Public Lives, Private Selves

here a text version of yesterday morning’s Shabbat sermon (9/20):

This is a time of year, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, when I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the difference between the public persona that we show the rest of the world, and the private person that we are on the inside.  As you may imagine, for a rabbi this is not an insignificant issue.  Rabbis are often in the public eye, speaking, leading services, at meetings, in the kiddish – to be honest with you, even in the foodstore or a restaurant – we are seen as the rabbi.  And with that there are certain expectations, ideas that people automatically have about a rabbi’s tastes, habits, likes and dislikes.  I am always amused at the perplexed look that appears on someone’s face when they find out that I am a serious Grateful Dead fan, and that look comes from their understanding, their belief that being a rabbi and being a Deadhead are incompatible.

There are rabbis I know who have a very compartmentalized public persona, so much so that they speak differently when they are ‘rabbiing’ than they do in conversation with close friends, and I don’t mean when giving a sermon, I mean even in any conversation or meeting.  Personally I work hard to keep a connection, a sense of consistency, between rabbi and Steve, between my public life and my private self, in part because I’ve always felt I don’t want to work in a profession where I feel I have to be someone I’m not.  That being said there is a distinction, which is probably healthy, between my private life, my private self, and my public role and professional demeanor.

Of course the truth is it is the same for everyone.  Regardless of what kind of work you do, the chances are high that there is a certain way that you act at work, of speaking, even of standing, talking, whatever it might be – that is different from the way you do it at home.  There is an outer picture that we present to the world, often a picture of competence and confidence, a sense we project that everything is OK, that we are satisfied with our lives, that we wake up with no doubts and we go to bed with a clear conscience.  But inside, privately, everyone has doubts and misgivings, regrets and insecurities.  Have we made the right choices in our lives?  Have we been there for people in the right way?  Those thoughts tend to stay on the inside, and we rarely articulate them, rarely allow them to bubble to the surface.

This dynamic, this tension between what we show on the outside and who we are on the inside, our public and private selves, is a core element of this week’s Torah portion.  We have a double portion, Ntzavim and Vayeilach, and the second of the two portions is mostly a description of God in effect forcing Moses to step down from his role as leader of the people.  God tells Moses that he needs to prepare himself, because he is going to die soon, and that he needs to prepare the people for his impending absence.  God tells him that he has to go to Joshua, who will succeed him, that he has to let the people know that Joshua will be their leader, and he has to tell them that in public, with Joshua by his side.  Then God tells him to write down the Torah text, to leave a record for the Israelites and Joshua, so that they will know what to do even after Moses is gone.  And then, for all intents and purposes, God tells him to go and die.

And I am always amazed, every time I read this narrative, at how compliant Moses is.  God tells him he is going to die, Moses doesn’t say a word!  God tells him to get Joshua, to stand with him in front of the people, to let the people know that Joshua will be the leader now, Moses just does it.  On the surface – the public persona that he shows to the people – he is unemotional, he is the obedient servant, not questioning, not kvetching, not refusing.  Follow marching orders.  But would you wouldn’t blame him for saying “God listen I will do what you want, but don’t ask me to be the one to stand in front of the people with Joshua and announce that now he is in charge and I’m not.  Have someone else do it!”  But he doesn’t.  You might think he would say “God can I have a few more weeks, maybe just a year to enjoy my retirement,” but he doesn’t say that either.  He just goes about his business, command by command, statement by statement, and he never once questions or complains.  Calm, cool, collected – even detached – that is the public image of Moses we see in this morning’s reading.

But the Midrash, the rabbinic commentary on the text, paints a very different picture.  The rabbis who wrote it give us a glimpse of the private Moses, of what is going on on the inside.  In these imaginative commentaries Moses tries every trick in the book to get just a little more time.  He complains to God, saying ‘this is not fair!  I did everything you asked me to do.  I confronted Pharaoh, I brought the plagues, I led the people out of Egypt, I took them to Sinai, I led them through the wilderness for 40 years, I brought them right to the edge of the Promised Land, and now you tell me I can’t even go in, and on top of that that I am about to die.  Its not fair.”  And Moses pleads with God, he begs God, then he goes to the Heavens and the sun and the moon and the ocean and he convinces them to plead with God on his behalf.  In the end nothing works, because his decree has been sealed, it cannot be undone.  But we see page after page of a very human Moses, emotional, wearing his heart on his sleeve, and fighting to the very end of his life for just a little more time, and a bit more dignity.

And I’ve always been grateful that the tradition gives us this different picture of how Moses experienced the last days of his life.  His public persona is hard to relate to – that Moses in this morning’s Torah reading, just blindly following God’s orders, not raising a word of protest, the loyal soldier.  When I look at that Moses there is very little I can relate to.  But the Moses in the midrash, the private Moses, the emotional, fiesty, arguing Moses, is probably familiar to all of us.  He is afraid and worried.  He is jealous of Joshua, and he is angry with God.  He is so vividly human, with faults and frailties, with doubts and anxieties, with a fierce will to live and to hold on to the things that are important to him in his life.

I like that Moses – it is a Moses I can relate to – as a model, he gives me some extra strength going into the High Holy Day season, when we do spend hours before God, praying and thinking about our lives.  That private Moses reminds me that I can kvetch a little bit if there is something I don’t like about my life.  That I can bring my fears and worries and concerns with me to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in fact if I don’t, I am not representing who I truly am.  That if I feel upset or angry with God, I can let God know about it.  And that ultimately the fall holidays are supposed to be about who we truly are on the inside, and recovering, or rediscovering, that sense of self as we prepare to move forward into a new year.

may it be a year of health and blessing –


1 Comment

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One response to “Public Lives, Private Selves

  1. Linda

    Beautiful. You are so authentic. Of course you have boundaries, and it seems to me that you convey that in the best way– ie, by sharing and thus giving to others and making this world a better place (while being true to yourself). Again, you are the teacher. And as much as you are you, you are also bringing Mark Loeb with you. With love, Linda and Joe

    Sent from my iPad


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