Sermon for Rosh HaShanah 5777

Becoming Your Best Self (with thanks to Rabbi Ed Feinstein)

So as many of you know, my parents, Lynne and Neil, have “left the building.”  That is to say, they sold their home of 17 years and returned to the wilds of Orange County, where they have about as many friends as they have made here, albeit of much longer standing – and where they are also closer to my mother’s sister and her husband and their two sons.

Their lungs could no longer handle our valley air – especially in this very smoky, hot summer.  And they moved here, after all, for the grandkids, now both young adults.  Mission accomplished.

Weeks ago, I handed them pamphlets that look like this.  It’s titled “Five Wishes.”  Basically, it is a questionnaire that achieves the same ends as an advanced directive, living will and a power of attorney, all rolled into one –   minus the legalese.  It allows one, with great clarity, to express one’s wishes regarding who one wants to be making decisions for you when you can’t make them yourself; to specify the kinds of medical treatment you do and do not want; and to identify the sorts of comfort and pain management you wish to be applied.  Additionally, there is space to record exactly how you wish people to treat you: whether you want your hand held or prayers recited, and what you want your surroundings to include or exclude.  The last and most unique part of The Five Wishes document is about what you want your loved ones to know.  A confessional; some last words of wisdom, whatever. Closure.  Anything goes.

I share this with you because yes, you all should have one – and I bought extras!  But also because these High Holy Days are all about life and death.  Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for the latter.  The entire month of Elul, which just concluded, and the New Year, and the days between, these are days for refocusing our values – an annual opportunity to hone our own characters, to assess how we are living, and think of ways to improve, on the moral plane.

We are fortunate to be afforded this opportunity every year.  Many people are not.  

Alfred Nobel, a non-Jew, did not receive our annual invitation to self-review – but he was given a unique moment of insight.  A devastating accident in the family’s explosives factory killed Alfred’s brother Emil. Determined to reap some good from this tragedy, Alfred, a brilliant chemist, set out to develop a safer explosive.  The result was his invention of dynamite in 1867.

Upon the loss of another brother, Ludvig, in 1888, a newspaper accidentally published Alfred’s obituary by mistake, describing him as an agent of death.  Though Alfred had intended it for good, dynamite had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than was previously possible. 

Unhappy with this preview of his legacy, Nobel redeemed his reputation by using the wealth from his inventions to establish the Nobel Prizes – the international awards which honor individuals for outstanding achievements in chemistry, literature, physics and medicine – and especially, for working to achieve peace.

Unless we are bold enough to write it ourselves, most of us won’t get a glimpse of our obituary.  We can record our last wishes – but as to our legacy, all we can do is live our lives the best we can. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks is known for his sharp and thoughtful reflections, but he greatly surprised some of my rabbinic colleagues recently when he wrote about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s book, titled The Lonely Man of Faith.   Yes, we knew Brooks was Jewish – but few beside rabbis read Soloveitchik!

Some of you may have read Brooks’s column – or even, perhaps, his latest book, The Road to Character.  Or maybe you simply saw the viral email or Facebook link about “resume’ values” vs. “eulogy values.”  Resume’ values, of course, are the kind you list on your resume: your talents and skills, the things that make you marketable and contribute to your external success.

Eulogy values, on the other hand, are those important personal qualities that get mentioned at one’s funeral, like kindness, honesty, faithfulness or courage; the values that make you the person you are, that shape your relationships with others.

How many would say that resume values are more important than eulogy values?  (Show of hands).  That’s what I thought, too.  In the abstract, eulogy values do matter more.  Yet I had to apologize to one of my children recently.  She’s a solid, moral being with a great heart.  Yet I still worry about those resume’ values, which, golden soul that she is, she finds ever so much harder to cultivate.

Our education system is organized around external measures. We push our kids to get good grades, to do well on tests, so that they can get into good schools and land good jobs.   Public discourse, too, is obsessed with our resumes: wealth, success, ambition, etcetera – as witnessed by those self-help tips in magazines, and in nonfiction bestsellers.  In America, we are groomed to develop strategies for achieving career success. 

 As for character development –  well, that’s the stuff of good parenting, one hopes.  And maybe religious school, if one subscribes to a religious institution.  But how few are the hours most of us spend at Temple, in either a classroom or at services, compared with the hours spent in the public education system?

Soloveitchik was wise to this dichotomy years ago.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, published in 1965, he noted that there are two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. Soloveitchik said that these two accounts are indicative of the two sides of human nature, which he named Adam 1 and Adam 2.  Translating Soloveitchik into more contemporary terms, David Brooks describes Adam 1 as being the resume version: career-oriented and ambitious.  This aspect of our character is the builder, the creator, the producer, the discoverer.  Adam 1 aspires to achieve status and victory, to conquer the world.

Adam 2, he writes, is the side of us that strives to embody certain moral qualities: serenity and equanimity, perhaps, a solid sense of right and wrong.  Our inner Adam 2 wants to be good as well as do good.  S/he aspires to love intimately, to serve others, to live perhaps in obedience to some greater, transcendent truth. Adam 2 answers, not the call to glory, but rather the call to service.

Where Adam 1 asks how things work, Adam 2 asks why they exist.  Adam 1 ventures forth, while Adam 2 wants to return to his/her roots.  Adam 1 pursues success.  Adam 2’s motto is “Charity, love and redemption.”

Thankfully, Brooks notes, none of us is wholly one or the other –well, hardly any of us.  Soloveitchik’s thesis is that each of us to some measure occupies the space between these two poles, that our lives embody the contradiction between the two Adams.  This is not easy!  For Adam 1 lives by a straightforward, utilitarian, economic logic: input leads to output. Effort leads to reward.   Practice makes perfect.  Pursue self-interest, maximize your usefulness, and impress the world.  

Adam 2, on the other hand, is ruled by the inverse, a moral logic, one that says you must give in order to receive.  Pay it forward.  Surrender to that which is outside yourself to gain strength within.  Conquer your desires and you shall fulfill your craving.  The greatest failure is pride – the child of success.  Failure itself is a prize, as it leads to humility and learning.  To fulfill yourself, you must forget yourself; to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

To nurture our Adam 1, we cultivate our strengths.  To nurture our moral core, our Adam 2, we must confront our weaknesses.  While the outer, driven Adam and the inner, humble Adam are not completely reconcilable, we are nonetheless called to fulfill and master both personae.  It is our task to somehow find the balance, to harness the tension of this inner, ongoing confrontation between our two natures.

How do we walk this tightrope?  How can we find that balance?

In the busy-ness of the day to day, we often don’t.   Society, the professional world and academia push us hard toward our Adam 1.

Fortunately for us, Judaism gives us tools, not only to reconnect with our moral center, our Adam 2, but to help us find the middle ground.

One of these is, of course, these Yamim Noraim.  These Ten Days of Repentance are an opportunity for an annual soul-cleanse, a chance for us to reflect on how we have lived our lives during the past year.  Were we overly focused on our resume values?  And did we harm anyone along the way toward their realization?  Were we greedy, selfish and grasping in our haste to secure our financials, our standard of living?  Did we nourish our Adam Two at all by working on our eulogy values, exercising our moral muscles for the betterment of ourselves and the world? This is the time of year when we ponder these questions as a community – and pray that we find enough momentum to fulfill the promises of the season, our own new year’s resolutions.

Fortunately, we have another tool in our tool kit.  Because it arrives every week, Shabbat is potentially even more effective.  The weekly pause in remembrance of Gd’s rest at the end of Creation, we are taught, is also a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. In ancient societies, slaves knew no rest or respite.  Shabbat is our sign of freedom from slavery of all kinds – a great time to unplug and set aside our enslavement to our Adam One.  Shabbat is a day to put aside the pursuit of tangible wealth and success, a day to refocus on our moral being, to replenish and refresh our Adam Two.  

Are the annual and weekly opportunities to make yourself a better person not quite cutting it?  Let me introduce those of you who haven’t been initiated to the third key: the ancient wisdom of Mussar.

And what, you ask, is Mussar?  If you missed the moving reflections at our Selichot program by some of our Mussar students, Mussar is a daily practice that focuses one’s attention on the process of re-calibrating our measures, our character traits.  Beyond just book-learning, Mussar is an active re-engagement of our moral muscles – a series of exercises designed to teach ourselves to react more constructively to stimuli that might habitually result in a negative response.  

Mussar is nothing less than the re-education of the soul, a window that allows us a view deep into our souls, into our minds, to discover what makes us tick.  Am I always angry when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when I encounter a train blocking the road?  I cannot change those realities – so how can I alter my response?  Mussar offers both insight and guidance: knowledge and know-how.  And not just to help cultivate patience.  Mussar guides us to take up just the right amount of physical and emotional space in any situation.  It helps us cultivate generosity of spirit, and an eye to perceive the inherent divinity of every soul. It is the path to moderation in all things.

In the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and in the discipline of Mussar, Judaism offers us practical gifts to help us fulfill the prayers of this season.  We may not be able to fix the entire world.  But we do have in hand the means to repair our broken selves.

A short while ago we intoned the ancient words: Unetaneh Tokef kedushat Hayom – let is proclaim the sacred power of this day.  This is the season of our Teshuvah, our return to all that is good and holy.  It is time to turn – to face our mortality, to strive to live as if each day were our last.  Judaism invites and encourages us to become, not someone else, but the best version of ourselves.  We have all these wonderful ways to help us focus on our eulogy values, to try to recreate ourselves with them in mind.  

Take your Five Wishes contract home with you.  And as you complete this gift for those you love, remember that we have tools to help you develop your Adam Two – to live in accordance with your eulogy values and become the best person you can be.  We are not just the community with whom you celebrate the holy days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and maybe Sukkot and Simhat Torah.  We are here for you each Shabbat.  And if you are interested in learning more about Mussar, you can sign up in the foyer.  Another class will be forming soon!

Shanah tovah.

Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein
Temple Beth El Bakersfield, October 2016