... the next step in spiritual health is developing empathy for the behavior of others.


Therefore, what we do with those "mistakes" is what actually defines us – and not the mistake itself.

Through the fear of embarrassment or of compounding an error, we can harden our own hearts; close ourselves emotionally to others; and find it harder to maintain real relationships.

But we can also become kinder. Looking at the world with open eyes as to our faults and with an open heart leads us to recognize that we not only must serve our personal needs ... to become fully human ... we must also serve our community ... be part of a community. Thus we find the essence of holiness.

Yom Kippur -- this sacred day --  calls for us to do this ...

The Kadosh Baruch Hu knows us and our hearts. He knows that we do and will make mistakes. But the Kadosh Baruch Hu also gives us ways to reach more deeply into our souls and to grow.

God wants us to grow. The elm tree ironically thrived because of mistakes made by humans. But trees can't make choices. The elm tree just got lucky.


May we grow in the ability to make good choices ...

And may we be written and sealed for a year of blessing...

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