Seven Things You Can Do to Save the World (Rosh Hashanah 5779)

For those of you who have been here in the past for Rosh Hashanah, and for those of you who have paid attention—which arguably, could be a smaller number—I have stood on the bimah on erev Rosh Hashanah and shared a list. A list of teachings I have gleaned from various events that have happened to me over the course of the past year.

Different years I have spoken about what I have learned from having a child, having brain surgery, having a back hoe hit my house, hitting another care in a parking lot, from Legos, from a garden, and more.

This year perhaps you are wondering what I will talk about, and the best odds were on my 3.5 week social justice themed cross country road trip . But if you put money on it, I’m sorry to say that you will be disappointed. I will share some reflections on this trip on Erev Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, so be sure to come back next week. Tonight I will share a list, but in a slightly different way.

It goes without saying that we are living in challenging times. We are becoming more polarized. Hatred which was always present yet lay dormant, is given license to more visible expression. Shared norms are being tested and even ignored.

One of the things that has affected me the most is the lack of civility expressed in our political and our communal discourse. And I recognize that civility is a loaded term. Sometimes we use the term civility to hinder conversation and discourse, to quiet opposing opinions. To appeal to a polite conversation that does not make us uncomfortable, where we are not allowed to talk about difficult issues, and not allowed to express anger at injustices that surround us.

But that is not really what we should mean by civility. For we need to talk about difficult issues, we need to discuss things that are uncomfortable. Civility shouldn’t hinder these conversations, but should facilitate them. For what we should mean by civility is the simple ability to treat each and every person we encounter with decency, honor and respect. That we treat each other, as we are taught in our Torah, as being made in the image of God. Fully human, with a spark of the divine.

This is what is sorely lacking in our discourse these days. Those with whom we disagree become enemies. Those we oppose become evil. The fact that our President takes the opportunity to personally insult those with whom he disagrees, shows the level to which we have fallen. The subtle ways we diminish each other’s humanity.

We are moving in a difficult direction, and if we continue down this path, then I worry that we may move past a point of no return. It is this that has been keeping me up at night. It is this that has the potential to undermine all that we expect a strong community and society to rest upon.

And so with this in mind, we come to Rosh Hashanah, the time when we commit ourselves to a new way of being. The time when we truly examine and name where we have been led astray, and chart our new way forward. And so, on this Rosh Hashanah, I offer another list. And in examining these times we are in, examining the state of human behavior and what that may mean for our future, I humbly offer to you the seven things you can do to save the world.

 

When you are passing through a door in a public place, always look behind you, and if there is someone there, hold the door for them.

We exist in the public sphere, and part of this existence is entering and leaving buildings. And most of those buildings have doors. And save for those buildings that have revolving doors, those doors will be ones that we must open, and will close behind us. And I’m sure that each one of us has had the experience that we are walking towards a building with someone in front of us, that person opened the door to enter and breezed on through, leaving the door to close behind them, and in your face.

Remember how you felt at that moment. When that happens to me, I feel annoyed not because it is a small inconvenience to reach out and open the door myself, but because it is, while minor, a selfish act. It is an act of self-focus that forgets that there may be others around you.

You are all blessed, in your way, and you are all important, in your way. But you are not more important than another.

Two rabbis in the Talmud argue which is the most important Biblical verse. The first says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But the second says, “These are the generations of Adam,” an introduction to a genealogy in Genesis. Why? Because it teaches that we are all descended from the same person, and no one can say that they are better than another.

Looking back when you go through a door demonstrates that you recognize that you are not alone in this world. Holding the door demonstrates that others are your equal. And if we are all trying to move in the same direction, we need to help each other, not put up obstacles.

 

When you are crossing a street in a pedestrian crosswalk, even though you have the right of way, wave thanks to the cars that stop.

We exist in a society of rights, that is the teaching of our American tradition. But we also exist in a society of responsibility, that is the teaching of our Jewish tradition. These two meet at the pedestrian intersection. Those who are crossing have the right of way, as long as the pedestrian gives enough indication to allow the vehicle to stop. (You can check Washington State Law, in RCW 46.61.235.)

We exist in a system of rights only when those rights are honored and respected. So yes, those crossing have the right of way, but this does not mean that we can not take a moment to acknowledge that our rights are being respected, our presence is being honored, by thanking the person who has stopped their car. By doing so, we cultivate a practice of gratitude.

The ability to express gratitude is an important part of locating ourselves in this world and honoring our dependence on others. We mustn’t forget that these High Holidays are also about gratitude. When we look back over our past year and see where we have been, we of course need to identify where our missteps were, when we erred, and our behaviors that we need to improve. But at the same time, we do need to identify those happy moments—the successes, high points, the achievements, the good behaviors—and express gratitude as necessary. Make gratitude a regular practice, whether crossing the street or in any situation.

 

When you are parking on a street without marked parking spaces, pull all the way up to the car in front of you as far as you can go.

I will admit, this is a particular pet peeve of mine, when I look down at a street and see cars parked in such a way with large gaps between them that are not large enough for another car.

Very often people park in a way that is convenient for them, which has the result of not making space for others. I recognize that there are those who need to park in such a way as to make the shortest distance to the entrance, and I do not discount that. It is when we have a choice as to where and how to park that we must take stock of where we are parking, and how much space we are taking up.

A Jewish mystical story of the creation of the world describes how the divine presence at one time filled the entire universe, and that in order to create the world, God needed to withdraw or constrict Godself in order to make room for the world. This act of constriction so fundamental to this story is called tzimtzum.

Make what you want of this mythic story regarding the origins of our planet, but this notion of tzimtzum, of constriction in order to make space for something else, is very relatable. We need to be mindful of the space we are taking up, and asking ourselves are we taking up space for others? Are we making room for other’s voices, ideas, experiences? Are we doing only what is best for us, or do we allow others to thrive and benefit as well? Are we centering just ourselves, or others too? We need to develop our own tzimtzum practice.

 

When you are picking someone up at the airport, park your car and meet them inside at the gate.

Here is a little fact about me that you may not know, I never use the cell phone lot at the airport. If I am going to pick you up at the airport, I will park the car and meet you inside. (Of course we can’t go to the gate anymore, but the end of the hallway where the gates pass back through security.)

One of my favorite childhood memories is when we would travel from New York down to Florida to visit my grandparents, and they would be waiting for us when we deplane. Scanning the faces until our eyes met, seeing their faces light up as ours did as well, is something that is a vivid image in my mind.

Then, of course, pre-cell phones the anticipation would be great, not knowing when you would meet up. Now with cell phones we can text “landed” or “getting my luggage” so we can track each step after deplaning. But powered by that childhood memory, I love to be greeted at the airport, and so I make it a point to greet others in the airport.

This may not be your thing, but I encourage you to do those things that show people that they matter, that are generous, that help another, even if they inconvenience you. By doing this, we exercise a fundamental principle of our tradition, that we are responsible for one another. That act of serving another may come at the expense of what is easy for us. And there will be times that others will be inconvenienced in fulfilling our needs. This is what it means to be mutually responsible, and generous, and to do so in a way that is truly in service to another.

 

During a heavy merge while sitting in traffic, let another car in, but only one car.

Nobody I know likes sitting in traffic. Even worse is sitting in traffic when you have a place to be at a certain time. We get anxious, restless, and angry. And then when we get to a merge, traffic trying to enter the same road that you are on that is already backed up, our first instinct, our impulse is to maintain our place, and move up closer to the car in front of us and not let the other car in. Let them enter behind us, let the person following us let that car in.

We need to resist that impulse. Yes, where you are going is important. But we need to remember that quite possibly, that driver in the car trying to merge, also has an important place to be at a certain time. Are their needs less important than ours?

This is where we tap into our reserve of humility. To remember that what we need to do for ourselves is important, and at the same time, we also need to remember that everyone has that same thought. We may be at the center of our universe, but we are not the center of the universe.

And yet, I give you permission to let in only one car and one car only. Why? For in that instinct to help another, to remember that we are not more important than another person, that also the other person is no more important than us. We should help others, but not at the expense of diminishing ourselves.

That famous dictum from our tradition by Rabbi Hillel, found in the text Pirke Avot “If I am only for myself what am I”—the first part of that teaching is, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” We need to take care of ourselves first, and then we will be able to help other people. While we advocate for others, we can not forget that we need to advocate for ourselves. We know what we need, we know ourselves best.

Have humility, but also do not lose yourself in the process.

 

When you see someone you know on the street, smile and say hello. And when you see someone you don’t know on the street, smile and say hello.

Another favorite teaching of mine from our tradition, also from Pirke Avot, and actually follows the above Hillel quote, is from another rabbi, Shammai who said, “say little and do much, and greet everyone with a pleasant face.”

We can think of these two clauses as separate, and sometimes I do, but they can go together to teach us that it does not take much to remind another of their innate humanity, and for us to remember the innate humanity of another. Greeting everyone, smiling at people in the street, in the store, at the post office, is a little act that does so much.

No one says you have to like everyone, no one says you have to be friends with everyone. Even the Torah teaches that if you see your enemy’s ox wandering in the street you need to take it back to them. The Torah admits that you are going to have enemies! But we should at least be respectful, be kind, be friendly towards all those we encounter.

When we do this, we take the first step toward making the unfamiliar familiar. For is lack of familiarity that breeds fear. And it is fear that leads us to do unspeakable things. We may not know each other’s stories. But what we do know is that each one of us struggles and succeeds, hurts and feels joy, loses and gains.

Greeting someone is the simplest act of compassion, it recognizes the other as another. It shows that we see another as we want to be seen. And it is the first step toward turning an enemy into a friend.

 

Learn peoples’ names. And use them.

I don’t think it is any accident that the President uses made up nicknames towards those he views as his enemies: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Failing New York Times. This is one of the things I find most offensive in his behavior.

For what is more telling, more important to us than our names? Our names are so much of our humanity, our identity. They carry our lineage, our family, our relationships, our history, our future. Some names are given to us. Some we adopt at marriage. Some we choose for ourselves. Some have multiple names. When I work with conversion candidates, one of the final and important steps is choosing a Hebrew name, that will define them in the Jewish spiritual context. Our name is our most fundamental expression of our identity, our humanity, our very place within this greater world.

We know too from our transgender community members that pronouns are important, and it is upon us to use the pronouns that people choose for themselves. This too is a part if one’s identity.

Learn each other’s names. Learn each other’s pronouns. Don’t assume. And don’t use a nickname that a person has not chosen for themselves, or would agree to.

And if you make a mistake, or forget? Apologize, and be open to growth. And if someone makes a mistake with your name or pronoun, or forgets it, be forgiving. Gently correct. Help them. In this way we acknowledge our humanity by recognizing our ability to make a mistake, to make amends, and to learn and grow from that mistake—and this is perhaps the most human behavior of all.

 

These are difficult times, and any positive movement seems overwhelming and daunting. Can these individual, specific actions change the world? I don’t know. But the values that underlie them—equality, gratitude, tzimtzum, humility, mutual responsibility, generosity, compassion, honoring names, and forgiveness–certainly will.

3 thoughts on “Seven Things You Can Do to Save the World (Rosh Hashanah 5779)

  1. Pingback: Seven Things You Can Do to Save the World (Rosh Hashanah 5779) – The Accidental Rabbi

  2. Ann and Anita Hardin and Asenka Miller

    To Rabbi Seth I miss you.I can’t be there physically right now. Thank you so much for So much. You matter to me and to others. I hope this message gets to you that I have thought deeply about how to make peace in the world and have had discussions about that all the way up and down the top. My personal life is a mess and you know it. So once at a place I thought I could try kosher and my own mother has a long way to go to show me cleanliness.

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  3. Ann and Anita Hardin and Asenka Miller

    Many additional questions for Rabbi – What to do with my unclean, angry mother?
    I get physically and emotionally beat up whenever I try to move towards G-d the same G-d who told me how to take evasive action to live when bullets were fire toward me – He’s very kind.
    I have been hurt real bad by humans.
    It makes me not want to be on planet earth when humans hurt me how do I live?
    Where do I live on planet earth until G-d comes? So much of the physical pain from other people’s torment and torture of me I will leave behind on earth and goto heaven without it from others hurting me. G-d hasn’t told me where to live on planet earth. I feel like an aimless wanderer on planet earth without a true place where G-d wants me to be at. Where is my place to occupy a little space on earth – where is this?

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