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Your Moral Bucket List — Rabbi Saks’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

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Your Moral Bucket List

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

September 13, 2015 – 1 Tishre 5776

Congregation Bet Ha’am

Rabbi Jared H. Saks

 

 

Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending upon the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

 

 

Tradition calls this day yom harat ha-olam, the day of the world’s birth, but the Sages teach that it was not the beginning of creation that coincided with Rosh Hashanah, but rather it’s completion. According to Jewish folklore, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the first human being, and so this day marks not an anniversary for the beginning of the world, but rather an anniversary for the beginning of our presence in it. Over the next ten days, we will move from birth to death, symbolically walking the path of our lives. When the shofar blasts at the end of Ne’ilah, we will be reminded that these ten days are a mere dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives and that we have the power to change. It seems, then, how we create a plan for how we will live our lives might be the most important work that we do in these next ten days, so that we are prepared when we hear the call of that ram’s horn.

Determining that path brings us back to the first stories of our presence in this world. When we read the book of Genesis, we see not one, but two creation narratives, two places where humanity is created. In the first, in Genesis 1, Adam is created in God’s image, but there is no mention of how that creation takes place. In Genesis 2, Adam is formed from the dust of the earth and God breathes the breath of life into his nostrils. In 1965, in an article titled The Lonely Man of Faith, which appeared in the Orthodox academic journal, Tradition, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught about the essence and struggle of being human through these two Biblical accounts of the creation of humanity. He taught that the discrepancies in these two creation stories are not to be found in the text, but are rather to be found in us. The human being first described in Genesis 1 is the same one described in Genesis 2. They are two aspects of one human being, aspects he names Adam the First and Adam the Second.

Adam the First is given the mandate to fill the earth and tame it while Adam the Second is given the mandate to cultivate and protect the Garden. For Adam the First, created in God’s image – both male and female – is about being endowed with Divine intelligence so that we can create and build societies and civilizations. As Adam the First, we use our intellect to solve the world’s problems. We are driven by the need to produce.[1]

Adam the Second, on the other hand, having been created from dust, is our more passive and introspective nature. Where Adam the First is concerned with how, when it comes to living, Adam the Second is consumed by why – why is the world the way it is? Remembering his origin, Adam the Second remains humble and wants to connect with the meaning of life. Unlike Adam the First, who was created at the same time as Eve, Adam the Second is created first and she is only created later. Adam the First lives in relationship with others, but the connections are superficial. Adam the Second, having been put to sleep so that Eve could be created, according to Soloveitchik, demonstrates the mutual sacrifice that is part of creating a healthy relationship. Having been created alone, there is a loneliness about Adam the Second, which he overcomes by having spiritual and interpersonal connections with others. Together, they explore the why questions of life, even though these questions really have no answers.

Having encountered this teaching, David Brooks, a political and cultural commentator for The New York Times, applied Soloveitchik’s interpretation of these two manifestations of the first human being to our world. Adam the First “is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam [the First] is the external, résumé Adam. Adam [the First] wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories. Adam [the Second] is the internal Adam. Adam [the Second] wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam [the Second] wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good.”[2] Adam the First seeks to conquer the world; Adam the Second to serve it. Adam the First pursues accomplishments while Adam the Second renounces success and status for sacred purpose. Adam the First asks how things work while Adam the Second asks why they exist. The truth is that we are comprised of both Adam the First and Adam the Second. Both parts are necessary, even though they seem to be in conflict with one another. “To nurture your Adam [the First] career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam [the Second] moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”[3]

Our society nurtures Adam the First and overlooks Adam the Second. Consider when you meet someone an exchange introductions: “What is your name? What do you do?” We say how we do (or don’t) make a living. “I am an attorney.” “I am a teacher.” “I am a rabbi.” “I am a student.” We don’t say, “My name is Jared and I pursue the meaning of life,” or, “I wrestle with what I can offer the world.” The truth is, though, there are two sets of virtues, which, as David Brooks identifies them, are résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are what you bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues are what people will say about your funeral. Eulogy virtues include things like kindness, bravery, honesty, and the ability to love.” Few of you, I would imagine, would say that résumé virtues are more important. Our society, however, encourages us to push after our goals without developing our character. “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build an inner character.”[4]

When we focus on the résumé virtues, we leave some of the most important aspects of our being unexplored. If we are all Adam the First, we cultivate professional skills, but can find ourselves without purpose. If we are all Adam the First, we do what we perceive others will approve, even when it’s not what is right for us. The truth is, we can aim for something higher than happiness. We don’t learn how to nurture Adam the Second through books, articles, or even sermons, but rather through experience. Still, it is my hope that this sermon will open your heart to where you can find those experiences and find your whole self.

Once in a while, we encounter someone who radiates the inner light of Adam the Second. Some of you are in this sanctuary this evening, but you are the exception. We could talk about how to nurture your Adam the First, but that’s a sermon for another time, since most of us need to nurture our Adam the Second and we look to those of you who have harnessed this aspect of yourselves for guidance. Someone in tune with this second aspect of their being is not particular to any profession or socio-economic background. He is someone seems to be a deeply good person. She is someone who listens well. He makes us feel good about ourselves and she cares for other people and does so with a sense of gratitude. Meeting such a person can make your whole day wonderful, but at the same time, it can cause us to look at our own lives, our successes, and see that we haven’t achieved that level of generosity or depth of character. How can we become more like these people?

The truth is that we can become like these people. They aren’t born this way; they have made themselves this way by developing an inner virtue “built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments… These accomplishments [amount] to a moral bucket list, the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.”[5] So, what’s on this bucket list? How can we consider it for the next 10 days and set a plan for the rest of our lives?

The first step is humility. David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, describes listening to a re-broadcast of the World War II Armed Forces radio show Command Performance in his car one Sunday evening. It was the broadcast from August 16, 1945, the day after V-J Day when World War II had ended. He noticed how the broadcast was marked with humility and gratitude. In it, Burgess Meredith read an article written by war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who though killed a few months earlier had anticipated what victory would mean and wrote, “We did not win [this war] because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.” Upon arriving home, Brooks turned off the radio and stepped inside to watch a football game where he saw a defensive player celebrate a tackle with more pride than he’d heard in the entire Command Performance broadcast. In order to nurture our Adam the Second aspect of our identity, we need more “nobody’s better than me and I’m no better than anyone”[6] and less ‘look at me.’

Society wants us to promote ourselves and for those of us on social media, we are expected to present a highlight reel of our lives. We look to those around us to tell us how wonderful we are, but admirable people “are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses.”[7] Consider the Vidui that we recite on these Days of Awe: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi… we have erred, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have been hypocritical… Surely, none of us has done all of these things, but we say them in the first person plural because, perhaps, among us all of these sins have been committed. To nurture our Adam the Second, we must figure out which of the sins on that list is at the core of how we function and learn how to tame it. “External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with [our] own weaknesses.”[8] This is what this season is all about. This is how we repair our relationships with others and with God, by confronting what is broken in ourselves and fixing it not for our own sake, but because humility comes from an intense self-awareness that focuses on others not on one’s self.

Our dependence on others is a good thing when used for the right purpose. Way back in the Creation story, when Adam the First is created alongside Eve, he takes her for granted, but in the second Creation story, when he feels lonely and has to give up something of himself so that Eve can exist, he realizes how much he must depend on her. Our lives are not as autonomous as we think. God has given us free will, but at the same time, Pirke Avot teaches us, “Everything is foreseen, even as free will is given.” There’s so much that is out of our control, in large part because of the paths of other people with whom our own lives’ paths will cross.

Others will impact our journey far beyond our control and that’s a good thing. The commitments we make to others and the deep connections we form because we know how important they are will stabilize us in tough times and push us forward. In these relationships we have the opportunity to find the “kind of love [that] decenters the self.”[9] It then becomes a joy to serve who needs us and what needs us. These kinds of relationships impact not only our personal lives, but have the power to impact our professional lives, too. They can turn a career, any career, into a calling. When I think of the people I know who have a sense of calling to their jobs and to how they spend their days, I see a glimmer of Adam the Second in them.

Surprisingly, perhaps, my accountant is one such person. When I first began working with him, he explained to me why he became an accountant. As a child, his neighbors had just purchased a new car and, upon seeing it, he declared to his father, “We need a new car.” His father handed him a legal pad and a pen, sending him to his room to make a list of all the things they needed, but didn’t have. Chuck returned with an empty notepad. His father reminded him that as long as he had everything they needed, it was his job to make sure that others had what they needed before going after the things he wanted. There’s more than just a career choice there for Chuck; there’s also a calling. His sense of calling, like so many who feel a calling in their work, came from a certain experience that changed his worldview. These kinds of experiences can inspire each of us to be the best accountant, rabbi, teacher, parent, that we can be, making our life’s work into a calling. They help us to see beyond ourselves to the connections that we need with others.

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”[10] Finding the answer to these questions sometimes comes out of struggle. Moments of struggle open us up to self-understanding. We come to realize who we are. God does not expect perfection – not at this season, nor any time of the year – God only wants us to be better than we are right now. Stumbling is okay. Imperfection is okay. By being a willing stumbler, we become willing both to ask for and offer help, and this can give our lives purpose. “The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be.”[11]

Adam the Second never achieves external ambitions because there’s always more to do. There’s joy in encounters with others and in the shared stumbling that happens. The greatest joy comes from observing the simple things and realizing that life has treated us far better than we might have deserved. When we see people who live like this, we realize that these are the kinds of people we want to be.

Adam the Second teaches us that we ought to live for holiness, not for happiness. We can find purpose in righteousness and virtue. When we find that purpose – that mission that each of us has in this world – then a deeper happiness will follow. We overestimate our strengths and rationalize our shortcomings. Instead, we ought to be doing the opposite. We are flawed, and that is okay. It is our brokenness that leads us to purpose.

Our tradition teaches us that Torah was given atop Mount Sinai not because it was the perfect mountain. It was actually among the shortest, if not the shortest mountain. Our tradition teaches us that Moses was chosen by God specifically because he resisted the role and felt that he had too many faults to help God redeem the people from Egypt and lead them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Humility is the greatest virtue; humility reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. It keeps us unsure of ourselves, which helps us to be open-minded to others and reminds us that we aren’t better than anyone else.

“In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols.”[12] For too many, this happens too close to the end of life, but these ten Days of Awe empower us to make that journey of life in this brief window of time so that we can arrive at Yom Kippur more aware of how we ought to be living. And then we can be full human beings, with more than a résumé to tell the world who we are. Shanah tovah u’metukah, have a happy and sweet New Year.

 

Bibliography

Brooks, David. “The Moral Bucket List,” The New York Times, April 12, 2015, p. SR1

Brooks, David. The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015.

Linzer, Norman. “‘The Lonely Man of Faith’: Implications for Social Work Practice: Adam I and Adam II: A Typology of Human Nature,” Jewish Journal of Communal Service, Vol. 83, No. 2/3, Winter/Spring 2008, pp. 186-191.

[1] Norman Linzer, “‘The Lonely Man of Faith’: Implications for Social Work Practice: Adam I and Adam II: A Typology of Human Nature,” Jewish Journal of Communal Service, Vol. 83, No. 2/3, Winter/Spring 2008, p. 187.

[2] David Brooks, The Road to Character, New York: Randmon House, 2015, p. xii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” The New York Times, April 12, 2015, p. SR1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Brooks, The Road to Character, p. 5.

[7] David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” p. SR1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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