You’re Special — Just Because You’re You (Kol Nidre Sermon 5779)
My greatest spiritual teacher taught me that I have a soul, a part of me that is inherently worthwhile. Fifteen years after he died, in a world that too often tells people they are not worthwhile, I’m not surprised this teacher is getting so much attention: a few months ago, a documentary came out about him — and next year, a biopic will be released. Looking back at my weekly television visits with this teacher, I know he is worthy of all this attention. In his Neighborhood of Make-Believe, his puppets, King Friday and Daniel Tiger may not have been much to look at. But that wasn’t the point. These visits — with Mister Rogers — were encounters with my soul.
When I was five years old, oblivious that his audience was so vast, I decided to send a letter to my television friend. He sent one back. I wrote again — and, again, he responded. I don’t remember what I wrote when I was five. But I do know I sent him drawings. Both times, he wrote, “Your pictures are special because you made them for me.” He concluded both letters with some version of, “Adam, you are special — just because you’re you.” Throughout my friendship with Mister Rogers, whether on TV, or through this correspondence, he spoke to my soul, affirmed my inherent worth.
But over the years it became increasingly difficult for me to stay in touch with my true self. I stopped making art because my art teacher said it wasn’t good. I hid my feelings because there were times it did not feel safe to show them. Author and educator, Parker Palmer, writes of this phenomenon, “We arrive in this world undivided, integral, whole. But sooner or later, we erect a wall between our inner and outer lives...” We begin to conceal our true selves for fear of being criticized; learn to live our outer life at a remove from our inner truth. Over our lives, we lose touch with our true selves.
Then, around late August, early September, we sense something is missing in our lives. We search the world for it. But we forget that what is missing is us.
So how do we get back in touch with our deeper selves, during this holy day, when we stop searching the world for what is missing in our lives?
The High Holidays offer us a practice called, teshuva. Teshuva means “return.” It is a way to get back in touch with our souls. According to the sages, the moment we received the Torah at Sinai never ended. God calls to us each day from Sinai, calling “shuvu, return my wayward children!” When we were younger, and lived undivided lives, we heard the voice of our soul speak directly to us. But at a certain point, we learned to muffle that voice, or ignore it. That is why we do teshuva, to come back to a place in our lives where we can hear that voice again.
Palmer writes about getting back in touch with our souls. To him, the soul is like a wild animal — resilient but shy: “If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth . . . the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance.” I love this image of our shy soul waiting for us to become quiet, reflective, and fully present before it emerges from hiding. These three steps describe the practice of teshuva:
Rav Shimon says in Pirke Avot: “All my days I grew up among the Sages, and I did not find anything good for the body except silence” (1:17). Silence creates space for us to listen to God’s voice. Our liturgy offers many words for this silence. If you find the words are too much, close your eyes and find the silence behind all these words:
Reflection helps us focus on the voice of our soul. Let the metaphors embedded in the ancient poetry in your hands invite you into reflection. Find a moment over the rest of Yom Kippur to journal, make art, or go on a walk.
Presence is the awareness of connecting to ourselves and others at the heart level. Ask yourself what stands between you, and full presence. See if you can be lovingly present to yourself when you leave the ballroom tonight, and stay in loving presence with others who may be observing Yom Kippur differently than you, or not observing it at all.
Another of Mr. Roger’s famous refrains that spoke to my soul was the phrase, “It’s you I like.” In the words he uses to explain that phrase, I hear him talking about relationship we aspire to have with our true self, with our shy but resilient soul. To help people understand the phrase, Mr. Rogers says:
When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed…. The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its own people feeling that they are worthwhile.”
As we begin our journey through Yom Kippur, may we be blessed with strength and presence to do what we need to do in order to get back in touch with our true selves, that deep part of us that seeks love, peace and justice in our lives and in the world. As we return to what matters most, may a deeper sense of purpose, meaning and worth fill our days. Throughout this Yom Kippur journey, and beyond, may you remember: “You’re special — just because you’re you.”