Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tzelem Elohim and Teshuvah: Kol Nidrei 5744 Adina Abramowitz

I apologize for the outline format, which enables me to speak more naturally. I hope there are sufficient words here for this to make sense. Please feel free to ask me questions or discuss this Dvar with me.  
adina at

        I.            Introduction
  Baruch Atah Adonai, Ruach Ha’Olam, She’Asani Btzalmo. Blessed are you the Creator who made me in your image. Those of you who get to shul at the very beginning will say this brachah with the community.
  It is amazing that even on Yom Kippur, when we are most aware of our faults, we are reminded that there is Tzelem in each of us.
  Comes from Genesis 1:26, where God says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
  According to our tradition, the tzelem is in all of us, not just Jews or just men, or not just whomever we consider to be “us.” The original Adam, who contains all future diversity, including Zachar U’Nekeivah – all genders – is the one imbued with the tzelem.
  Concept has tremendous implications for Teshuvah
  I will discuss the concept of Tzelem and Tshuvah on three levels, and at the end of each section I will pose some questions for reflection:
  With others in your circle
  With the larger community
  Secular concept of B’Tzelem is empathy; in last 10 years there have been tremendous advances in understanding how the brain works and what it means on a biological level to experience empathy.

      II.            Tzelem and Teshuvah with yourself
  Rabbi Yoel Kahn said: “Everyone, including ourselves is deserving of respect and forgiveness because we are made in God’s image, somehow a reflection of the divine on earth.[i]
  What is the Tzelem inside us? I think it is made up of two somewhat opposing concepts. The first is the values we all hold inside us of compassion, loving kindness, truth seeking, and forgiveness. These are values we ascribe to God in the 13 attributes and that we are challenged to imitate, to live up to. The second concept of the Tzelem is the spark that makes us unique and individual. This is celebrated in our tradition by the Midrash about that when an early king makes an image of himself on a coin they all look the same, but when the Holy One made us all in His/Her image, we all came out as individuals.
  There is appropriate remorse and then there is beating yourself up. Research suggests that difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and other problems. However self-forgiveness that isn’t genuine can be a crutch that produces a moral sense of righteousness and can actually reduce empathy for others. Healthy way[ii]:
  Don’t get rid of guilt, but do let go of shame. Remorse, rather than self-condemnation is key to healthy self-forgiveness.
  Own up: without this self-forgivers are likely to repeat their bad actions
  Pay your dues: make it up to yourself in a concrete, reparative way.
  Self-forgiveness need not be all or nothing. It’s a slow process; an act of humility and honesty.
  The Name and self-description of the one in who’s image we are made is Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, I am as I am, or I will be as I will be, or as Rabbi Annie Lewis taught us on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I am not yet what I am not yet, a translation by Lawrence Kushner.
  Our God-likeness is at the essence of being human. “On YK when we are inclined to self-doubt and harsh criticism, we can be uplifted and regain our lost dignity in the sure knowledge that however we have failed ourselves, the Tzelem within us gives us permission to say Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, I am as I am. (Yoel Kahn)
  To honor the God image in yourself means to be growing and changing. Teshuvah gives us the opportunity to grow and change into our best self, a reflection of the Tzelem inside us.
  Martin Buber taught: in order for the divine image to unfold in human life the “human task in not being but becoming.”
  YK is a day of acceptance of who we are and who we could become.
  Questions for reflection: What are some of the ways you can recognize the Tzelem in yourself, and turn towards your best self? How can you encourage more becoming and less being?

    III.            Tzelem and Teshuvah with others in your Circle
  A few moments ago during the Kol Nidrei, we gave ourselves permission to “L’hitpallel im HaAvaryanim” To pray with the others – the ones from the other side, the imperfect ones, the others who also are made B’Tzelem.
  Tradition tells us that we must ask for Teshuvah from another person up to three times, in other words we have to engage in a real conversation. 
   Buber says in I and Thou that God exists in the space between people, when we are truly present for each other. This involves shutting down some of our own ego and assumptions to be in that place with someone else, especially those we find harder to be with. To recognize the tzelem in the other is a profound act of being present.
  With some people, easy to recognize the tzelem, others harder. B’Tzelem asks us to recognize the holiness in each person no matter who they are or how difficult they are.
  Many times when we think about interacting with a difficult person we have imaginary conversations in our heads, usually about all the ways that it could go badly. Tradition asks us to have real conversations, to shut down the imaginary voice in your head and interact on the I-Thou level.
  Other people it may be hard for any of us to see the Tzelem in include
  Vastly different perspectives
  Mental illness
  Evil (one definition of a sociopath is a person without empathy)
  “While nothing is easier to denounce the evil doer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  Empathy can be learned – empathy appears to be like a muscle – it can be strengthened through exercise that actually causes physiological change.
  Study by Helen Weng et al “Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering”[iii]:
  One group of subjects learned to practice what’s called “compassionate meditation” by focusing on a specific person while repeating a phrase like, “May you be free from suffering.”  The subjects concentrated on five different people: A loved one, a friend, themselves, a stranger and then someone they were in conflict with. Another group of subjects performed general positive thinking. Both groups did the exercise 30 minutes a day for two weeks. Then everyone was asked to spend money to help a fictional character who had been treated unfairly. And the subjects who did compassionate meditation were more likely to spend their money to help than those who trained to just think more positively. The researchers also did brain scans of those who behaved most altruistically, before and after training. And people who were most altruistic after training showed the biggest increases in activity in brain areas involved in empathy and positive emotion.
  Tillet Wright created the “Self-evident Truths[iv]” project in 2010 response to the opposition to equal marriage. Her goal was to take 10,000 pictures of people all over the U.S. who consider themselves “not 100% straight.” As of the last update, she has travelled to 25 cities and taken pictures of 4,000 faces. The idea was to show the anti-marriage equality people who we are. She says: if a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a face is a whole new vocabulary. Visibility is key; familiarity is the gateway drug to empathy[v].
  Questions for reflection: In this coming year, what can you do to grow your empathy muscle?  What will you do to acknowledge the tzelem in others even if they are vastly different than yourself?

   IV.            Tzelem and Tshuvah with the Wider World
·         The concept of the tzelem in others is what inspires me to do social justice work. If we are all made in the tzelem, how can it be that there is widening inequality and where the zip code where an American is born does more to determine their health, educational and economic outcomes than any other factor?
·         To acknowledge the tzelem in a person from another place, another culture, religion, set of assumptions is a radical act of empathy, or of seeing the tzelem. This is even more difficult if you have been through a personal or political tragedy.
·         Why do some people react to tragic events with revenge and others with forgiveness? According to Michael McCollough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami, and the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct says we need to acknowledge 3 truths[vi]:
a.       The desire for revenge is a built in feature of human nature - found in over 95% of cultures studied
b.      The capacity for forgiveness is a built in feature of Human nature – also found in over 95% of cultures studied
c.       To make the world a more forgiving place, don’t try to change human nature – change the world!
·         An interesting example in the Torah of changing the world instead of human nature are the Arey Miklat – the cities of refuge – that a person who commits an accidental killing is supposed to escape to, in order to not be killed by the revenge seeking relative. The Torah doesn’t think it can eliminate revenge, but rather that people can create structures and systems to contain and limit revenge.
·         In his book Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin calls humans “Homo-Empathicus and contends that we are soft wired for empathy.  He talks about how neurologists have discovered that humans have what are called “mirror neurons” that are triggered when one person is engaged with another. So if I see a spider crawling up your arm, I will also feel a creepy feeling on my arm.[vii]
·         He shows how as technologies evolved, humans were able to empathize with wider groups of people:
·         Hunter gatherer could empathize only with family, tribe.
·         Then with great agricultural advances it went to theological empathy, where we could empathize with those of the same religion.
·         In the 19th century, Industrial revolution, we created a fiction called the nation state and we can empathize with people in our country. 
·         Then he asks this radical question - Is it really a big stretch to connect our empathy to the whole human race? We have the technology to think viscerally as a family – earthquake in Haiti – twitter and email got us all empathizing with Haiti. What can we do in our institutions  bring out empathic sociability and lay the groundwork for the empathic civilization?
·         Or in other words can we see the tzelem in all people on earth? (“L’taken  Olam B’malchut Shaddai”) 
·         It is in the wider community where it is often hardest to see the tzelem in others who may seem other, may seem like part of “those people” who have different values than we do.
·         Question for reflection: What would you like to commit to tonight to do in the coming year to see the Tzelem in a group of people you currently see as the other?

     V.            Conclusion
·         There is a beautiful Midrash in Talmud Pesachim (54a) that says that before the world was created, God created seven things. Among them was Teshuvah. Since human beings have free will, it is inevitable that they will make mistakes, that many times it will be hard for them to see the tzelem in themselves and others. But Teshuvah is a prerequisite to the world’s existence, and it is always available to you as a way back to the best in yourself.
·         At this moment I ask you to try to believe that you your core spirit is a reflection of Godliness, a piece of the Tzelem, that you are welcomed into a holy community, and that you are capable of Teshuvah, of becoming your highest self, towards yourself, your loved ones and friends and your larger community.
·         Whenever you come into the service tomorrow, I invite you to say the Brachah, Baruch Atah Adonai, Ruach Ha’Olam, She’Asani Btzalmo. Blessed are you the Creator who made me in your image.
·         I wish everyone an easy fast and to be inscribed into the Book of Life and wellbeing. Shannah Tova.

[ii] See Juliana Breines, August 23, 2012, “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself”

[iv] See the Self Evident Truths Project web site at

[v] Listen to Tillet Wright’s TED talk titled “Fifty Shades of Gay” at

[vii] For a summary of the concepts of this book in an animated talk see:

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