I was talking with a congregant this week about how we can make our Zoom services more engaging, and he suggested adding a little humor to make it more fun and unpredictable. So I want to start my sermon tonight by showing you a clip from a Seinfeld episode.
To set the stage: George is struggling with a decision over whether or not he should call the woman he’s dating. And Kramer has some advice for him. Here it is: it’s only 15 seconds, so listen closely.
I feel like George a lot of times. My Little Man is an idiot, too. Sometimes I think he gives me bad advice just to mess with me. In fact, my Little Man is wrong so often that I keep thinking I should try one of George’s other tactics – listen to what the Little Man says to do, and then do the exact opposite.
Or maybe not. Maybe that’s just what the Little Man wants me to think. Maybe he just wants to sow doubt and keep me second-guessing myself.
That’s the thing: my Little Man can be pretty harsh sometimes. He’s my biggest critic.
He’s always the first one to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about; that every decision I make is wrong; that I’m not good enough, or smart enough, or caring enough; that I’m not living up to expectations; that I’m an imposter in my own life.
He’s pretty good at making me feel bad about myself – that Little Man.
But of course, he doesn’t do that to me. He is me. And those harsh criticisms I have heard from him my whole life? They’re coming from me.
Like many of us, I am my own worst critic.
We say that flippantly, as though it’s an easy thing to let go of and get over. But it’s not. That Little Man can be mean, and loud, and he won’t leave you alone.
And if you let him, that Little Man can do real and lasting damage to our emotional and spiritual well-being.
Or more to the point, we do real damage to ourselves when we tear ourselves down so harshly.
* * *
For those of us – like me – who struggle with anxiety and self-doubt, the Covid era is particularly hard.
We’re disconnected from our usual outlets, the things that keep us engaged and occupied – and we’re feeling lonely. And that loneliness and isolation creates a void that the Little Man is only too happy to fill with his cruel and devastating critiques.
And that gets us feeling even more down, and even more off-track, and even more powerless over the direction of our lives.
What can we do to quiet the voice of negativity? How can we deprive the Little Man of his power over us?
* * *
Judaism can help. Because we’re not the only ones to have struggled with this.
The great King David himself battled his own Little Man. In fact, he wrote about it in one of his psalms – Psalm 27.
Or, at least, that’s how I read it.
Reflecting in his old age on the life he’s lived, David expresses the same struggles we all feel from time-to-time – the struggles with angst, and melancholy, and depression, and emptiness, and self-doubt, and the yearning for something more.
He calls out to God – pleads with God, actually – for help, and comfort, and reassurance.
Although, as a mighty warrior and king, he has accumulated so much wealth and material success in his life, David feels tormented and empty inside – and he longs only for inner spiritual peace.
In his anguish he writes: “Achat sha’alti me-eit Adonai, otah avakesh – There is one thing I ask of Adonai, and that is the only thing I seek: to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life; to behold the beauty of God’s presence.”
Not to wait for someday. But here. Now. In this life.
Before I die, God, may I come to know your peace.
David’s struggles are our struggles. His voice is our voice. The world may have changed in a million ways since he wrote those words, but in so many other ways our human condition is the same.
Like David, we want peace and serenity.
We want to overcome those forces like the Little Man that push us down, and paralyze us with fear and doubt. We want to live.
“I set before you this day two choices: life and death,” God says in the Torah. “Choose life, so that you and your offspring may live.”
We want to live – not just survive.
* * *
I bring up Psalm 27 now because our tradition has chosen it as the major text for study and contemplation during this month of Elul, as we head into Rosh Hashanah just four weeks from tonight.
Over the next three weeks, you’ll be receiving a series of emails from me with reflections on each verse of the psalm, along with a question for personal reflection:
What defines your life? What are your sources of self-worth? How can you gain control over your internal critic? How would your life change if you changed your definition of success? Who do you want to be in the new year?
Together, the reflections I’ll be sending you comprise a meditation on Psalm 27 that I wrote back in 2009. I’ve kept it mostly to myself until now, because it’s an intensely personal piece of writing.
But I’m choosing to share it with you now because Elul invites us to be vulnerable, and honest, and sincere, and open – all in an effort to do t’shuvah – to return to our authentic selves, in order to draw closer to God.
In fact, intimacy and vulnerability are the themes of Elul. Tradition says the name “Elul” is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “ani l’dodi v’dodi li” – meaning: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”
God is our beloved, and we are God’s.
In Elul, we are called to bare our souls completely to God, because that is the necessary first step toward restoration, redemption, and spiritual elevation.
* * *
When Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David wrote the episode about George and the Little Man, I don’t know if they realized they were tapping into something very Jewish.
The Little Man may know all, or he may be an idiot, or he may be our worst critic. But the antidote to the Little Man is what the Bible describes as “the still, small voice” inside every one of us.
That still, small voice is the voice of God. The Little Man may be much louder, but God is much kinder, and gentler, and wiser.
So, as Elul begins, I wonder if we can somehow find the strength and the faith to say, “Thank you for your input Little Man, but I’m listening to someone else now. Someone who cares about me and sees the good in me.”
If so, maybe – just maybe – we can move a little closer toward that spiritual peace we all so desperately desire.
Achat sha’alit me-eit Adonai, otah avakesh.
There is one thing I ask of Adonai, and that is the only thing I seek: to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life; to behold the beauty of God’s presence.