Ruthless Interrogation: Ta-Nehisi Coates, the High Holidays, and the Making of a Mensch

Recently I had the joy of reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is written as a letter to his 14-year-old son about the black male experience in America today. Coates puts forward a disturbing and convincing characterization of our country’s past and ongoing violence against black men. While Coates’s depiction is bleak and not one filled with hope, his profound ability for personal reflection itself is uplifting and inspiring. I have no doubt that I will reflect on this book and my own issues around white privilege for years to come, but seeing that we are in the middle of the High Holidays and about to enter into Shabbat Shuvah, it seemed both timely and timeless to share one of Coates’s reflections now.

Coates recalls that when he was his son’s age and got in trouble his mother would give him writing assignments. About this Coates writes:

Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing- myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God? ( Between the World and Me p.30)

His even-handed view of his own limited humanity opens a whole vista to understanding the flawed dream of America. Despite all of our differences, we are all the same flawed creatures. This inspires me to look deep inside at my own limitations in preparation for Yom Kippur.

This in turn made me think of a Gemara in Rosh Hashanah where we learn:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the in between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the people in between is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

Like Coates’s story from his adolescence, in this time of year we are all in the middle of our own writing assignments. Which book will be inscribed in?

Seeing that today is Global Character Day, I wanted to draw your attention to Tiffany Shlain‘s new movie the Making of a Mensch, which I had the honor of helping with and came was release today. Inspired by Coates, this Gemara, and this movie I suggest we all experiment with a Mussar practice of regularly keeping a journal so you can all “ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing” ourselves. In the process we will create new habits ensuring that we will inscribed in the right book. Gmar Chatima Tova.

-For more resources on Mussar check our this new page: Accessible Wisdom

-Check out my friend Jonah Canner’s Yom Kippur Journal Practise

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1 Response to “Ruthless Interrogation: Ta-Nehisi Coates, the High Holidays, and the Making of a Mensch”


  1. 1 Gary Katz September 18, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Thanks Avi. I like it.


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