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Kol Nidre: You Spoke the Truth Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Sept. 22, 2015

In our data driven times, assessment is constant. After all, today, it is not school children alone who face tests, the schools themselves are given grades.  We are asked to do an evaluation after almost everything we do, a flight, a visit to our physician, a work out at the JCC, even the mentoring program for Confirmation.

This summer at our board retreat, we learned from Amy Aisin, Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism, about a magic number- in business they call it the net promotor score. It lets you know when a recommendation is strong enough to move someone else into action. Unless someone feels really positive about something, their endorsement to others will mean little.

Once I heard that explanation of the net promoter score, I began to notice it everywhere.  For example, there was a little card at the hotel we stayed at while bringing Jeremy to school. “If you don’t feel you can give us a 9 or a 10 in any area, please talk to the front desk.”

Learning about the net promoter number explained  the questions I am asked constantly about whether I would recommend an airline, a restaurant or even my health plan.

At Kaiser we are constantly filling out evaluations but I understand things at Kaiser are a whole lot better now than they were a generation ago, so maybe all that assessment is useful.

Assessment is part of college life of course though today 43% of all grades given out at colleges are A’s.  My daughter, Shifrah, complains that this is not the case at her school. Are all these A’s justified? I thought C was average? Some argue that as colleges have gotten more competitive, the students are of a better quality, and so their work is deserving of higher grades. Possibly, but maybe it’s just that it’s easier to give an A, than to justify a lower grade.

Much of the imagery of Yom Kippur is about assessment- our own self-assessment and an assessment to be made by the Almighty. There are different suggestions about what we will be judged on-our ethics in business, our ritual observance, our contribution to the wellbeing of the world. There are also differences of opinions about what the standard will be- will we be asked to measure up to Moses, or merely to rise to our own potential?

Among the many stories told in this regard is the story told by the Hasidic rebbe, Elimelekh of Lyzhansk (who died 1786). He said:  

When I die and stand in the court of justice, they will ask me if I had been as just as I should have been. I will answer no. Then they will ask me if I had been as charitable as I should have been. I will answer no. Did I study as much as I should have? Again, I will answer no. Did I pray as much as I should have? And this time, too, I will have to give the same answer.

Then the Supreme Judge will smile and say: Elimelekh, you spoke the truth. For this alone you have a share in the world to come. ( It’s such a Jewish story, God is so kindly—and has a sense of humor)

The first step in doing an assessment is to be truthful with ourselves. Giving ourselves A’s that are underserved, won’t promote the kind of personal self-scrutiny that makes for change. When we think of our own actions, the extenuating circumstances seem to come to mind more easily than when we think of what others have done, and so we tend to justify or at least explain away all of our own misdeeds. It is very hard to acknowledge that we could have done something different than what we did.

Think about Cain, in the first chapters of Genesis- we will read his story tomorrow. His first wrongdoing was not very significant, bringing a sloppy offering.  But his failure to recognize that this was a misdeed, and accept criticism made him defensive and angry. Cain’s inability to admit his wrongdoing and overcome his resentment ultimately led to the murder of his brother Abel. If we can admit a mistake and  make our amends, then we can redeem ourselves.

Being truthful with ourselves is the first step in making change- as until we really see a problem, there’s no motivation to work hard on making things different. It is not easy to see ourselves as we really are, and we may need to ask others for some input. While sometimes we fail to criticize ourselves honestly, we can also fail in the other direction, blaming ourselves for everything and taking responsibility for what is not our fault.

In advance of this year’s holidays, a mother writing for Kveller shared: “I am quite skilled at beating myself up for my shortcomings ( real or imagined), but the work of teshuvah, of taking an honest inventory of the ways I have missed the mark and how I might begin to do better, is no easy task.”

Being down on ourselves, telling ourselves we are no good in general, is not conducive to making meaningful change. Kaiser doesn’t ask me in general how my appointment was- they pester me with a gazillion little questions:

How was making the appointment, what about using the phone, did you wait too long for your appointment, did someone greet you when you arrived, did the physician listen to your questions, did you get your follow up instructions?

Specificity can make a big difference in making changes in our own character as well. If we say to ourselves, I’m just no good, that doesn’t give us much direction or hope for improvement. Jewish practice has developed some techniques to avoid that sort of globalizing.

The Mussar movement, which began with Rabbi Israel Salantar almost two hundred years ago, brought ethical development into the curriculum of Eastern European Yeshivahs. Mussar stresses working on specific character traits and keeping close tabs on how you are doing.

Through a quirk of history, Rabbi Salanter learned this method of self-development from none other than our own Benjamin Franklin. His Poor Richard’s  Almanac was read in Paris by a Lithuanian Jew named Menachem Mendel Lefin. Lefin then wrote a book in Yiddish based on Franklin’s idea of keeping daily track of one’s actions and development in a very systematic way.

Rabbi Salanter read this book and was so impressed that he arranged for it to be republished, and that’s how it is that Benjamin Franklin’s chart of 13 character traits and his methodology of working on one a week, and keeping a record every night, can be found in Yeshivah classrooms and on refrigerators in Orthodox Jewish homes.

It is not enough to say: I want to be a better person.  You need to decide in what particular way you want to improve. And then having chosen to work on being more patient, or more generous, or more cheerful, as I did one year, a system is needed to see if this course of action is really working.

I don’t have to convince many of you about how efficacious this is- many of you have already experienced it with your wrist bands, fit bits, etc measuring the steps you take. I recently heard an esteemed professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the last person I would have expected, Dr. Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud, explain that she is now up at 11pm at night, pacing up and down the hall in her New York apartment, because it is so satisfying to make those 10,000 steps.  

I went looking online for a Mussar ap and though I found lots of material on Mussar, I didn’t find an ap. So far as I know it is not on the apple watch either-yet. But we will be studying Mussar in Torah study on Saturday mornings this year, so perhaps one of our members will create the perfect AP: if you succeed please remember you got the idea here.

Concrete reminders go a long way. You might recall the year a Christian minister sent me one of those plastic bands that said- a complaint free world. I think I gave a sermon about it. You were supposed to move the band from one wrist to another every time you complained. The goal was eventually to go a month without complaining- but you had to start over every time you switched wrists. He wasn’t against noticing what needed to be improved, but he felt you should act—if you weren’t going to do something about it, complaining was just a way of excusing yourself.

I think the Jewish equivalent of the plastic wrist band might be Tefillin. I agree with our Reform movement that they were never what the Torah intended, but I wonder about giving them up completely. It’s a great mnemonic device. Did you pray today? That’s a question open to a lot of interpretation in the Reform Jewish world, but not if you put on Tefillin, then it’s a binary-either yes or no.

Did we measure up to our own standards and goals? We need to make them explicit enough so we that the answer is not a debate.

The Mussarists believed that there is one particular failing which is more dangerous than all the others, in that it prevents us from moving forward- that failing is pride and its remedy is true humility. They worry not only that pride prevents us from recognizing our own failings, but also that pride prevents us from seeking help  and from being open to guidance and learning from others that might be helpful. In relation to pride, there is another story, somewhat like the first.

Rabbi Rafael of Barshad ( who lived from 1751-1827) worried too about the questions he would be asked after he died. He said: "When I get to Heaven, they'll ask me, why didn't you learn more Torah? And I'll tell them that I'm slow-witted.

Then they'll ask me, why didn't you do more kindness for others? And I'll tell them that I'm physically weak. Then they'll ask me, why didn't you give more tzedakah? And I'll tell them that I didn't have enough money. 
But then they'll ask me: If you were so stupid, weak and poor, why were you so arrogant? And for that I won't have an answer."

The point is not that Rabbi Rafael was slow-witted, or sickly, or destitute. I wonder if he was comparing himself to a genius when he said he wasn’t smart enough to study, to a person of exceptional energy when he said he was too weak to help others out, and to someone in the top 1% of the 1% in saying he was too poor to be generous. Sometimes it is who we compare ourselves to that shapes our sense of ourselves as adequate or inadequate. That may be a particular danger here in this valley with so many .01 percenters, that we forget that compared to humanity as a whole, we are all in the top 1% in wealth, education and discretionary time. Humility involves comparing ourselves not to the richest, smartest or most active person in our community, but to who we could be if we were our best selves- this comparison reminds us of our potential while still causing us to avoid pride.

Rabbi Nata Hirsch Finkel, the old man of Slobodka used to say, “ If I knew that I could only be what I am today, I could not endure it. But if I did not strive to be like the Vilna Gaon, then I would not be even what I am.

We have a rich Jewish tradition of helpful teachings in the area of character development. I think they are pretty good. In fact, even though I am a tough grader, I would give them all a 9 or a 10.  With that kind of net promoter score everyone should take a look.

We need not wait until the end of our lives to ask ourselves: Were we just and charitable? Did we study and pray and extend kindness to all those we encountered? Can we give an honest answer to these questions and is it an answer that makes us proud?

May the teachings of our tradition be source of help and inspiration, and may they enable us to make tomorrow truly the beginning of a new and better year.


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