Kendi & Kiddushin: Judging Our Lives “Bird-By-Bird”

By Rabbi Benay Lappe

Like so many of you, I’m sure, given the events of the last six months, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed with life right now. The task of figuring out how I’m going to show up in all of this, and how I want to walk through the world differently – both to be a more fully human version of myself, but also to be a part of multiple liberatory projects which call me to help make the world a better place – is enormous.

And knowing how to do all of that can be really overwhelming! Where do I even start?

But whenever I’m overwhelmed like this, I think about that story that the writer Anne Lamott tells about her brother and his book report. She says, “I remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope.”

Like that 10-year-old boy, I often feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the task of becoming the kind of person I want to become. I want to be kind and empathic, and compassionate, and a feminist, and an antiracist, and not ableist, and not transphobic, and so many other things.

And here come the Hi-ho’s to turn up the volume on the question of how I’m going to do all of that, and then reminding us that Yom Kippur, in case you’d forgotten, is called Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Oh great!

The Yom Kippur judgment day thing is a kind of yearly dress-rehearsal for that probably metaphoric (but who knows?!) final judgment that the Rabbis of the Talmud envisioned would happen at the end of our lives as we entered the imagined World to Come.

Now all this judging can be kinda scary. But the Rabbis, of course, could never agree on what exactly the yardstick to measure our lives was going to be and, as it turns out, we have all these different models in our tradition for how this imagined judgment might work.

Theres the Have-You-Seen-My-Alps Model (I wrote about this a few weeks ago). It’s the idea that when we die and come before the so-called final judge, what we just might be asked is: So, what did you think of my Alps?! It’s the notion that we’re taken to task not for all the bad things we’ve done, but for all the good things we might have enjoyed in this world, but didn’t. This is a good one! I happen to like this one a lot.

And then there’s Ravas-Six-Questions Model. It’s the idea that, when you come before that final judge, your life will be measured by how you answer the following six questions (which, of course, is all code for: Hey, people, I’m givin’ ya the test questions ahead of time here! Start using them to tune up your life now so that when you come to the end of your one fabulous life and look back, you’ll feel good about how you lived it!). So here’s Rava’s Six-Question Model:

1. Were you honest in your business dealings?

2. Did you set fixed times to learn Torah?

3. Did you help the raising up of the next generation?

4. Did you stay hopeful that things would get better?

5. Did you debate with wisdom and empathy? and

6. Did you take the truths you knew were partial and expand them into bigger and more liberatory truths?

That’s a good one, too, right?

And then, with apologies to Anne Lamott who got scooped by the Talmud about 2,000 years before her brother’s book report moment, there’s the Talmud’s third model for how we might judge ourselves that I’m still going to call the “Bird-by-Bird Model. It comes from the tractate of Kiddushin, and it’s the text that I’d like to share with you now. It presents not only a unique model of judgment, but also provides what I think is an amazing spiritual technology, or practice, for transforming consciousness – which I think has to precede the transformation of our actions. [And I want to credit my friend, teacher, and colleague Rabbi Ari Lev with helping me see this framing in what’s really going on in this text that has captivated me over the years and which I re-learn every year around this time.]

So, I’d like to share that text with you now, and where I’m at with it. At least this year. It’s Kiddushin 40b. And it starts with the temporary premise that we are judged on the basis of the majority of our actions, which in and of itself is pretty cool, I think, because it’s saying: we’re not actually judged by all of our past actions, and not even by our past individual actions – good or bad – but rather by where the majority of our actions in the aggregate places us – in the category of “mitzvah-heavy” or “transgression-heavy.” OK, so that’s the temporary premise on which the text sits.

And with that premise in the background now, the gemara tells us that our spiritual practice should be to walk through the world holding a certain kind of imaginary, pretend consciousness about ourselves – not as good or bad, but as absolutely balanced in our moral ledger, as if all of our mitzvot – all of our good deeds, all of our kind and healing words, and ways of being – are balanced equally with all of our averas – all of our hurtful or harmful words or actions, mistakes, and failings.

Why? To help you focus your attention on the potential power of your very next single action or speech act which will then have the potential to tip your entire cheshbon, your entire spiritual ledger, one way or the other.

But, your cheshbon, the text says, has only a momentary status. That last act doesnt determine who you are, in any existential, permanent way. It determines what you are, in this moment! And your very next action will shift your status again, depending on the quality of that act. In a constant dance of impermanence.

It’s the tradition’s way of reminding us that just as the world out there is in constant change, and crashes will happen over and over again, so too is our inner world in a state of constantly changing impermanence, and the only ”sum total” of who we are is always a momentary status, never a permanent identity.

And now Rashi pipes up here and says: With a single good act in that next moment, you actually become, for that moment a tzaddik, a righteous person. So, a tzaddik isn’t, it turns out, what we all used to think – some kind of always-perfect, never-mistake-making holy saint. A tzaddik is someone who, one fraction of a moment ago, just did a good or helpful thing, or said a good or kind thing. And they’ll hold onto that status until they mess up – at which point, they’ll no longer be a tzaddik in that moment … but might a moment later!

So to be righteous is actually a kind of “bird-by-bird” approach to life. One moment you are, the next moment you’re not – but the one after that you are again!

I think this is the liberatory approach to life and change – both personal and societal – that Ibram Kendi is talking about when he reframes the whole racist/”not-racist” conversation. He says, “The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what – not who – we are.”

He goes on to say: “I used to be racist most of the time. I am changing. I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be “not racist”…and I’ve come to see that the movement from racist to antiracist is always ongoing…”

When I read this I suddenly realized that my own desire and commitment to walk through the world as an antiracist was not going to come about through some sudden, grand gesture or show of solidarity just because I had shpilkes about wanting to be antiracist yesterday. It was going to be a day-by-day, hour-by-hour spiritual practice. And some days I’d get it wrong. But then I’d learn and confess and make amends and then get another chance to get it right the following day.

Kendi – and Kiddushin – give me permission to forgive myself for not getting it right all the time. And to not think that my entire “permanent identity” as a “good person” is constantly at stake (which feels like the terror that accompanied that threat that something was going to “go on your permanent record” when you were a schoolkid, remember?).

When we mistake statuses for identities we misunderstand how change and growth happen. And we make it harder for ourselves, and others, to shift the way we walk through the world.

But the Talmud then raises the stakes even higher! It suggests that the power of that next act has potential rewards even greater than we’d imagined and that extend far beyond our own individual lives. The text goes on to say: And remember, the entire world is judged based on the majority of its inhabitants. So now, if my next act toward the good tips the balance for me, and tips my own status to the side of righteousness, I, in turn, then shift the balance of the entire world, and that single act of mine has now tipped the status of the entire world toward the good.

And Rashi pipes up there again and says something even more mind-blowing: In that moment, through that one positive act, not only has the individual become a tzadik, but in that moment they have caused the status of everyone else in the world to be a tzadik as well! Our actions not only impact us, they literally transform everyone else around us.

Kendi and Kiddushin remind us to take our lives “bird-by-bird,” conversation by conversation, interaction by interaction, antiracist act by antiracist act, knowing that we have the opportunity, in our very next word or deed, to change the world – while also remembering that, when we mess up, it’s OK, and we’re going to have another opportunity to earn back our tzadik status, and to create that momentary world of righteousness, in the very next second after that.

So my hope for all of us as we go into this next year is that we worry less about who we are, and who we want to be, and focus more on what we’ll be in our very next moment. And then the moment after that … knowing that right-action and right-speech, in a single moment, confer on each of us – and in turn on the whole world – the hope and potential of righteousness for all of us, and for the creation of a liberatory world.

One moment at a time.

Rabbi Benay Lappe is the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva.