A friend of mine is a respected professor of Jewish history at a prominent university. She recently told this story about herself. She’s in her early 70s and she says she thinks the story is a sign that she is “losing it.” I think that it is really a story about her discovering herself – and in a way that could even be life-saving.
My friend recently asked a librarian at her university to recall a book that she needed for a research project. The book had been checked out by another library user, so the librarian did a quick search on the computer system. The librarian told her, “I’ll try to do the recall, but the book seems to have been checked out by a faculty member. They are often slow to respond to recall notices.”
My friend said to the librarian with a sigh, “Well, give it a try.”
About half an hour later, my friend noticed that she had received an email from the library. “Oh, good,” she thought, “maybe they got the book back.” But when she opened the email, she saw that it was actually a notice asking her to return a book she had checked out that another library user wanted. Yes, it was the same book she had just requested to have recalled. Yes, she was the one who had checked the book out in the first place.
If that story sounds funny, it might be because it’s familiar to you. Most of us have had an experience of discovering that we have been – so to speak – chasing our own tails. I remember an experience I had, back when cell phones were still a new thing, of trying to program my new phone to accept calls forwarded from my old phone number. I kept trying to set up the system, but every time I tested it, I was interrupted by my cell phone ringing. With some exasperation, I would interrupt my work to answer the call, but I kept being frustrated because when I accepted the call there was no one there. I did this three times before I realized that the phone calls were actually coming from me. I was the one calling myself, of course, as I was testing to see if the calls were being forwarded. I had been the dog chasing its own tail.
Experiences like that can be unnerving, and a bit embarrassing, but I want to argue that they can also serve a very useful purpose. Sometimes, being caught in a feedback loop like this can bring a moment of insight. It can be a moment when we discover the need to change a fault in ourselves that we have overlooked or ignored until the moment we find ourselves chasing our own tail.
My friend the professor discovered that her habit of piling up library books on her desk until she didn’t even know which books she had – could be a real nuisance to other people. She didn’t notice it until she became her own victim. I discovered that I am too easily frustrated and feel aggrieved when I think someone is interrupting me. I didn’t notice it until I put myself in the unusual position of interrupting myself.
Here’s another story like this – a less happy story. Bob (not his real name, not a member of this congregation) was a young, ambitious attorney in a medium-sized law firm. He was married with two young children, but he spent up to 60 hours a week working, often late into the night. He did this because he was determined to make a good impression on his bosses with the goal of making partner within a few years.
Most weeks, Bob only saw his kids on weekends because they were usually in bed by the time he got home from work. His wife complained that they never had time to relax together, or even to make plans, because of his work schedule. In Bob’s mind, though, it was all worth it because, once he made partner, he would have a lot more time to spend with his wife and kids.
Bob got passed over for promotion time and again. He never made partner. After five years, he left in frustration and started on his own as a sole practitioner. He actually found that he was happier practicing law that way because he had no one to impress but himself and he was kinder to himself and his family in the way he spent his time with them.
It was not until Bob had been working on his own for a few years that he heard a second-hand story at a dinner party about a young lawyer who had been passed over for promotion at his old firm – because nobody liked him. The person Bob met at the party told him a story she had heard about a lawyer who was always seen as ambitious and hard-working, but who didn’t take the time to cultivate friendships, give other people credit for their work, or let his coworkers get to know him as a person. He never talked about his wife and kids. It seemed like he barely knew them.
On hearing this story, Bob unmistakably recognized that the story was about himself. He was the one who had cut himself off from his own success by cutting himself off from the things in his life that made him a happy, likable person. It took the experience of – so to speak –unexpectedly bumping into himself at a dinner party that made him realize what he had done wrong.
I find it interesting that there are a few stories like this in the Hebrew Bible, too – stories of people who don’t realize what they are doing wrong until they see that they are dogs chasing their own tails. There is such a story in Genesis about Judah, one of Jacob’s sons. He almost sentenced a widowed pregnant woman to death for harlotry, until he realized that the child was legally begotten – and that he was the father.
However, the most famous story of this type is about King David – the greatest king in the history of Israel, the king who was the ancestor of all the other great kings of Israel, the king who, according to Jewish tradition, will some day be the direct-line ancestor of the Messiah. That King David.
One day, King David’s advisor, the prophet Nathan, appeared before him and told him a story. “There were two men who lived in the same town,” Nathan began. “One of them was rich and one was poor. The rich man had very large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, but the poor man only had one little lamb. The poor man kept the lamb as a pet. He fed her from his hand and let her drink from his cup. The poor man would hold the lamb in his lap at night and let her sleep with her head on his chest. The lamb grew up with the man’s family and she was like another daughter for him.”
Nathan continued with his story. “One day, a traveler came to the town and he went to the home of the rich man. Custom demanded that the rich man must provide a meal for his guest, but he did not want to slaughter one of his own sheep for the meal, so he took the poor man’s lamb, slaughtered it, and served it to the traveler.”
Hearing this, King David was incensed. He raised his voice and cast a kingly sentence against the man in the story, “As God lives, the man who did this deserves to die! His behavior is disgraceful! What a horrendous, pitiless thing for that man to do!”
It was just the reaction that Nathan had hoped to provoke. He said to the king, “That man – is you.”
What had David done to deserve this rebuke? King David had six wives. Two of them were daughters of kings. Yet, David lusted over another woman – a married woman – so much that he had her husband killed so he could have her as his own. The woman, Bathsheba, became David’s seventh wife, his favorite wife, after the death of her first husband, Uriah.
The story about the man who loved the lamb was Nathan’s parable for the way that David – the wealthiest man in the kingdom – had, on a greedy whim, stolen the beloved wife of a much poorer man. What did David do when he heard this story? Well, he might have called Nathan a liar and put him to death for treason. No one would have stopped him if he had. But he did not. Instead, he recognized himself in Nathan’s story. He said only two Hebrew words in reply, “Chatati l’Adonai,” “I have sinned before God.”
David, according to the story, was partially forgiven by God for his sin. Without realizing it, David had declared a death sentence upon himself when he said to Nathan and to God, “The man who did this deserves to die.” When Nathan revealed the full story to him, David probably did believe that, yes, he deserved to die for what he had done to Uriah and to Bathsheba, and he expected God to punish him with death. Yet, God allowed him to live because of his confession – because he acknowledged his wrongdoing, when he could have just denied it.
None of us – I hope! – has connived to have another person killed for our own advantage. But we all have had moments in life when we have had the awkward experience of realizing that we have hurt others – moments when we have seen that we ourselves are the people whose thoughtless habits have caused harm, moments when we have seen how prone we can be to annoyance and frustration, moments when we have seen that we are the ones who have been so caught up in ourselves that we have neglected people who are dear to us, moments when we have seen that it is we who have treated others cruelly while pursuing our whims. Such realizations can leave us feeling ashamed and mortified. Sometimes, we don’t figure it out until we feel ourselves biting on our own tails.
I want to say tonight, that we should be grateful for such moments. It is hard for us human beings to see ourselves as we really are. Our egos and our self-deceptions get in our way. Our brains are designed to justify our every behavior, so it’s easy for us to create elaborate stories in our heads that explain why we “have” to do the things we do. Sometimes, it takes a moment of not recognizing the reflection in the mirror to discover how other people see us – and how we need to be able to see ourselves.
Yom Kippur is a day for honest self-appraisal. All the confessing, praying, fasting, and asking for forgiveness that we do on Yom Kippur is designed to break down our egos so we can see ourselves as we really are. We do that because, it is only when we know ourselves better – including our faults and flaws – that we will have the motivation and the will to change. And that is the ultimate goal of this day.
Why do we need to change? In order to avert the death sentence that we call down upon ourselves. Maybe not a literal death-sentence – like David saying, “the man who did this deserves to die” – but a figurative death sentence. Every time we allow ourselves to be thoughtless, selfish or cruel, as we all do at times, we experience a kind of spiritual death. We feel a sense of loss of self – we die a little – every time we realize we have caused pain.
So, let me ask you today to notice who you are when you are not justifying yourself, when you are not putting on the blinders to your own behavior. Catch your image in the mirror and see the person there before you notice that it’s you. Chase after your own tail like a dog at play, and recognize the truths about yourself that you would usually prefer to ignore.
What you find may not be a big revelation. You’re not likely to discover that you have committed terrible crimes. No, the point of Yom Kippur is not to tell us that we are bad people. The point is for each of us to recognize that we can be better, and that we have work to do to get there.
But don’t ignore the little things you find, either – the small habits that you’re not so proud of – the way you don’t greet people kindly when you’re in a rush, the way you allow your attention to be distracted when others need you to focus on them, the way you get defensive when you feel criticized. Whatever it is for you, notice it, see it, recognize yourself, and resolve to do better.
Go ahead and chase your own tail. When you catch it, take comfort that what you have found, after all, is yourself. You may not like everything about the person you find, but it is who you are. Remember that catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself gives you an opportunity to make yourself better – and, perhaps, even to save your life.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
May you be sealed for a good year.