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Beyond Selfie – Kol Nidre 5780

Social media. Oy. Hate it, love it, use it, abuse it; for many of us, me included, it can suck away a lot of time and trigger plenty of instant, strong emotions, often of outrage!  I am fairly new to the party and, yet I created a new hashtag recently, without even really understanding what that means – #shofie, a selfie of me blowing the shofar. I posted two or three of these videos on instagram and then some others out there posted some of themselves. It did not go viral!  Actually I found out later that #shofie does exist – it’s people taking selfies of their shoes. Go figure. According to google, 93,000,000 selfies are taken every day on Android phones alone. Presumably it is at least double that if you include iphones and other devices. Every third photograph taken by an eighteen to twenty four year old is of themselves.  Every time we are in beautiful places around the world, there is a good chance we will encounter others, and let’s be honest, we could be that other, taking a selfie. I ended my Rosh HaShanah sermon with a quote from Jonathan Safran Foer, who said; “To save the planet, we need the opposite of a selfie.” So, now let’s take a deep dive into our selfie culture. 

Just before Rosh HaShanah, I sat by a flowing mountain stream among the pines and color-shifting aspens, alone, reciting my morning prayers in the early morning light and then, almost in a panic, I found myself wondering out loud, if no one sees me here, was I really here?  If no one hears the sound of the shofar that I just blew, did I really blow it? Who is this me that thinks I am sitting here asking these questions anyway? In the crisis of those questions, I came close to grabbing my phone and snapping a quick selfie to prove to myself and to the world that I really was here, to post it on instagram and then await the sweet, silent validation through likes and comments, generously splattered with loving emojis. It is so easy to get addicted to the momentary high we get when someone hits like on our posts.  Yes! I am here. I am real. I am great. I am sexy. I look good. It is terrifying to consider who we are without this validation from the world, as if our identities are formed by how others, often strangers posing as “friends,” perceive us. Facebook announced recently that it has 2.2 billion users worldwide, almost a third of the global population. Staggering. Many mental health professionals say that this culture of taking and posting selfies is about a positive feedback loop to bolster our fragile egos. Will Storr, English writer and author of a great, recent book called Selfie: How the West became Self-Obsessed, traces it all the way back to Aristotle.

The claim of the book, which is sort of self-evident, is that western culture is suffering from an epidemic of narcissism from the top down, in which we all participate and from which we all suffer. The selfie culture is just one way in which this phenomenon becomes manifest, but every level of private and public life is touched by it; politics, religion, economics, education, sports, technology, entertainment and any others that I have forgotten.  Storr makes the case that Western societies inherited from Aristotle and his philosophical descendants the notion of a perfected, individual self. In contrast many Eastern cultures, he claims, are heirs to Confusious and his descendants that tend, simply stated, to put the group, the family, the community before the self. Neoliberalism of the 1980s took it all to a whole new level in the UK and the US, which are the two cultures most explored in the book, with a free market view of the world that says “you can do whatever you want to do, be whoever you want to be. No limits. The self improvement movement with all of its positive new age possibility, reinforced the idea. “The human Potential Movement had posed the Western self a question: if God is inside all of us, then doesn’t it naturally follow that we are all Gods?  Now the Western self had given its answer…The New Narcissism.” p.168

But who is this “I” that I think I am?  This self that is defined by what the world perceives me to be. “Our sense of who we actually are,” says Will Storr, “turns out to be critically dependent on what we believe others think of us…We all judge ourselves by looking into the eyes of other people and imagining what they’re thinking.”  P.147  

The Nineteenth century Hassidic Master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotz, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, taught:

“If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you”. 

But what does it even mean to be ourselves? We all play so many roles in our lives, don’t we, and sometimes we are pretty convinced that this is the sum total of who we are.  Parent, teacher, spouse, CEO, coworker, rabbi. I’ve been playing that role for fifteen years and it has definitely become my identity. Actors know well that the masks go on and come off, that the characters played on a stage merge with the character traits of the actor, as we explore and inhabit different worlds, and when that mask comes off and we are we in the Green Room with other actors, who are we actually?  Professor Bruce Hood, a psychologist in Bristol in the UK, which is ironically, the place where I trained to be an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, wrote a book called the The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. He says “At its very simplest, a self is a way that we can make sense of the things that happen to us…You need to have a sense of self in order to organize your life events into a meaningful story.” p.142  Yet we take this self, in extreme cases, and make it all that there is, so full of my uniqueness, my specialness, my power, my success, that I only see what is around me if it serves me and my sense of who I am.  

The famous and elusive teaching of Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot, says;

אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתי

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Avot.1.14

This classic, enigmatic text asserts the importance of a self, an identity, but a self in relationship with the world, with community and a self that needs to answer the urgent call of the moment.

The real problem with the western notion of selfhood is that the goal of perfectionism bombards us with the idea that we are here to find our true, perfected self.  An alarming number of suicides in the west come from that pressure, the impossible feeling that we have not reached the goals that our families, the media, society at large and our own perceptions place on us.  There is a kind of entitlement in our culture that can lead to us as parents and teachers validating our kids with an unrealistic sense of self-esteem, telling them how wonderful, amazing and unlimited they are, in ways that are not always healthy. It has to be ok to fail and just be who we are, good enough, not a superhuman. “The self-esteem generation has become the selfie generation,” says Will Storr:

“One of the dictums that defines our culture is that we can be anything we want to be – to win the neoliberal game we just have to dream, to put our minds to it, to want it badly enough. This message leaks out to us from seemingly everywhere in our environment: at the cinema, in heart-warming and inspiring stories we read in the news and social media, in advertising, in self-help books, in the classroom, on television. We internalize it, incorporating it into our sense of self. But it’s not true. It is, in fact, the dark lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism. It’s the cause, I believe, of an incalculable quotient of misery. Here’s the truth that no million-selling self-help book, famous motivational speaker, happiness guru or blockbusting Hollywood screenwriter seems to want you to know. You’re limited. Imperfect. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” p.317

So here we are beginning this intense, beautiful, raw, naked day of Yom Kippur, stripped bare of any illusions of grandeur, facing our own imperfection, vulnerability, mortality, pain.  Yes, this time of year helps us set goals, but it also connects us to what is most true rather than the puffed up fantasies of who I project on to the world and the world projects on to me. Yom Kippur is about confronting our own death.  When we hear a eulogy at a funeral, which is most moving? Hearing about how self-absorbed a person was, or how much they did for others and the world?

Yes, life’s circumstances can be tough, our culture tells us, but we can overcome the challenges and become anything we want to.  But what about those of us for whom that doesn’t happen? The pain and sting of failure, worthlessness, regret, all those unfulfilled ambitions. Oy.

If it is all about me, my self esteem, my power, my potential to achieve my goals, to become fantastically wealthy, to be a perfect being, then the human world becomes like the Hunger Games, a terrifying world of competition to the death.  If I am in that game, can I really care about the plight of the vulnerable; refugees, asylum seekers, victims of gun violence, those persecuted through bigotry and hate, the planet? Narcissism whether in economics, politics, religion, ultimately carries this culture’s message of self-interest that as long as I am alright, safe, stable, then who cares really about everyone else?  Me first, my family first, America first. That’s all important in many ways, but the world demands more of us; that we transcend ego and answer the call that connects us to a greater whole beyond self interest. Judaism demands more of us too; that we respond with compassion and urgency to the cries of those in pain. 

Al chayt sh’chatanu l’fanecha – for the sin that we committed before You”…All of the vidui, the liturgy of confessing on this day, is in the plural because we are accountable to and for each other, sharing a mutual responsibility, connected. Kol yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, all Israel are responsible for one another, says the Talmud (Shevuot 39a)

The ritual and practice of Yom Kippur – no eating, drinking, washing, anointing, physical intimacy, wearing leather shoes are, in a very profound way, more about transcending the self, than they are about suffering.  Fasting is a deep spiritual practice and if we consciously remove physical desire and need, we have the possibility of moving beyond ego and notions of constructed self.

Mystics in all religions and regular practitioners of meditation strive for that state beyond self, which has been observed and researched in neuro-science. Michael Pollan’s latest book How to Change Your Mind, has the subtitle; What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendance. It is an extraordinary book that delves so deeply into the workings of the mind and the self. In neuro-science (and I learned some of this from Hannah’s husband, now Dr. Yoni Ashar, when I went to his Phd defense) the ‘default mode network’ is our brain’s conditioned response to our surroundings that defines us, but certain mental states can reduce activity there with powerful results. In Michael Pollan’s words:

“The transcendence of self reported by expert mediators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network.  It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away. p.305”

Pollen asks: “Do we pay a price for the achievement of order and selfhood in the adult human mind?” p.311

Pollan suggests that we normally think of material as the opposite of spiritual, but his research has led him to the conclusion that “a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” “

[When the ego dissolves], “what emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.”

In a brilliant commentary on the verse “Anochi omed beyn Adonai u’v’ayneichem,” from Deuteronomy 5:5 where Moses is saying “I stood between God and you,” the Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom) says, “your anochi, your I, your ego, stands between you and God, like a mechitzah, a separation.  In other words, how can I have a relationship with anything transcendent if I am caught in my own anochiut, my I-ness, my narcissism? The transcendence of the mystic is often a universalist, blissful state without any separation, yet within a religious framework, there is power and beauty in these experiences within the particular group, like a community of Jews together on Yom Kippur!  The tension between the universal and the particular is complex for me. I am a universalist in love with Jewish people, prayer and practice. More of that tomorrow. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his philosophical masterpiece God in Search of Man evokes this so poetically:

“There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty conceits; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power.” (p.140)

Most of us are not mystics or users of psychedelics, but we are here together in community during these powerful days and our ritual and liturgy can have moments of transcendence, that allow us to let go of the pressure and illusions of ourselves as perfect and separate.  This is a day not to celebrate how great, perfect and special we are, but to acknowledge the ways in which we have failed, missed the mark, daring ourselves to be vulnerable in our humanity and connected to something far greater than ourselves. 

The British poet David Whyte ends his poem “Everything is Waiting for You:”

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

This moment is so much bigger than a selfie.  Look around. Look around.

About Rabbi Marc Soloway

Marc is a native of London, England where he was an actor and practitioner of complimentary medicine before training as a rabbi in London, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the American Jewish University in 2004 and has been the the spiritual leader at Bonai Shalom in Boulder ever since. Marc was a close student of Rabbi Zalman Schechter Shalomi and received an additional smicha (rabbinic ordination) from him in 2014, just two months before he died. He has been the host and narrator of two documentary films shown on PBS; A Fire in the Forest: In Search of the Baal Shem Tov and Treasure under the Bridge: Pilgrimage to the Hasidic Masters of Ukraine. Marc is a graduate of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, has traveled to Ghana in a rabbinic delegation with American Jewish World Service and co-chair of the Rabbinical Council and national board member of Hazon, which strives to create more sustainable Jewish communities. In 2015, Marc was among a group of 12 faith leaders honored at The White House as “Champions of Change” for work on the climate. Marc is a proud member of Beit Izim, Boulder’s Jewish goat milking co-op.

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