By Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
During this season of repentance and forgiveness, I’d like to tell a story of a time I turned a molehill into a mountain.
I was a text teacher at a Jewish sleepaway camp the summer after graduating college. As a “specialty staff” member, I was required to eat my meals at a table with people in similar roles. One person at my table liked to take liberties with dining-hall rules; for example, on Shabbat evenings, the camp provided enough challah rolls for every other person, yet my table-mate would sneak into the kitchen and take extra rolls before they were distributed to other tables, so that each person at our table would have his or her own.
I thought this was unfair. And, when we entered the dining hall one particular Friday night, my patience had worn thin. So when I saw that there was once again a challah roll at every seat at my table, I waited until the perpetrator was elsewhere in the room, picked up the excess rolls, and brought them back to the kitchen.
When I returned to the table, Challah Roll Man — a rather large and intimidating man at that — was not amused.
“Are you planning on returning my challah rolls?” he bellowed at me.
“Maybe,” I said meekly, and snuck out of the hall rather than having to sit with him the rest of the evening.
As I sat on my bunk eating my makeshift Shabbat dinner of peanut butter and crackers, I wondered why Challah Roll Man was so offensive to me. Sure, he was taking extra rolls that would have otherwise gone to campers, but was it so essential to take a stand against this? Didn’t I have better things to do? Sure, he was acting entitled, but how was that hurting me? I lamented that I was wasting my time and taking too many things to heart.
Fortunately, one person saw my interaction with Challah Roll Man. He was a congregational rabbi visiting the camp for a week. After dinner had ended, the rabbi found me and invited me to take a walk.
I told him why I was upset. I was beginning to fear that I would tie myself into knots over other peoples’ antics, and by doing so, I would become no better than the people I was judging. The rabbi acknowledged that he wasn’t too fond of Challah Roll Man’s actions, but then he asked me, “Do you remember what God said after creating human beings?”
“Yes,” I said. “God said ‘ki tov’ [it was good].”
“Exactly,” he replied, “people are ‘tov.’ Good. Not great! Not spectacular! Just good. Tell me,” he continued, “are you able to say, after each day, that you have, more often than not, treated people the way they wish to be treated?”
“I … think so.”
“Then,” the rabbi said, “if you can say that, you’re probably doing all right.”
With one swift lesson, this rabbi taught me that my human reactions to that evening’s events were just that: human. Maybe I should have overlooked the extra challah rolls, or perhaps I could have been more bold about confronting the man who took too many. The point was, it wasn’t worth beating myself up. It was all right to struggle, to make mistakes, to learn from them. We hold ourselves to high standards, and undoubtedly, it’s good to set bold and ambitious goals for ourselves. But we also need to forgive ourselves when we fall short.
In these weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, let us take some time to examine those moments when we could have done better, or perhaps when we overdid it. Let us resist judging those whose actions we disapprove, and instead remember to not do those things ourselves. And let us remember that we are all born ‘tov’, with goodness, and may that inclination toward goodness carry us to blessings in the upcoming new year.
Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum is the new Rabbi at Temple Beth Tzedek in Williamsville.