The title of my talk is “The Big Lie.” And even though it’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our spiritual year, I’ll start with a whopper.
Before Erev Rosh Hashanah, I read a New York Times op-ed by iconic NBC journalist Tom Brokaw. He wrote, “For most of my adult life, I’ve answered the question [of who I am] with one word: journalist. I still do, but now I am tempted to add a phrase: cancer patient.” Brokaw wrote of his increasingly fulltime focus on multiple myeloma treatments, side effects and – so far – beating the odds.
Beyond Brokaw’s courage, what most riveted me was what Brokaw implied but didn’t outright say. He wrote that cancer shifted his identity from one word (“journalist”) to three words (“journalist” and “cancer patient”). What Brokaw implied is that a role or experience could define him.
Yom Kippur says that Brokaw is wrong – and not just Brokaw, but all of us who fall into the trap of believing that our essence is any role or experience. What’s more, often we fall into that trap unconsciously, unaware that we do so.
That’s the Big Lie – that we are what we do or what happens to us. Choices are important and consequences are real – but if we are only what we do or experience, then Yom Kippur is pointless. The Big Lie is worse that it’s actually it’s two lies in one. The first lie is that we are what we do or what happens to us. The second lie is that we don’t tell the first lie, that somehow we are immune to its tug. The Big Lie is a black hole cloaking its own darkness, gravity pulling into itself all light that declares its existence. It’s the Jewish mother’s lament, “It’s alright, darling: I’ll sit in the dark.” And we do.
Yom Kippur calls the Big Lie what it is – a double whopper, a lie atop a lie. Yom Kippur disrupts the Big Lie by shining on it a light brighter than any darkness, letting our true nature shine with hope and renewed life. That’s what Yom Kippur is about.
To heed this call and renew our lives, we must face our nature and understand how nature wires us to tell the Big Lie. Science and spirituality both explain how, and that’s our subject today.
Here’s the science of the Big Lie. Neurobiologists teach that the Big Lie traces to the brain’s effort to be efficient using cognitive heuristics, mental shortcuts of simplification and routine. Cognitive heuristics began long ago in evolutionary history: we learned to see a hungry tiger and instinctively run so we wouldn’t become lunch. Early humans who survived were fast runners with brains that made quick connections between seeing a tiger and running for dear life, so we wouldn’t waste time thinking instead of running. Neurons that fire together wire together, and that’s why we run from tigers.
Today most of us don’t live near tigers, but cognitive heuristics still drive us. Cognitive heuristics are why we can drive cars. If we needed to think about every turn and movement of hand, foot and eye, all of those impulses would overwhelm and paralyze us. We can drive only because we don’t think too hard about it. Cognitive heuristics also are why we can be in loving relationships. We don’t need to make countless calculations every minute about behavior and commitment: our instinctive cognitive heuristics take over.
The good news is that cognitive heuristics are efficient and often good enough. The bad news is that sometimes they’re not – and when they’re wrong, often we don’t know it because cognitive heuristics keep us from thinking deeply. Nearly every bias based on race, religion, gender or sexuality is a cognitive heuristic gone bad – a snap judgment we learned to make, rightly or wrongly believing that usually it’s correct.
Here’s the punchline: the most powerful cognitive heuristic is the one we use to know ourselves. In the mind’s ceaseless search for shortcuts, we reach for whatever seems efficient – and often it’s based on role. We learn early on that to be an adult is to assume roles, fit them and define ourselves by them. We say: I’m a judge, rabbi, retailer, teacher, retiree; I’m a spouse, widow, child, parent, sibling; I’m generous, patient, caring. If circumstances line up with our roles, all seems well and we comfortably forget our mental shortcuts. If we think about it, we know we’re far more than what we call ourselves – though deep thought and feeling often elude us.
But if life circumstances conflict with our roles, if something happens and we can’t comfortably define ourselves in these ways, our patterns short circuit. Maybe something bigger than role rattles us, like cancer rattling Tom Brokaw. Even so, momentum is strong, the impulse to shortcut stirs again, and our brains reach for the next best shortcut. Brokaw the “journalist” becomes Brokaw the “cancer patient.” Always a role, the next best shortcut – all because long ago, cavemen needed to keep one step ahead of hungry tigers.
Except we have no tigers – or do we? What are we running from? What threat do we fear will chase us down and consume us? Is it possible that subconsciously we shape our inner lives to protect the precious shortcut stories we tell ourselves? How often do we avoid ourselves or blame others so we can avoid pain – or just not think and feel deeply? How much schmutz is trapped inside us because our pattern is to run from some tiger living inside us?
But we’re not cavemen. We’re not condemned to run. We don’t need to keep telling the Big Lie. We can tell a different story, the story of spirit – the story of Yom Kippur – and it can set us free.
The story of spirit is that we’re not who we say we are. Yom Kippur calls out our Big Lie, our double whopper. No, we’re not our roles, our behaviors, our relationships, our narratives, our pain or our fear. Ultimately we’re far more, but life lulls us into delusion. And every time we act out our patterns and miss the mark, we stray further from who we really are – our integrity, our souls.
Yom Kippur jolts us back – and we need the jolt because our patterns are so ingrained in our psychology, and our biology. Yom Kippur says: our shortcuts and impulses will die because we will die, as all things die. Humans seem to be the only species aware of our mortality, but we spend most of our lives living yet another Big Lie that we needn’t face our death. Yes, the sun’ll come up tomorrow, as the first Adam learned in the Garden of Eden on Rosh Hashanah – but Yom Kippur reminds us that we might not live to see it. Talmud teaches (Shabbat 153a, Avot 2:10), “Repent one day before your death” – because it might be tomorrow.
Our tiger is our fear of death and loss. It will have us for lunch and there’s no outrunning it. We avoid thinking about our mortality because it hurts. Cognitive heuristics protect us from pain, and here’s yet another example of cognitive heuristics gone wrong. Our idea that we live seems correct because it’s been true every day we’ve been alive – but one day it won’t be. “What you see is what you get” is another Big Lie. What we see, our ordinary lives, our roles, our history, our narratives, the very fact that we live in human form – none of these are ultimate reality.
So what is? What is our ultimate reality?
To answer this question of the ages, we must learn to live without the Big Lie. We must feel its falsehood so deep that we yearn to leap from its trap. That’s why Yom Kippur rehearses our death. Some dress simply, white as a burial shroud, no adornments or jewelry: we are not our appearance or status. Many avoid food and bodily pleasure: we are not our bodies. We confess as if on our deathbeds: we are not our past. We confess as if it’s our last chance to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you,” and really mean it: we are not immortal. Our delays and excuses – they are nothing. Our machzor says, “We come from dust and end in dust. We expend our lives bringing forth bread. We are like a fragment of broken pottery, dry grass, a faded flower, a passing shadow, a melting cloud, a blowing breeze, flying dust, a dream dissolving.”
“This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” writes Alan Lew. This is ultimate reality. We ourselves are the avaryanim we call on Kol Nidre: we are not just transgressors but people who avar – in Hebrew, we pass. “We are the ones just passing through, every one of us.” That’s ultimate reality. That’s today.
This ultimate reality, accepting our impermanence, is what my teacher Rodger Kamenetz and some theologians call “dying to self” and Reb Zalman called “becoming transparent to soul” – letting our cognitive heuristics short circuit, letting our defenses fall, letting our egos shrivel. We call the Big Lie what it is. We’re not who we say we are. We’re more than our roles. We’re more than our choices. We’re more than pent-up schmutz, hurt and fear. We stop the futile desperation of running from the tiger on our tail.
Recall our Torah reading (Deut. 29:9-14): “You stand today, all of You, before YHVH your God – your leaders, tribes, elders and officials, all of Israel – the stranger among you, from your wood chopper to your water bearer. [God] makes today’s covenant with … all standing here today … and all not here today.”
Everyone, regardless of role. Everyone, regardless of what we did or didn’t do. Everyone we ourselves ever were and ever will be. We stand together, everyone sharing our human predicament, all of us as one. We stand together: we can’t run from the truth.
Rabbi Shefa Gold put it this way: “As we stand before God [in this way], we … reclaim all the shards of self that broke off … all the lost pieces of self that we project onto other[s], all the parts of self that lie hidden behind walls of shame or pride.” We can call this integrity. “As we stand up in our integrity, blessings of covenantal love begin to shine through our lives,” as we learn not to protect ourselves so much that we wall off that love from touching our core.
Yom Kippur, Judaism’s essence, calls us to stand in just this way – all our parts whole or broken, whether we’re happy or sad, proud or ashamed – all laid bare, nowhere to run, no Big Lie for false protection. What cognitive heuristic can really shortcut this?
None at all, and that’s the point: our shortcuts and self-concepts are vapid and false. We let that Big Lie die, so that love can flow freely and we can live fully.
But our patterns run deep – as deep as human nature and our biology – so deep that we need a jolt like Yom Kippur, or a mortal risk like cancer, to shake us loose. Sometimes it takes knocking us nearly dead to knock us most alive. It takes letting our cognitive heuristics die, letting our defenses fall, letting our egos shrivel, so they can’t inhibit our natural courage to see and willingness to love.
That’s how spiritually we learn to see again. We learn to see that ultimate reality is constant change and total love, not our roles or choices or schmutz. Reality is impermanence, becoming-ness, the passing shadow, the melting cloud, the blowing breeze, the dream that Infinity speaks into being. That’s the Name of God that Moses heard at the Burning Bush: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:14). God is becoming-ness. And as for God, so for us, because our essence is b’Tzelem Elohim / in the divine image (Gen. 1:27). “Be holy,” calls our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, “for I, becoming-ness, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). By the same token, we can forgive others because God forgives us.
That’s ultimate reality. That’s our freedom, our rebirth and our power to transform. We don’t need a Big Lie to pretend our lives are easy or fixed in place. The Big Lie cheats us from truly living.
If these words seem too good to be believed, then let’s revisit the story of science. We think that we see what is, but for quantum physics it’s the other way around. To a physicist, what we see does not exist until we try to see it. Our seeing is what makes it be.
Still don’t believe it? Try this. In August, medical researchers from Duke University published a study of paraplegics, paralyzed from catastrophic spinal cord injuries that severed the nerves to their legs. Walking was physically impossible: a tiger chasing them would have an easy lunch. Then the paraplegics wore virtual reality headsets, programmed to depict their legs moving as they were lifted into standing positions. Guess what? Their brains saw legs moving on the headset and began re-growing nerves to the legs. Once they learned to see differently, paraplegics regained the ability to move their legs on their own. In time, they’ll be able to walk.
Ultimate reality is not what we see: that’s the Big Lie. Ultimate reality is that we’re far more than we see. We’re not our roles, our past or even our disabilities – though they too are real. The upshot is profound. It means that in time, we can learn to see ourselves walk. It means that we can learn to see ourselves leap beyond our past. It means that we can do teshuvah because we can leap beyond our roles, and what we did, and the schmutz that we or someone else left behind. It means that everyone else can do teshuvah, because everyone has a spark of holy potential just waiting to be seen into becoming.
To me, that’s hope. That’s our vision for Yom Kippur, a vision the whole world needs. May this day rouse us to see different and live beyond the Big Lie that cheats us from fully living. And in that merit, may we be blessed for a year of change, for the best we can be, the hope of renewing our lives – the eternal hope of the ages.
Keep hope! Keep hope!