Monday, September 16, 2013

The Wealth Gap and Isaiah's Moral Bottom Line

The haftarah for Yom Kippur contains important social commentary. The earliest social commentary in the Torah can be found in Genesis Chapter 11, the Tower of Babel. You remember the story:  people build a tower to the sky and God confuses them by giving them different languages, so that the building ceases and the people are dispersed throughout the land. “That is why it is called Babel, because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth” (11:9)

What did the people do to merit the dispersion of humanity across the globe and the proliferation of different languages? A common interpretation is that they challenged God by building a tower to the sky. But the rabbis had a different view. In the midrash we read that what really bothered God was that the builders were more concerned about losing a single brick falling off the tower than losing a life. The rabbis saw in the lesson of the Tower of Babel an example of a society that cares more for bricks than bodies, for material goods than for human beings.  Perhaps it’s telling that this story comes in Chapter 11, a sign of the moral bankruptcy of this kind of thinking.

It’s been two years since the Occupy Wall Street movement gave us the catch-all term, the 99% and it still feels like people care more about bricks than bodies.  Just this week, a report came out with the shocking and disturbing news that the income gap in the US today is even wider than it’s been for 100 years. In 2012, the top ten percent of Americans made half of the income. The top one percent made 20% of all the income in our country. After five years of recovery, the income gap is worse than before the Great Depression. The top 1% have received 95% of the wealth during the recovery, not leaving very much for the 99% who still suffer from unemployment and income stagnation. This is a shande and an outrage.

These statistics sound a shrill echo to Isaiah’s prophetic message in the Yom Kippur haftarah. Both call us to act for economic justice.

Our haftarah begins with the words solu solu, build up build up! But the building that Isaiah calls for has a dramatically different design than the Tower of Babel.  Isaiah calls on us to clear a highway and remove the obstacles to creating a world of morality and justice, where greed is punished and the oppressed will go free.

Isaiah knew the Hyatt Hotel corporations of his day, the Walmarts and the McDonalds, the industries that promise low prices to the public, wealth to the shareholders and exploitation to its workers. Isaiah taught us that there is a limit to financial success, that there is a moral bottom line that trumps the economic bottom line. He says directly that God refuses to accept the offerings of the greedy,

“Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!” (58:3)

Hyatt is now the exemplar for Isaiah’s call for teshuvah (repentance), having reached a historic agreement with hotel workers, despite having been the worst hotel employer for the past four years. Though the agreement does not right the wrongs of the Boston Hyatt 100, and is far from perfect, it demonstrates the importance of standing up for workers, for demanding fair pay, and for taking a stand for justice. The Hyatt agreement gives us hope that we can make a difference.

As we hear the angry words of Isaiah consider the actions that you can take.

At the top of my list this year is to increase the minimum wage, nationally and locally. Income inequality starts with the lowest paid works. If the minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living for the past 5 years, it would be at $10/hour rather than the $8/hour that it has been since 2008. There is not one state where a worker making minimum wage for 40 hours a week can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Not one. Many minimum wage jobs that used to provide pocket change for teens or supplemental income for families have become full-time employment for the breadwinners in many families.

To those who argue that raising the minimum wage will cause employers to fire more workers, Dr. Bob Rubin makes a very different case. Rubin is a professor of management , human resources and organization development consultant  and organizational management coach. In an article entitled “Paying a High Price for Low Pay,” Rubin insists that the data shows that increased labor rates do not lead to increased labor costs. Creating a living wage actually improves overall company performance, increasing employee retention and even lowering costs by increasing productivity. It’s a win-win for everyone.

So what can you do when you hear Isaiah’s call for economic justice?

There are two simple ways we can all support an increased minimum wage in Massachusetts:

We can support the bill currently being debated in the Massachusetts legislature is to lift the minimum wage and to link it in the future to the cost of living. Please contact your legislator to voice your support for the bill.

We can also support Raise Up Massachusetts, to put a vote on the state ballot for 2014 to require employers to offer earned sick time and raise the minimum wage. Please plan on spending a few hours collecting signatures for this ballot initiative this fall.

Remember the lesson of the Tower of Babel. Listen to the message of Isaiah. Let us build a world where bodies count more than bricks, where we work together to clear a path toward justice, where “your light shall shine in the darkness and your gloom shall give way to the noonday sun.” (58:10)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

We're Number Two!

On the airplane home from our trip to Israel this summer, I was looking for a movie I hadn’t yet seen. One choice was “Quartet,” a movie I had heard had good reviews. But instead, I found myself watching “Late Quartet, a different movie. Not the best way to choose a film, but as serendipity, or perhaps God’s gentle hand would have it, it turned out to be a good choice for the flight and gave me food for thought.

In “Late Quartet,” the story of members of a long-standing professional string quartet, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the second violinist, and is considered the best second violinist around. Early in the film, his girlfriend asks him, “Don’t you ever want to play the melody?” He insists that he is proud of his work, adding that the second violinist holds the group together. He is considered the best second violinist around. Yet she convinces him to ask to take the lead every once in a while. Should he be content with his role or risk disrupting the quartet by demanding the opportunity to be first violin?

I noticed a similar theme a few weeks later at a viewing of  the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” an uplifting film about rock and roll’s greatest back-up singers. Some of these great voices have tried to take the 20-foot leap forward to the front of the stage, to be lead singers, but few have succeeded. Others happily continue sharing their powerful talents in the number two position, behind the stars.

In both stories, the pull to be first is in tension with a life that is meaningful, though in the background. In each instance, we wonder: why not take our talents to the next level? Is there anything wrong with wanting to be Number One?

Is this a natural impulse or a product of our competitive cultural? After all, have you ever heard an American crowd chant “we’re number two”?

Sometimes, number two is a wonderful place to be, perhaps the best place to be.

Sometimes our purpose is to be the 2nd fiddle, the back-up singer. The best number two I can be.

In the Book of Genesis, time after time it’s the number two who receives the blessing. Not Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, but Isaac. Not Esau, Isaac’s firstborn son, but Jacob. Not Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn but Joseph. Not even King David passes on his kingdom to his firstborn, but to Solomon, one of his younger sons. All of these biblical stories upend the cultural norm of the day, that firstborn sons received all the privileges and recognition. This is the first clue that the Jewish tradition does not put stock in being number one.

But I wonder, how did Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, and the rest of Solomon’s older brothers feel? In the Torah we hear Esau express deep and bitter grief over losing his birthright and his blessing. We know that losing out to someone else brings disappointment. Some of us may be entering this new year feeling we have done our best yet not been recognized for our work. We may have been “the other candidate” for a job. We may have tried our hardest to come in first place, only to be beaten in the finals.

Many of us come on Yom Kippur with disappointments.
Disappointment is a fair and honest reaction when our lives do not live up to our expectations. The ancient teacher Aesop described one response to disappointment in the fable the Fox and the Grapes.

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked, 'Oh they were probably sour anyway.'

Fortunately, “sour grapes” is just one way to deal with failure, disappointment or frustration. The key to success is not being number one. The key is finding the blessing in the supposed curse.

One of the most important books I read this past year was How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. Tough has spent years learning about children and character and his book makes the case that our approach to success in education has been overly focused on cognitive skills, while overlooking the underlying components of personality and character that truly ensure success. Tough delves into the current research in psychology, economics and brain science, and weaves in personal interviews with young people of different backgrounds who exemplify the complex equation that equals success.
Among the key character strengths Tough found were “an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification and the tendency to follow through on a plan.” That is, grit, resourcefulness and resilience. These are the skills that we should be helping our children to develop, since  “noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college.” These are skills that are not innate; they need to be modeled, cultivated and nurtured. Not only are they skills to success in college, but they are the skills that can make us the best number two we can possibly be: grit, resourcefulness and resilience.

We Try Harder: Grit

When I was growing up my dad collected the buttons put out by Avis Rent-a-car. Their slogan was “we try harder.” He had buttons in a myriad of languages. I loved reading the different alphabets and pronouncing all the different languages. Nous faisons plus d’efforts. Anu mishtadlim yoter. We try harder. (You can find the buttons on ebay today)

That slogan was the brainchild of an advertising executive named Paula Green.
In 1962, Hertz was number one, and Avis was in a financial crisis. Paula Green articulated a philosophy that became the company manifesto. We are only #2, so “We try harder.” With those words, Avis workers from the CEO to the sales force to the mechanics developed a work ethic and service mentality that won over customers. While Avis remained number two, their profits shot up as clients recognized Avis for exceptional customer service. We try harder remained the company slogan for fifty years.

Trying harder does not always come naturally, but it is essential to success. Do you have that toughness, the “grit”?

Paul Tough describes grit as “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” Or in other words, “Self discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal.”

Another great teacher, Reb Nachman of Bratslav, agrees with Paul Tough. Reb Nachman’s slogan was: mi sherotze ose, which literally means, one who desires, does. In other words, “We try harder.” But Reb Nachman gave a twist to those words, saying sometimes your rotze, your desire, has to get big enough so that you act on it. No matter who we are, we have to fall in love with our own goals. And then we will have the rotze, the desire, the grit, to try harder.

Finding our Purpose: Resourcefulness

Being number two may force us to try harder. It may also motivate us to consider and reconsider our purpose and then do whatever it takes to achieve it.

Jane McNally recently shared this story of purpose, which comes from the third Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, who attracted many Hasidim to the Bobov sect in Brooklyn before his death in 2000.

Once a Hasid of the Rebbe came to see him, despondent. The Hasid worked as a school teacher, believing that was what the community expected that of him. But didn’t want to be a teacher.  So he came to the Rebbe, because he was at a loss. He didn’t know what to do with his life. The Bobover smiled and told him simply, “the world is a great big place. Find something you love and do it!”

The Rebbe encouraged the Hasid to find his own rotze. So many others had told him what to do. For once, someone listened to this man’s heart, and affirmed his own inner stirrings! The Hasid loved antiques. One day he saw a small classified ad in the paper for appraisers. He answered the ad and eventually learned to be an appraiser. He loved the job because he loved antiques and used his photography skills. He discovered his purpose. All he needed was someone to give him permission to open his eyes to what he saw himself doing.

We find in Netivot Shalom, of Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, a passage that is often quoted at baby naming. It speaks to this same notion: “every individual is a small world unto himself…No person has ever been identical to another person since the creation of the world, and therefore each and every person has a special shlichut, a distinctive purpose for which she was sent…The beginning of all avodah, all service is discovering for what particular purpose one was sent to this world.”

We can’t look to others to set our goals for us, just as we don’t depend on them to run the race in our stead. It is up to us to be resourceful, to discover who we are and what we are called to be.

You Can’t Always Get What you Want: Resilience

When you get your first choice the rest is easy. What really matters is how you handle your second choice. Perhaps you have a rotze, a desire, a goal or a purpose, but you still feel thwarted in reaching it. As the Rolling Stones taught us long ago “You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometime you’ll find…. you get what you need.”

Getting our second choice can be an important time to reflect on our behavior, to learn from our mistakes and to look to the future. Even if we believe that we had no control in the outcome, we can learn something from every loss.

This is an essential practice for us to model and teach our children. It’s called resilience.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy offers a striking poetic image of resilience in a piyut that we will chant in a little while: Ki Hinei Kachomer, we are like clay in the hands of a potter. We can be shaped, formed, changed by the slightest touch or the heaviest hand. Like silver in the hands of the silversmith, we can be melted, bent, turned, with grace or with clumsiness. Like fabric in the hand of the embroiderer. We can be stretched, cut, folded, embellished, with love or in anger.

As the Talmud explains,
“The School of R. Ishmael taught: It can be deduced from glassware: if glassware, which, though made by the breath of human beings, can yet be repaired when broken; then how much more so a person, created by the breath of the Holy One, Ha Kadosh baruch Hu.” (Sanhedrin 91a).

It is only when we harden to life that we become fragile. As the potter’s wheel of life turns, we adjust and adapt. To be like clay is to develop resilience.

Groundhog Day: second chances

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Groundhog Day.” I could watch it over and over again (in fact watching it once is like seeing it over and over again). In case you’ve never seen it, Bill Murray starts out as a complete jerk, a selfish, boorish weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to report on Groundhog Day. But at the end of the day, he gets stuck in town in a snowstorm. When he wakes up in his hotel room the next morning, he has gone back in time to the day before, to Groundhog Day. There he remains in a perpetual loop, always waking up to “I Got You Babe.” However, he does not remain the same. By reliving each day, working hard at learning French, mastering the piano, and, most important, learning about the people around him, he grows into a caring, sincere, and thoughtful human being.

Bill Murray gets a second chance, over and over again. Second chances is what the yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe are all about.  We call it teshuvah. Rambam teaches that true teshuvah is achieved when you are in the same situation as before and choose to behave differently.  When I was learning to play piano, my mother used to tell me “practice makes perfect.” Though I know that I’m far from “perfect,” whether playing piano or anything else I do, I have become a true believer in the value of practice. We go back to the same scene and try again until we make change.

In Jewish tradition, second chances are built into the universe, an essential aspect of our spiritual make-up. The rabbis teach:
Before the world was created all that existed was God. Then God decided to create the world, and carved it out, but it did not stand up. This can be compared to a king who wants to build a palace: without a foundation in the ground, the king could not begin building. Similarly, God carved out the world, but it did not stand…until God created teshuvah. (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, Ch. 3)

Teshuvah is the foundation that enables us to try again and again and again and eventually to transform our lives. We will make mistakes. That’s a given. We will be disappointed with the results of our hard work. We will not always get it right. We can’t stop time like Bill Murray, reliving Groundhog Day over and over. We will never be perfect. Yet we do get more than one chance.

But if perfection is not the goal—what is?

Being proud to be the very best number 2 there is, or number 6 or number 723. Being proud, because you have worked hard, looked for second chances, and been satisfied with the unique purpose of your life, whether you are second fiddle or the back-up singer.

The poet Rilke wrote words in “Letters to a Young Poet” that can be our guides as we enter into Yom Kippur and ponder the purpose of our lives:

“You carry within you the possibility of creating and forming an especially blessed and pure way of living. Train yourself for that—but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything.

“Those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.”

One final story, probably very familiar to many, but one I could not leave out, about the modest Rabbi Zusya. As Rabbi Zusya he lay dying, his students came to his bedside and found him crying.
“Why are you crying?” they asked.
He answered, “All my life, I have tried to be like Moses. But I have come to realize that when I stand before Ribono shel Olam, God will not ask me, why were you not like Moses? God will ask, why were you not like Zusya?”

Today we contemplate the purpose of our lives. We cannot help but consider, how will I be judged when it’s all over and done? Am I trying to be like Moses? Am I trying to be like Zusya? Or am I simply trying to be the very best I can be: the best rabbi or the best doctor or social worker or organizer or teacher or journalist or lawyer or receptionist or advocate, the best parent or child or sibling or grandparent, the best friend or lover or citizen you can be?

God does not expect you to be the best in the world, just the very best you can be, right here, right now. Every day, in every encounter, in every moment.

May we all be blessed to discover our rotze, our heart’s desire. May it be big enough so that we do not succumb to despair, and so we have the grit, the resourcefulness and the resilience to become the very best we can be. Ken yehi ratzon.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What is our Purpose? Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2013/5774

Let’s get this out in the open. The holidays have come way too early this year. We haven’t had a moment to breathe between the end of summer and the onset of the Jewish holidays. Road construction is still blocking the roads, schools are just beginning to open. There are so many reasons to be somewhere else, so many obstacles to getting here for Rosh Hashanah.

Yet, you have decided to be here. Why? What is you purpose in coming here for the Jewish holy days?

You might say tradition—this is what we do. We come for the melodies, the drama, the recognition of what it means to be a Jew.

You might say community—we long to be with friends, acquaintances. We want to be part of this big event. We don’t want to miss out. Or someone made us come—a parent, a friend. Perhaps a deceased relative is speaking to us, insisting that we keep this annual ritual.

Underlying all of these reasons, is a purpose that unites us all. One purpose in coming on the Days of Awe is to take time to reflect. To look back on the past year. We change, we evolve. Our cells are always changing, bodies growing stronger at one end of the spectrum, and aging at the other. So too our minds. Reflection helps us recognize the direction we have taken as well as the one we have not. It helps us celebrate the achievements, and learn from the failures.

Also a time to make change, to set an intention for the coming year, to create modest goals for ourselves, to direct the change and not just respond to it.