Below is my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon for 5778
Shana Tova to each of you. Let me take this moment to wish you each a heartfelt blessing for the New Year.
“Move Fast and Break things”- this is the advice of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It’s his philosophy for the New World we are living in. And he is not alone. The technological and economic forces of the 21st century are causing us to rethink some of our most cherished ideals and institutions. This is the result sociologists and business leaders tell us of the disruption economy. We have seen the disruptions come in every aspect of our life. Politics, art, business, media and even how we have and find relationships! All have changed. And all have been impacted and changed by technology.
The political realm perhaps is the most obvious because we are bombarded every day by another headline. The current occupant of the White House is an example of disruption. He campaigned differently than what was typical of politicians. You never know what to expect. His policies are born out of that disruption modality. Turn everything upside down- do it quickly. And don’t do what is expected. His Administration is changing and disrupting the lives of many.
But it is also important to look at how it is done. Where do we turn for his latest policy initiative? Yes-you guessed it Twitter. 140 characters. In the not too distant past—we relied on policy papers and think tanks but today we find ourselves reeling from moment to moment waiting for the next twitter pronouncement. And The Twitter feed itself, with its often anonymous posters, and computer bots in turn churn out fake messages have shifted conversation by attacking and trolling people. And the lies that are promoted as truth has become its own industry. Fake journalism is something to be wary about. And Fake news is everywhere on Twitter and Facebook and numerous websites masquerading as journalism. Even coming from government officials. These are all examples of the disruptions we now live with.
Art too has affected. The music industry was one of the earliest to take a hit from these disruptions. As documented in his book (pic of Book Cover) Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, author Jonathan Taplin documents the move from records to cd’s to mp3s and how it caused deep havoc for composers and musicians. What once was a 20 billion dollar industry in 1999 is now a $7.5 billion dollar industry. This precipitous drop began with the appearance of Sean Parker’s Napster website site that enabled users to download music without paying for it. This disrupted the normal course of the music business and allowed counterfeiting and piracy to soar. Coupled with sharing made easy with a few clicks and consumer expectation of getting something for free has eaten into the music business. But also the same can be said of film, television, graphic design and other arts and other businesses that provide content as well. Even how we hail a ride has changed. Once you hailed a taxi. Now its uber and lyft driven by your neighbor down the street. Technology has changed the way we get and share content and changed many of the basics of how we live and work.
Look at how we do business! (picture of parking meter and driverless car
There are fewer grocery checkers because we can scan the bar codes ourselves; donations made online rather than writing a check; parking tickets at the parking lot? Now there is a machine to pay and good luck if it takes cash because it is likely only done on a credit or debit card. There will be further disruption to our lives as robots and automated systems, driverless cars increasingly replace people and jobs in this new economy.
And there will be more disruptions to come.
(Amazon logo/whole foods logo) Amazon first smashed the book business putting out of business the local book store.. Then it is remade the retail business bringing any item to your doorstep with a few clicks. Malls, once the shopping mecca for America, now sit empty, as brick and mortar stores can’t compete with the convenience of Amazon. And now it seeks to transform the grocery business as it has acquired Whole Foods. Just you wait—as product availability narrows. And farmers are even further affected.
And Google and Facebook are ever present -they can track your movements and your conversations. Even as Google Home and Alexa listen to your every wish, make a play list of music and add to your shopping list; they can also listen to your conversations. Even as you click through your friend’s Pintrest account, ads for similar clothes will appear. And with so much of our personal information available online, it can be shared quickly with the NSA or government and has been as these large internet companies have little regulation. And in this information Age- data mining is the key to success both the hackers and these large corporations and creating a lack of privacy if we even have it any more.
And even relationships are disrupted We swipe left or right to find a date or playmate. We upload our most perfectly retouched photo, and seek out former loves on Facebook. There are benefits no doubt—we can reconnect and stay in touch with family and friends and be a part of their lives even a great distance. We can skype and facetime with our grandkids and children away at school rather than have a disembodied voice at the end of the line. But even as we post more personal information about how we feel, there is a false sense of intimacy that is highly edited and curated sometimes to the point of being a lie.
For the Jewish world these disruptions have also influenced and affected us greatly. It has caused the synagogue to grapple with profound changes and patterns that are ancient in a new kind of environment.
And so you see some adaptations even here at Kol Ami. Traffic has impacted our ability to get around and we are city without adequate public transportation as well as a culture that has resisted switching to it. And so for many of you it becomes a burden to even get to synagogue no matter where it is located because fighting traffic leaves one so frazzled. And so we live stream our Shabbat services in the hopes that by using technology to bring services and community to you that you will avail yourself of it. The changes and developments in technology affect how we train our kids in their Judaism, and even how we have meetings to run the synagogue’s day to day.
But there is a cost to all of this. For the synagogue, for our relationships, for business, for art, for people. There are costs that have profound effects on society at large. Not only are people displaced from their jobs and lives with industry changes and technology-the very definitions of community come into question. And some are questioning whether or not these changes also affect the very fabric of our democracy.
Such as when data mining can be used to manipulate elections and then manipulating the algorithms that influences your newsfeed and ultimately influences your decision making. This is the process that changes what you see on Twitter or Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram and even the way the news is influenced on cable or in the digital press have been shown to influence your decision making. There are examples of how Facebook did this actually over a two-week period in 2016.
These disruptions and potentials for manipulations and rapid changes are difficult to adapt to and guard against. The way the digital world and those in charge have such control over the content we see based upon data mining should give us all pause. These disruptions to the way of life we have known are difficult because we human beings haven’t really changed. But many of us have a hard time keeping up and managing the forces that are overwhelming our day to day lives. And further we all want to believe and know that our own decisions are in our hands.
In Judaism we believe that we have the choice over good and evil decisions. Our tradition teaches us that we all possess a Yetzer HaRah—and evil inclination and a Yetzer HaTov-a good inclination. We can give in to the evil inclination or we can choose our Yetzer HaTov. And this season is meant to help us reflect on our moral choices. These Holy Days are meant to help us examine the moral failures we have had- when we have given in to our Yetzer HaRah and rebuild upon our Yetzer HaTov.
With the arrival of this New Year we have a moment of pause to reflect and gather our thoughts in this fast moving world. Ironically, it is our ancient spiritual tradition that can provide some guidance for how to manage in these times with these challenges. And this morning I want to share with you some ancient wisdom for living and thriving in these times. And in particular this morning I want to show you three ways Judaism is itself a disruptor for these disruptive times!
First the most important-
Take a time out!
The constant 24/7 of our lives of always being at work and online destroys the quality of our lives and our health and well-being. It can be an addiction itself. One of our core principles as Jews is the Shabbat. Shabbat is an antidote to the fast paced, demands of businesses that sometimes care little about you and your family life. Shabbat is the ultimate gift of our tradition. Part of the covenantal promise made to us and that we affirmed at Mt. Sinai. Shabbat is day of rest and wonder, a day of gratitude and thanksgiving for your life. But unless you take a Shabbat and you make it sacrosanct in your life—you will succumb to these larger forces that run your life without your consent. You will not be free.
As the great philosopher and Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book, The Sabbath:
“Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, (hu)man(ity) must fight for inner liberty” to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. “Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
Heschel understood that our true freedom and liberty comes when we aren’t dominated by things, people or the material world. Shabbat is a way to disrupt the disruptors who want to control your decisions, your thinking, your purchases and your pocketbook. .
Judaism teaches us that God took a group of Hebrew slaves and set them free by giving them a spiritual structure for their lives. Shabbat is at the core of that structure and it is literally timeless. As Heschel called it a “palace in time”.
Shabbat is the pause for the overwhelm we feel by the pace of the world. Shabbat is the antidote to being online. Put your phone away. Turn it off. Take a Facebook break. Disconnect from the World Wide Web to gather your own ideas, your own thoughts not influenced by the fake news and propaganda. Take the Shabbat challenge—and put your phone down for 24 hrs. Instead, connect in the real world.
Shabbat is a day to love, to be outside, to meditate, pray, give thanks, acknowledge your blessings. Literally a day to restore your breath—restore the God who lives inside of you.
As Heschel writes:
There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord (Prologoue, The Sabbath, p.3)
Let Shabbat be your tool, your gift to change the pace of your days and uplift your spirit in a world of chaos.
The second key for living in this disruptive world is to live a life of Jewish morals and ideals. In the Mishnah: Hillel declared “In a place where there are no humans strive to be a human. Meaning when the world is ugly and people are behaving poorly, we should strive to be a mensch.
This is not a simple as it sounds. It is easy to succumb to what is happening around us. To get caught up unintentionally in destructive behaviors. And even easier still to remain silent when others are behaving badly. And if we hide our heads and don’t speak up then we are complicit in the sometimes simple evils that destroy our lives.
Society depends upon treating each other with honor, respect and dignity. Try to be a decent human being. The temptations to act like the crowd will be huge. The temptations to take advantage of others, disregard human life, enrich your own wallet at the expense of others-these are the kinds of behaviors we see all too clearly in the world today. And yet Judaism, the ultimate disruptor, has long taught a set of values and ideals through our mitzvot-through our commandments that teach us to act differently than the crowd.
We are taught because we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, we must treat one another with dignity and honor. For when we honor our fellow human being we honor God.
One of my favorite stories in the Talmud is in Gitten 56 a/b
It is the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza; And it is the story that the rabbis tell is the reason for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
A certain man had a friend Kamsa and an enemy Bar Kamsa He once threw a party and said to his p.a., “Go and bring Kamsa”. Except the assistant went and brought Bar Kamsa (to the party). When the Host found Bar Kamsa there instead of his friend he confronted him, “See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out.”
Bar Kamsa said: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
The Host said, “I won’t.”
Bar Kamsa then sweetened his request: “Then let me give you half the costof the party.”
The host said emphatically, “No.”
Bar Kamsa then offered: “Then let me pay for the whole party.”
The host grew even angrier that Bar Kamsa was in his midst still said, “No”and he took him by the hand and threw him out.
Bar Kamsa humiliated said to himself: “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
The Roman Emporer said: “How can I tell if that is true or not?”
Bar Kamsa proposed a test. “Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar of the Temple]. So the Roman Governor sent with bar Kamsa a fine calf. While on the way to the Temple, Bar Kamsa made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but Roman pagans do not. Thus it made the whole offering treif.
The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government again Once again they were going to remain quiet. But another Rabbi spoke up to protest the in appropriate offering on the altar. And so
The rabbis then conspired how to get out of their dilemma. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamsa so that he could not go and inform against them. And there would be no evidence of the blemished calf, or an affront to the Roman government- a true cover-up. And for these reasons said R. Johanan our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.
This story-teaches us what happens when we harden our hearts. Even when someone has done something wrong to us.
The host of the party humiliated Bar Kamsa in front of everyone. Even though Bar Kamsa had said terrible things about him behind his back-the story is trying to teach us to engage our differences with respect not hatred and anger. Bar Kamsa offered to pay his own meal, and then even for the whole party—perhaps as a good will gesture of atonement for his misdeeds. But even that couldn’t be accepted by our host.
And the rabbis in this story are at fault—they remain silent and don’t speak up at the party when there is immoral behavior going on and then even plot to murder and cover it up. No one is a mensch in this story
The unintended consequences of our anger, and in this story the hosts anger, and Bar Kamsa anger set in motion something so terrible that it had the power to destroy our entire way of life—the holy temple destroyed, God no longer living in our midst.
This whole story- teaches us that anger and rage and hatred and holding onto a grudge can bring down the core institutions of our lives. The story teaches that being cruel and inconsiderate even of someone who has gossiped about you –can have unintended consequences. The rabbis of the Talmud are trying to teach us a core Jewish value—Anger destroys; always always be a mensch. Act with dignity and treat others with that dignity too.
Take a moment to reflect on where our country is at the moment. Can we even talk to one another? Think of the trolling that happens on line. Think about the way we react when someone holds different views than we do. Do we write them off completely? Think about when you hold your own anger at someone for so long—what are the unintended consequences of your anger…That perhaps you don’t even see. Think about the policies that don’t uphold human dignity.
We can use our better selves, our Yetzer HaTov—our good inclinations to strive to live by ideals that treat people fairly and uplift their dignity. Our entire Torah is written with the emphasis that we should be fair in our business dealings, fair to the worker, welcome the stranger, honor our elders, help couples begin their lives together, teach our children well as the (Crosby Stills and Nash song goes).
Rosh Hashanah reminds us that despite our sins, we are not finished products- and we can change the course of our behavior, our lives and ultimately the life of the world.
If we can do this, model this, actually treat those who are so different than ourselves with love-as Dr King taught- then we can create the beloved community that will transform everything. Love can conquer Hate.
And finally the 3rd piece of ancient wisdom that can change the quality of our lives and the direction of the world as it is- is for us to be a Rodef Tzedek, Rodef Shalom. One who pursues Justice and Pursues Peace.
The Psalmist teaches: Seek Peace and Pursue it, and the Torah says: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Justice Justice shall you pursue. Our Tradition demands of us to walk in the ways of justice and peace. Not to just watch on the sidelines. Not just to wait for God to send it-but to actively work for justice and peace and run after it—that is what it means to pursue peace and pursue justice.
The prophets of our tradition, Isaiah, Amos, Micah and Jeremiah cried out in their day when society was off the rails. When there was corruption among officials. They carried God’s message of truth to be loyal to our covenant and to act with tzedek u’mishpat—act with justice and righteousness. The prophets of old taught us that God doesn’t want your pious platitudes and empty rituals-but that God wants us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. On Yom Kippur Morning we will read the section of Isaiah that reminds us of this. Is this the fast that I want? Says God—No- what I want is for you to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. In other words, create a society –not of religious details but a society that cares for one another and is based up the principles of fairness, ethics, and morality. And we Jews according to our tradition have been and must remain a light to the nations of the world. The light we shine when we act with justice and dignity and pursue peace brings illumination to the dark corners where evil lurks.
“One way we illuminate the world is through the justice we pursue and the justice we bring about by shining light on the ugliness and the inequities that are sometimes the result of human interactions.” ( Seven Days Many Voices.)
We don’t have the luxury of burying our heads in the sands when so much is at stake in our world. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the signs of our times.
We are the light that can change the world by being Rodfei Tzedek, Rodfei Shalom
Anne Frank’s words matter just as much today:
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
I share this with her. Together we can make a difference. As Kol Ami we can make a difference. Our new Tzedek Council=Justice Council has began its work-I hope you will be a part of it. As a Jewish community we can make a difference. As a country we can make a difference when we act with others and treat others with respect honor and dignity.
To change the world, to change ourselves, let us commit in this New Year-to being the light of peace, the light of justice, the light of goodness, the light of fairness, the light of menschlikite, the light of hope. Then then this New Year can really be a New Year of Change for us, and all the world. Be the light.
 Taplin, Jonathan, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, (Little, Brown and Company NY 2017) p,91