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“Think For Yourself” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.

“Think for yourself.”

Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you…”

There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.

But I wonder if we really do.

 

I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it’s about what you might call an “individualist penguin”:

 

penguin

If you’ll notice, all of these penguins look just alike, but the one in the middle – who looks like all the others – is singing out: “I gotta be me. Oh, I just gotta be me.”

 

I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.

 

It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.

 

Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.

 

In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.

 

He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”[1]

 

In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.

 

Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them – who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways

 

SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.

 

In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?

 

Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?

 

Of course they do. That’s part of being human.

 

Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

 

We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.

 

By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing – it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.

 

Research out of Stanford University[2] has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth – can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”

 

And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)

 

Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.

 

It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”

These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else – non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.

 

And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear – a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.

 

Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power – to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.

 

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:

 

נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

 

“It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”[3]

 

In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.

 

This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.

 

“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.

 

The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.

 

What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.

 

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.

 

For example…

 

  • If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
  • If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
  • And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.

 

To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.

 

And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.

 

Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah – repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.

 

But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.

 

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

 

The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.

 

And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.

 

Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:

 

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”

 

This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.

 

If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.

 

If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.

 

If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.

 

If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.

 

And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.

 

A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”

 

When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.

 

May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.

 

May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.

 

And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.

 

Amen.

 

——-

[1] Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.

[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868

[3] Isaiah 49:6.

Sukkot: Measuring the Years

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Sukkot is the strangest holiday we have, and it has the strangest rituals. It’s one thing to sit around the table and eat and sing (like we do on every holiday). It’s quite another thing to build a shack in the back yard and wave around a bunch of plants in all directions.  What’s that all about?!

Of course, what that’s all about is agriculture. A long time ago, our farmer ancestors used to reap their fields during this time of year. The festival of Sukkot was born out of the practice of measuring the yield and giving thanks to God.

Well, I’m not a farmer. (I can’t even keep houseplants alive!) But I do have something that I measure every year on Sukkot, and it has transformed this holiday into the most special time of year for our family.

Four years ago, my wife and I decided to designate one pole of our sukkah as a “measuring stick.” Each year, when we build our sukkah, we make sure that pole ends up in the doorway, and we mark each child’s height on it in permanent marker. That way, every Sukkot they get to see how much they’ve grown in the past year, and we get to celebrate the fact that they got a little taller and a little older.

I know there’s nothing novel about measuring your kids every year. Plenty of parents do it on birthdays, or on New Year’s Day. But for me, the connection with Sukkot is really important. Judaism tells me that on this holiday, I’m supposed to measure and be thankful for the yield of the past year. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Plus, it makes us really look forward to putting up our sukkah!

Chag Sameach!