Hello. My name is Adena, I’m the Executive Director at GW Hillel, and I’d like to formally invite you to join us for Rosh Hashanah!
Yes – I know what you’re thinking? Invite you to Rosh Hashanah? But you’re here already. My team and I have collectively, hopefully, invited you 10 times already – multiple Instagram posts, emails, streetside conversations. But in preparing for the holiday, over these past long months of summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what an invitation Rosh Hashanah itself really is.
The summer for me was a deeply challenging one.
Professionally, I’ve been lost in the land of concrete, sub-contractors, and fundraising as we tore down our former home at 2300 H Street. I’ve gone back and forth between feeling a deep sense of confidence and a deep sense of doubt – what am I doing here? Am I doing a good enough job for our students? Are we building the community of radical hospitality that we seek to – and will a physical space help us to do that in a more impactful way?
Personally, it was a summer of many sleepless nights. This is my sixth pregnancy – and for those who know me, I only currently have two children. I was incredibly nauseous from the start. And I realized, once we heard that this pregnancy was a healthy one, that I’d barely taken a deep breath all summer.
So in the midst of all of this internal struggle, I often turned to the best, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I have – my six year old daughter, Layla – and my three year old son, Oliver. I noticed something I had never fully noticed before about how they respond to compliments. They take them. With gusto.
I’ll say: ‘Layla – that was such an incredibly good question you asked.’
Layla responds: “Yes it was. I know.”
I’ll say: ‘Oliver – wow, that’s a very impressive tower you just built.’
Oliver responds: ‘It’s very tall. I know.’
Mommy: Wow, that outfit is awesome and so sparkly. I love your sense of style.
Layla: I know. I look great.
These moments of pure, unabashed confidence always catch me off-guard. But why? I’ve come to the realization that I notice them because I’m surrounded by growns-ups all day and I rarely hear these grown-ups do the same. Compliment a college student on their bright thought or great attitude. “Oh. Thanks.” – they will reply.
I also noticed this phenomenon last year at a women’s luncheon for Hillel professionals, held not long after I took the job here as Executive Director. Somewhat hesitantly, I was sharing how proud I was of myself with a very small group of peers. Excuse my French – but I’m a badass, I said! I’m balancing motherhood and learning to raise money, and stretching myself, and I’m a good wife and sister and daughter and neighbor!
A few moments later, another woman in a very similar stage of her career said to me – I wish I could talk about myself like you just did, Adena.
When is the moment when we change our ability to take praise so purely? And why is this particular version of humility so prized? And what does it all have to do with Rosh Hashanah?
I’ve pondered these questions and have many hypotheses. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with overt ownership of our strengths, as we’re thirsty for a counterbalance in our lives. We are also empathetic beings – if we are high, does it mean others must be low? If we are too proud of ourselves, do we lose space to also be humble?
As it’s so prone to do, if we only look a bit, Judaism offers insights and a hypothesis of its own. I think we’re told not once, but TWICE in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy that not only do confidence and humility NOT have to compete – but that one is needed in order to lift up the other.
One presentation of this can be found in the ritual of reciting Selichot. For those unfamiliar, Selichot are certain prayers and poems often read in the days leading up to this holy season of introspection. Picture them as many training runs as you prep for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer marathons. They are evening invitations to get yourself in the headspace of the holiday.
My husband, Josh, remarked on one he had read the other night – Machnisei Rachamim – that says the following:
- Propagators of prayer, Make our prayer heard.
- Presenters of Tears, Put our tears before The King who gives into those tears.
I’ll admit when he first shared this, my inclination was to be mad at G/d – who are you? You invite my prayers so you can hear them? You help me to cry so I can cry before you? Why not just help me skip the pain in the first place?
Example two is laced throughout our services this season. G/d is portrayed as a father and a king, a G/d of judgment and a G/d of mercy. Huh? My own dad is a comforter and not a ruler from on high. My dearest loved ones don’t judge me – they see me with mercy and love me for who I am.
So what is the invitation of Rosh Hashanah? How do these examples answer our question of confidence and humility?
When you dig into both of these examples, you realize they present a yin and a yang of sorts. America may be polarized these days but the reality is, our whole lives are filled with grey spaces. Blacks and Whites are forever mixing together in the holy messiness of our lives.
I know that the challenge of building our new home at 2300 H Street – a planning process that by my estimates is going on its TENTH year – will make the moment all the sweeter when we finally open our doors. The struggle has helped us to clarify the value of home. With so much time to plan, we understand more fully the need for our community to welcome one another with open arms, to think critically together on how we will exercise our Jewish values in the world. I will have personally learned far more about the professional, the giver, the asker, that I want to be, than had someone just handed me the keys to a new home. My great pride in opening our doors will be enhanced by the humility I also feel at how long it took to get there. Confidence and humility – lifting each other up.
And I tell people all the time that I would never wish my journey to motherhood on my worst enemy – it has been a painful one, filled with deep bumps in the road and the worst days of my life. But never have I wanted to trade it. My adoration of my children, my sense of priorities, my best mothering moments can be attributed to the pain it took to get here. I am a great mom to my kids because I am a mom who has been humbled by the process of becoming one. I am a confident mother AND I am a humble one.
The real invitation this Rosh Hashanah offers is to allow our confidence and humility to co-exist. If we only cried without someone to comfort our tears, we’d struggle daily. If we were only shown mercy, would we ever try to improve ourselves? We are invited to recognize that confidence does not have to come at the expense of humility – nor does humility have to come at the expense of confidence. To be the best person we can be requires us to have both, sitting side by side in our hearts.
This Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to think about your year and be kind to yourself. Tell yourself you are awesome. Recognize the hard and holy work it took to be YOU this year. Take a compliment – you DO look great! That was an awesome question you asked! You worked so hard on that project and it shows!
AND – not BUT – be humble. Be grateful. There is more work to be done. Someone beside you tonight is lonely, missing home, and could really use a smile and hello as you leave this room. Deeper kindness can always be extended from you to others, more mitzvot waiting to be done. There is a global issue – climate change, prison reform, immigration, SO. MANY. ISSUES. – that need you working a little harder to make change today than you did yesterday.
This Rosh Hashanah, pray with your might and know your prayers can be answered. Cry through your pain and know that G/d can take your tears. May your confidence grow and may your humility be plentiful this year.