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Rabbi Seidel Drash Rosh Hashanah Day 1 | Metrics | 5772 (2011)

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Metrics, So How Were you this year?
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 5772 (2011)

 

So how were you this year? Were you good, or were you bad? Naughty? Or nice? Obviously, nobody is entirely good or entirely bad. We can all recall moments during the past year we regret, as well as moments we are proud of. But wouldn't it be nice to know how we did this year, overall? Wouldn't it be nice to get an overall grade? I wouldn't mind if it were just, say, an 82. Yeah, even a low B - it's at least a grade - it would give me a quick way to know how I did this year.

Alas. Somehow, I don't think that there are grades written in the book of life. There are probably long essays about each part of my existence - what I did well, what I could've done better, what advantages I was working with, what disadvantages. There's probably a whole section on recommended goals for the future. But who's got time to read all that - excepting God, of course. I'm just asking for something quick and dirty, one number that would sum it all up for me, spare me the details so I can get back to, to ... well, to answering my emails. 

I love numbers - I always have. They're so clear. I loved school, not least because it was always so easy to know how I was doing. If I did well on a test, I was a good student, end of story. Frankly, I've never fully adapted to life after school, where you don't get grades, where so much is unclear.

Nowadays, I realize that even when I was in school, my grades weren't fool-proof assessments of my worth as a human being - hey, they were not even fool-proof assessments of my worth as a student. A person could get good grades, and actually not be much of a student. I mean a student of course in the larger sense - someone who is observant of the world and its patterns, someone continually curious, eager to learn, eager to take in new information even when the new information rests uneasily with what the student already knows. Someone who is more than a mere memorizer of facts supplied by a teacher. The attitude of a scholar can't be measured in any simple way. Similarly, bad grades in school aren't necessarily a definitive measure of a student. I've come to realize that numbers aren't always the best tools for evaluation.

Let me not overstate my case: to be sure, numbers are often very helpful - even essential - in helping us as we make necessary judgments about things, places, people, even ourselves. But at the same time, numbers can often be misleading, even dangerously wrong. If you want to judge yourself accurately - and this is the time of year we do just that - beware of metrics. 

Metrics work best when a single item is being measured. Take your inseam, for instance. It's hard to buy a pair of pants in the store, much less online, without knowing your inseam. Your inseam is a helpful number that signifies nothing besides the length of your legs. Your inseam is a number that means nothing but itself.

There are, however, other metrics pertaining to your body that are more complicated, and often misused - for instance: your weight. Of course, it's probably a good idea to know your weight, though the person who weighs themselves each day may be making a mistake. But the measure of your weight is only helpful if you use that knowledge for weight-related issues. Like, for instance, trying to reach, or stick to, a relatively healthy weight.

Ah, but weight has come to mean a lot more than just how heavy we are. Weight has come to be virtually a stand in for self-worth. That one number - your weight - it's basically a grade of how you're living your life. Seriously overweight people often find that they are judged to be pitiful, defective, worthy of insult. I worry that there are many folks, overweight, and not, who think that the Book of Life has only one entry per person per year: weight.

So, weight is no longer just weight. And when a metric becomes a stand-in for something much larger than itself, that metric becomes not only useless, but even harmful. For instance, you may have had a goal for the past year to lose some weight. If you did have such a goal, you may well have not met that goal. Too bad. But is that the worst failure you had during the past year? Unlikely. There's so much more to who you are, and what you've been put on this earth to do, than exactly how much you weigh! If you judge this last year as a failure because of one metric, you have distracted yourself from the complexity of the challenges in your life. There's a lot to pay attention to in your life; there is no single number that can tell you how you are doing. 

Here's an example. Last month, my daughter Hannah and I bicycled downtown to visit Roosevelt Island, and then the MLK memorial which had just opened. Though I didn't really care for the memorial - that's another story - it was still great to visit and be reminded of MLK's life, and how he helped our country. His bravery, the honesty and passion of his rhetoric - you don't often get to see honesty and passion working well together - but we got it from the Reverend, and it continues to inspire us. I couldn't help but shed a few tears at the monument.

Anyway, I brought up our little visit to the MLK memorial to tell you what I was not thinking at the time. I did not stand there looking at his statue and think: ya know, he was a bit on the heavy side - shame on you Martin. By the way, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on his eponymous island - he was a little chunky too. It would be ridiculous to judge these great figures on their figure. In fact, there really isn't a metric by which we could judge these men. You have to know their whole story.

Metrics are misleading and even dangerous when they are used to represent something more than they are. When a simple measure is used to evaluate something complicated, it is called a proxy. When your weight is not just your weight, but an evaluation of your worth, weight becomes a proxy. And whenever we use a proxy, a number, or even a few numbers, in an attempt to evaluate a complex issue, we run the risk of dangerous simplification.

So why use proxies at all? Because it's often so hard to evaluate the things we'd like to judge. So much in life is so confusing. Like how we did this year. Like what kind of students we really are. There is no way to get a clear picture, to measure with any degree of accuracy, the things we most care about. So we resort to proxies, rather than living with life as it is, life in all its ambiguity. 

There was a great article in the New Yorker this past February (2/14/2011) by Malcom Gladwell about this general issue. In particular, Gladwell talked about the US News and World Report's College Ratings. He noted how hard it is to compare two complicated institutions. The US News and World Report's College Ratings uses 7 numbers in its rankings: Undergraduate academic reputation, graduation and freshman retention rates, student selectivity, etc. This rating system gives a different weight to each of its seven numbers, and then adds those seven weighted numbers up get one number. Harvard gets a 100. Penn State gets a 58; Yeshiva University gets a 57.

Gladwell notes: So Penn State is one point higher than Yeshiva U. What does that mean? That Penn State is a little better than YU? But how can you even compare a huge public rural university with a very diverse population, like Penn State, with YU?? Using only one number? How many high school seniors out there are actually choosing between Penn State and YU? Would the person who might succeed at Penn State do well at YU, and vice versa? And if this simplistic comparison between Penn State and YU makes no sense, what is this top 50 list, or any top 50 list about, really? Why are these lists so popular? I told you: because they feed our desperate hope that the complicated can in fact be made simple.

And since we're now speaking of comparing complicated institutions, what about comparing people? When we compare ourselves with others, do we use proxies to simplify that which must remain complex? Do we value our worth, relative to others, with a few numbers? Do we use, say, our salary as a proxy for how we're doing? Or our net worth as a proxy for our value as a human being? Number of children? Number of marriages? Or how about this little statistic: take each college our children have attended, find the ranking of each of those colleges in the US News & World Report's ranking, take the average or those school's rankings, and voila - you have your parental score.

This, I think, is why the US News & World Report's college ranking may have lived on, long after the death of the US News & World Report magazine that spawned it. It gives us bragging rights. It is one of the many metrics out there that supposedly enable us to evaluate ourselves without having to expend any effort, without having to look at the complicated beings that we are. It gives us what we desperately want, a peek into the Book of Life, the truth about ourselves. Without even having to sit through long services. 

Sarah, our mother, wanted to know the truth about herself. Sadly, she relied on a proxy. Sarah, upon giving birth at the age of 90, said in our reading today (it's on page 100 in Lev Shalem) (Genesis 21:6) "Tz'chok ahsah li..." The translation in your Mahzor, reads:

"God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

I'm not fond of this translation, though in truth, it's a tough verse to translate, for several reasons. For one thing, the root tzachak has so many meanings. Sure, it often means laugh, but what kind of laugh? This word צחק is precisely the same word used when God promised Sarah a child back in chapter 18 (v. 12). Sarah, in her late 80's, after a whole lifetime of barrenness, hears God's promise of a child. And Sarah laughs what I would imagine to be a rather bitter laugh, saying "After I'm withered, I'm to be rejuvenated??" And if you think that maybe even there I'm being too harsh a translator, if you think Sarah's laugh back in chapter 18 is also simply a joyous laugh at God's great news, remember that Sarah then denies to God that she laughed. Why would Sarah deny to God that she'd laughed a joyous laugh?? Sarah denied she'd laughed, because Sarah didn't feel good at being bitter in the face of God's promise. And frankly, I'm not about to begrudge her a little angry laughter, after being promised a child at age 89.

Anyway, if the root tzahak back in chapter 18 is clearly meant to evoke a bitter, mocking laugh, I think it likely to mean the same kind of laugh in today's reading. So I would translate this line from today's reading not as:

"God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

But rather:

"God has brought me mockery - everyone who hears will laugh at me."

So here's my question for Sarah: why do you think they will mock you? Because the number of children you have is only one? Are you feeling judged because of a low number of children? Or because you had this child so late? Is it the number 90 that's got you feeling like you're somehow less then everyone around you? Or maybe it's Isaac's Apgar score, compared to his older half-brother, Ishmael's perfect 10. Ishmael is such a hunter, already a man. Little Isaac is so passive - pathetic even.

I feel like shaking Sarah and screaming at her: rejoice in your good fortune, woman. Yes, it's way late in coming. Yes, your fortune is nothing like the fortune of those around you. Stop worrying about what others think about your life, about how your fortune measures up to their fortune. Who knows what little Yitzchak will do with his life? Who knows, he could even be the father of a great nation. Ok, that's unlikely, given his passive nature, but what about his children? Maybe Isaac will carry on the tradition faithfully to the next generation, even if he's unable to add anything of his own! That itself is a worthy feat. You do not know what's going to happen.

OK, maybe everybody who hears the news is laughing at you, Sarah, I don't know, I wasn't there. Sarah, I'm wondering if you spent your pregnancy thinking about all your neighbors, getting depressed about all their healthy marriages, and healthy children. Maybe you should get off Facebook, and focus on nurturing the seemingly small, tardy, pathetic gift you've been given.

I'm being to harsh, I know. And to Sarah's credit, she does come around quickly, to stand behind Isaac. But her first reaction, her worry about what others would think, was as dangerous, as it was natural.

In tomorrow's portion, Abraham faces a similar metric challenge. Right after the Akedah, when Isaac and Abraham come down off the mountain, there's a little paragraph that seems to have nothing to do with anything. A messenger comes from up north, to tell Abraham about all of his relatives living back in the old country. Turns out Abraham's brother Nahor has 12 kids. "Just thought you'd want to know, Abraham". Now 12 is not just any number in the Torah. In a book with few metrics, 12 is a crucial number. Having 12 sons means you've established a nation, a heritage that will live on beyond you. Think of Jacob's 12 sons. And then think of Abraham's one, miserable child. A child whom he almost sacrificed.

I wonder if Abraham thought: "Man, my brother Nahor, up in Syria: he's really made it. Twelve kids. Damn. And all I got is scrawny, passive Isaac - no gumption in that boy - he didn't even whimper when I bound him on the altar. I wish I was as successful as my little brother. 12 kids! Damn."

Of course, we don't get to hear Abraham's reaction to the news of his brother's fecundity. We don't know if Abraham, like Sarah, worried about what everyone else was thinking. But I can imagine what I would think under those circumstances. Because I love numbers. If 12 was the number you shot for, I would have felt a failure if I didn't make it.

 It's hard to avoid comparing yourself to others. And the fact is, we cannot avoid comparing ourselves to others. Sometimes such competition is helpful, or at the very least, unavoidable. For example: in the news these last few years is the issue of teacher evaluations. You have to find some way to evaluate teachers, so you can make decisions about hiring and firing and promotion. But how does one evaluate a grade school teacher? Are there a few simple metrics that can do the job? Some tests that the students could take, so we could evaluate how much they've learned? Or is this a more complicated task, requiring a good number of in-person observations, and peer evaluations, along with those metrics? Well, metrics would be easier. And cheaper. Save money. Live Better. Needless to say, we've taken the proxy route. And as a result, children in public school take endless tests, and neither children nor teachers are evaluated properly.

Here's another metric on my mind. Total number of Conservative Jews. I keep hearing that it's declining. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the Conservative Movement, right? Do you think you can evaluate an entire movement with one number? Talk about proxies!

For one thing, like many statistics, the collecting of the number is not trivial. There are huge arguments in the tiny world of Jewish Statistics about how you figure out what percentage of American Jews does what, or belongs to which movement. But assuming the number is right, how much should I care? Do we judge religions by number of followers? Would we say that Christianity is better than Judaism, because there are more Christians than Jews? The sentence on the face of it is absurd. All we can say is that the Conservative movement may be less attractive to American Jews than it used to be.

And how does that affect our little community here at TI? We're not shrinking - in fact we're growing. Which isn't to say we don't have problems - of course we do. But our problems are unique to our little community - no national number can address them. In fact, only someone well acquainted with our community could address our problems, and work on a solution. The national metric is irrelevant, I think, to what we do here at TI.

Nevertheless, we can't help thinking with the help of metrics. We want simple ways to evaluate how we're doing. We use what numbers are available, even if they are only barely relevant.

For example, visiting the sick. I have found myself weighing the mitzvah of visiting a sick person on the one hand, versus answering emails. With emails, I can delete the ones I've answered - I can count the ones I've sent, and feel good as the inbox shrinks, at least temporarily. Sick visits are different. How do you measure a visit? Does one visit really equal 50 emails? 100? And what really gets to me: how do you know how the visit went? Sometimes it's obvious - the person you visited really enjoyed the visit. But a lot of times the person I visit is so sick, they don't have the energy to make me feel good about the visit. And why should they? But then how do I know how it went?

Many years ago, I visited a dying woman who had seen much suffering during her long life. She was an extremely negative person, and had been sick over many, many years. On this visit, I asked her if I could sing a misheberach. She said: "I don't care." So I sang it. When I got to her Hebrew name she seemed to take notice, but maybe I was fooling myself. After the prayer, I told her that she could be proud of how she had endured all of the suffering in her difficult life. Her response was: "So what?" And yet, maybe I'm fooling myself, but I don't think she meant "So what?" She said it quietly, without her normal conviction. I got the sense that maybe I had helped her link up to a sense of justifiable pride. But maybe I'm wrong. Who knows? She sure didn't tell me. It's so hard to leave a hospital room in such a situation, not being able to assess the visit in any simple way.

The most important parts of our lives are almost impossible to appraise. And what's worse, we don't always have control over how measurable things turn out. Our job can vanish, through no fault of our own. And it can be hard to find a new job, again, through no fault of our own. The extent we should take credit, or culpability for what happens to us - it's often hard to judge. In such cases, numbers can be misleading, adding insult to injury.

Here's one last metric for you - a rabbinic metric - number of weddings performed per year. For me, I'm afraid that this is a very low number. I officiate at just 2 or 3 weddings a year, on average. And yet, maybe because I do few weddings, they have a powerful effect on me.

The ceremonies themselves are often quite powerful, especially when they are for a family that I've known over many years. But even if the couple just got my name off of our web page, I will have met with them at least 3 or 4 times before the wedding, and I'll have come to know and care about them. Anyway, at the wedding itself I will see the couple walk down the aisle, each accompanied by their parents, I'll see the parents leave them to each other, I'll see the couple circle each other. Then the musicians will stop playing, and there I will be under the huppah, face to face with them, face to face with their uncertain future. I want the best for this couple, but as a Rabbi, I've seen too much of life to be completely confident about the success of even the best-matched pair. I sing my opening lines:

ברוך הבא בשם ה'

מי אדיר על הכל, מי ברוך על הכל, מי גדול על הכל

הוא יברך החתן והכלה.

 

Welcome, in the name of God.

May the one mightier than all, Blessed above all, greater than all,

Bless this bridegroom and this bride.

As I sing this, I can't help thinking to myself: Will God bless this couple? Who knows what will happen? Health? Sickness? Employment? Joblessness? Growth and Maturity, enabling this couple's relationship to flourish, or spiritual stagnation, which could kill everything holy between them? I feel this prayer for God's blessing so strongly, I can barely get out the words. At this point in the ceremony, I find myself retreating a bit, emotionally - the couple does not need yet another teary-eyed mess under the huppah. And yet, as powerful as these ceremonies are, sometimes it's not until the next day that the full force hits me. Just last week, for example, I went to Vermont to perform the wedding for Joshua Berch and his fiancée Dinah Goldberg, whose family comes from Burlington. The morning after the ceremony, I got up early, davenned, and then, despite the early morning cold, and the fact that all I had to walk in was my wedding shoes, I hiked up one of the ski trails outside the hotel. It was cold, but I made it all the way to the top of a hill, where I found a sunny patch. As I warmed in the early morning sun, I could see miles around in every direction. I was surrounded by the wildflowers of fall, and farther off, the Green Mountains, some in early morning sunlight, some still in shade. To the north, I could see hills far below me, hills covered with cloud - I could look down upon them like some Olympian god. In the silence, I pondered the wedding - the lovely couple, the lovely setting, their hopes for the future - but I also thought about Mollie Berch's recent death.

And then, amidst my thoughts, and amidst all this natural beauty and solitude, I felt I had a sense, for just a second, of what life was all about. And yet, oddly, at the same time, I knew I didn't quite get it - life's meaning was out of my grasp. It was a familiar feeling - often I've felt completely present in a beautiful moment, only to feel, somehow, that I was also missing the deepest truth available in that moment.

Then it struck me - I was trying to figure out life rationally, I was trying to understand something beyond understanding. I was only being Ethan Seidel, who loves figuring out answers: evaluating myself, coming to a conclusion, making a plan for what to do given the new information. And while those are all good habits, some problems don't admit of a solution - in fact some situations shouldn't be seen as problems at all. Maybe it was ok, sometimes, just to be in the sublime moment - feel the sunshine, think about the previous day, feel thankful, and even move beyond thankfulness into a kind of comfort with my own unknowable place in the universe. Maybe this was a moment more about being, than understanding.

There's so much I'd like to understand. So much I'd like to quantify, to nail down precisely. And much can be understood in this life, often with the help of numbers. The person who eschews all metrics is just as deluded as the one who relies overmuch on metrics. And yet, there is so much important we can't know, places that rationality cannot take us.

This year, as we ask ourselves how we are doing, let us not get too distracted by metrics, especially those that are just proxies for what it is that we're really trying to know. How are we doing? There is rarely a simple answer to that question. And if the answer comes to you, it probably won't be a number. Your entry in the Book of Life, if you can read it, is most likely mysterious, barely glimpsed, non-rational, and yet overpowering.

May we all be open this year, this season, to the deepest truths of our lives. May we resist our natural inclinations to simplify the complex. And may we have the insight to allow God's blessings to lead us forward in the coming year.