Kol Nidre 5779
September 18, 2018
What’s In Your Cup?
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


There’s a hypothetical scenario that has been making its way around social media lately.  It posits:

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and shoves you or shakes your arm.  You then spill coffee everywhere.

Why did you spill the coffee?

“Well, because someone bumped into me, of course!”

Wrong answer.

You spilled the coffee because coffee was in the cup.  If tea had been in it, you would have spilled tea.

Whatever is inside the cup is what will come out.

Therefore, when life comes along and shakes you (which will happen), whatever is inside of you will come out. It’s easy to fake it until you get rattled.

So we have to ask ourselves…what’s in my cup?

When life gets tough, what spills over?

Joy, gratefulness, peace and humility?  Or anger, bitterness, harsh words and actions?[1]  Is your cup—your demeanor—filled with hot stuff, or cold?

Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to reexamine our cups.  Where things have spilled over in anger and bitterness, we have the chance to clean up these spills and affix the lid more securely.  Where joy and peace have overflowed, we can learn to continue filling our cups with such abundant blessing.  The choice is ours.

Our sages remind us that a key part of the process of teshuvah—getting back on the proper path to prepare for a new year—is the act of cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.”  We are called to engage in self-analysis and figure out where we need to make modifications—to our cups and to that which we hold inside.

The coffee cup scenario helps to illustrate that oftentimes our response to a situation is colored not just by the specifics of that incident, but by the full complement of life experiences we’ve had up to that moment.  If we’ve had disappointments and feel the deck is stacked against us, then we are more likely to be suspicious of others’ motives.  If we’ve lived lives full of love and joy, we are more readily able to extend our hands and hearts to others.

I recently heard an interview with actor/ director Dax Shepard.  Shepard is married to actress Kristen Bell, and he contrasted the different ways they each respond to stressful and frustrating situations:

“Because I’m a [jerk] sometimes,” Shepard said, “I assume that everybody’s the same way I am.  I’m regularly frustrated in traffic.  When some guy cuts me off I go straight to, ‘This guy’s selfish.’  Kristen[’s instinct is to say] … , ‘Oh, he wasn’t paying attention’ or ‘He’s on his way to help his kid at school’ or whatever it is.  And I realize the reason she does that is that she’s never cut anyone off trying to get ahead. So how could she even conceive that someone else would be doing that?  Well, … I’m a jerk…I try to take what’s not mine, I try to get more than I’m entitled to.  So of course I assume that the guy who just cut me off is doing the same thing I would do.  I don’t think I’m a monster, but I do it.”[2]

Shepard returned to this topic later in the interview, acknowledging that his wife probably had the better approach in such situations, and stating that he has tried to shift his attitude:

“[It’s] a better way to go through life, assuming the best…the only person losing in this scenario is me.  I’m the one with the adrenaline dump, and I’m the one who’s mad for nine minutes after that interaction, not the other person.”[3]

At the conclusion of the discussion, Shepard noted that he has recently adopted a meditative practice.  It refocuses his impulse to react to something negatively so that instead he can calm himself down and respond more charitably.  He notes, “The brain is habitual by nature…you can make things instinctual just by repetition.”[4]

During the High Holidays, when we remove the Torah scrolls from the ark, we recount the thirteen divine attributes.  Among the list is “erech apayim—God is slow to anger.”[5]  If God’s anger can be tempered (usually), certainly we can learn to modulate our baser emotions.

If indeed it is a primal instinct for us to respond to a situation by comparing it to past experiences (and researchers seem to believe this is the case), then it would behoove us to find ways to overcome that knee-jerk reaction, to change our scripts and refocus our internal narrative.  Where we’ve responded negatively to something in the past, perhaps we can retrain ourselves to react in a more measured way.  If we can attempt to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, we may understand the reason they took a particular course of action.  We still may not appreciate how such action affected our experience with that individual, but stepping back and taking stock of the situation, rather than acting in the heat of the moment, may indeed give us the needed tools to temper our response in the future if we are faced with a similar scenario.

I recently came across a quote that serves as a powerful lesson about human behavior.  Much like the contrast between Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell’s responses to frustrating drivers, the statement reminds us that often it is not the actual details of the scenario that cause us to become upset, but how we process and absorb the situation.  The quote states, “The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg.  It’s about what you’re made of, not the circumstances.”[6]  Motivational speaker and writer Jack Canfield distills this concept into a mathematical formula: E+R=O…Events plus responses equals outcomes.

“Every outcome you experience in life,” Canfield writes,” is the result of how you have responded to an earlier event in your life… If you want to change the results you get in the future, you must change how you respond to events in your life.”[7]  Canfield notes that we rarely have the power to alter the actual events that cause us distress or angst, but we can change our habits that make us behave in ways that are ineffective, inappropriate for the situation, or even self-destructive.

On Yom Kippur, the voice of the prophet calls out to us, “Return, O Israel, to Adonai your God!”[8]  Returning is the literal translation of what it means to engage in teshuva.  But perhaps that’s an oversimplification that does injustice to the actual work required for true teshuva.  A call to “return” implies to me that there’s some point in our past where our behavior, our demeanor, and our interactions with others were perfect, and that if we could only recapture that moment, we would permanently be in God’s good graces.  But I don’t think that’s the case.  I believe that as humans, we are constantly striving to improve ourselves, that we are on a continual path toward realizing the divine possibilities that have been implanted within us.  Teshuva therefore is not a return to some mythic past, but a re-imagining of ourselves in relation to the world in which we live and interact.

We might call it a re-positioning.  Repositioning is done frequently in the cruise industry, where it is neither feasible or profitable for ships to operate year-round on the same routes.  A ship that sails summer routes in Alaska, for instance, may be repositioned in the fall to sail in warmer climates, such as Mexico or the Caribbean.  Imagine if we allowed ourselves to do the same: if a behavior or position we’ve held has become untenable, or no longer brings us joy, or is dangerous to our well-being, then it would make sense for us to make every effort to “right our ships” and chart a new course.

We humans love routine.  We fall into familiar patterns and have a hard time disrupting them.  Like most experiences, life can be habit-forming.  But Yom Kippur calls us to examine our routines and habits with a critical eye.  Unless we can find some method of disruption to break us from the negative habits and instincts that have held us back, we’re going to be unable to be truly effective in our teshuva, unable to make the changes that lead us on a path to our better selves.

Please know, by the way, that I’m not speaking here about issues such as addiction, which are usually deeply ingrained and nearly impossible to overcome on one’s own.  If you need assistance in overcoming a dependency or moving out of a cycle of self-harm, please contact professionals who can assist you with this.  If you need resources toward taking that first step, please contact me privately.  Our conversations will be confidential and without judgment.

If, on the other hand, after self-examination we find that there are more malleable aspects of our personas that would benefit from adjustment, well, that’s exactly what we can and should attempt to address through this holiday season.

Our tradition teaches that if we simply make the sincere effort to change ourselves in some manner, that God is ready to accept our efforts with love and to welcome us back into the divine embrace.  If, however, we take a lackadaisical approach to the task, giving mere lip service to the idea of self-improvement while already planning our slide back into behaviors that we know are wrong, then we need to understand that Yom Kippur will not magically absolve us of any guilt for these missteps.

Teshuva is not a “one size fits all” process.  Individual mileage may vary.  We each live different lives.  We each come from different backgrounds and hold different beliefs.  The individuals who populate our life stories are different for each one of us.  Thus, each of our life stories inherently unfolds differently.  Therefore, there will be different chapters for each of us that we wish to rewrite through teshuva.

Many of us know the parable of the blind individuals and the elephant.[9]  Because of the elephant’s size, and the individuals’ visual impairment, they each only experience a portion of the animal.  The person who feels the trunk suspects that the creature is a snake; the one who touches the tail feels certain that it is a rope, and so forth.  In some versions of the story, the people actually come to blows because each person’s limited perception of the elephant does not match their neighbors’ experiences.  The fable illustrates that “while one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of [reality].”[10]

Taking control of the contents of your cup requires recognition of this fact.  When we are upset at a situation, we are conditioned to respond in the heat of the moment.  Yet our response may only be related to our subjective experience of events, and not the total truth of the scenario.  In this new year, we would do well to seek ways to acknowledge that others may be simultaneously experiencing the exact same incidents, yet arriving at entirely different outcomes.  Effective transformation in this new year—true teshuva—can best be achieved not only by looking inward for self reflection, but also by training ourselves to look outward to discover how our family, our friends, and our neighbors are functioning in a given situation.

As we navigate through the year, keeping our coffee cups in precarious balance, let us be conscious of others’ cups as well.  When we encounter people with cups that are tinged with bitterness because of sadness or disappointment, let us strive to bring them sweetness.  When cups overflow with joy and celebration, let it spill over in abundant waves.

Like coffee cups, we are merely vessels—not to hold hot liquids, but to hold emotions, experiences, and all of life’s complexities.  May we, through holy acts of self-reflection, teshuva, and compassion toward others, learn to respond to each of life’s challenges with grace, humor, and compassion.

G’mar chatimah tovah, may we each merit to be inscribed in the book of life, happiness and blessing.


[1] This story has made the rounds of the internet without conclusive attribution.

[2] “Dax Shepard on Raising Arizona,” episode of the podcast “Movie Crush.”  Originally released on July 6, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid

[5] See Exodus 34:6

[6] Attempts to trace the source of this statement were unsuccessful.  It appears to be linked to another anonymous parable about eggs, carrots, and coffee beans.

[7] “The Formula That Puts You in Control of Success,” on jackcanfield.com Retrieved September 13, 2018.

[8] Hosea 14:1, which comprises part of the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

[9] First attested to in the Buddhist text Udana 6.4, dated to about the mid 1st millennium BCE.


[10] Goldstein, E. Bruce Encyclopedia of Perception (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 2010) p. 492