Yom Kippur 5776 – Utopia In The Real World

Tradition teaches that we are not supposed to wait until Yom Kippur to atone for our sins; Teshuva and repentance is supposed to be an ongoing process that takes place each and every day throughout the year.  So, we took it very seriously when our eleven year old informed us last year that we were bad parents.  What was our sin?  We had never taken our daughter to Disneyworld.

And so, because we want to be good parents and because, at times we are more than willing to purchase the love and affection of our youngest child, we planned a trip to Disney World this past summer.

It was expensive, but it was wonderful.  Aside from one or two little squabbles, we had a truly fantastic time.  How can you not have a great time at Disney?  It’s designed to be perfect.

When Walt Disney built Disneyland, his vision was to build a utopia.  In dedicating the opening of Disneyland in California on July 17, 1955, Disney said: “To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Walt Disney grew up during a difficult time.  His father Elias Disney, was a stern, severe man who despite several attempts throughout his life to achieve significant success, never was able to realize his dreams. When Walt was a young boy, Elias Disney moved the family to Marceline, Missouri, a remote farming town that captured for young Walt a sense of dreamy perfection.  It was not simply the conventional features of small-town America that captivated Disney’s soul – the earnest and honest simple businesses lining Kansas Avenue, the town’s mainstreet, or the carefree simple life of a young boy with freedom to grow.  It was the spirit of the community. In Marceline people cared for one another and were tolerant of one another, collaborating to help each other and support one another.  For Walt, Marceline was a vision of utopia, the template of what life was supposed to possess – a sense of well-being, freedom, and community – beautiful and free.[1]

Walt knew, as do we, that the world is not like Marceline.  Coming through the Great Depression and the second world war, he knew that the world is full of painful struggle – poverty, disease, hatred, and strife, dishonesty, and discord.  Walt wanted to heal that, to help people to escape from that to a better world, whether for a few hours in a movie theater or a day in his park.  Leaving behind the world you know, you enter Disneyland with a walk down Main Street, and then choose either fantasy, adventure, the frontier, or the future – a trip through the park is a metaphor for possibility.

But more than an hour or a day, Disney wanted to change the world.  When the acreage was quietly purchased in Orlando for what would become Walt Disney World, Walt himself had little interest in recreating the amusement park that was his oasis in California.  “The appeal of Disney World to Walt – its only real appeal to him – was that he would finally have a chance to build a utopian city…”[2]  He called it an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT.

Originally, EPCOT was to be a “living, breathing community” of 20,000, and Walt imagined that it would eventually grow to 60 or even 100,000.  He imagined that it would worry about pre-school education, home environment, employment, with a teen center, and a facility for senior citizens.  It would have recreational zones, and houses of worship.  He imagined houses that would be completely self-sufficient, with their own power plants, electricity, and waste systems that would make this town the “first accident free, noise free, pollution free city center in America.”  But Walt would not live to see his utopian vision come to fruition. The EPCOT we visited was in some ways a testimony to his vision – a celebration of idealism where human cultures and human ingenuity together can transform our world.

There is something about utopia.  It’s magnetic.  In 2014, the Magic Kingdom welcomed over 19 million visitors, EPCOT 11 and a half.  We will pay $105 per person just to experience utopia for a day.  Dreaming of a better world is transformative; it revitalizes the soul.

We gather here on Yom Kippur, and it seems an awkward time to be talking about utopia.  After all, we come here expecting to spend the day focused on what’s wrong with our lives, what isn’t working in our world, and in ourselves.

But I think there is a reason we start this day with the recitation of Kol Nidrei.  More than the haunting chant that penetrates our souls in ways no words can hope to achieve, the words themselves atone for all we might fail to accomplish next year. We’re clear from the start.  “Vayomer Adonai, Salachti Kidvarecha – And God said, I have pardoned in response to your plea. (Numbers 14:20)”

So what do we have left to do today (and tomorrow)?  Well, I think we have a choice.  We can either spend our time mired in cynicism about the way things are, or we can spend our time dreaming about the way things could be.

There are times in our life when we afford ourselves the chance to dream and dream big.  When I was a kid, I would spend hours pitching baseballs against the back wall of my house, imagining it was game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth inning, our team nursing a one-run lead.  Ask a kid what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will be glad to share with you her perfectly logical plans for Broadway or the Oval Office.

But at some point, someone says: “Grow up.  Welcome to the real world!” and we turn out the light on our idealism. The real world is … real.  We all have to come to grips with the fact that there are certain questions we need to learn how to answer: How are you going to do that?  How long is that going to take? How much is that going to cost?  How are you going to get people to do that?  Can you prove that’s worth doing?  Anybody else ever do that before? The fact is, in order to live in the real world, we have to answer those questions, and we have to teach our children to answer them too.

But as noted thinker and management consultant Peter Block explains, the problem is that too often those are the only questions we ask.  In his book The Answer To How Is Yes, Block suggests that we live in a culture that lavishes rewards on “what works more than it values what matters.”[3]

Living in the real world demands accountability, value, and results that can be quantified and measured.  And in so many ways, that is how we seem to measure our business and personal success in life.  How much did we produce?  How many clients did we serve?  What was our earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization?  What was our GPA?  How much do we have in the bank?

The problem is that the imperative to be practical often quashes our need to be idealistic.  We spend so much time asking ourselves “What works?” that we forget to ask the fundamental question “What matters?”  “The goal is to balance a life that works with a life that counts.  The challenge is to acknowledge that just because something works, it doesn’t mean that it matters.”[4]

What I want us to consider is that to truly live in the real world, we cannot sacrifice our idealism.  “What is lost in a materialistic and pragmatic culture is idealism.” And it is idealism, Block asserts, “that has the potential to bring together our larger purpose with our day to day doing.”[5]

In 1894, two young Jewish men were intently following the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was accused of passing secrets to the Germans.  It became apparent that the charges were fabricated and the trial simply an anti-Semitic charade. The first was a thirty-four year old writer named Theodor Herzl and the other was a twenty-two year old writer named Leon Blum.

Following the trial, in which the crowds were chanting, “Death to the Jews,” each man chose a remarkably idealistic but different path.  Herzl came to the realization that Jews would never be secure in Europe, and that the time had come to pursue Jewish nationalism.  Herzl locked himself in his room, and wrote his ideas in what would become his book The Jewish State. He began his work to convince Jewish leaders and the political leaders of his time that the time had come for the world to embrace Zionism as the nationalistic aspirations of the Jewish people.  Herzl devoted the next ten years of his life to building the State of Israel – convening six Zionist Congress meetings in Basel, Switzerland which brought together delegates from all over Europe and the world, traveling throughout the continent to build support for the Jewish state.  In the last years of his life, Herzl wrote Altneuland, “Old-New land” in which he dreamed of the utopia that would be built in a Jewish homeland, combining the best of European culture with the best of Jewish heritage, a country in which Jew and non-Jew would work together in brotherly collaboration, where there would be peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

Unlike Herzl, Leon Blum chose to build his utopia in France.  Growing up in an assimilated French home, Leon learned early from his mother the importance of fairness and a passion for justice.  After studying law, he began his life’s work to build his vision of a better France, a society where humanity concerned itself with those who are, as he said, “bruised by life, ignored by society.  … [where] pity and anger … is aroused in every honest heart by the intolerable spectacle of poverty, unemployment, cold, and hunger… The life of each individual,” he said, “should be protected by all other human beings.”

Soon he became active in politics, leaving his law practice to serve in parliament and became a leader of France’s left-wing republicans.

In the aftermath of the Depression, Leon Blum unified the various parties on the left in a broad movement to improve the lives of France’s working class called the Popular Front.  As fascism and totalitarianism grew in Italy and Germany, Blum believed it was imperative to speak out and to rally the people to stay true to the principles of freedom, justice, and democracy.

Despite an assassination attempt in February 1936 by right wing groups who sought to dismantle French democracy, still he would not back down.  In June of that year, Leon Blum was elected Prime Minister – the first Jewish person ever to hold that post.  During his tenure he instituted the 40 hour work week, paid vacation, and other reforms that would later be embraced throughout the world.  A champion of women’s rights, he also included three women in his cabinet even before women had the right to vote.

With his wife Thérèse dying of cancer, the economy still languishing, and the rise of fascist opposition, Blum resigned in June of 1937.  Still he never stopped fighting for what he knew was right and good for France.  In June of 1940, when Marshall Pétain became leader of the fascist Vichy government, Blum was encouraged to leave France, but he chose to remain, and was arrested and imprisoned.  During the years of his imprisonment, Blum wrote his masterwork For All Mankind.  Even from his cell in the Fort du Portalet, and while defending charges of treason, Blum remained true to his idealism and the causes that had animated him his entire life.  Writing his book as a letter to the youth of France, even as France seemed to betray him, he still dreamed of a future French utopia: “Like all other peoples,” he wrote, “the French people will … build the world of their ideals – only if they show themselves able to cultivate and cherish in themselves … the virtues of courage, generosity of heart, righteousness of mind and conscience, [and] abnegation of self in favor of the good of all.”[6]

During his trial, despite the danger to himself, Blum used his platform to attack the Vichy government, and was so successful, that the Nazi’s demanded the trial be abandoned.  Blum was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he was kept in a special section for VIP prisoners.  He survived the war, and chose to return to his beloved France, becoming Prime Minister again for a short time in the provisional government, helping to negotiate American aid for the postwar rebuilding of France.

Herzl and Blum never stopped living in the real world, but they never abandoned their idealism.  On the contrary, it was their idealism that filled their real-world existence with purpose and meaning.

“Idealism is the pursuit of the way we think things should be… past the point of practicality,”[7] Block tells us. “Choosing to act on ‘what matters’ is the choice to live a passionate existence.”  It is not an existence that is always safe and secure.  “Giving priority to what matters is the path of risk and adventure.”  But perhaps the greatest risk in life is never to risk at all.

I think Peter Block is right when he tells us that “Idealism is hard to defend, for data and history seem to be on the side of realism and practicality … Cynicism is a defense against idealism, and cynicism is so powerful because it has experience on its side.  We each have our wounds.  We each have our story of idealism unrewarded or even punished.”[8]  Just ask Elias Disney what happens to your idealism when your best laid plans don’t come to fruition.

There are times when it would seem ridiculous to hold onto our ideals.  How ridiculous it must have seemed in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 to see the delegates to the first Zionist Congress, dressed in their formal attire, discuss the possibilities of building a homeland for the Jewish people.  But Herzl wrote in his own diary, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”

How ridiculous it must have seemed in 1941 for Leon Blum to spend hours in his prison cell writing an epistle celebrating French democracy and predicting the end of German fascism?  And yet he not only wrote that the Axis would suffer an overwhelming defeat, but that France needed to reconstitute itself on the basis of that which would lead to the utopia Blum always imagined France could become, a free country in which the people built a social democracy rooted in an international order that secured peace and justice for all.

Like Herzl, like Blum, like Disney, we too need to take upon ourselves the responsibilities of citizens, not consumers.  We are not simply players in the marketplace of our society, seeing what we can amass simply for ourselves, but we must be responsible stewards of our society, working together to build our world into the utopia the eternal values we celebrate this Yom Kippur will guide us to create.

At the end of Altneuland, Herzl writes: “Dreams … are a fulfillment of the days of our sojourn on Earth. Dreams are not so different from Deeds as some may think. All the Deeds of men are only Dreams at first.  And in the end, their Deeds dissolve into Dreams…”  Let us in this new year commit ourselves to build the world of our dreams, to shake off the cynicism that keeps us from contributing to a better world, for that better world, that utopia, is there for us inhabit – Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – if you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: the Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 2006, pp. 10-18.

[2] Ibid., p. 608.

[3] Peter Block, The Answer To How Is Yes. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002, p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 27.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Leon Blum, For All Mankind, trans. by William Pickles. New York: Viking Press, 1946, p. 174.

[7] Op Cit. Block, pp. 53-56.

[8] Op Cit. Block, p. 54.


1 Comment

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One response to “Yom Kippur 5776 – Utopia In The Real World

  1. Brian Sinde;

    Reading your Yom Kippur sermon and listening to Pope Francis today makes me so appreciative of beingJewish and living in America. Maybe there is a possibility of eliminating polarization. I am focused on what is possible and that there is an opportunity for an optimist future

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