Category Archives: High Holy Days

Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779: So What’s Your Generation Going To Do?

It was Valentine’s Day.  I had started my day early – I wanted to take my daughter Ellie for breakfast before school so we could share a heart-shaped bagel at Einstein’s.  In the afternoon I was signing the card I had bought for my wife Aimee when our youth director came into my office: “There’s been a shooting at Stoneman-Douglas.”

I felt the blood drain from my face as I became awash in fear.  The sense of dread compounded as the news reports came in.  First three, then more, then the fateful number 17.  Seventeen fatalities – with so many more injured.  Fourteen students and three faculty.

The agony of the funerals was beyond description. The lament for young life lost – homes shattered, dreams pulverized. Day after day, thousands poured into churches and synagogues to honor the lives that were robbed, to imagine what these children and servants of children might have accomplished, contributed, shared and experienced in their lives.

The next day, David Hogg, who spent hours locked in a closet interviewing his fellow students, said in an interview: “We’re children. You guys are the adults,” he said. “You need to take some action and play a role. Work together, come over your politics and get something done.”

A group of seventeen of our high school students asked that we take them to Tallahassee to meet with their elected representatives.  Carly Schwamm, our former BOFTY president and regional NFTY-STR president spent her eighteenth birthday on the eight-hour bus ride to Tallahassee.  They met with Florida Senate President Joe Negron, and asked why Florida could not ban assault weapons. When he told them he thought the issue was more about the assailant than the weapon, they politely asked: “Well isn’t it both?  Florida already bans certain kinds of guns.  Why not ban the AR-15 too?”  Could we change the law to allow police to confiscate weapons from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others?

Within seven weeks of the massacre, the Florida legislature passed the first gun safety legislation in more than two decades, and the student-organized March For Our Lives gathered more than 1 million people in 800 cities in America and around the world, including over 200,000 people who braved the cold in Washington, DC.

Again and again, I heard the same sentiments from my friends and peers.  “Thank God for those young people.”  “They are going to change the world.”

And I was ashamed.  Deeply, deeply ashamed.  And I am still ashamed.  How dare we!  How dare we turn to our children and ask them to repair the world for us!  It is not their responsibility – it is ours.  It was our job to give them a world in which we protect the vulnerable and the weak and guarantee safety, security and peace for all, a world in which we treat each other with kindness, compassion, and respect, a world in which we ensure justice and fairness and dignity no matter who you are or where you came from, a world in which together we grow in knowledge and wisdom, a world that is laden with opportunities to rise as high as you might dare. And we are failing.

In our Torah portion for tomorrow/today, we begin at the end of the book of Deuteronomy:  “Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifnei Adonai Eloheichem – you are standing here today – all of you – before Adonai your God – your tribal heads, officials and elders, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, your stranger in your settlements, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)  All are gathered as one to enter into an eternal covenant with God.

A covenant is a statement of mutual commitment.  The text reads: your officials, your elders, your children” because they belong to us: we are mutually responsible for each other. I for you and you for me. God is responsible for guiding us along life’s journey and to show us the way to holiness.  We are responsible for following that guidance in accord with God’s commandments, and so to fashion a world and ourselves as holy.

But then Moses tells us something peculiar.  “I make this covenant … not with you alone, with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God, but also with those who are NOT with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).  Who were those who were not standing there?  Ibn Ezra teaches it was those who will “one day follow after us.”

We who live today are part of that eternal agreement between us and God, but that circle of responsibility extends beyond to our immediate selves to those who will come after us.  It is our responsibility not simply to create the world in which we want to live, but it is our responsibility to fashion the world we ought to give to our children.

I was born in 1969 – and when I think of what was given to me I am in awe.  I had the privilege of attending outstanding public schools where I was offered the opportunity to play sports, to learn a musical instrument, and to pursue nearly any interest I could imagine.  I grew up in a place where my parents could choose from a variety of vibrant synagogues with a dynamic Jewish Community Center a short bike-ride from the house.  I grew up in a neighborhood where my parents never installed a dead-bolt on the door, where we biked and wandered all over the place, in which new immigrants and old Americans, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles ate at the same lunch tables, played on the same teams and in the same bands, and enjoyed close and meaningful friendships.  I grew up with the freedom to say what I wanted to say, to print what I wanted to print, to practice my religion as my family and I chose, and with opportunity to work to become anything I might have wanted to be.

The life I inherited was given to me by the conscious sacrifice of generations before me. In Tom Brokaw’s famous book The Greatest Generation, he reflects with awe on what they accomplished.  Collectively as a generation, having weathered the economic despair of the Great Depression, they left “to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled.”

“When the war was over they transformed industry, science, art, public policy … and built the most powerful peacetime economy in history. They helped their former enemies rebuild and they stood fast against the totalitarianism of their former allies.  Having strayed into McCarthyism and xenophobia, they turned toward decency and realized that America had to live up to its ideals that all are created equal, black and white, man or woman, Jew or gentile.[1]

Twenty years ago, I attended a talk by Israeli thinker Jonny Ariel.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, he said, the Jewish people faced four extraordinary challenges.  First, they had to secure the newly born State of Israel.  Second, they had to memorialize the Holocaust.  Third, they had to free those Jews trapped in exile in dangerous foreign lands.  And fourth, they had to marginalize the pernicious evil of anti-Semitism.  Had they accomplished one of these challenges it would have been incredible.  Two, extraordinary.  Three, unbelievable.  Four, impossible.  But what is so amazing is … they did all four.

The State of Israel today is a marvel of what can be achieved in a developing country.  From the fragile state born from war into war, the State of Israel now boasts the most powerful military in the Middle East.  From a state which only knew light manufacturing and farming has grown a technological marvel toward which the world looks for advances in high-tech engineering, science, agriculture, architecture, and medicine.

Today, nearly every major university in the United States and Europe offers courses in studies of the Holocaust, and hundreds of museums and memorials to preserve the memory of the Shoah can be found in thirty-six different countries around the world.

The millions of Jews who were trapped in the former Soviet Union are free to live where they choose, in Israel, America, and throughout the world.  Israel has embraced Jews exiled from North Africa, Iraq, Iran, South Asia, Europe, Arabia, and Ethiopia.  And despite the recent surge in anti-Semitism, it has never been safer to be a Jew in the world than it is today.

And then he looked at us and took a moment of silence.  And then he asked, “So what’s your generation going to do?”

It is the question that pierces us this day. Given the precious and holy gifts that so many sacrificed so much to give us, what are we going to do?  What will they say of our generation?  When our children and grandchildren write the history of our time, what will they write about what we chose to accomplish?  What do you want to give them?  What do you want them to say?

We can choose how we want to answer this question.  We stand here this day – all of us – before Adonai our God. God places us before us this day a choice – life and death, blessing and curse.  By what each of us individually and collectively chooses to write in the Book of Life, we choose, in turn, what they will write about us.

When they write the story of our generation, I want them to say that we built for our children a world where we turned away from cynicism and greed and instead championed decency and the common good.  I want to build for our children a world where we recognize the truth in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s admonition that “silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  I want to build for our children a sense of inner strength borne from knowing what they know to be morally right and good, and from that strength not to be afraid to listen to someone who might beg to disagree.

I want to give our children a government that is focused on serving the common interest and not wringing from it every ounce of partisan advantage or personal gain. I want our generation to render fact-checkers irrelevant because we championed journalistic integrity and because we elected leaders who unfailingly and without exception, simply told the truth.

I want our generation to be the one that ensured the excellence of our public schools, where children don’t have to fear for their safety, where their teachers are paid a living wage, and where they don’t have to graduate from college with thousands of dollars in high-interest debt.  I want it said of our generation that we offered safe harbor and refuge to men, women, and children fleeing the most desperate plights on the planet, and that everyone for whom America is the only home they have ever known will never need to wonder if they will have to find another.

We have been given an incredible gift – a religious tradition of extraordinary richness and depth, of text and law and lore – a ritual framework for constructing a life of meaning and which commands us to build a society that is based on the pursuit of the moral good.  The wisdom to be found in the practice of Jewish life and in the study of Torah and tradition is overwhelming in its power to make for a better life for us and a better world for our children.

I want to give our children a world where we as Jews embrace a passion for Jewish life.  I want ours to be the generation that teaches our children to treasure the gift of Torah and to harness its profound spiritual and ethical wisdom so that we, and they, will be experts in moral decision-making.  I want to give our children a world where we model a commitment to community and peoplehood – where we join synagogues, give enough tzedakah that we need to budget for it, where we support and visit the State of Israel, where we push ourselves to grow in Jewish learning and spirituality, and where we insist on Jewish education for years and years after the last Bar/Bat Mitzvah thank-you note has been written.

This is what I want our generation to be.  This is what collectively we should be fighting for.  This is what our covenant demands we build for ourselves and pass on to our children.  The world we inherited was constructed by the choices of those who built it. And all their sacrifice will be for naught if we do not fight to secure what they have given us, and if we do not build on the foundation they laid.

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg writes that “the only victory worth fighting for – because it is the only victory that is achievable – is to hand off this civilization to the next generation and to equip that generation to carry on the fight …”

“When the gravitational hand of nature reclaims objects from the heavens, the term for that in physics is ‘orbital decay’. So it is with our civilization.  Give up fighting for it, … abandon our principles for any reason – selfishness, sloth, forgetfulness, ambition, ingratitude, whatever – and you choose to give in to decay.  Decline is a choice.”[2]  And that is a choice each of us, no matter our age, must never be willing to make.

Sometimes the task seems overwhelming.  But one person can make a difference.  The Talmud teaches us: Lo Alecha HaMelacha Ligmor V’Lo Ata Ben Chorin L’Hibatel Mimena – you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.[3]

Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote: “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself … But I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country, and we could all indeed have changed the world.”

Emma Gonzalez, the outspoken young woman who, as a senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas helped galvanize support for the March For Our Lives looked at our generation and said: “It’s like they’re saying, I’m sorry I made this mess while continuing to spill soda on the floor.”

To Emma and her generation, my children, and to the families of those massacred and maimed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, on this Day of Atonement, I say: I have sinned against you. I admit my failure. I ask your forgiveness.  I promise to do what I can to stop adding to the mess we are giving you and to work as hard as I can to clean it up.  And while today I cannot give you the world we ought to be giving you, I can promise that I will never stop fighting with you so that the world you give your children is the world they deserve, a world that is true to the covenant we share with each other, and is true to the covenant we all share with God.

[1] Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998, pp. xxvii-xxix.

[2] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 350-351.

[3] Pirke Avot 2:16

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under High Holy Days

Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Morning – “The Boundaries We Must Defend”

This past summer, my son Ari worked as a broadcaster for the Duluth Huskies – a minor-league baseball team.  There were lots of reasons to love the Huskies.  First, our beloved Rabbi Emeritus Merle Singer grew up in Duluth, and I’ve always had a soft spot through him for Minnesota.  Second, the team is part of a college development league, and it’s fun to watch these young talented players grow.  And … they did well!  When they made the playoffs, I flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove seven hours to Bismarck, North Dakota to watch their first playoff game.  They won, so we drove another six hours to Willmar, Minnesota where they beat the Stingers too.  I flew home, and Ari jumped on the bus for the seven hour ride to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin where they faced the Dock Spiders in the Championship series.

They split the first two games, and we anxiously listened to Ari and his partner Mitch call the final game.  It was a tight game, and I hung on every pitch.  I had become a really passionate Huskies fan.  In the later innings, the Huskies fell behind 4-3.  They had a chance to score, but one of the players made a base-running error and got a needless out.  I was SO angry!  I pounded my fist on the table in frustration – my daughters looked at me like I had lost my mind.  They lost the game and I was crushed.

It’s amazing to see how passionate we get for sports teams. They become like family.  We exult when they win, and anguish when they lose.  They evoke deep connections – the city where we grew up, the school we attended, the place we make our home. They represent the tribes to which we belong.

From the very beginning of time, human life and experience was tribal.  Before the dawn of civilization, for thousands of years humanity roamed the land as tribes, working together to eke out an existence.  We learned that if you pull down the branch I can pull off the fruit and we can share the food together.  We learned that if we surround an animal we will be more successful at the hunt and can share in the meal.[1]

As tribes evolved, they began to create symbolic markers to rally group membership. We embraced physical markings, we made standards and flags, we invented songs, we told and retold our stories.  Tribes make for the source of our identity.  They tell us who we are, where we come from, what matters to us, who we need to care about, and who we can trust.[2]

Jonathan Haidt in his monumental work: The Righteous Mind teaches that being part of a tribe makes you feel bigger.  You are not simply one lonely individual but you are part of a group and that group makes you larger. Because other people depend on you, you develop a sense of importance.  Because what you contribute to the group matters, you have a purpose.  Because other people care about you, you are loved.  A veteran of World War II spoke about his experience this way.

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle … has been the high point of their lives … Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance…  I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy … I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.[3]

Tomorrow is September 11 – a date that has taken on so much resonant meaning. Seventeen years ago, our nation was attacked in dramatic and vicious fashion, killing nearly 3000 people and injuring more than 6000.  In the aftermath of that attack, we felt an inexorable need to come together.  We called everyone we knew to make sure those closest to us were okay.  We came together in civic gatherings and in synagogue to pray and remember.  We flew our flags on our homes, on our cars, and on ourselves.  We sang national hymns at school and at baseball games.  Thousands joined the military.  Peoples from around the world expressed their care and concern.

Our congregation began the tradition of leaving empty chairs on our bima, draped in the American and Israeli flag. This tradition was formed to remind us that there were those from our people who were spending holy time in harm’s way, to defend and protect the United States of America and the State of Israel.  Even though we who are sitting here are not serving in harm’s way, we care for those who are.  Like a tribe or a sports team, we may not be on the field of battle or play, but we are fully invested – their success is our success, their loss is our loss, their pain is our pain.  Because we share a kinship, be it a fan-base or nationality, they sacrifice for us.  And in turn we honor them because it is for us that they sacrifice.

As Jews part of the power of this ritual of the New Year derives from coming together as a community to reconnect to each other, to our ancestry, to our people and our tradition.  There is a reason that coming together is so powerful.  It is because God is found in that web of relation.  God is found when we come together as one.

In the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel gather together at Mt. Sinai.  The Torah teaches that “A mixed-multitude went up out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:38).  When they lacked for food and water, they turned on each other and on Moses their leader, but now, they came to Mt. Sinai and it was there that God chose to commune with them.  The Torah teaches that the people made camp at the mountain, using the singular verb VaYichan to show the unity they had fashioned.  When Moses gives them instructions, they all answer together as one.  By becoming one with each other, they were able to be one with God as well.

So, if the way we draw nearer to God is to be more one with each other, then perhaps the goal is to erase the tribal divisions we create for ourselves?

That is the goal that novelist Michael Chabon proposed earlier this year in his controversial graduation address at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Chabon finds the idea of barriers repugnant: “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders.”[4] He explains that boundaries and borders are what separates people.  The purpose of walls is to define those on the opposite side as “Other.”  To Chabon, there is no difference between a wall to imprison and a wall to protect. “Security for some,” he said, “means imprisonment for all.”[5]

In some ways, I understand his criticism.  Our country and our world are growing ever more tribal.  The natural impulse to associate with people who are like us and to define everyone else as “other” is growing.  Over the last several decades, Bill Bishop writes in his book The Big Sort that Americans have migrated, moved, and organized themselves into ever more homogeneous groups. College-educated whites move to different cities than the non-college educated.  Different ethnic groups sort into communities where people like them live. Gay individuals and couples move to certain zip codes. More and more our kids go to schools with kids who are mostly just like them, and we congregate with people who are mostly just like us.[6]

Meanwhile, he writes, national institutions have splintered.  “In this new world, there will be greater differences nationally among communities but fewer differences within the smaller groups … missing will be any sense of the whole…. We have created, and are creating, new institutions distinguished by their isolation and single-mindedness.”[7]

Jonah Goldberg writes that “For most of human history, meaning was confined to a very small zone: “us.” Us could be a tribe, a faith, a city-state, or denizens of a specific class.  The rules for us were different from the rules for them, and there was nothing wrong with using force … to arbitrarily enforce the rules in your favor.”  When all of your identity is bound up in a single group or cause, your concern for institutions and people outside your group diminishes or vanishes.”[8]  In essence, your total concern is for your tribe, and everyone else becomes your enemy.

This sense of obsessive self-concern is spreading.  A young woman lamented to me this summer that on her college campus, the drama group she loves has become so preoccupied with promoting identities of color that her own identity as Jewish woman is demeaned and ignored. Campus speech codes and intolerance have rendered her voice meaningless. At a political rally, two men proudly showed off their T-shirts which read: “I would rather be Russian than a Democrat.”  As Israel too becomes more tribal, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem pronounced that Reform leaders and other “quarrel-mongers [should] examine themselves” after a stone spontaneously fell from the Western Wall onto the egalitarian prayer platform.  The President of Israel, after the passage of the Nation-State law, declared: “This law is part of a broader trend, a global one perhaps, that … strives for a reality in which there are two options: Either you are with me, or you are against me. Either you are with me, or you are a traitor, an enemy.”

So maybe Chabon is right. Maybe the key to building a better world is to eradicate boundaries and erase difference, to embrace a radical universalism that says all things are one.

But what Chabon misses is that boundaries and borders matter.  There is enormous value in one’s distinctiveness, and in distinguishing difference.

The Torah begins by describing the world as Tohu VaVohu – messed up and mixed up.  God begins the work of creation by bringing a sense of order to that chaos.  And to do that God needed to make separations, borders, and boundaries.  God separated light from darkness and day from night.  God separated the sky from the earth and land from sea.

But then God made other distinctions.  Humanity was not like other creatures – we were created differently, in God’s image, and with that power and privilege came responsibility and duty.  Not only were we given the earth to conquer and subdue, but also to till and to tend.

God also made distinctions in time – six days are for work, but the seventh day is for holiness.

But then, the Torah introduces us to Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of a very particular people.  That particular people is asked to make a particular covenant and to become a tribe.  But that tribe is not created simply for tribal sake.  That tribe is created to introduce the world to an idea – and that idea is the pursuit of holiness in human life.  From Abraham and Sarah comes Isaac and Rebecca; and from them come Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and from them come twelve separate tribes.

It is those tribes that God brought together at Mount Sinai.  It is those tribes, separate and distinct, that God sought to fashion into one nation.  God brought those tribes together at that mountain to fashion a nation where moral truths and ethical concerns were more important than tribe.

This is the essence of what makes us Jewish.  As a tribe we celebrate our distinctive culture.  We celebrate holidays with our special foods, we sing our special songs, we don our special garments, we tell our people’s stories.  We welcome children into life with rituals that celebrate their entrance into peoplehood and covenant. We celebrate their coming of age by making sure they can tell and interpret our stories; we wed in accordance with custom and tradition, and look to that tradition in moments of anguish and loss. What makes Judaism so valuable is that it is tribal but not simply for the sake of tribe.  What makes Judaism so valuable is that every facet of its particularity is for a purpose; our ritual, cultural, and textual tradition all serve to fashion a world of holiness in which tribes can dwell together as one.

Elli Fischer responds to Chabon by reminding us of a Mishna in tractate Bava Batra of a beekeeper and a mustard farmer who must keep the bees and plants away from each other.[9] “Honey mustard,” he writes, “is a great flavor, but if you turn the bees loose on the mustard plant you ruin both, because they have to develop independently with their own integrity. Chabon forgets that ‘mashups, pastiche and collage’ require difference.”[10]

We are Americans and we are Jews.  Our identities are formed from what we learn from multiple allegiances to sacred institutions.  We feel a belonging to many tribes. We are loyal to Torah and loyal to the constitution. We are loyal to honor codes of teams and bands and orchestras and studios and schools and neighborhood covenants.  It is these multiple loyalties that remind us that opponents are not enemies.[11]  A football team can fight with all its might to win a game, but they play within the rules and when its over, win or lose, you walk across the field to greet and congratulate your opponent – and in some cases take a knee and pray together.

But among all our allegiances there are principles we all share.  As Americans and Jews we believe and teach that human life is of ultimate value.  If we allow someone to take another person’s life or to trample the dignity of another person’s life our society becomes profane.  We believe in love and that care and compassion are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to act callously toward each other, or to take advantage of those who are weak or vulnerable, our society becomes profane.  We believe that justice and fairness are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to cheat and lie and steal, if we do not apply the law equally, if we allow people in positions of power to take advantage at the expense of those with less, our society becomes profane.

These are the borders and boundaries we must defend.  These are the moral principles we must champion and from which we cannot waver.  These principles, lie at the core of who we are as a people. They come from our tribe but are more important than tribe.  It is to these principles, and not simply to our tribe, that we must pledge our fidelity.

The sounding of the Shofar is a tribal call. It is sounded from the bima, from the top of city walls, the Temple mount, and from Mount Sinai itself. It is our sound – a distinctly Jewish sound.  In some fashion the sounding of the shofar today calls us to return to our tribal roots, its echo reverberates today throughout the entirety of the Jewish world.  But the Shofar must call us to something larger than our trial selves or our identity as Jews.

In ancient times the Shofar called us to defend our walls.  In our time, the Shofar calls us to defend different walls.

The shofar does not call us to embrace chauvinistic pride but instead to celebrate the boundaries that define what is right and good and holy.  We must stand at the boundary of decency, honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion and say these are the borders we will not allow to be breached.  We must stand at the border and banish hatred and greed, oppression and violence, poverty and hunger from our realm.

At Mount Sinai, as we gathered, a mixed multitude of different tribes bound together as one community, Moses admonished the people to set boundaries around them, to keep everyone together as one.  And when the Shofar sounded God told us what a holy society is to look like.  It is to that call that we must return, to fortify the walls of holiness for our people and peoples everywhere.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012, p. 203.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.

[3] Ibid., p. 222.

[4] “Those People, Over There” by Michael Chabon. Graudation address at HUC-JIR Los Angeles – May 13, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort. Boston: Mariner Books, 2008, pp. 7-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 302.

[8] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 60-62.

[9] Talmud Bava Batra 25a

[10] “Michael Chabon’s Sacred and Profane Cliché Machine”, by Elli Fischer in Jewish Review of Books, June 13, 2018

[11] Op. Cit. Goldberg, p. 62.

1 Comment

Filed under High Holy Days, Uncategorized

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening 5779 – “Time Is A Terrible Thing To Waste…”

In my senior year of college, toward the end of January, I was sitting in my room looking down at a pile of papers. On the top was the application for the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. A professor had recommended that I look into the Fellowship: “I think they have some money,” he had said.

He was right. The Fellowship would pay my full tuition, pay me a generous living stipend, cover my health-care expenses, and provide me with an extraordinary program of leadership training. I had written away for the materials, and, like so many important things, I put it on the pile next to my desk.

I looked at the application again. It was Thursday. The application was due the following Wednesday. I had less than a week. So I called: “I was wondering if I could have an extension on the application?” “Sorry … no you can’t,” came the reply.

So – I went to work. I called one of my professors: “Would you be willing to write me a letter for that fellowship?” “It would be my pleasure,” he said. “Would you be willing to Fed-Ex it?” I asked timidly. “It’s due Wednesday.” I cancelled my weekend plans and buried myself in front of the computer to complete the required essays and then I saw the last piece.

I needed to submit the application in triplicate – with passport photos. It was Sunday afternoon. The only place that did passport photos in Hamilton, New York was the bike shop. I called – “Bob’s out fishing,” came the reply. “When’s he getting back?” I asked. Thankfully, Bob opened the shop for me at 10:00 p.m. and I was able to Fed-Ex my application out the next day.

Jewish tradition teaches that to truly perform Teshuva you have to admit your failings out loud. So, I will say it here with you: I procrastinate. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still a terrible vice. I procrastinated on working on that application until the last minute. It inconvenienced my teachers, who had to produce recommendations at the last minute. My friends were mad I cancelled on them. And had Bob been out fishing for one more day, I would have missed the deadline.

Thankfully, I got a call in May early on a Friday morning that I had been selected for the Fellowship. I was up – I had just pulled an all-nighter finishing my thesis.

When I told my family I was going to talk about procrastination on Rosh HaShanah, I got a lot of the predictable jokes. “Written your sermon on procrastination yet?” Haha. But procrastination is a really serious problem. Procrastination increases our stress, jeopardizes our capacity for success, and inconveniences the lives of those around us. Procrastination is the most potent form of self-sabotage that keeps us from living the lives we want, the lives we ought to live.

Why do we procrastinate? For most of us, procrastination is simple. There is something we know we have to do, but we really don’t want to do it. Ask any student with homework to do why they are sitting watching television or playing video games and they will tell you – I hate homework. It’s not fun. It’s boring. We put off the things we don’t want to do, even though we know we need to get them done. Who wants to clean out a closet? Who wants to do their tax forms? It’s fine. It can wait. It’s not urgent. It will get done … eventually. Come on – no one’s going to die.

But sometimes it’s bigger than that. Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen in their studies of procrastination found that one of the major reasons people procrastinate is fear. Primary among those fears is a fear of failure. “Many people who procrastinate,” Burka and Yuen write, “are apprehensive about being judged by others or by the critic who dwells within.” Deep down, we worry: what if I do my best, and it’s not enough? What if I’m not enough? Internally, so much is riding on what we accomplish that we can’t finish or even start a project – we literally become paralyzed with fear.

It’s worse for perfectionists. A perfectionist sets extremely high standards, sometimes impossibly high standards, and believes you can only be successful if you meet them. You become so concerned with making mistakes, or that your finished product won’t measure up to your expectations that you feel a sense of shame and disappointment in yourself. That fear of failure makes it so you cannot begin or see your way through to the end – you procrastinate.

We see this fear of failure everywhere. Someone decides they want to write a book, but can’t get past the first few pages because they think their writing stinks and that their ideas aren’t smart enough. Someone decides to start exercising, but gets quickly frustrated when they can’t perform at the level they did in high school. Someone decides to take up a hobby, but drops it when they can’t paint like Picasso or hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods.

A second reason people procrastinate ironically comes from a second kind of fear: a fear of success. How can you be afraid to succeed? Sometimes people fear being criticized for being ambitious. Other times people are afraid to compete for a promotion because if they win, someone loses, and you might hurt someone’s feelings, lose a friend, or people won’t like you. A woman was working in a terrible job in an abusive work environment, but kept putting off applying for a better job because she didn’t want to abandon her co-workers.

A third reason people procrastinate is a fear of losing control. No one likes being told what to do, so we put off what others expect or require so we can prove to ourselves that they can’t control us. We use procrastination like a weapon – “This is a ridiculous assignment! Why do we have to do it her way?” If my self-worth comes a sense of autonomy or independence, from feeling like I’m the master of my own destiny, then I procrastinate in order to resist letting someone else have control.

But no matter why we procrastinate, we suffer similar consequences. We miss deadlines and antagonize co-workers or partners or family members who were counting on us. We carry anxiety and dread knowing we are falling behind in our responsibilities and commitments. We feel lousy about ourselves because of the things we leave to the last minute or leave undone forever. And worse – we wasted time.

One of the greatest gifts Judaism gave to the world was the concept that time itself is sacred. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique … exclusive and endlessly precious.”

There is nothing holier or more precious than time. The Holy One has loaned us something incredibly holy and precious – the gift of life. The High Holy days remind us how incredibly fragile and fleeting is that gift. We are loaned something so precious – and when we procrastinate or waste time, we defile the holiness of that gift.

The consequences of wasting time can be catastrophic. We procrastinate too often at our work commitments and we lose a job. We procrastinate too often in our commitments to our families and we lose our marriages. We procrastinate too often in taking care of our well-being that we lose our health – or worse. We procrastinate too long in taking care of our world, and we may lose life as we know it.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has warmed more than one degree Celsius. The Paris Climate Accord from which the United States announced its intent to depart sought to limit warming to two degrees – the odds of its success is about five percent. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that at this stage, three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that will produce catastrophic consequences around the globe – the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters, the loss of most coastal cities, the advance of desertification and severe weather disasters.

And as Nathaniel Rich has reported, “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels.

In the late 1970s, the CIA and other governmental agencies formed a group of scientists called the Jasons to devise scientific solutions to national security problems. They began to study the effects of carbon dioxide on the earth’s atmosphere. “The Jasons’ report to the Department of Energy, titled ‘The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,’ was written in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings. Even a minimal warming “could lead to rapid melting” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet contained enough water to raise the level of the oceans 16 feet.”

In response, a lobbyist and organizer named Rafe Pomerance and a master geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald circled Washington and Capitol Hill to raise awareness among power-brokers and policy-makers. Over the ensuing decade, a growing consensus was built among scientists, leaders in the fossil fuel industry, politicians and policy-makers that something profound needed to be done on a global scale. In 1988, George H.W. Bush campaigned for president and took up the challenge. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect,” he said, “are forgetting about the White House effect.”

But during that first year of his administration, the consensus around meaningful action toward lowering carbon emissions began to unravel. From inside and outside the administration came voices challenging the science, questioning the economic impacts, and looking to postpone an agreement. At an international conference convened in November 1981, in the end no agreement was reached to curb carbon emissions. And in the years since, we have continued to procrastinate, and now the world is beginning to see the horrific effects we have known were coming for forty years.

So why haven’t we acted? Because we’re collectively afraid. We’re afraid of changing our way of life, especially if it costs more. We’re afraid of inconvenience. We’re afraid of giving over control to the science and policy makers to change how we power our lives and transport ourselves, and policy makers in turn are afraid to ask us to change for fear of losing their positions and power. Fear is what leads to procrastination, but procrastination is what leads to self – destruction.

What if we could work this year to overcome our fears – to name them and acknowledge them, but not let them dictate how we live? What if we could realize that our self-worth is defined by our courage to face the challenges and opportunities of our time?

Tomorrow we will return to the central theme of our liturgy – Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat HaYom – Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. In the midst of this day of reflection and judgment, we are reminded of how fragile is that precious gift of life. “Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not…”

For everyone – there comes that day. One day, you will visit the doctor who will tell you, “You have …” One day you will find you can’t do what you used to do. You can’t remember as well as you once did. The abstract idea that life is short suddenly becomes very real.

We don’t want to arrive at that place and discover, as Henry David Thoreau feared: “that I had not lived.” We can, instead, live deliberately, and be more careful and conscious about how we make best use of the precious time allotted to us.

The Talmud relates a story: “Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said A king once invited his servants to a feast and did not set a time for them to come. The wise among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance to the king’s house. They said: Is the king’s house missing anything necessary for the feast? Certainly the king could invite them at any moment. The fools among them went about their work and said: While the feast is being prepared, we will attend to other matters.

“Suddenly, the king requested that his servants come to the feast. The wise among them entered before him adorned in their finest clothes, and the fools entered before him unprepared. The king said: These wise servants who prepared themselves for the feast shall sit and eat and drink, but these fools who did not prepare will not participate.”
None of us knows what time is left to us. So we must endeavor to use our time most wisely. We need to stop putting off the choices we know we need to make, the tasks we know we need to fulfill. We need to make it known to our elected leaders that we demand they stop procrastinating and come together to confront the pressing issues of our time – the soaring national debt, our failing infrastructure, our broken immigration policies, and the challenge of greenhouse emissions, climate change, and sea rise.

In the Mishna in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that we ought repent one day before our death. Since none of us knows when that day will come, we need to always be prepared. Like wise guests, we do not know when we will be summoned to the feast, so we need to live our lives ready to answer that call.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, the workers feel sluggish, but the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing.

In this New Year, let us resolve to make best deliberate use of the precious gift of life we are so blessed to enjoy. It’s not easy. It’s scary. But if we can overcome our fears and face the challenge of this moment, then this moment can be truly blessed, our lives can be truly blessed, and our world can be truly blessed, for us, for our children and the generations to come.

Leave a comment

Filed under High Holy Days, Uncategorized

Faith – Israel’s Future

(My deepest appreciation goes to Micah Goodman who shared with me this paradigm for thinking about Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute – July 2016).

In April of 1903, a Ukranian boy was found killed in the town of Dubossary.  Soon after, a Ukranian girl committed suicide by poisoning herself and died in a Jewish hospital.  The anti-Semitic newspaper Bessarabetz linked their deaths to the infamous blood-libel, claiming the children were killed so that their blood could be used to produce Passover Matzah.

At the urging of the Russian Orthodox priests on Easter Sunday, a mob poured out of the churches in Kishinev and over two days attacked the Jewish community with a viciousness that cannot be described.  Dozens of people, including infant children, were hideously murdered.  Dozens more women were gang raped and hundreds of houses destroyed.

The Hebrew poet Chaim Nahman Bialik was asked to visit Kishinev not long after and instead of submitting a report on the pogrom, he instead composed a poem called “The City of Slaughter.”  But Bialik’s reaction was not what one would typically expect. Instead of saying that the victims died in the sanctification of God’s name, he instead claims that their lives were taken in vain.  Bialik rails against the Jews for what he saw as their cowering passivity, their refusal to stand and fight.

Come, now, and I will bring you to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering — the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!

A young journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky translated Bialik’s poem into Russian and from that inspiration became one of the most influential Zionist voices leading to the creation of the State of Israel.

Jabotinsky was born in 1880 in Odessa, which at the time was one of the most sophisticated centers of Jewish life in Europe.  As Zionist scholar Arthur Hertzberg explains, Jabotinsky “was raised much more on Russian than on Jewish culture.”[1]  At the age of 18, he skipped his last year of high school to become a foreign correspondent for one of the Odessa newspapers.  After a few months in Bern, he made his way to Rome, where he spent three years studying in the University.  He became a skilled orator and a talented writer, and he balanced both talents in his journalism career and his support for the growing Zionist movement.  Eventually Jabotinsky learned to speak eleven languages and could write in seven.

For Jabotinsky, Zionism represented the resuscitation of the Maccabees, the reclamation of the Jewish people’s ability to defend themselves.  The creation of a Jewish state, he thought, was necessary for the very survival of the Jewish people.  During World War I, Jabotinsky foresaw that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, and so single-handedly pushed the British to allow the creation of three Jewish battalions, where he himself enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of lieutenant.  Following the war and the periodic Arab riots and revolts of the 1920s, Jabotinsky lobbied for a rapid mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, a position rejected by Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist elite.

There was another young journalist named Theodor Herzl who built a very different vision of Zionism.  Twenty years older than Jabotinsky, Herzl was a young foreign correspondent who had also been raised in an assimilated household.  He was assigned to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, who was framed on charges of treason.  Covering the trial, Herzl was astounded when he heard cries of protesters outside the courthouse chanting, “Death to the Jews!  Death to the Jews!”  Despite all the claims of the enlightenment, Herzl had an epiphany that Europe would never accept the Jews.  He believed that if the Jews could actualize their dream of a homeland, and become a “normal” nation among the family of nations, then anti-Semitism would disappear.

Herzl wrote a book called Altneuland, meaning “Old-New Land”.  The book begins with the main characters, Friedrich Lowenberg, a young intellectual from Vienna, and his friend Kingscourt, who tired from European bourgeois decadence, and decide in 1903 to retire to the Cook islands in the South Pacific.  On their way, they stop in Jaffa, and find Palestine a pathetic, destitute, and backward land.  Twenty years later, on their way back to Europe, they stop again in Jaffa and find a thriving utopia.  The land is filled with technologically advanced industries, a booming economy and a growing, diverse population.  The Arabs enjoy equal rights with Jews, and people from all over the world live together in a free, sophisticated, harmonious society.

Building this utopian Jewish society, in Herzl’s imagination, would erase anti-Semitism.  The Arabs and the Jews live together in harmony because the Jews brought them a prosperity they never imagined they would enjoy.  As my teacher this summer Micah Goodman explained, in Herzl’s mind the Jews will want Zionism because it will allow them to leave Europe.  The Arabs will want Zionism because it will bring them the richness of Europe.

Herzl died on July 3, 1904.  Jabotinsky died on August 4, 1940.  Neither lived to see the birth of the State they both worked so hard to create.  But each of their voices continue to echo throughout the land.

Tal Becker is the principal deputy legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, including in the last round of talks mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. I had the privilege of studying with him during my weeks at the Hartman Institute this summer.  He explains that Israel sits in a Middle East today that can be divided into four groups:

  • There is a growing Shia Crescent, led by Iran and includes Hizbullah, Iraq, Lebanon, Assad, and now has a partner in Russia.
  • There are the Global Jihadists – the Sunni extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, each of which hates the other but both believe in an anti-Shia global agenda.
  • There are the Political Islamists, which include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and their sponsors in Qatar, which have a nationalist character to their ideologies
  • Then there are the Old Guard Sunni countries which have not yet fallen – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, who spend their time shoring up their own defenses against the threats they perceive from each of the first three groups.

Israel, he says, is essentially a Jewish old guard sunni country.  Looking around at the violent chaos and convulsions in the Sunni / Shia Islamist struggles, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Israel’s senior objective seems to be to do whatever is necessary to prevent the rise of extremists from within and on Israel’s doorstep.

This is the echo of Jabotinsky.  Jabotinsky believed that the key to the saving the Jewish people was to build an army that would make us strong.  He believed that Zionism was about restoring Jewish honor and pride by promoting self-sufficiency and an ability to defend ourselves.  As Micah Goodman taught us, Jabotinsky believed in Isaiah’s vision of a world where the wolf would dwell with the lamb, but he believed it’s far better if you are the wolf.

But Becker asks a fundamental question: if your agenda is only prevention, is that enough to inspire people to send their children to the army?  Don’t we need a more expansive vision of what Israel should be than simply the largest Jewish ghetto in history?

This is the vision of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.  Raised in a religious Zionist home, during her time in the army, Tamar came to appreciate the books that could be found on a different bookshelf in a Jewish home.  While studying philosophy at Hebrew University, reading the works of the great thinkers Buber, Rosenzweig and Heschel, she pondered the fact that the great voices of Jewish thinking were all dead and gone.  It was at that time that Tamar told her teacher Professor Eliezer Schweid:  “I want you to know that I am dedicating my life to the renaissance of the Jewish community in Israel.”  Tamar studied for the rabbinate with the Masorti movement, the parallel to the conservative movement in Israel, and after a short stint as an associate rabbi in Westchester, New York, returned to Jerusalem to create Tzion: A Native Israeli Community.

Tamar speaks with a prophetic voice that is riveting and inspiring.  She shared with us this summer that her deepest pain is to see an Israel that focuses solely on its survival.  Like Herzl, she laments that “what should have been the habitat for the renewal of the Jewish soul is a place focused solely on survival.”  She implored us to re-read the words of the great Israeli statesman Ahad Ha-Am, who warned that if we save the Jewish body without saving the Jewish soul, we will create the scariest Jewish ghetto in history.”  Israel, she says, must be a body that is strong enough to survive with a soul that is still hopeful enough to dream.  Israel, she says, is a test for Jews and Judaism.  “A Jewish national project with … no imagination or dream will result in our children turning their back on this project.”

I spent the better part of two months in Israel this summer, two weeks touring with members of our congregation and four weeks in study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  And throughout my time in nearly every conversation I could feel the tension and the pull of the dreamers and the skeptics, the descendants of Herzl and the descendants of Jabotinsky.

On the one hand, I found a state of Israel at its most cynical.  The government negotiated a plan to build an egalitarian section of the Western Wall that would be open to all who wanted to pray in Judaism’s holiest site free from the restrictions of the Haredi rabbinate, only to see the administration renounce the deal they had negotiated because of pressure from the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox.  I saw so many friends I admire shrug their shoulders in despair as they lamented the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in his 11th year of a five-year term as President of the Palestinian Authority, will not negotiate a peace agreement, and even if he would, has no power or ability to deliver it.  I saw an Israel that seeks to understand how 19 families control 60% of its wealth, how the small minority of ultra-orthodox dictate the religious lives of the larger Jewish majority, and who struggle to imagine a future in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.

There is a painful irony in Israel today.  Goodman explains that 70% of Israelis think that we have to leave the West Bank because the occupation not only threatens Israel’s future demographically but morally as well.  And 70% of Israelis think we cannot possibly give up the West Bank because that will return Israel to indefensible borders and will invite the horror and chaos of the Middle East into the heart of the State.

But just when we feel overcome with a sense of despair, we can be inspired by what Herzl and Jabotinsky and all my teachers at Hartman share as their primary value – Emunah – faith.  They believe in the future of the Jewish people.  They believe that in strengthening Israel’s body, we can redeem Israel’s spirit. They believe that as Tamar taught me, Emunah will be the spiritual training system that will empower us to rebel against the natural stress of survival to find meaning and reason to survive.

And here is where I found that faith come alive. Last summer I visited the City of Lod, which lies adjacent to Ben Gurion airport and was once an Arab city whose Arab population was mostly expelled during Israel’s war for independence.  Today, Lod is a mixed city of Israeli Arabs, working class new Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and a growing number of religious Jews.

There is a community center in a depressed area of town, adjacent to a rutted field and the ruins of an 19th century inn.  The community center is run by two women, a Muslim woman Faten and a Jewish woman Yafit, who despite all that divides them, have built a close friendship. In the roughest section of the city, they have not only built a model of coexistence, but of collaboration and integration. “We don’t agree on most things,” Faten said, “but I’m not going anywhere and neither is she.  So we have to deal with each other, we have to know each other, we have to figure out how to understand each other so we can live together in peace.”

It is the same faith in the future for Israel we find in Faten and Yafit that I also found in my extraordinary teachers at Hartman this summer. It is the same faith that drove Herzl and Jabotinsky in years gone by, and is the faith that will sustain Israel in these turbulent and difficult times. It is a faith that despite all the obstacles we face, we are strong and resolute, idealistic and hopeful.  We still believe we can plant in that rocky and arid soil a sapling of hope that will sink deep roots and grow tall and strong, a living and vibrant Tree of life that will not only blossom with the wisdom of Torah and tradition, but provide shade for all who seek to sit together in peace.  Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – as Herzl said, If you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea. New York: JPS, 1959, p. 557.

1 Comment

Filed under High Holy Days

Tell The Truth

In second grade, Mrs. Greene brought our class to the All-purpose room at Farmland Elementary to stand around an enormous map of the United States.  She was trying to teach us about directions.  So she asked, “Who here was born in a state in the eastern part of the United States?” Since most of us were born in Maryland, a lot of hands went up.  She called on one girl who said: “New York!” so she said, “Good, go stand on New York – you are going to be Miss East!”

“OK,” she said, “Who was born in a state in the South?” A few kids raised their hands, and she called on one boy who said, “Texas!” and she said, “Good, go stand on Texas – you are going to Mr. South!”

I was starting to feel bored and a little left out. So when finally, Mrs. Greene asked, “Ok, who was born in a state in the North?” I raised my hand.  “What state were you born in?”

“Montana!” I shouted.  Mrs. Greene said, “Great Danny! Go stand on Montana – you are going to be Mr. North.

I have to admit, it was a lot more fun to be Mr. North for the morning than to be a regular old nobody from Maryland.  That is, until later that night.

“Daniel Edward!” my mother called.  I knew I was in trouble because she used my middle name. “Why did you tell Mrs. Greene that you were born in Montana today?”  “What do you mean?” I stammered.

“Well,” my mother said, “I just got a call from Mrs. Paul, who told me that your friend Sarah came home from school and said you told your class you were born in Montana.  She wanted to know when we lived in Montana.  Danny, you lied.  That’s terrible.”

I don’t remember much else, except that I had to go to school the next day and apologize to Mrs. Greene for lying to her about Montana.

Lies, deceit, and dishonesty seem to have become a hallmark of our society and our world today.  Sissela Bok in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life remarks that in the 1950s, most people had faith in our leaders, institutions, and each other. In 1960, “many Americans were genuinely astonished to learn that President Eisenhower had lied when asked about the U-2 … spy plane [that] had been forced down in the Soviet Union.” But only 15 years later, in the aftermath of the War in Vietnam and Watergate, nearly 70 percent of people surveyed said that “over the last ten years, this country’s leaders have consistently lied to the people.”[1]  According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).[2]  This decline in confidence spreads to our feelings about medicine, the heads of major companies, the justice system and the media.  Fact checking has become a natural part of the national debate, and we hardly bat an eye when Politifact labels a lie worthy of their “pants on fire” rating.

But the practice of deception and the degeneration of public trust literally has the power to destroy our society. Bok asks us to “imagine a society … where word and gesture could never be counted on. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged – all would be worthless … this is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles.”[3]

Honesty is found in the very core of our moral tradition. In the Ten Commandments alone, two different admonitions focus on veracity – the commandment that we should not invoke God’s name for a false or vain purpose, and the commandment that we shall not offer false testimony against each other. (Exodus 20:6 and Exodus 20:12).  The Psalms teach us that “he who deals deceitfully shall not live in my house; he who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes. (Ps. 101:7)”

We are taught from the youngest of ages that we must always tell the truth.  Our system of justice depends on the idea that every witness tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Trust is a social good to be protected as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink.[4]

So then why do we all lie so much?  If it is so plainly obvious that the core of our morality is embedded in integrity, honesty, and truthfulness, why is it that people lie and deceive with such terrible frequency?

Sometimes it’s actually okay for us to lie.  A friend asks you for your opinion on their new haircut – “you look marvelous!”  The Talmud permits us to lie in order to cultivate modesty or to protect someone from embarrassment.  Hillel tells us that we must always compliment the beauty of a bride, even if we personally don’t find her beautiful.  In cases of personal danger, we are sometimes even obligated to lie.  When Abraham and Sarah make their way to Egypt, Abraham says to her: “When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘this is his wife’; and they will kill me, but keep you alive. So please, say you are my sister that it may go well with me for your sake… (Genesis 12:12-13).”  When Pharaoh orders the murder of male infants, the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah lie to Pharaoh to protect the mothers and sons of the Israelites, and the Torah tells us they were greatly blessed with goodness (Exodus 1:15-20)

But mostly Jewish tradition represents a passionate exhortation for truth.  Integrity and honesty are prized virtues.  There is even a tradition in the Talmud that when Rabbi Abaye would buy meat from partners, he would pay each partner separately, and settle up later, so that neither partner would think that he left without paying.[5]

But despite the fact that honesty is rooted in our moral core, dishonesty is pervasive throughout our society.  A survey conducted by Accenture found that nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults approved of overstating the value of claims to insurance companies.[6]  75 percent of college students report having cheated at least once during their college careers. Scores of dishonest mortgage brokers deceived millions of Americans into buying homes they never could afford, setting up the financial collapse that created the Great Recession, causing untold pain and heartache for millions of people. And don’t even get started with the political campaign, where even the candidates tell you to check the fact-checkers.

So why do people lie and cheat?  The classic economic theory teaches that each of us are inherently selfish human beings, interested only in how to maximize our economic self-interest.  The decision to be dishonest depends on how we balance the expected benefits, like getting money, increasing business, or professional advancement, and the expected cost, like paying a fine, losing a job, or going to jail. According to this perspective, people think of three things as they pass a convenience store: how much cash could I get from robbing the place, what’s the probability of getting arrested, and the magnitude of the consequences if I am caught.[7]

But there is also an internal mechanism that governs our decisions. Psychologists show that people internalize the norms and values of their society. If it’s a general moral expectation to be honest, then when we do things that are honest, which matching up with society’s values, our internal system provides a positive reward – you did good.  Brain imaging studies show that the same reward centers in the brain are stimulated from doing what society teaches are good social acts with other pleasure stimuli like eating chocolate.[8]

Like most people, we like to think of ourselves as honest. Most of us have some sense of our own morality and we want to maintain our perception of ourselves as good, moral, and honest people. For example, let’s suppose we’re at a restaurant and when the bill comes, we see that the waiter forgot to charge us for one of the entrees. We can save a few dollars by paying the bill as is, or we can tell the waiter to add the forgotten item. If we don’t pay, then our actions won’t comply with our sense of honesty, and we will have to tell ourselves that we are dishonest, which is something that is naturally abhorrent.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from this conflict can sometimes be enough to regulate our behavior.

The space between the reality of the world as it is and the reality of the world as we wish it would be creates a psychological and spiritual pain – and just as your hand will automatically jerk back when it touches a hot stove, so will we do nearly anything to get out of that pain.

So we lie.  When I was a kid, the real life I lived was not the life I wanted to lead.  I wanted to be cool and accepted, so I made up stories that I thought would get other people to like me.  I couldn’t handle the fear of not succeeding at school, so I would lie and say I had finished my homework when I hadn’t opened the book.  Someone wants to believe he’s a good provider but isn’t making enough money to cover everything, so he lies and moves a little money around, always intending to pay it back.  Someone wants to believe she’s a good person but isn’t fulfilled in her marriage so she lies to her spouse and has an affair.

Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call this dissonance reduction. A person gets addicted to drugs and convinces himself that he can handle it because he simply can’t admit to himself that he’s lost control. We hurt someone we love, but we can’t admit that.  We tell ourselves, “I’m a kind person; you’re telling me I hurt you?  You started this fight so you deserve whatever I did to you.”

The implications of these self-deceptions are immense, because they show how many problems arise not just from bad people who do bad things, but from good people who justify the bad things they do, in order to preserve their belief that they are good people.[9]

If we couple the natural instinct to protect ourselves from confronting painful realities with a world that is more and more dishonest then we find ourselves in a place that is incredibly dangerous.  If we have a society that tells us it’s acceptable to be dishonest, then we remove that internal moral mechanism that keeps our tendency toward dishonesty in check.  We begin to justify dishonesty as an acceptable means to achieve some greater end. My political campaign doesn’t need to be honest because it’s more important to win the election. We don’t have to tell the truth about a potentially fatal flaw in our copmany’s product because acknowledging it will cost us so much money we will have to let people go or lose the business altogether.

And it’s not just the lies we tell each other – it’s the lies we tell ourselves. If a person begins to feel tightness in her chest, a pain in the jaw and a tingling down the arm, and lies to herself and says, “Oh, it’s just a bit of indigestion,” that refusal to confront reality may ultimately be fatal.  If a young person starts to smoke cigarettes, and lies to himself that he can kick the habit any time he wants, that smoking really isn’t that bad, and hey, there are people who smoke every day who live until their 90’s, he may not pay the price right away.  It may wait until he’s in the middle part of his life, when his family is growing, he has kids who are depending on him, and a career that is just taking off when the doctor tells him he has cancer.  If we continue to deny the reality of climate change, and insist that the science isn’t conclusive, that human contribution to global warming is a hoax, and that we shouldn’t have to change how we live and power our world because, after all, the Chinese are the real culprits, then we may find that our grandchildren, who didn’t create this problem, will be forced to live in a world of ever more dangerous storms, desertification, drought, famine, and mass migration that will make the refugee crisis in Syria pale in comparison.

Eventually the slippery slope of deceit and dishonesty will rot the foundation of our society, and cause it to come crashing down around us, destroying everything we hold sacred, even our very lives.

As Sissela Bok writes, “trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.”  Society only works if we can have some degree of trust and faith that people will tell us the truth, and it’s not fair to expect others to tell us the truth if we are unwilling to tell the truth to ourselves.

Our society is not condemned to be destroyed by deceit.  As this holy day reminds us, our moral lives are founded on choice.  As Sissela Bok writes, “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity [and truth].”

If we really mean it when we say we’re tired of all the lying and cheating we see in our world, then we have to start with ourselves. Each of us can choose to build our lives on a foundation of integrity and honesty. We cannot confront the personal challenges we face in our individual lives and the awesome problems we face in our collective world if we cannot find within the moral courage to be honest with ourselves and each other.  It may make us feel better to deceive ourselves by finding stories and random facts to fit the theories we already believe about ourselves and the world, but what we really need is to have the courage to see our world as it really is, and to see ourselves as we really are.

But it’s more than that.  Just as my parents taught me in my teens, if we are honest with ourselves, we may begin to really know ourselves.  If we can summon the courage to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror, we may see reflected there a beauty we never saw, a wisdom we never understood, a strength we never knew.  And if instead of lying to each other we told each other the truth, we might be able to rebuild the bonds of trust that our indulgence with dishonesty has torn apart.

The words of Psalm 15 teach us: Adonai who may dwell in your house, who may abide in your holy mountain?  Those who are upright; who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts. Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them, who scorn the lawless but honor those who revere God; who give their word and come what may do not retract; who do not exploit others and who never take bribes. Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

In this New Year 5777, if we truly want to live in a world that is more honest and secure, then we need to start, each one of us, by being honest with each other, and by being honest with ourselves.

[1] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, p. xxx.

[2] http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/public-trust-in-government-1958-2015

[3] Op. Cit. Bok, p. 18.

[4] Op Cit. Bok, p. 26.

[5] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a

[6] “Dishonesty in Everyday Life and its Policy Implications” by Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, No. 06-3, January 2006, p. 2.

[7] “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance” by Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely. Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] “Why We Lie to Ourselves When We Make Mistakes” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Time, October 30, 2015.

3 Comments

Filed under High Holy Days, Uncategorized

We Don’t Need A Superhero

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning

October 3, 2016 – 1 Tishri, 5777

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

 

Over last spring break, my sister came to visit and my son suggested that we all go see a movie together.  “Let’s go see Batman vs. Superman!” he said.  And so we did.  In Imax.  In 3-D.

In the film, Superman is blamed for destroying Metropolis after his previous battle with General Zod. People are conflicted about whether Superman is a hero of hope or an alien threat.  Billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne, also known as Batman, sees Superman as a potential threat to humanity and becomes obsessed with him. He decides to build a Kryptonite weapon to use as a defense against Superman.

Meanwhile the evil Lex Luthor, who has manipulated Batman into his fight against Superman, kidnaps Superman’s mother Martha, and demands that Superman kill Batman or else.  In the midst of their epic struggle, when Batman has nearly overpowered Superman with his kryptonite weapon, they realize both of their mothers are named Martha and understand they are really on the same side.  Together, they fight to defeat Lex Luthor, who has fashioned a superpowered monster, but at the end, the monster is destroyed. Then, in its dying breath, the monster kills Superman … or does he???

In a spirit of shared suffering, I have related this story to you in this abbreviated fashion.  This movie stole 151 minutes of my life that I can’t get back.  I love my son, and it is because of that love that I have chosen this Rosh HaShanah to forgive him for bringing our family to see this film.

But I can’t really blame him.  The film grossed $166 million dollars in the opening weekend.  The fact is people love superheroes.  We always have.

Back in the 1930s, two creative Jewish high school friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began to invent a comic strip called Dr. Occult, a supernatural “ghost detective” who would battle vampires, ghosts, and sorcerers.  Soon, Dr. Occult was dressed in blue tights and a red cape and began to demonstrate supernatural powers.  They called their new character: Superman.

Arie Kaplan, who chronicles the group of Jews who created the comic book industry, notes that Siegel and Shuster created Superman as adolescents in the midst of the Great Depression and as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. “The Superman narrative is … rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, “All that is God”) from the planet Krypton, whose population of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports – the evacuation of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain. Angst-ridden adolescent fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster’s feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior.”[1]

Comics scholar Peter Coogan defines a Superhero as “A heroic character with a universal, self-less, prosocial mission; who possesses superpowers – extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills… The superhero’s mission is to fight evil and protect the innocent.”[2]  As superheroes evolved, they came to hide their superhero identities with alter-ego personalities: Superman was mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Batman was billionaire orphaned playboy Bruce Wayne.  The messianic overtones to the message seem clear – even the average person you would least suspect could potentially be the savior of the world.

And wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be great if we could be protected from all that we fear by some perfectly altruistic selfless superhero?  Wouldn’t it be great if someone with superpowers could rescue us from our scary, corrupt, and broken world and just fix it once and for all?

It’s something we’ve dreamed of forever.  When our people were enslaved in Egypt, there appeared from out of nowhere the perfect Jewish superhero – Moses.  It was as if he came in from outer space, wandering into Pharaoh’s palace as if he belonged there.  A savior.  He even appeared to have superpowers.  He could turn his staff into a snake, he could strike the waters of the Nile and turn the river into blood, he could hold his arm over the waters and caused the sea to part.

But as they journeyed through the wilderness the Israelites were taught that Moses was not a superhero.  Moses was not their God.  He was just like them, fully and profoundly human.

There is a midrash that talks about the moments before the revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Moses had returned to the mountain to get God’s instructions.  The midrash imagines that God had wanted to give the Torah right then and there, but Moses was in the way. “God thought: When I am revealed to them and say: ‘I am YHVH your God,’ they will ask, ‘Who is speaking? God or Moses?’ Let Moses, therefore, descend and then I will proclaim:  “I am YHVH your God.”[3]  God is afraid that the Israelites will think that Moses is God, but Moses isn’t God. He is simply one of them.

The Israelites in the wilderness are vulnerable and scared.  They feel powerless against all the threats they face to their survival. Stamped in their consciousness is one word – slave – a person who cannot make his own decisions, a person who cannot control her own destiny.  As slaves, their lives were in Pharaoh’s hands, for after all, Pharaoh was a God.  And so now they wonder if their lives are in Moses’ hands, and they wonder if Moses is their God.

The fact is in many ways we are those same Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  We also feel vulnerable and scared.  We worry that our destiny and our future is not under our control.

And so we look for superheroes.  We look for superheroes who will come and save us, superheroes who will protect us from evil, who will right the wrongs of our world and make us safe.

So often this is what we expect from our leaders.  We expect our president to be a superhero – who can come into office and instantaneously fix everything that’s wrong with America and the world.  We expect that the president can single-handedly make our adversaries stop hating us, lead us into battle and painlessly vanquish our enemies, restore us to prosperity, protect us from those who would seek to hurt us, and ensure that the injustices in our world and our country are made right.  We expect the president to be free of fault, to be of pristine morality, to live with altruistic integrity, to be constantly of good humor, agreeable, never given over to anger or frustration. We demand that our president be all-knowing, all-powerful, and clairvoyant.

We want our president, we expect our president, to be a superhero.  And in order for the president to be a superhero, then it only follows that whoever opposes the president must therefore be a villain – these days a supervillain.

If the superhero is the one who makes you feel safe, then the supervillain is the one who makes you feel afraid. Robin Rosenberg writes in her book What is a Superhero? that there are lots of different kinds of villains. A villain may be simply a straightforward criminal, or maybe a person who is out for revenge to hurt those who hurt him. A villain can be seemingly heroic, who, with a warped sense of altruism, employs evil means for what may seem a worthy goal, and sometimes a villain is a sadist, who takes grotesque pleasure in wreaking death and destruction.[4]

To be sure, there are supervillains in our world.  Want to see a supervillain in action – look to Bashar Assad in Syria, dropping barrel bombs on innocent civilians, attacking aid workers who seek only to help the humanitarian crisis, deploying chemical weapons on his own people.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdati is another supervillain. The founder of the Islamic State or ISIS, he employs gruesome and sadistic means to cultivate fear and effect control over portions of Iraq and Syria.  He twists the teachings of Islam to inspire others to commit hideous acts of terror and violence in ISIS’ name throughout the world.

The list of villains is long.  And in some ways they are winning.  Not because they tactically can do much damage to any of us, but because they have succeeded in making us afraid.

Terrorism works because it attacks people seemingly at random – a pizza restaurant, a dance club, a random street corner, with no immediate justification or rationale.  Terrorism succeeds when we recoil in fear at the prospect of doing what should be simply part of a normal day. As Daniel Gardner writes in his book The Science of Fear, “Terrorism is vivid, violent, unjust, and potentially catastrophic.  It presses all of [our] buttons.”[5]

Ironically, despite our growing fear of terrorism, the likelihood that any of us here today will be hurt in an act of terror is infinitesimally small.  The University of Maryland reports that in the twenty years from 1995 to 2014, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attack in the United States was 3264, the overwhelming majority killed on September 11, 2001.[6] The number of people killed in automobile accidents in the United States in the same period was 785,195.  In 2013 alone, almost 57,000 people died from the flu and pneumonia.  A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine reported that “Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), or a deer (one in two million).[7]

We must not be naïve.  Forces like ISIS are truly evil, and we must do all we can to vanquish that evil.  But we have a choice with what we do with our fear.

One option is to tell ourselves to be afraid.  We can, if we choose, succumb to the fear that a terrorist seeks to instill.  We can listen to those who would seek to be our leaders who tell us that we need to be afraid, afraid of our neighbors who practice Islam, afraid of refugees fleeing their war-torn country, afraid of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, or south Asia.  We can criticize and mock those who do not foment our fears as not sufficiently patriotic or as somehow in cahoots with our enemies.

Fear is natural and useful. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains, “fear instinctively causes us to go into defense mode, to shift our attention to our own needs, and protect ourselves from the real or supposed dangers that threaten us.”  Moral behavior, however, is based on the ability “to see others, their pain, their needs, and to respond.”  But then fear becomes dangerous: “At times,” he says, “fear does not merely shift our vision from the ‘other’ to ourselves, it also changes the way we see the other. Fear can lead to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to vilification, and vilification to denigration.”  Fear he says, can be like an infectious disease, depriving us of the ability to hope.  “Hope,” Hartman says, “cannot be constructed from the building blocks of fear. Its foundation must be the reaffirmation of our vision of both the world as we want it to be and ourselves as we ought to be.”[8]

We cannot conquer our fears by waiting for a superhero to tell us what we should fear and how he and he alone can make us safe.  That’s what villains do.  Villains do everything they can to make us afraid.  Like Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman, villains use lies and deception and half-truths to divide us from one another, to make us afraid of one another, and to seize power through that division and fear.

We do not need leaders who pretend to be superheroes.  The fact is there are no superheroes.  We don’t need leaders who pretend to be Pharaoh, who think they are gods, infallible and all-powerful.  What we need are leaders who bring us together to face our fears with courage and hope and faith. What we really need are people like you and me to refuse to be cowed by fear, to come together each and every day to do the right and good and loving thing, even when we are scared, even when we feel vulnerable, threatened, and weak.

This is the truth that Sebastian Junger uncovers in his book Tribe.  In this extraordinary little volume, Junger seeks to uncover why veterans returning from war have such a difficult time adjusting to civilian life in America today.  He explains that throughout the centuries and in a variety of different cultures, we learn that a healthy society is one in which people come together as a tribe, and take mutual responsibility for each other, working for the common good.

Junger writes that “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.  It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary…  To make matters worse,” he writes, “politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive … that most past societies would probably have punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness,” Junger writes, “and the veterans know this.”[9]

Junger explains that it is a platoon’s tribal bonds of love and sense of collective responsibility that is the source of its strength. “A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit group … back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”[10]

We don’t need superheroes to save us from our fears.  We need each other.  We need to know that we can rely on each other, that we can depend on each other. We need to be willing to sacrifice for each other, and in turn, trust that there will be others who will sacrifice for us.  We need to turn away from the politics of derision and division, to replace our own selfish cares and concerns with what is in our collective interest and the collective good.

Junger writes that “The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone…[11] But that isn’t the way it has to be.

In the year 5777, our nation and we as individuals face monumental choices.  What kind of a society do we want for ourselves, and what kind of leaders do we want to lead us?  But even more importantly, we must also ask ourselves what kind of citizens ought we to be, how will we face the challenges that lie ahead, and how will we confront all that rightly causes us anxiety and trepidation and fear?  In making those choices, let us choose not to give over to fear but instead to cultivate hope.  Let us choose to reject selfish care and concern and realize that our strength lies in how we choose to break down the barriers of division and fear.  In this New Year 5777, may the sounding of the shofar call us to embrace the truth our people has taught for centuries, the truth embedded in the motto of this great nation – E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, We shall be One.

[1] “How The Jews Created The Comic Book Industry,” by Arie Kaplan. Reform Judaism Magazine, Fall 2003, Vol. 32. No. 1.

[2] What Is A Superhero? Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 3-4.

[3] Exodus Rabbah 28:3

[4] Op. Cit. Rosenberg, pp. 107-111

[5] Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear. New York: Dutton 2008, pp. 282-283.

[6] https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_AmericanTerrorismDeaths_FactSheet_

Oct2015.pdf

[7] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-15/how-safe-are-we

[8] “Fear and Hope: The Core Emotions of our Moral DNA” by Donniel Hartman.  Delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute July 10, 2016, Jerusalem, ISRAEL.

[9]  Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twleve, pp. 124-125.

[10] Ibid., p.93.

[11] Ibid, pp. 127-128.

1 Comment

Filed under High Holy Days