Once a year I stop in the shoe store that sells rubber crocs, so that I have appropriate non-leather footwear to wear to synagogue on Yom Kippur instead of my screaming neon- pink sneakers. Next door to the shoe store is a store that sells unusual crafts and handmade items, which is my usual stop after the annual “croc-run”. I was looking for special jewelry box for my daughter, who still had piles of little cardboard boxes of jewelry all over her bureau, gifts from her Bas Mitzvah four years ago. Besides, I like the owner of the store. She is always there and we usually have a fun chat.
As soon as I walked in, I saw her – and “the big change”. “Wow – your hair is….so…. short!” Her hair, which was the thickest and longest jet black hair I have ever seen (imagine a dark-haired Rapunzel), was cut in a short bob, and, like the crafted items in her store, it was cut in an artistic way, like a hair sculpture around her face. “Yea”, she answered. “I finally cut my hair – first time in 40 years – since I was a child.”
“Hmmm, first haircut in 40 years”, I thought. This was sending off alarms in my life-coach brain. So, as gently as I could, I asked for the “story”, which she immediately shared.
Because my hair is so thick, my mom used to take me to her beauty parlor every week where they would wash my hair and put it in a braid. One week, without so much as a word to me, they cut my whole braid off! Then I sat in numb horror as my hair was bleached blond, and permed. Permed!!! I have a picture of me sitting at the beach in a ridiculous bathing suit with daisies on it, with this crazy blond hair and black roots – and my brother tortured me for years with this picture.”
She was smiling as she said this, but I could see the painful memory on her face. “I never let anyone touch my hair again, for over 40 years.” So I asked her what made her make that decision, what made that day “the day”, a day that was different and which led to the haircut. I was expecting to hear an epiphany, so what she said surprised me.
Every five years, at some significant birthday, I would ask myself if I was ready to cut my hair, and the answer was always ‘no’, and so I would not ask myself for another five years. Then I had a birthday – not a 5-year birthday – not a significant birthday – but I just felt I was ready. I called a friend who has a salon and I told her I trusted her, and she should do whatever she thinks is right for me, and I love what she did.
I asked her whether anything has changed in her life now that she cut her hair and she told me how she went hiking and zip gliding, and other activities that she never thought she could do. “Life is too short not to do what you want.”
Interestingly, this shift happened not with an event or “aha”, but with an internal whisper, a gentle stirring, a simple dissolving of a “rule” she had where this decision could only be visited on a “5-year significant birthday. Once she dropped that rule, she dropped the rule that no one could be trusted with her identity, see her with love and do right by her. And once she dropped those rules, she could drop other rules that kept her from doing fun and daring activities she never thought she could do. Happiness is a key that unlocks a lot of locked doors in our minds.
On Kol Nidre, my soul whispers to me. I love the somber tune of Kol Nidre, the slow build-up of intensity, how it absolutely anchors me to the majestic solemnity of Yom Kippur. I listen with my eyes closed, letting the sounds fill me. I don’t look down at my prayer book. I don’t read the words, because I don’t relate to them. The words are about annulling vows and oaths. What vows? What oaths? What does this have to do with my life or me? But this year, because of the “woman with the hair, I see it differently. Now I can see that my mind is filled with oaths and vows, overflowing with them, actually.
What is a vow or oath other than an attachment to a belief or rule you make up for yourself and call it truth? A rule can take on the force of a vow, an oath. Like many of the rules that we make up for ourselves, they don’t really work, as they are the product of “magical thinking”. Or, they are outdated. While this woman’s refusal to let anyone touch her hair may have served her well against an overbearing and insensitive mother, it did not serve her as an adult. Her need to be safe went beyond the inability to have her hair cut – it impacted many areas of her life.
The rules we come up with as children to mitigate and control harm can keep us locked in childhood perceptions that don’t work in our adult world. The parts of us that don’t grow up are not charming and idiosyncratic; they are dysfunctional and constraining.
Sometimes, our rules just serve to keep us from experiencing happiness or other positive emotions, for example, when we have a “rule” that we won’t experience being healthy until we lose 30 lbs., when we could just as easily make a rule that we will experience health every time we exercise, or every time we make a healthy food choice. We make rules that we won’t be happy until we get that car, that house, a husband, a baby, our fourth child, a raise, a new job, or retirement, etc. Or we have rules we made up from eating the emotional poison of others, where we are not even conscious of what we have taken on as a toxic view of ourselves that has no connection to reality.
The point is, we have rules. We make vows and oaths. Some of them may be great but some of them are really horrible. On Yom Kippur, we have the ability – we have the obligation really – to look at our accumulated beliefs, rules, vows, oaths and ask ourselves which of them really serve us, which of them work for us, which of them get us closer to our goals, and help us integrate ourselves so that we are aligned internally and externally.
That is not the work of one day, but a day-to-day process. If we listen carefully to the whisperings of our soul and the murmurings of our heart, then any time of year, we should annul those vows that hurt us, hurt our relationships with our loved ones, and distance ourselves from our true selves and from G-d.
This year, may we be able see the truth of who we really are and what we are capable of, and make new rules that will build us, cultivate our greatness, and uplift the people we love.