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Rabbi Seidel Drash Rosh Hashanah Day One 5776-2015

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Rosh Hashanah Day One - 5776 (2015)
Being Honest About our Motivations


Why do we do what we do?  Why do we make the choices we do?  In particular, why is it, when we make rational plans to repent and do better, we often find that we cannot follow through?  What's stopping us from being better people?  Why is it that we don't always do what our rational selves know very well we should do?

Part of our problem is: we human beings are not entirely governed by rational, conscious motivations.  Now, some say that we are not rational actors at all.  That we don't actually make any choices, that what seem like choices we make are really actions completely dictated by our emotions and biases, our history, our culture, our genetic makeup.  In other words, some say, we actually have no free will at all, just the illusion of free will, the illusion that we are making choices.

Our tradition asserts otherwise.  We Jews have traditionally believed that we do have free will.  Though it's also clear we have been arguing both sides of the question for a long time.  So much so that Rambam, writing over 800 years ago in his Laws of Teshuva, feels the need to argue against this idea that we have no free will.  For if we have no free will, then repentance is a meaningless word. 

So, I'm going to side with Rambam, and assert our free will.  However, and this is my theme for today's talk: we must be honest with ourselves.  We don't always make progress with our teshuvah.  And we need to be clear about why that is, and what we might be able to do about it.

The fact is, our decisions are very influenced by forces which we are sometimes loathe to acknowledge.  We'd like to believe that we are totally rational actors. But such confidence in our rationality is not only naïve, it is harmful to the process of repentance.  When you contemplate changing yourself, you need to know what you're up against.  How can you fight this battle successfully if you refuse to study the enemy carefully, and honestly?

This issue hit me uncomfortably last month.  We got home from vacation just as the month of Elul started.  I sat down to my computer with just a month to go till Rosh HaShanah, and 562 emails that had been sent to me while I was away.  Now, I hadn't paid much attention to what was going on in the world during our time away.  Perhaps because we were vacationing in the Canadian Rockies, the Iran deal, for example, never intruded on my consciousness.  Rachel and I concentrated on worries closer at hand, like whether or not we were likely to encounter a grizzly bear on our next hike, and would our $40 can of bear spray really help us if we did?

So, back in my office, I quickly saw among my emails, that 340 American Rabbis had signed on to a statement supporting the Iran deal.  A day later, as I bored farther back through the weeks of email, I came upon the email that had invited me to be a signatory to that statement supporting the Iran deal.  I felt bad, because I thought I probably would have signed it, and I had missed my chance. 

Then, a week later,  I attended a one-day AIPAC conference here in town.  This conference was put on expressly for Rabbis, and, was centered on the Iran deal.  As you may know, AIPAC is dead set against this deal, and has, according to some accounts, spent $40 million on the fight.  Some of that money probably paid for the nice lunch I had at the conference. 

Anyway, at the conference, I felt myself moving towards the other side, thinking maybe I should be against the deal.  AIPAC had brought in good speakers whom I would not have guessed would be against the deal: Leon Wieseltier, and even Ari Shavit, reporter and author of the recent book, My Promised Land.  The general sentiment was: this deal was a disaster for Israel and must be fought tooth and nail.  It was persuasive.  And yet, other speakers, like Yossi Klein HaLevi, were so stridently against the deal, way over-the-top in his rhetoric, that I was put off, and I started to lean back in favor  of the deal.

Anyway, after that AIPAC conference, I felt - wow, it's good I did not sign up with the 340 Rabbis in favor of the Iran deal.  Not that I was sure exactly where I stood, but I was glad I had not jumped too quick.  But then I got to wondering:  Why was I so disappointed initially, that I didn't get a chance to sign on?  Why was I so sure I wanted to go public about the issue? What did I know of Iran, or of nuclear treaties?  What was my motivation?

I decided to take a look at who had signed on to support the Iran deal; I wanted to know if any of the Rabbis I regard as teachers had joined the 340 signers.  I saw that a few Rabbis that I respect had indeed signed on in support - Elliot Dorff, Jeremy Kalmanofsky.  But not many.  Not really enough to sway me back to favoring the Iran deal. 

Of course then I had to ask myself: wait, am I just going to decide based on what my mentors and friends are doing?  Is that really who I am?  And I had a fleeting thought - boy, I'm a lot more susceptible to peer pressure than I like to admit.

And then I took a look at the comments list on that web-page that lists the 340 Rabbis supporting the deal.   I guess I was desperate to hear more opinions.  It's interesting to me that at this point, I wasn't looking to learn more about the facts of the deal.  It was just opinions I was craving.  Anyway, in the comments section, I found the usual: vicious personal attacks, framed in the nastiest kind of way: the usual internet fare.  And yet, I had to admit that some of the comments, however mean-spirited, hit home.

These comments questioned the motivations of those who had signed in favor of the Iran deal.  Now, in general, questioning an individual's motivations is not a polite, or practical conversational move.  But on the free-wheeling internet, there seem to be different rules.  And I didn't feel attacked, because I hadn't signed the petition.

Anyway, here are some of the comments that I wrestled with:

"With possibly one exception all signatories would not be recognized as 'rabbis' in Israel as they did not take the required examinations in Jewish law with a commitment to observe it completely."

Well, ok, but what's your point exactly?  That extra knowledge of halachah is essential to evaluating this international situation?  Which got me to thinking: how many Rabbis, of any denomination, really have the knowledge and the time to render an independent evaluation of the Iran deal.  It's not just me that has minimal knowledge of Iran, and nuclear proliferation treaties.  And I'm not the only Rabbi out there who has no idea of the likelihood that, should we not ratify the deal, we could get France and England, much less Russia and China, to hold out for more sanctions at this point.  It got me thinking: what was even the point of getting 340 of any denomination of Rabbi to sign on to this petition?  Are we the experts?  Was this just so that others could stop thinking about this issue, and follow their Rabbi?  Wouldn't 340 experts on the subject being discussed be a better, more rational group of signatories to assemble?

"These signatories oppose the opinions of 80% of Israelis of all stripes."

This is apparently true, or at least close to the truth. And it is important to know what the Israelis think.  They sure have had to suffer from the terrorists that Iran has funded, and would have to worry more than we, should Iran get the bomb.  But is what Israelis think necessarily decisive?  If so, if Israelis should have the last say on whether we support the deal or not, why bother with a survey of Rabbis at all?  If you insist that the Rabbis mirror what Israelis think, just take a survey of Israelis, and skip the Rabbi step.  But is the Israeli populace in general expert on Iran and nuclear proliferation? 

They [the Rabbis who signed on to support the deal] want to show that they are willing to follow the first African American President to demonstrate how much they are not racist, no matter what the consequence to Israel, which is a lower priority than being model leftist members of the Democratic Party. [See more at: http://www.ameinu.net/newsroom/press-release/340-rabbis-urge-congress-to-support-nuclear-deal-with-iran/#sthash.iJ5SsJmz.dpuf]

Ouch.  This comment, though framed in a nasty way, really hit home.  Why did I feel a knee-jerk reaction to support this deal, even though I knew virtually nothing about it?  I had to admit to myself that I felt for Obama, and trusted him to do what I would do.  I don't have time to wade through the details of the Iran deal, any more than I did a careful study of Obamacare.  I relied on a general feeling about Obama, as well as the opinions of pundits whom I generally trust.  And the fact is, there is a part of my support for Obama that is based on my desire that the first Black President of the USA succeed, and I want to do whatever I can to support him.  I feel no shame in that.  However, it might just be true, if I'm being completely honest, that my initial thought to support the Iran deal was based more on my wish for Obama success, without enough concern for the State of Israel.  I felt bad.  Or at least sheepish.

So, I decided to do some research: I called Jon Alterman, a member of TI and a real expert on this stuff.  As it turned out, he had made a statement before the House Armed Services Committee at the end of July entitled "Potential Implications in the Region of the Iran Deal".  Jon kindly sent me his statement, and it made me feel good, reading those 8 pages of his testimony.  I love text study!  Jon's paper was extremely helpful, in that it carefully weighed both sides of the question, taking into consideration all the elephants in the room, without fear of favor.  Honestly, at the AIPAC conference I didn't feel I got such a calm and careful analysis.

So I felt better!  I had done a little research!  I had studied a text! I could support the Iran deal with a little less guilt - and by guilt, I mean guilt that I hadn't done my homework, guilt that maybe I wasn't making my decision on any rational basis.  Guilt that I might be selling Israel down the river, as AIPAC would have it.  I had listened to many opinions, and chosen the one that seemed most reasonable.  I had approached it all rationally.

Or had I?  I want to help Israel at a crucial time, and I'm worried about the Iran deal.  But what is actually best for Israel isn't entirely possible to know.  I'd love to be able to stand here and give you a confident message about the Iran deal.  But though I lean towards favoring the deal as the best of a bad situation, I'm not sure.

Part of what piqued my interest in this larger issue - my motivation for being interested in motivations, if you will - was the recent movie, Inside Out.  In this movie, the mind of an 11-year-old girl is depicted as being controlled by five competing emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. I liked the movie.  It reminds us how we can be controlled by our emotions, and how our motivations can often be effected by events that took place earlier in our lives, events we may not even remember clearly.  Not that that's such a controversial proposition, but we tend to forget, in our effort to imagine ourselves as totally rational creatures, what lies beneath our decisions.

I would like to note, however, that there a number of other influences, other motivations besides the five emotions portrayed, that didn't even make it into the movie at all.  What about guilt?  What about a moral imperative? A sense of Fairness?  In my experience, as a longtime Dad and Hebrew school teacher, children have a strong sense of justice.  Along with a related, but not identical motivation: the desire to do good things, to be kind.  And a desire to be kind, if nurtured properly, may flower later in life, becoming in adults, a search for meaning, a way to understand one's drive to be a mensch as part of a larger, cosmic plan.  And Man's search for Meaning, Victor Frankl has argued, is among the deepest drives we have.  But I got sidetracked: back to children and the movie:

So my first point vis a vis the movie: we are governed by a lot more than Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.  Guilt, Fairness, Kindness, Justice, Meaning - these are all forces that roil inside us, and we should not ignore.

But even among the five represented in the movie, I have a beef: fear plays a minor role.  Whereas in real life, I find fear to be one of the biggest motivators, for good and for bad.  Fear of being humiliated, fear of not fitting in - these fears figure not just in children's lives.  Such emotions can overwhelm our better instincts, and lead to terrible decisions in our lives.  For example, a culture built solely on order and fitting in will find that the motivation to speak out for justice will be squelched, with disastrous consequences.

And yet, fear is also adaptive, like all of these emotions.  Fear has its place, and without fear, we wouldn't survive long.   We don't pet snarling pit bulls, we move to the other side of the street.  If I'm biking on a road that feels dangerous, I listen to the fear, and I find a different route.

But I want to talk about another type of fear, a fear that is big player in the control room in our brains, a fear that threatens to keep us from having a good year.  This is the fear of the unknown.  A fear, often built entirely on second-hand information, which holds us back from trying new things, from striking out in important, necessary new directions.

This summer, I went on a few long bike rides with my daughter Hannah - we were trying to ride every state street in the District of Columbia - there's a whole route map that tells you how to get all the state streets in.  The entire route is over 60 miles, so we were trying to do it over several days.  I want to tell you about  the second day of our ride, when we were to cover the part of the route in Anacostia, and the weather was predicted to be in the high 90's and very humid.

I should mention, I had a little trouble sleeping the night before; I was worrying not only about the awful weather forecast, but also about where we'd be biking.  Now, I have biked in Anacostia a handful of times, and never had any trouble.  I've been a few times to Kenilworth Aquatic gardens, and there was the TI bike trip of old DC synagogues some 15 years ago that had a fair amount of riding in Anacostia.  As I said, I never had any trouble.  But what I regularly read in the papers gave me the willies, despite my first-hand experience to the contrary.

Anyway, we hadn't made it far up Martin Luther King Avenue, when we had to take a break for lunch.  We were very hot and uncomfortable, trying to eat despite the heat, sitting near the road, on a bench next to a school.  All the sudden, this guy calls to us from half a block away - he had some kind of special safety vest on -  he looked like he might be a volunteer security guard for the church across the street, and he said:  "Hey, you guys need some water?"  Other people passed by, and said hello.  It was weird: but people seemed more friendly than they do in my own neighborhood.  In fact, the vibe seemed to be: "Hey, some white folk came to visit Anacostia!?"  Welcome!"

After that friendly encounter, we felt enlivened, both nutritionally, and emotionally, and we biked deeper into Anacostia. But after another half hour or so, the temperature and the moisture in the air was just too much, and we gave up.  There were no benches anywhere, so we just propped our bikes up along a fence and sat right on the sidewalk of Alabama Avenue, feeling beaten.  I took out our map and we looked for the nearest metro station.  After a few minutes, a group of teens approached.  I tensed up.  They nodded at us nonchalantly as they walked by.  That was it.  We found that there was a metro stop just a few blocks away.  No biggie.  I must say, I learned a lot that day, not just about Anacostia, but about myself.

It wasn't the best biking day I've ever had, but it did remind me about important stuff, as difficult bike rides tend to do.  Moving in a new direction often means conquering wrong-headed fears.  Fears based not on first-hand experience, but based on biases.  In this vein, I think about our country, and this particular moment, a moment that holds promise to improve race relations.  I'm not sure what my role might be to help move things farther along, towards justice, and peace.  But this bike trip reminded me that I might be part of the problem, living as I do in ignorance and fear of the other, separated geographically from the worst of the problems.

What are we celebrating today, exactly?  Part of it is about our God-given ability to move in new directions.  Our ability to overcome fears - fear of change, fear of strangers, fear of new ideas, fear of ambiguity, fear of being publically embarrassed.  And what happens when we confront those fears, and move ahead anyway?  I would call that emotion I feel, when I realize that I've made a step forward, and have done something even slightly better than I did before:I call that joy.  The deepest kind of joy, not the ditzy, almost manic Joy depicted in the movie, but an adult Joy.  A Joy connected to meaning.   That's part of the promise of Rosh HaShanah.  It's possible to overcome wrong-headed fears.  But we may need to be honest about our fears. Rosh HaShanah reminds me to acknowledge the swirling emotions and biases inside myself.  Our tradition assures me that I am capable of setting out in a new direction, despite some of the negativity inside me.

I see some of these issues imbedded in this morning's Torah portion.  Abraham is in a tough situation.  His wife Sarah would like to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the camp. Abraham is rightfully concerned - after all this would mean not just banishing Hagar, a mere concubine, but also Ishmael, a son of his.  Should Abraham stand up to Sarah, with all the downsides there appertaining, or should he just go along with Sarah, and banish Hagar and Ismael? 

Abraham arrives at a decision the same way we all make decisions - in a very unclear, messy, non-rational way.  In Abraham's case, he consults God.  But who is God, exactly?  Note that in the story, the God that Abraham hears instructing him is not Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh, the God we today call "Adonai", that special God of our ancestors and of us.  No, it's merely Elohim who tells Abraham to do as Sarah says. And who is Elohim?  Well, Elohim is merely a generic term for God.  It could be Adonai, but it could also be just a lower-case-g god, a god everyone worships in that locale - nothing special, not a timeless entity.  Elohim could even just be a reflection of whatever the locals happen to believe to be the truth, nothing more than a collection of local biases.

As many have pointed out, this difference between Adonai, the real transcendent God, and Elohim, who could be anything worshipped as god: this is a crucial difference in tomorrow's reading, the Akedah.  It is merely Elohim who asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Whereas, at the last minute, it is Adonai, speaking through an angel, that tells Abraham to spare the child.  Now in today's story, we don't have Adonai come to the rescue, as Adonai does in tomorrow's story.  We only have Elohim insisting on the banishment of Ishmael and his mother. 

So, I wonder what ugly collection of biases Elohim represents here? It could be that Abraham feels he needn't treat Hagar well because she's just an Egyptian, a foreigner, and the local Elohim, being just a local god, is fine with xenophobia.  And Hagar is just a concubine to boot: perhaps she doesn't have the same human rights as a full wife would, according to this local god.  Exactly what biases persuade Abraham to go against his basic fatherly instinct and banish his son, we'll never know.  But we sure don't have to like it.

Maybe we are supposed to learn from Abraham's error.  Maybe this story can help us be honest - not brutally honest, but gently honest with ourselves when it comes to making tough decisions.  Maybe we can learn to acknowledge all the forces that are at work in the control panel of our minds.  We cannot completely avoid being influenced by our emotions, our biases, our self-deceptions, our need for self-preservation, our natural avoidance of embarrassment.  But sometimes, if we can take stock of all these influences, we may be able to act a little better than we have in the past.

I conclude with a few practical suggestions on getting in touch with our motivations, thoughts about how we can avoid acting on our basest fears.  Ideas for trying something different this year, overcoming our inertia, moving towards joy.

1)     We are an anxious people, we Americans, and especially we American Jews.  You might want to take a look at my packet on page 11 for some commentary on that fact - in particular, note that almost one in five Americans has an anxiety disorder.  And even those of us who do not - we still lie awake some nights worrying over nothing.  If a little part of your mind remains rational, and you sort of know that the new thing you're contemplating doing is actually not so scary - well just do it!  As the article in my packet implies, we Americans tend to worry too much about our worries - which can induce a pathological spiral; in other cultures - I'd include traditional Judaism here - you're instructed to worry about your actions, not your emotional state.  Sometimes, you just have to do it, despite your fears.

2)     But it is important to spend some time trying to understand your fears, your motivations, all that hidden stuff.  And there are all sorts of ways to go about it.  Like Meditation - often, insight comes up unbidden when you sit quietly. And there's a talking meditation - called in our tradition hitbod'dut, that can also elicit insight - I'm going to try to give you an example of that at tomorrow's service.  There's writing in a journal - I find things come up while I'm writing that surprise me.  There's going to a therapist.  When I can't figure out why I make the same stupid mistake over and over again, and I can't seem to change - and meditation and writing are not providing an answer - I have found that occasional visits to therapists over the years to be essential in helping me take the next step.  And now, there are also Jewish Spiritual Directors - we have several in our own congregation.  I have personally found a spiritual director to be of great help.

3)     Immerse yourself in good things.  Expose your subconscious self to positive, healthy experiences.   Think about it: what are you creating up there in your mind, if you spend much time on viewing the basest stuff?  How is that going to shape who you are?  I say, read a few less murder mysteries, and a little more serious literature.  Maybe even a little more Torah.  More books, less newspapers.  Remember, the newspaper's job is to get you worried about something.  More direct, face to face interactions, and less social media.  Less driving in a car, more public transportation.  Even better, more bicycling.  And I'm not even talking about the environmental benefits.  It's about coming face to face with the world, with other people, and shunning isolated, mediated experience. 

4)     Finally, take small, reasonable steps.  Acknowledge that change is hard, and you are only going to try so much.  I find that a small successful step in the right direction brings me enormous joy, way out of proportion to the tiny progess I made.  Whereas setting unreasonable goals - that's almost a kind of dishonesty, even if the goals are rational.  We are not rational.  We cannot usually make big jumps.  So don't set yourself up to fail.

5)     Speaking of small steps, Israel could use your help.  There is lots to do on the ground that has very little to do with the complex political squabbles of the day.  Actions you could take that you could be sure were going to help.  Maybe it's helping to organize another congregation trip to Israel?  Maybe it's setting up an Israel committee in the congregation, to figure out just how we might best contribute. 

Or maybe you don't want to travel that far.  Maybe there's a way you could help our own city.  A way for you to be involved in helping DC become a better, more just place.  And maybe that could start by just getting to know its varied neighborhoods.

I'd like to have a year filled with joy, in 5776.  But I know that, unless I'm trying new things, that joy will be elusive.  If I'm not trying to better myself - as a Rabbi, as a husband, as a father, as a son - the world doesn't have that freshness it had when I was young.  I need that newness.  But trying new things is hard - so much stands in our way.

So this year, let's acknowledge it - much stands in our way. Nevertheless, our job is to move ahead, even just a little bit, despite the challenge.  We can do it.  I know we can.  And our tradition, our God, assures us we can.

L'shanah tova!