Monday, April 22, 2013

Yom Kippur Day 5773: (Not) Too Big to Fail

Yom Kippur Day 5773 – (Not) Too Big to Fail

Last December, I wrote an article that was began to circulate in the blogosphere and then, after being picked up by Fox News, went viral.   You may have heard about it.  It caused somewhat of a stir.  It was my fifteen minutes of shame.  Although local response was much more muted, the article caused embarrassment to at least some of you, and until now, I have not had the chance to personally apologize.  I expressed my feelings to the board personally and circulated a written statement.  But given the charged political climate, which in our society has pretty much eliminated the potential for reasoned discourse, I chose not to fan the flames with a more detailed response and turned down several offers to defend myself on national television and in the press. 

It was a failure – my failure – a failure to communicate, primarily; to communicate my ideas properly. Not a moral failing or character flaw, as some tried to portray it, though those stinging accusations caused me to place a large mirror in front of my face; but in my line of work, a communication failure is no small thing.   I take responsibility for every word I write and speak – there have literally been millions of those words since I came here 25 years ago - and, I know that everything that I say or write not only represents me, but also you, to some extent, and, to a degree, the entire Jewish people. 

That’s what it’s like to be a rabbi.  Every word counts.  And this is the right time and place for me to apologize to you – to clean up this bit of unfinished business as we move forward together into the new year.
I am humbled by the fact that the local community was so supportive.  Beth El’s leadership acted responsibly and sensitively.  And the reaction of my fellow clergy from the interfaith council, and in particular the letter they wrote defending me, was perhaps the moment in my life when I felt most directly touched by God’s love.  I am grateful to them and to all of you. 

The full story of what happened last winter will have to wait for another day.  In fact, the intended message of that article was precisely the point I made last week on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when I said: “There are those who seek to use religion as a lever to divide us rather than as a banner to unite us.  But religion has a role to play – a very important role – in a world of upheaval.  It can help to bring people together.” I said it much better last week then I did last December. 

Today, though, I don’t want to dwell on the question of religious extremism.  Today, I’d like to jump off from this to focus on a more appropriate topic for Yom Kippur: failure itself.

I’ve learned quite a bit this year about the nature of failure in our “gotcha” society, and how important it is to get back up and not be afraid to risk falling again.

In this unforgiving environment, especially in an election year, it’s not just rabbis who face added scrutiny.  Candidates certainly do, and we see almost daily examples of words being twisted or taken out of context.  No good phrase goes unpunished. And when they clearly misspeak, no admission of failure is tolerated.  It’s considered a sign of weakness, when in fact most of us would consider it refreshingly honest.

This is where the world is right now. Our country is now more polarized than at any time since the Civil War, and in an age of 24/7 news coverage, whatever people say can and will be used against them, even if they said it eons ago.  The list is endless of people whose misstatements have fed the partisan, political body-slam machine. 

Some pundits – on the left and the right – deliberately try to be provocative, and when they really cross the line – we’ve seen a few horrible examples of that this year – they issue pseudo-remorseful clarifications for political expediency, and then a week later they are right back at it.  But most failures aren’t deliberate; they are simply slips of the tongue or on-the-spot miscalculations.

Why can’t we just relax and recognize that people make mistakes?  It’s OK to make them, and it’s OK to confess to them, and it’s OK to forgive them.   Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair.  No big deal… I speak to empty seats all the time.

Which reminds me of a joke.  Two men were watching a John Wayne movie and one said to the other, “I’ll bet you a dollar that John Wayne falls off a horse within five minutes.”  The other man accepted the bet and within five minutes, John Wayne fell off the horse. 

 The man wanted to pay, but the first man refused saying, “I saw the film already and can’t accept your money.”  The second man replied, “I saw it too.”

 “Then why did you accept the bet?”

 “I didn’t think John Wayne would be foolish enough to make the same mistake twice.”

No one is too big to fail.  Not even John Wayne.  Some corporations might be too big to fail. Some banks might be.  Some auto manufacturers might be.  But that’s what makes them different from human beings.   

No person is too big to fail

Failure is not an option… it’s a given.  It is inevitable.  We’re all going to fail at some point.  Moses did.  King David did, big time.  Murder, theft and adultery: the trifecta - and his lust-driven crime inspired some of the liturgy of the Sh’ma Kolenu prayer.  We all fail. 

Heck, even God fails.  Back to that midrash that I’ve been quoting this week:  Imagine, God created and destroyed the world several times over before hitting upon the right combination.  In chapter 6 of Genesis, God even expresses regret for having created human beings.  Commentators are aghast that a supposedly omnipotent God could feel that way.  But the verse is right there, right before the story of Noah and the Flood.  It’s hard to ignore.

  וַיִּנָּחֶם יְהוָה, כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ; וַיִּתְעַצֵּב, אֶל-לִבּוֹ.

“The Lord regretted making the man – God was heartbroken over it.” 

What’s that all about?

We can find a clue in the only other usage of that expression “Vaynachem Adonai” in the Torah.  It’s in 

Exodus 32:

 וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ

"And the Lord repented of the evil which he had spoken of doing to God’s people.”

It’s the Golden Calf incident – and God is convinced by Moses not to destroy Israel.  In the case of the Flood, God regrets having created humanity and destroys everything and starts again.  In the case of the golden calf, God regrets wanting to destroy, has mercy toward the people and steps back from the precipice.

A blogger called “The Curious Jew,” points out the “great distinction between Flood Logic and Golden Calf Logic. Flood Logic assumes that the world must be perfect, and that wickedness cannot be tolerated. (There the God of Justice reigns) …In Golden Calf Logic, it is the God of Mercy who is dominant, God who understands the flaws and who is able to tolerate wickedness, comprehending that these errors can be rectified.”

Interesting.  It’s almost as if God undergoes a process of growth in the Torah, something that is, by the way, very consistent with how the ancients viewed God.  The lesson here is not to expect perfection.  By the time we get to the Golden Calf, which, as failures go, was a doozy, God has learned that no one is too big to fail.
God has learned it.

And the word Vayinachem, which here means “repented,” can also mean “was comforted.”  In that translation, the verse from Genesis could be read, “And God was comforted at having created humanity – though also disheartened.”  The comfort could come from the knowledge that although the experiment looked like a failure, God recognized that this human being would be a resilient creature.  Yes, things were going to get hairy.  Moses would hit the rock and David would hit rock bottom – but in the end it would be OK.

Failure is not an option. It’s a given.  So how do we deal with our own shortcomings?

The Yom Kippur liturgy is all about responding to failure.  The Kol Nidre prayer is a perfect example.   All the oaths, vows and promises that we could not fulfill…well, they’re annulled!  Done!  We get a mulligan!  We tried our best.  It’s OK!  We know we’ll do better next time.  Can’t stop making promises – even if we can’t fulfill them all.  But we can’t give up trying.  And this afternoon at mincha we read the book of Jonah, a story where everyone messes up – and everyone gets a second chance. We’ll be taking a closer look at that book during our break, for those who wish to stay around.

In Silicon Valley, they call failure the "F word" that entrepreneurs say all the time.  For every high-tech business success, there are countless failures – but there failure is accepted, or even welcomed, as a guide for future success.  One investing partner at Google ventures said, “In my mind, the ones who have no fear of failure are merely the dreamers, and the dreamers don't build great companies.”

Everywhere you look these days, outside of the politics and the media, that is, people are extolling the virtues of failure.  And if ever you want to read about the desirability and inevitability of failure, look no further than commencement addresses. 

Aaron Sorkin told graduates at Syracuse this year, “To get where you’re going, you have to be good... Every once in a while, you’ll succeed.  Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.”

Sounds like an episode of everything Aaron Sorkin’s ever written.

Steve Carell told graduates at Princeton this year, “When I was in college, I wouldn’t ‘text’ a girl to ask her out on a date. I would ask her, in person. One human being to another.  And when she said no, which she always did, I would suffer the humiliation and self-loathing that a young man needs for his, or her, personal growth.”

Brian Williams told grads at the George Washington University, “I told them when they called, I said: ‘You know, I dropped out of G.W. It was my third and final attempt at college.’ And they said: ‘Oh, no, that’s cool. Come on ahead.’ 

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, at Bard: “I believe in my heart of hearts that it is better to have your ship sunk at sea than have it rot in the harbor.”  Love it!  Though I would prefer a third option.

And Atul Gawande, the physician and author, said at Williams College that what great hospitals prove to be really great at was rescuing people when they have a complication, preventing failures from becoming catastrophes. ... “They call them a ‘Failure to Rescue.’ More than anything, this is what distinguishes the great from the mediocre. They don’t fail less. They rescue more.

He makes failure sound like a good thing. And it is.

One of our teens, Andrew Young, spoke of failure in a valedictory speech at his Middle School graduation last June.  We need to be motivated by our failures, he said.  We can’t all get the same trophy.

So how can we take failure and grow from it?

First, we learn to accept it and embrace it. 

A few weeks ago I was talking to our congregant Bruce Kahn and the subject turned to his extraordinary father of blessed memory.  George Kahn was a salesmen extraordinaire and 40 years ago he wrote a book that is seen by many as a salesman’s bible.  It has had several versions, one called “The 36 Biggest Mistakes Salesmen Make.”   There are lots of mistakes listed there, everything from “Running with the pack” to “Giving up too quickly” to “coming back with the same old pitch.” But what does George Kahn put as the number one mistake salesmen make?

Rationalizing away your failures. 

It’s OK to fail, he states. It’s not ok to shirk responsibility for it.  You can come up with every excuse in the book – but you’ll never grow from it unless you own it.

Another way we can grow from our failures is to help others deal with their failures.  Again, this doesn’t work in the intolerant, cutthroat areas of life, like politics, journalism, sports, business, academia, social media, locker room gossip or, come to think of it… just about everywhere.
But let’s try harder.  Everyone deserves a second chance, something illustrated by this story:
A woman was at work when she received a phone call that her small daughter was very sick with a fever.  She left work and stopped by the pharmacy to get some medication.  She got back to her car and found that she had locked her keys in the car.

She didn't know what to do.  She called home and the baby sitter told her that the fever was getting worse. She said: "You might find a coat hanger and use that to open the door."

The woman looked around and found an old rusty coat hanger that had been left on the ground, possibly by someone else who at some time had locked their keys in their car. But she had no idea how to use it, so she bowed her head and asked God to send help.

Within five minutes a beat up old motorcycle pulled up. A bearded man who was wearing an old biker skull rag on his head. The woman thought: "This is what you sent to help me?"

However, she was desperate.  The man got off of his cycle and asked if he could help.

She said: "Yes, my daughter is very sick and I've locked my keys in my car. Please, can you use this hanger to unlock my car?"

He said "Sure." He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the car was opened.

She hugged the man and through her tears she said "Thank You SO Much! You are a very nice man."

The man replied, "Lady, you probably should know that I just got out of prison yesterday – I was in prison for car theft."

The woman hugged the man again and with sobbing tears cried out loud "Oh, thank you God! You even sent me a Professional!!" 

Yesterday’s car thief can be today’s good Samaritan.   Everyone deserves a second chance.

A third strategy for dealing with failure is to drown it in success.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells the story of how his grandfather interpreted the verse from Pslam 34 “Sur Mayra v’aseh tov,” “turn from evil and do good.”  He said that if one is given water filled with salt to drink, you have two choices.  You can either desalinate the water – very expensive and not practical.  Or you can add so much fresh water that the salt will become virtually unnoticeable. 

The same goes with failure.  You can waste your time being aggravated about something that can never be changed or undone, or you can instead do so many acts of kindness that eventually they will overwhelm the earlier wrongful acts and make them seem much less significant.

When I was accused of having antipathy toward conservative evangelicals, I made it my business to try to understand them better and to reaffirm the centrality of interfaith dialogue in our work here.  At AIPAC, I went to a session led by some evangelical leaders and established a correspondence with one of them.  It’s been helpful.  I got to share some of my concerns about campus proselytizing and end time prophecies regarding Israel.  I now have a better understanding of how such matters do not need to interfere with our mutual support of Israel.  But efforts at dialogue won’t stop there.

A local Muslim representative will speak here at a Shabbat service in January.  Many of us are guilty of lumping people into groups. And in December, we’ll be hearing from an award winning filmmaker and author who will tell us about her friend, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem, who has spent the last two decades working for peace.  We need to be the congregation that brings groups together, and, given my experiences this year, I’m more determined than ever to do that.

In whatever way we feel we’ve fallen short of the mark, we can overwhelm the bad with good.

Incidentally, if you feel you need to overwhelm your sins with goodness, overwhelm us withyour presence at Shabbat services.  That’s my prescription: Take two minyans and call me in the morning. 

4)  We also need to acknowledge that life is difficult.  

As M Scott Peck has written, once we truly know that life is difficult--then we can transcend it.  Once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.  It becomes a given, a baseline.  And understanding the messiness of life helps us to forgive our own imperfections, and those of our neighbors.

But, 5), despite the obstacles, we mustn’t play it safe. 

Elie Wiesel said famously that the opposite of good is not evil but indifference.  Similarly, I believe that the opposite of life is not death but irrelevance.  The opposite of life is purposeless life - a life that was never really lived. 

Now it’s possible to be relevant in destructive ways, so one’s life must also be guided by humility and kindness, what we Jews call menschlichkeit.  But we can’t fear risking failure, because even if we opt for the 
path of least resistance, failure will still happen. 

It’s easy to doubt yourself when confronted by failure, as I did.  It is easy to wonder whether a lifetime of good work can be wiped away in an instant.  It is easy to deflect blame and stoke up internal anger.  It is easy to lose sleep. I did all of the above. I waited for everyone else to lift me up when I needed to do that myself.
And in the end, I realized that only I can define my legacy.  Not Twitter, not my Facebook profile, not Google and not even Fox News – or MSNBC, for that matter.  Our legacy is in our hands, and much of how we will be remembered has to do with how we rise when we have fallen short.

When Aly Raisman was warming up for the floor exercise in the women’s team gymnastic finals at the recent Olympics, a blogger named Matthew Hunt noticed that she was showing a couple of big misses in her routine, causing the announcers to question whether she was ready for a gold medal performance.  Of course she was and that’s why she is now our “Hava Nagila” Hero.   He speculated that she might have been falling on purpose. “Was she practicing failure in front of an audience?” Hunt wondered.  Making errors during warm up practice seems like exactly the right time to get the “failures” out of the way.” 

It’s like that 2006 Nike commercial with Michael Jordan.  “The commercial opens with a scene of Michael getting out of his limo and walking into the arena.  While walking through the tunnel he is shaking hands and giving nods to the security and maintenance staff.  The voiceover begins with him recognizing that he has missed over 9000 shots in his career and lost almost 300 games, and 26 times he has been trusted to take the game winning shot… and missed.  The commercial ends with Michael walking through doors into the “Players Entrance” and finishes with his insight, “I have failed over, and over, and over again in my life… and that is why I succeed.”

On Yom Kippur, we’re not just talking about sinking jump shots and sticking the landing.  We’re talking about Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu.  We’ve betrayed, we’ve stolen, we’ve become violent, we’ve caused others to do evil, we’ve lied, we’ve scoffed, we’ve rebelled, we’ve been scornful, stiff necked and corrupt. Serious stuff.

So pick your failure today.  You don’t have to be proud of it.  You only need to grow from it. For no one is too big to fail.  As we’ll read next week on Sukkot in the book of Ecclesiastes, (7:20), “Ki adam ain tzadik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov v’lo yecheta.” “There is no person so perfectly righteous that he does only good and doesn’t mess up.”

The Kotzker rebbe says, "The main element of sin is not how a person has sinned, for he is only human, and he could not withstand the test. The main element of sin is that a person may repent at any moment, but does not. And this sin is greater than the transgression itself.”  As we’ve learned time and time again in our society, the cover up is always worse than the crime.

We’ve failed.  But in our failure lies the seeds of forgiveness and ultimately, salvation.   Nachman of Bratzlav taught, "In the very obstacle that blocks you from discovering God is precisely where God is waiting to be discovered."

I end with a story:

A few weeks ago, with the world seemingly crashing down around us,  I was driving downtown late Friday afternoon and turned on the radio to hear yet another severe thunderstorm warning.  Now we’ve gotten used to those around here.  Heck, we now have so many tornado warnings in Connecticut these days that I’m tempted to hop on my bike to visit Auntie Em.

But this was different.  Usually you get those fronts that go from west to east, extending for hundreds of miles, with those daunting orange and red cells on Doppler radar.  But this had been a lovely day. No storms on the map at all, until five in the afternoon, when suddenly these clouds formed randomly - just over me!  it seemed like God was playing some kind of cruel joke. 

And this wasn’t just any Friday.  It was the day when we were planning to have services at Cove Island Park. Normally, if severe weather were in the forecast we would have cancelled for sure.  But it was too late - 5 o’clock – and it started to rain hard. I called the cantor who was a mile ahead of me and we decided to hold off on taking any action until we saw what was going on down there. We figured that if no one was there, and the decision would take care of itself.  So as I drove downtown through the Friday afternoon traffic, I had a sense of foreboding, that events had spun out of control – a microcosm of the world itself – but in this case I would be responsible for putting people in harm’s way, by not cancelling an outdoor event during a severe thunderstorm.

But then, everything began to change.  My spirits were lifted as I drove past our beaming renewed downtown, the Mill River Project on the right, then all the activity on Bedford St, then, as I approached the Cove, the new Chelsea Piers on the left.  When I arrived at Cove Island, the rain suddenly stopped.  It didn’t stop up here, I later found out.  It just stopped down there.  And not only did we have a service on the beach, but a hundred people showed up – all ages– a hundred meshugenahs like me who had defied the dark clouds.  Talk about faith! Families were having picnics on blankets decked out in the sand and children were running up to put their toes in the water. A gull sat on a ledge just above us, and when I announced the page, he suddenly began squawking out what sounded like Lecha Dodi.  I announced that the oneg was being sponsored by the Seagull family.

And then, someone pointed it out, over to the left, looking toward the coast of Long Island, there it was - a rainbow.

A rainbow – that eternal symbol of assurance to Noah and his descendants that God would never again destroy the earth, that humankind would get another chance.    It was the sign I needed that our world too will get better, that no apocalypse is at hand.   It will get better - but only if we take responsibility for it.
The service was spectacular.  Not a drop of rain fell on us.  Toward the end, I looked up and there was a blue sky right above us.  It was surreal. I commented about how wonderful it was that we had this service and that the skies had cleared completely.  But the second, and I mean the second the service ended, it began to rain.  

“Man plans, God laughs.”

Ten days ago, I implored us to defy predictions of a 2012 Apocalypse, our confidence boosted by the God Particle, which propels us forward, confident that the arc of Jewish history bends toward love. Then we learned that there is only one Jewish people but many ways to be Jewish, and no shortcuts to getting there. Last night we saw how our tradition compels us to choose life.  And today, we grow from our mistakes.
A unifying thread to all these sermons has been that fascinating midrash positing that God destroyed other worlds before settling on this one; it speaks of a God who embraces life, a God who even makes mistakes, but never stops creating, and is never afraid to try again.  A perfect God who models imperfection, a deity who grows from failure.

And a God who also models forgiveness.

If God could bear the imperfections of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Jacob, Sarah, Miriam and David – so must we forgive our own – and those of others. 

And may we, and those dear to us, be granted a year of personal fulfillment, good health, spiritual growth, intensified connection with the Jewish people and the community, and the simple joy of being alive – today and every day.  Amen

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