Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there were lots of opportunities for reflection and self-examination. I had a helpful reminder when I recently taught a workshop on recycling and reuse in fibre arts.
I worked as an English, writing and adult education teacher when I was in my 20s, and I’ve taught off and on ever since. Lately, I’ve mostly taught fibre arts, but I enjoy teaching in general. Often, as we moved for my husband’s academic life, I’d give up my teaching job, uproot myself and try again in the next place we lived. It was a challenging situation. A couple of moves ago, I switched over to writing, editing and design, and only occasional teaching. Now it all has to fit in around my kids’ needs as well, so I’ve taught a lot less in recent years.
My wake-up call came when I checked in at a teaching venue. About six years ago, I helped create the festival that hosted my workshop. First, the volunteer asked who I was and what I needed. I pointed to the class list and said I was teaching. The volunteers started chatting with me, “Oh,” they asked, “Do you knit?”
“Well yes,” I replied. “I write knitting patterns.”
It went from there. They had no idea who I was at all. I explained that I had been a teacher at the festival more than once. It came up that I’d written books on the subject and, if they couldn’t take my class, as they were volunteering, they could download my designs online and learn that way.
It continued when they rushed into my classroom five minutes into the workshop to hand out name tags. (They’d forgotten them.) I smiled and said we already had them. “Oh,” they responded, “someone else gave them to her!” I had to smile back and say, “I brought them myself – something I’d learned from helping to start this festival.”
We live in an age of constant social media bombardment and self-marketing. If we aren’t always in our profession’s limelight somehow, it’s possible that no one will know us; that anything we’ve accomplished is irrelevant if we’re not at the top of somebody’s Instagram or social media feed.
This encounter reminded me that, even if I’m teaching, being paid and my bio is up on the website, well, I’m a nobody like everybody else. We all put on our pants one leg at a time. We may think a lot of ourselves, and that’s well and good, but is there any reason to think that? (In my case, not really!)
From Selichot up to Yom Kippur is when we’re supposed to focus on self-examination and make apologies. We make space and time to think about when we missed the mark and how we can do more. We have to reflect on whether we have run away from our responsibilities or failed in our lives. How can we do better at keeping our promises, and go beyond?
On Yom Kippur, we read the Haftorah portion of the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:1-4:11). This is a hard story to hear and I always find myself with conflicting emotions. I mean, who thinks they can get a direct order from the Almighty and then take a boat ride in the opposite direction? Is it normal to get thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale? Not so much. (It’s a whale of a tale!)
Once Jonah gets to Nineveh, he does what he is asked to do – and the people respond. They atone. This doesn’t please Jonah either. Jonah wishes that they were punished rather than forgiven for their previous bad behaviour. He wants retribution rather than compassion.
Jonah is human, like all of us. He learns what it means, eventually, to lose everything. He is abased and despondent. It’s miserable, but he learns a lot.
After my class, which went very well, by the way, and was a lot of fun, I realized that I was pitying myself, like Jonah. I spent time thinking, I’ve lost everything, nobody’s heard of me anymore.
Avoiding the great big pity party, I resolved that I should be grateful. I’d had fun and earned money in my classroom. When others recognized me later that day, I felt grateful and tried to celebrate the connections I had made in previous years.
For me, having twins and some health challenges has meant that I’ve had to adjust my worldview. Like Jonah, I’ve had to learn that I’m just not in control. Instead of running away from Nineveh, I gave up some volunteer activities, work commitments and other things when I discovered that I couldn’t manage it. Like Jonah, I can’t blame others who flourished in the meanwhile. Jonah had to sweat it out in the heat, alone, to learn this, but here it is: we’re not in control.
Instead of feeling angry that we’re not recognized or that Nineveh wasn’t punished appropriately for its mistakes, let’s turn the story around. It’s great that there’s a divine power at work who saves Nineveh and Jonah, and teaches him (and me) important lessons about compassion. I hope I didn’t embarrass those volunteers.
A little navel-gazing helped me realize what I needed for 5780: an increased dose of humility and gratitude.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.