The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Thursday, October 6, 2016

New year, new blog

From 2010-2016 I blogged here, but I've shifted to my own personal website, which includes a blog.

Click here to be directed to it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It's on us: racial tension and policing

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parashat Chukat
July 15, 2016

In this week's parshah, we find the Israelites in the desert doing what they do best — complaining. This time, they don't have water. So they bring their grievance to Moses. “Why did you bring us out into this desert to die! We wish we'd never left Egypt!”

One can maybe forgive, or at least understand, Moses’s overreaction. He's fed up. So in anger he strikes the rock to make the water flow. The problem was, God had told him just to take his staff and assemble the people at the rock — not to hit it. Moses uses excessive force, and God sanctions him harshly — no Promised Land for him. It seems unfair, for such a misstep. But then again, do we not hold leaders to a higher standard?

This episode jumped off the page for me this week, though it's going to take me a moment to explain why. Our country is reeling from violence by and against police, by racial tensions boiling over, by the deliberate and vicious murder of 5 Dallas police officers — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens — who were doing their jobs by keeping watch at what started as a peaceful protest against police bias and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. 

Being a Facebook junkie, I have been inundated with media, both social and mainstream, about what lessons we should learn or who is to blame or why this group or that group is racist or hateful or reverse racist (whatever that means). One message pierced through the noise and hit me hard. I heard it in the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown. 

Now before I share that message, Chief Brown’s background matters. He is a black man, and the steady and visionary leader of a police department that has been working hard to get it right. With him at the helm over the past six years, his department has reduced the murder rate dramatically. They have also seen a 30 percent drop in assaults on officers and a 40 percent drop in shootings by police, as well as a reduction in excessive force complaints by 80 percent. And then there’s his personal story. Six years ago, only weeks after he started in this role, his mentally ill son killed a civilian and a responding police officer before being fatally shot by police. To hear Chief Brown extend his condolences to the bereaved families while also mourning his own son — it is too heartbreaking to comprehend.

Chief Brown's message after the Dallas shooting was so important that Pres. Obama made it a focus of his own speech at the memorial for the five slain officers. Here is what Chief Brown said:
Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let's give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let's have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let's give it to the cops to solve that as well.
Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.
We ask the police to do too many jobs, and then we’re surprised when things go wrong. In addition to public safety, for which they put their lives on the line every day, we ask them to be social workers, mental health professionals, drug treatment specialists, social safety nets for homelessness and poverty. 

Why? Because we have failed to live up to our responsibilities as citizens. We have failed to create communities that take care of— to put it in biblical terms — the widow and the orphan. We have failed to invest in infrastructure, mental health, drug treatment; we have failed to make the promise of a good education available to every child, and the promise of a good job to everyone willing to work for it. What kind of society criminalizes addiction, homelessness, depression — instead of treating and caring for them?

We laugh effortlessly at the Israelites, who looked at their problems and longed for those good old days back in Egypt. Egypt! The place of slavery! Look closer and we are laughing at ourselves. How many of us pontificate about the good old days when parents disciplined their kids and people respected cops, before ISIS was a threat? You know, the good old days when racial segregation was legal and Jews were barred from clubs, businesses, industries; when the Shoah killed 6 million Jews and WWII killed tens of millions of people… The “good old days”? Are we serious? 

The Israelites look at the challenges they face in the desert as free people, and they whine—freedom, they're starting to learn, means responsibility. They could have said: Hey, there's a water shortage, let's work together to fix it so no one goes thirsty. But what do they do? They air their grievance and demand that their leader just fix it already! There is a shockingly fine line between enslavement and entitlement.

Is that what we've become? People who prefer the chains of Egypt to the challenge of the wilderness? Experts in outrage instead of initiative? Complaint instead of compromise?

Look what we pushed Moses to do. He's tired. He's overworked. He's sick of these stiff-necked people. All he sees when he looks out on the assembly is a bunch of complainers. Not many willing to chip in and say, I own these problems too. It's no wonder he loses his cool in a moment of frustration, anxiety, and probably even fear of the thirsty mob's wrath. He lashes out and slams the rock. Yes, he should have known better; yes, as a public servant he should rise above it all; and yes, consequences are merited when someone with power and authority makes a costly mistake. 

But that shattered rock? That's not just on Moses. That's on the Israelite complainers, too. 

That's on us.

What we can do instead is stop whining, and start working. Step out of our political echo chambers and say to those across the divide: We've got real problems here, and we all have a stake in this. You have some of the answers, and we have some of the answers, and we need each other. We are not enemies but partners.

In this valley, we are working on a project to bring together churches, synagogues, and non-profits devoted to education, health care, and community wellbeing. The vision is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic citizen coalition that will have a powerful voice in public life in our towns and valley region. The hope is to fulfill the Iron Rule of community organizing: Do not do for someone else what they can do for themselves. We want to create a community that works for everyone, because everyone works together to make it better. To those of you who consider Aspen a second home, I know there is an element of escapism in your time here, and a message like mine tonight can be a buzzkill for this adult summer camp. But I urge you to find a way, either here or in your hometown, to invest your time and resources in advancing your community. I know that most of you already do. Please don't forget that Aspen is not just your playground. It is a real place where people live, work, struggle, fail, and succeed, every day.

I hope, if nothing else, that you will pause every now and then and think of the complaining Israelites. When you find yourself tempted to say, “If only black people would…" Or, “If only the police would…" Or, “If only the President and Congress would…" — just wait. I learned recently that “WAIT” is an acronym for "Why Am I Talking?" Ask yourself: Am I trafficking in outrage? Am I whining about how it’s someone else's problem? Am I pretending like I don't bear any responsibility? 

Don't get me wrong. We need to have uncomfortable conversations about #BlackLivesMatter and racial bias in the criminal justice system, about supporting the police and pushing for systemic reform, about broken families and broken communities. But it doesn't work if you enter the conversation as a whiner, a complainer, with an it's-not-my-problem, finger-pointing, blame-laying pretense of deniability. 

Last century, during another generation’s civil rights struggle, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Moses was guilty of using excessive force, and he suffered the consequences. But we are all responsible for creating the conditions that enabled that act of violence, that shattering of the rock. Today, we are all responsible for picking up the pieces and fixing it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Out of Context: Misunderstanding the Bible" (Lifelong Learning course)

Aspen Jewish Congregation
Lifelong Learning Course

Out of Context:
Misunderstanding the Bible
with Rabbi David Segal

The Bible is the number one book that Americans like to pretend to have read. Pollsters George Gallup and Jim Castelli recently concluded, “Americans revere the Bible — but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”

In this course, we'll make a dent in that illiteracy by tackling some common misconceptions about the Bible. Since the Bible is foundational to our culture, it's important to know what it actually says. We'll focus on translation errors and also wrestle with some thorny interpretive problems. Our primary texts will be excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, and our textbook will be Joel Hoffman's book (see Readings, below) and selections from other secondary texts.

Seven Tuesdays, 12:00-1:45 pm
Feb 9, 16, 23; March 1, 8, 15, 22

(Across from Aspen Airport)
Room #TBA

$118 includes materials except Hoffman's book
 (please acquire that on your own; see Readings, below)

  • Introduction
    • Overview of translation issues
    • Hebrew Bible vs. Christian Old Testament: What & Why?
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 1-3; Brettler, Ch. 2-3.
  • One Love, Part 1
    • The V'ahavta and the Greatest Commandment: Love God with...what?
    • From Oneness to Love: Rethinking the Shema
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 4; Brettler, Ch. 10; Wyschogrod, handout.
  • One Love, Part 2: Song of Songs 
    • Sister, Bride? Good Book, Bad Translations
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 6; Brettler, Ch. 25.
  • Shepherds and Kings
    • What Kind of Leader is God?
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 5; Brettler, Ch. 12-13.
  • The Ten Commandments Explained
    • Feelings or Actions Matter?
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 7; Brettler, Ch. 8.
  • Rereading Isaiah, Part 1: The Suffering Servant
    • Deutero-Isaiah's prophetic agenda
    • READ: Brettler, Ch. 20.
  • Rereading Isaiah, Part 2: A Child Born to a Virgin
    • Isaiah's prophecy of the ordinary
    • READ: Hoffman, Ch. 8; Brettler, Ch. 15, 17.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Other Side is Not Dumb": Can We Talk?

How about some coffee and a face-to-face chat?

We mostly live in digital echo-chambers of our own (unwitting) creation. Our Facebook feed and cable news choices filter stories and opinions that confirm our beliefs. I hear on a regular basis that Republicans and Democrats who are social friends can't talk to each other about politics. For meaningful debate and thought-provoking challenge, you have to make extra effort. It's countercultural to want to understand and learn from opponents. How sad for our democracy if that trend continues.

As Sean Blanda wrote recently, in an article entitled The Other Side is Not Dumb, the entirety of which I highly recommend,
When someone communicates that they are not “on our side” our first reaction is to run away or dismiss them as stupid. To be sure, there are hateful, racist, people not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire. I’m instead referencing those who actually believe in an opposing viewpoint of a complicated issue, and do so for genuine, considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.
This is not a “political correctness” issue. It’s a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right. It’s a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, and not the complicated individual human beings that they actually are.
I was reminded of this truth when I got a range of reactions to my recent column about Donald Trump's campaign. Everything from "If Trump wins, I'm moving to New Zealand" to "You're being too hard on Trump" to "Rabbi, stick to talking about Judaism." It's so tempting to fire off defensive responses by email, or join the internet comment fray. And yet, what does it accomplish?

Moreover, when I write a column – like when I give a sermon – I'm looking to start a conversation. That doesn't mean I lack a point of view. But it also doesn't mean I expect everyone to agree. Quite the contrary: one of the best compliments to a sermon or column is for someone to disagree and want to engage. I welcome that! And I'm happy to say, I've had that from several respondents.

Both President Obama in his last State of the Union and Gov. Nikki Haley in her response called us to speak from our highest ideals and listen to each other as we work to fix America together. Unfortunately, we tend to reject the possibility that people with different views than ours might be right – and we also tend to reject even the chance that they might have well-considered, thoughtful opinions that differ from ours.

In that spirit: Can we talk?

Either about my Trump column, or the presidential race, or any issue you want to bring to the table. I'll set up shop at the following times and locations listed below. I invite you to join me to argue, to question, to challenge – and also to listen and learn. I think it's what our community and our country desperately need.

With blessing,
Rabbi David Segal

  • Monday January 25, 11am-1:30pm, Bonfire Coffee, 433 Main St, Carbondale
  • Tuesday January 26, 11am-1:30pm, Victoria's Espresso, 510 E. Durant, Aspen
  • Thursday January 28, 11am-1:30pm, Saxy's Cafe, 104 Midland Ave, Basalt
  • Or by appointment, contact / 970-925-8245 x.1

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5776•2015: Giving Community

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning • 23 September 2015

Giving Community

Earlier this month, I traveled to Fayetteville, NC to join America’s Journey for Justice. The NAACP organized this 40-day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC to bring national attention to ongoing racial injustice. At rallies along the way and at the capitol, activists urged state and national lawmakers to enact reforms in voting rights, criminal justice, education, health care, and economic sustainability.

I went because Reform rabbis organized to carry a Torah scroll the entire distance of the 860-mile journey. Each day a handful of rabbis shared the responsibility of holding the scroll during the 20-mile daily stretch.

I went because I still remember a black and white photo (pun intended) of Martin Luther King alongside two rabbis, one of them holding a Torah scroll. That rabbi was Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the Reform Movement. The other was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, great sage and prophet of 20th-century American Jewry. Heschel famously said of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Heschel’s academic work in Europe before the war was a major study of the Hebrew prophets. Then he fled the Nazis, settling in the United States to find this black Christian preacher who spoke like a Hebrew prophet. That prophetic voice called America to do cheshbon hanefesh — the soul-searching we strive to do on this holy day — and to recommit itself to its founding ideals of freedom and justice.

I went on the march because my immigrant grandparents found in America not just a haven but a home. Grateful for the opportunities afforded to them here, they modeled a life of caring citizenship and giving back to the community. Their hard work paved the way for me to have privileges and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. With that privilege comes the responsibility to pay it forward, to ensure equal opportunity and justice for others.

I went on the march because I love this country. I don’t talk about this much, but I am a sappy patriot, a sucker for Americana. I get emotional when I hear God Bless America. I get excited for the 4th of July — not the parades and BBQs so much as the actual commemoration of the revolution. I can't wait to reread George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, RI, declaring America a land that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Never before had a nation made such a promise to the Jews. It makes me swell with pride and gratitude — and also humility, as I think of other groups who have known bigotry and persecution all too well in this country. I love this country both for what it is and for what it promises to be. The Journey for Justice felt like a chance to celebrate both the progress and the potential of America. 

On the march, I met activists who were there for the day and others who were on their 31st day of marching. They were black, white, Latino; young and old; Jew and Christian. There was an 85-year-old white woman who led the pack at a brisk pace. She was part of a local group called “The Raging Grannies” who like to get into trouble for justice. There was a black teenager who complained about the heat while getting on the bus for a break. I shared his feelings, because it was very hot — 90 degrees, sunny, and humid. One of the elders turned to this boy and said, “Your ancestors endured much worse, picking cotton all day in the hot sun with no breaks.” He didn’t complain after that. I thought of what our people have endured — in the Shoah, pogroms, the Inquisition, Egypt. I thought of the imperative, never forget. I thought of why we brought the Torah on the march in the first place: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; see also Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). I thought about our Jewish slavery narrative, how we retell it every year to our children, how it calls us to value freedom and justice, and to remember our kinship with the oppressed.

I realized later that I put a lot of pressure on the march to transform me. In an unexpected way, it did: it reinvigorated my drive to be more invested in this community’s well-being. The Journey for Justice was an important symbolic statement and rallying cry at the state and federal level. But my revelation was about my calling to “do justice and love mercy” here in this valley. Here, with this congregation, I can have the greatest impact. My community, the context in which I live out my values, is here.

I’ve shared with you before a quote by E.B. White that has become a mantra: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we’ve mastered the “savor” part. Whether we’ve moved here or visit part-time, the natural beauty, outdoor recreation, small-town feel and slower pace of life bring us joy.

On this day of soul-searching, of teshuva - returning to our core values, I challenge us to work on the “improving the world” side of the equation. Let’s cultivate the will to better this place. I know there are hundreds of non-profits here, and I know our members are active in dozens of projects to improve well-being in the valley. Today, I want to push us to become more involved as a congregation, to make social responsibility a cornerstone of who we are.

Two of our core values, as mentioned in our mission statement, speak to this:
Tzedek u'Mishpat - צדק ומשפט - Righteousness & Justice: Fostering a commitment to the mitzvot of Tzedakah (obligation of giving) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Organizing and volunteering to make change for the good of our communities.    
Or La-Goyim - אור לגויים - A Light to the Nations: Living our Jewish values publicly within our communities for the benefit of all. Promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation.  
They’re beautiful words, and I say that not just because I helped write them. They express our people’s highest calling.  More complicated, though, is how to embody them as a sacred collective. What does it actually look like?

As a step toward answering that question, I’ve been involved over the last couple years with an interfaith valley-wide conversation convened by the Manaus Fund. Recently, I joined their board of directors. The organization was founded about eight years ago by George Stranahan, local philanthropist, education reformer, and strategic troublemaker. The Fund set out to combine the strengths of social entrepreneurship and community organizing to build a better valley community.

What they — now I can say we — are trying to do is change the way we relate to each other in this valley. Our lives are so individualized, so atomized, that we rarely know what’s going on for someone behind the veneer of “How are you?” — “Fine, how are you?” Think of how impatient and uncomfortable we get when someone gives a real answer! That’s true not only across group boundaries — racial, religious, socioeconomic — but also within groups, even with the very people we’re supposed to care about most. It’s a shame that people keep their struggles private when there could be public solutions within our collective grasp.

The key to transforming our community, both within these walls and throughout the valley, is to build relationships. There are techniques to learn and best practices to emulate, but in the end it’s not rocket science. It’s about relating to people by sharing concerns and interests, by being vulnerable and curious, and most importantly by listening.

The Manaus Fund has already had success through this method with the Valley Settlement Project. They hired a community organizer to go into low-income, mostly immigrant Latino communities — and listen. They found extreme isolation. They heard stories of struggle around employment, transportation, education, childcare, language. Out of that listening came several projects, for children and adults. A pre-school on wheels — El Busesito — brings early childhood education to those without other access to it. Neighborhood groups convene for parents and young children to promote healthy choices even before pre-school. For adults, a Lifelong Learning initiative in Spanish literacy and math lays a foundation for employment, passing the GED, and self-sufficiency. The Parent Mentor program trains and supports parents to be advocates in their children’s schools and to help address large class sizes as well as language and cultural barriers.

We often think of charity or justice work as something “we” do for “them.” We the privileged can give a better life to the less fortunate. In Jewish tradition, as articulated by Maimonides in his ladder of Tzedakah, the holiest form of giving is to enable someone to become self-sufficient. In the language of community organizing, it’s called the Iron Rule: “Never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.”

The truth is, these initiatives within the Latino community advance our entire community. When they organize to improve their employment readiness, their neighborhood networks, their parenting and school support — the entire community benefits. I know we have a number of congregants who are deeply involved in the local public schools, as parents, volunteers, and professionals. I think they’d agree that improving the quality of the valley’s schools is not something one group can simply do for another. That kind of positive change only comes from partnership, from relating to each other across lines of race, class, and faith that usually divide us.

Changing the conversation around how we do Tzedakah also means changing how we think about power. Jews tend to have some discomfort with the concept, since we have found ourselves too often persecuted by those in power. But power, simply defined, is the ability to get things done. And if we care about acting on our values, if we care about embodying Tzedakah and justice in this valley, then we have to care about power. We may need to dismantle some of our misconceptions around power, since we in this room tend to think of ourselves as empowered, with the financial and social capital to get what we want.

But consider this counter-example: members of our Jewish community struggle with finances, housing costs, employment, childcare, isolation. Step one is to stop pretending that all Jews are affluent and doing just fine, because that misconception blinds us to real needs in our own backyard. 

And consider a second counter-example: the recognition of Jewish holidays by the public school districts. I have made some headway on this in Aspen in the last five years. I built relationships with parents, the school board, and school administrators to express to them our concerns around the scheduling of major school events during our holiest days. The new district calendar now includes a special color code for Jewish holidays. And yet, the conflicts continue: even as I share these words on Yom Kippur, the Aspen High School Experiential Education program is currently underway, leaving many of our families to make a difficult choice. It’s not a failure of will — it means we haven’t built enough power to change it. What a fascinating thought — that this group doesn't have enough power! It’s a little surprising. Think of the wealth of resources and experience and professional success in this room right now — and yet, on this issue, we’ve hit a wall. Now, imagine if we were organized. Imagine if we were part of a coalition of Latinos and whites, of Jews and Catholics and Protestants, of parents and teachers and engaged citizens, who could bring real leverage on this issue. And then — imagine what else we could accomplish together.

How many of you have expressed concerns about aging in place here in the valley, without adequate assisted living facilities? When the Basalt Continuing Care Retirement Community fell through, in part because an outside consultant thought it would be too hard to attract and retain nurses here — doesn’t that keep you up at night? How many worry about the lack of affordable housing, as more and more families move further downvalley, and parts of Aspen become, as one pastor told me, “a ghost town”? How many parents worry about their kids getting a quality education, and why do so many of our kids go to boarding school? How many of us lose sleep over pockets of anti-Semitism in this valley, often rearing their heads in nasty letters to the editor? How many parents wonder how to raise socially conscious kids in a bubble of privilege?

The truth is, we can’t address any of these questions alone. In fact, the more we retreat inward, the worse our problems become. We have to redefine Tzedakah not as what “we” do for “them” nor even as what “we” do for each other — but as what we all do in partnership for the good of our community. If we want to face our concerns and act on our values effectively, we can’t act alone. We need power — and power comes from organized relationships.

Look for opportunities in the coming year to build public relationships with people who are often invisible to us — both within and outside our walls. Look for chances to identify new leaders and develop your leadership potential. One of my mentors calls it “liberating talent.” Look for our congregation to be focused less on what programs we can serve to you, and more on what aspirations we can realize together. Look to be challenged to test your assumptions about who needs help, who has power, and what it means to be in community.

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the rewards of being a giver. Today I call us to the public, collective expression of giving. We are about to read in the Torah: atem nitzavim ha-yom kul-chem — “You stand, all of you, this day,” ready to enter into a communal covenant (Deut. 29:9). What if we were to see our relationship to this community as a covenant, with duties and expectations? What if we were to invest in the empowerment of others, to advance the community together instead of advancing ourselves without regard for others? What if we had faith that these are the ways to improve our world? What would it take for us to realize that pursuing justice will transform us along the way? 

This thing which God commands us to do is not beyond us or out of reach…  No, it is so very near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, to do it. (Deut. 30:11, 14)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kol Nidrei Sermon 2015•5776: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5776 • 22 September 2015

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Picture the year 2158. Medical science has found the fountain of youth. Anti-Gerasone, an elixir created 102 years earlier, in 2056, stops the human aging process. Made from mud and dandelions, it is cheap and widely available. There’s no more bodily decline, no more debilitation, no more death by natural causes.

Sounds pretty good, right? To live in such a paradise — it’s what we all long for.

Or is it? What I’ve just described is the premise of a 1954 Kurt Vonnegut short story called “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” If you know Vonnegut, you can guess that his version of 2158 is a dystopian future. The fountain of youth has some severe side effects.

In 2158, we zoom in on the Schwartz family, four generations living in a cramped three-room apartment in outer New York City — what used to be Connecticut. With natural death overthrown, the world is overpopulated. Food and space are scarce. People eat seaweed for every meal and squeeze into small homes. 

The Schwartz family spends all their time trying not to upset Gramps, the patriarch of the family. If you get on his good side, you get preferred bed placement; if you cross him, you get demoted to sleeping in the hallway next to the bathroom. Gramps spends his time rewriting his will to disinherit whichever relative is bothering him today, and to appoint a new favorite as the heir to his private bedroom.

It’s a grim picture of something we think we want — immortality. It’s also a warning. Even something as precious as life — which Jewish tradition commands us to “choose” in no uncertain terms — even the pursuit of life can become a kind of idol-worship. Vonnegut’s cautionary tale prods us to ask, not simply, “How long can we live?” — but also, “What are we living for?”

Vonnegut’s imaginary anti-aging medicine may have felt futuristic in 1954. But with regard to longevity, today we are heading toward an unprecedented reality. More people than ever will live to 100. At first glance, what a blessing! Think of how many more of us will live to see grandchildren married, great-grandchildren born, businesses and causes we supported thriving beyond our wildest dreams. 

And yet, what of the darker side of longevity? How many more of us will suffer from cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia? How many of us will endure incurable chronic decline?

When I was 13, my grandmother Lillie Segal (for whom our son Levi is named) collapsed suddenly while playing bridge with her friends. She was 82 at the time, sound of mind and body. It turned out she’d had a massive stroke that rendered her braindead. She was kept on life support until the family said their goodbyes and then let her go. What stuck in my 13-year-old brain was how the adults around me reacted. They said things like, “She was lucky” and, “That’s how I want to go — great health into old age and then, one day — [SNAP].” I didn’t understand it at the time. As a teenager, I thought, “A sudden death means not getting to say goodbye. Wouldn’t it be better to die slowly, with notice, surrounded by family?”

Now I’ve seen others die a prolonged death — my own loved ones and patients for whom I’ve served as chaplain. It’s not better. To watch people suffer, to watch their loved ones watch them suffer — I understand why they said Grandma Lillie was lucky. More than we fear death, we fear suffering. We fear loss of control, function, independence. 

There’s an old folk tale about the Jewish jester of Baghdad. He was a favorite of the Sultan, until one day he told a joke that offended his ruler. The Sultan summoned him to his court. “Dear jester,” he said, “for offending the crown, I sentence you to death. But because of all the years of joy and laughter you gave me, I will let you choose the manner of your death.” 

“If it’s all the same to you,” said the jester, “I choose death by old age.”

Unlike the jester, we don’t get to choose. Sadly, some of us will have to cope with debility and loss of independence. Some of us already face these challenges as caretakers of aging spouses, parents, loved ones. 

Leaving the jester’s tale aside, let’s focus on what we can control. We can own our attitude and our communication with our loved ones around death and end of life. It starts with a conversation. Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, suggests starting here:
Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding? (Gawande, 259)
(I’ve also compiled a list of questions for guiding these conversations which you can find as you exit tonight, as well as on our website after Yom Kippur.) Too often, we wait to have these conversations until we’re already in crisis mode. Emotions run hot, so it’s hard to think clearly. Sometimes the person whose life hangs in the balance is not fully present to discuss their health care priorities. Families are left to do their best to respect what they guess their loved one’s wishes are.

In other cases, we face choices around a terminal illness when the treatment stops working. Gawande describes a “breakpoint discussion,” which involves
a series of conversations to sort out when they need to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value — being with family or enjoying chocolate ice cream… At root the debate is about what mistakes we fear most — the mistake of prolonging suffering or the mistake of shortening valued life. (Gawande, 185, 244)
It is hard to know when to keep fighting, and when to let go. These are difficult conversations, and they take time and raw honesty. There’s no prescription I can give from the pulpit to resolve every dilemma. I can encourage being open and proactive in discussing end of life questions with your family. Of course, advanced directives and power of attorney paperwork are vital. But as important is the talk you have with your loved ones about what is in those legal documents, and the values behind them. Speaking as a doctor, Gawande reminds us:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. (Gawande, 259)

That is our job. As a sacred community, that’s why we’re here tonight — to better understand why we’re here. To explore larger questions of purpose, to find the “why” of our life. This night of judgment asks: What are you living for?

*   *   *

I was listening to the radio in my car the other day, and for reasons I can’t quite explain I turned to the local Christian rock station. I guess I was checking out the competition, or something. In between songs, an ad came on for a documentary film about a pastor who was in a terrible car accident and pronounced dead at the scene. For the next hour and a half, the narrator said, his soul experienced life like he never knew before. The film was called 90 Minutes in Heaven, guaranteed to reassure you about what awaits after you shuffle off this mortal coil.

People ask me all the time, “Rabbi, what do Jews believe happens after we die?” There are a lot of answers. Ancient answers, medieval answers, modern answers, with sources and prooftexts. I just taught a class on this topic last spring.  We talked about the immortality of the soul, purgatory, communion with God, and the resurrection of the dead under the Messiah’s rule.

But if you’ll permit your rabbi a moment of public skepticism and vulnerability: I don’t know what happens after we die. Maybe that’s obvious, but I wanted to say it out loud. Furthermore, no one knows what happens after we die — not with certainty, anyway. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask the question, or study how various cultures have answered it — on the contrary, go and study. I’m just saying, we won’t know for sure until we get there.

That said, I do know with certainty a few things that happen after we die. Our loved ones sign paperwork. They make decisions about remains. They sort out inheritance. They go through our stuff. They also begin the process of remembering us.

“The living know they shall die,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The living know then, too, that one day we will live in the memory of those we met along the way. One of the responsibilities of living is preparing for dying — preparing to live in memory. I don’t mean a morbid retreat into despair or nihilism. I mean seeing your life from a God’s-eye view, as a bridge between past and future, a finite span inside eternity. 

There’s a story I read with my b’nai mitzvah students when we start studying together. Once there was a young wave who lived in the ocean. All day long he danced and sprayed, happily rushing along in the currents. Then one day he was startled. He saw that the waves in front of him were crashing on an unknown beach and dissolving away. He got scared and started to cry. An older wave rolled over to him and said, “Young wave, until now you have known only your own crests and troughs. You thought you were alone. Now you have learned you were never alone. You were always part of a huge ocean, a greater force. You have been shaped by waves who crashed long before you, and the ripples from your break will be felt by other waves long after you reach the shore.”

*   *   *

At the end of the Vonnegut story, Gramps the patriarch gets the last laugh. He fakes his death and leaves a note telling his descendants that all of his belongings will be divided up evenly among them. Of course, there’s only one master bedroom… As the family members stake their claims, the tension escalates and a riot ensues. The police arrest them all and throw them in prison. They are ecstatic: in prison, they each have their own bed and washbasin, and the rarest commodity of all, privacy! They hope out loud that their lawyers can get them a long prison sentence, maybe even solitary confinement.

As for Gramps, he returns to a blissfully empty apartment. When he sits down to watch TV, an ad for Super-Anti-Gerasone comes on: “In weeks — yes, weeks — you can look, feel and act as young as your great-great-grandchildren!” Gramps smiles for the first time in years, at the thought of not just stopping but reversing his aging. “Life,” the narrator tells us, “was good.” Amusing as it is, this ending is also dark and hollow. Gramps is a hoarder — of square footage and of years. The single-minded obsession with cheating death — this idolatry of time — has turned people into selfish husks, lacking purpose or depth. Loved ones see each other as hurdles to happiness, obstacles that take up space rather than sources of love, support, meaning, and memory.

The short story’s namesake is even bleaker. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in a soliloquy the title character utters upon learning of Lady Macbeth’s death. Soon after this speech, Macbeth meets his own demise.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time;And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5:5, 17-28)
These are devastating words. But our faith teaches us that life is more than just strutting and fretting around until our time is up. We are here to do something of consequence — too add value, to advance the world, to be a blessing. We come from a people who looked up at the heavens and asked, “Why are we here?” Heirs to that tradition, we are still looking, still asking, still telling stories and singing prayers that reach toward an answer.

The sages taught in a midrash:
When a person comes into the world, his fists are clenched, as though to say, “The whole world is mine, and I shall inherit it.” But when he departs from the world, his hands are spread open, as though to say, “I have inherited nothing from this world.” (Kohelet Rabbah 5:14; Book of Legends 583:75)
In line with so much of the liturgy of the holidays, this midrash — like Macbeth’s speech — reminds us that we are but dust and ashes, our days on earth a passing shadow. As they say, you can’t take it with you.

But there is another way to read the midrash, a more life-affirming way:
When a person comes into the world, his fists are clenched, as though to say, “I’ve received the baton from those who came before me, and I’m ready for my leg of the relay.” When he departs from the world, his hands are spread open, as though to say, “I’ve run my race, and now I make my handoff to the future.”
My friends, fellow relay-runners, we are all interims. Our forebears invested in us; posterity depends on us. We’re given an allotment of years, God only knows how long, and we’re expected to run with it. When we reach the end of our track, let it be not just a letting go but a handing off.

The best way to live is to be part of something bigger than yourself. 

It is also the best way to die.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon 2015/5776: A Value-Added Life

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776
September 14, 2015
A Value-Added Life

Two women stood before King Solomon with competing claims. Both had recently given birth, but one of the children had died. Now both women claimed that the other had stolen her live child in the night and replaced him with the lifeless one. “And they went on arguing,” says the Bible, “before the king” (1 Kings 3:22).

How was Solomon to know which woman was telling the truth? How could he test whose heart was in the right place, and who was being selfish?

This tale of King Solomon’s judgment would make a good case study for Adam Grant, Wharton professor and bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Grant has spent his career studying “reciprocity styles,” dividing people into three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers go out of their way to help others; takers claw their way to the top at others’ expense; matchers exchange favors tit-for-tat.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the takers from the givers. “Fakers” are takers who act nice to your face and then stab you in the back. So Grant advises us to get good at “sincerity screening” — devising tests to separate the fakers from the true givers.

King Solomon was 3,000 years too early for Grant’s book, but in his famous wisdom he devised a simple and powerful sincerity screening. After hearing the women’s claims, he announced his solution: “Fetch me a sword… Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other” (I Kings 3:24-25). Solomon never intended to execute this order. He needed data — and he got it when the women reacted to his barbaric plan. The child’s true mother objected immediately because “she was overcome with compassion for her son. ‘Please, my lord,’ she cried, “give her the child; just don’t kill him!’” (1 Kings 3:26). Even if the other woman hadn’t responded callously, “Cut away!” — Solomon already had his answer.

The woman who spoke up against her own claim to motherhood was the true mother. She cared so deeply for her child that she placed his survival over her own interest. By a certain standard of negotiation, she gave up. But she felt, and Solomon knew, that something bigger was at stake. 

We may be tempted to say — that’s a nice Bible story, but we live in the real world. In the real world, it’s dog eat dog. In the real world, you have to take from them before they take from you. In the real world, it’s zero-sum, don’t give an inch, winner take all.

But Adam Grant and his colleagues beg to differ. They say, the numbers tell a different story. Nice guys don’t always finish last, takers don’t always win, and givers don’t always lose. In fact, they’ve found that living generously is a key to success.

Take, for example, Jon Huntsman, Sr. He is a billionaire chemical company CEO, on the Forbes list of the 1,000 richest people in the world. Twenty-five years ago, he was negotiating a corporate acquisition with Charles Smith, the CEO of another chemical company. Smith’s wife died during the negotiations. Rather than keep pushing, Huntsman took the deal where it stood. He reflected later:
I decided the fine points of the last 20 percent of the deal would stand as they were proposed. I probably could have clawed another $200 million out of the deal, but it would have come at the expense of Charles’ emotional state. The agreement as it stood was good enough.” (Grant, 180)
Some of us might be saying to ourselves: What was he thinking! Too bad about the man’s wife, but business is business. You should never leave money on the table.

We live in a culture that undervalues helping. We tend to see people who need help as incompetent or needy; we see people who give help as soft do-gooders or even suckers. We assume that success comes to those who are hard-nosed rather than caring. We tend to elevate forceful extroverts who look out for number one, bend others to their will, and win lucrative contracts and flashy promotions. But maybe our emotional and moral compass is out of line.

Huntsman would say that being empathetic, not pushing for every last penny — in other words, being a giver — is good business. Those qualities are signs of strength of purpose, not weakness of will. Real success comes to those focused on a bigger picture, beyond any one negotiation.

Huntsman even believes that giving is what made him wealthy. Believe it or not, there are studies to suggest he may be right. As you’d expect, as people earn more, their charitable giving increases. 
But something more interesting happened [when researchers went deeper]. For every $1 in extra charitable giving, income was $3.75 higher. Giving actually seemed to make people richer… Surprising as it seems, people who give more go on to earn more. (Grant, 182)
I’ll say that again, because it’s hard to process: “Surprising as it seems, people who give more go on to earn more.” It’s not exactly intuitive. Researchers suggest that we underestimate the returns from giving: “giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others… There’s a wealth of evidence that the ensuing happiness can motivate people to work harder, longer, smarter, and more effectively” (Grant, 183). 

So we can get ahead by helping others get ahead? It’s not only counterintuitive, it’s countercultural. Our market culture teaches us to compete and commodify. It tells us to scrape away at the pie to increase our slice. If others get less, that’s just the cost of doing business. 

But when it comes to relationships and community — and, according to the data, in business too — those values are backwards. Of course it’s not just about money — that’s just easy to quantify in studies. I see the benefits of giving firsthand within our congregation, when people show up for each other. When you join a minyan for someone saying kaddish, when you tutor a student in Hebrew, when you welcome newcomers on Shabbat or into your home, when you build a house with Habitat for Humanity or visit someone in the hospital — anyone who does these acts will tell you, it benefits you as much as those you’re helping, and maybe more.

Here lies an irony in synagogue life. We work so hard at marketing ourselves. We ask: How can we sell our product to the unaffiliated? We position ourselves as here to serve your needs, as if you are a consumer of the services we provide. To some extent, I suppose that’s true. But too often we lose sight of our transcendent mission. We forget that the key to a life of meaning is showing up for others. It may be countercultural, particularly in this valley, where people come to disconnect and get away from it all — especially organized religion. But Jews have always been countercultural. And so we stand proudly for the belief that the deepest way to serve you is to make demands of you. Let me say that again: The deepest way to serve you is to make demands of you. If I’m selling anything, it’s the idea that your life will be enriched when you live for others. We have to train ourselves to stop asking, “What can the community do for me?” Instead we should ask, “How can I give to others?” The ultimate irony is that if we focus on creating a culture of giving, the question of “what’s in it for me?” will take care of itself.

*   *   *

As we began with King Solomon, we conclude with a story about two other Jewish sages, who lived a thousand years later. According to a midrash, 
…It happened that a certain gentile came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” At that point, Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When the man went before Hillel, [and said, “Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” —] [Hillel] said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a)
Shammai had a right to be annoyed. Here was some stranger barging in on him with a flippant demand. Shammai had no patience for someone who seemed to be deliberately wasting his time. 

Though not known for his openness, it’s possible Shammai was having a bad day. The text says he chased the man away with an amat ha-binyan, a builder’s cubit — basically a yardstick. Rashi says it was a tool you’d use to measure the work done by a builder. (I’m sure we have some builders here today — just know that what I’m about to say is not about you.) Everyone has a story about getting swindled by a contractor — the work wasn’t finished on time, it was way over estimate, it was shoddy. I think Shammai had his yardstick out to double-check some work being done on his house. When the stranger interrupted him with this “on one foot” demand, he had just confirmed by his own measurements that the work wasn’t built to spec. He’d been scammed by a builder — taken by a taker! Now he was primed to see this newcomer as a taker, too. Adam Grant’s findings agree: takers are more likely to think that most people are takers, while givers are more willing to lead with trust.

Trust is what Hillel did when the non-Jew came to see him. He could have shunned the irreverent man, but he chose a different approach. Pirkei Avot teaches (1:6), 
וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת: 
“Judge everyone according to the side of merit.” In other words, start with the benefit of the doubt. Hillel was known for this virtue, and he decided he had time for what Adam Grant calls a “five-minute favor.” When someone makes a request, do you have five minutes to try to add value to the world, regardless of any expected reward for yourself?

Hillel was not only virtuous but also shrewd. He devised a five-minute favor that was also a sincerity screening. 

I can give this guy the whole Torah on one foot, he thought, and then open a door. If he’s sincere, he’ll “go and study.” If not, he’ll leave. Not too much of my time wasted if I’m wrong. But if I’m right — then who knows what gifts he might bring to our community?

The midrash ends before we learn how the potential convert reacted. Maybe he was just a prank caller. Or maybe Hillel’s invitation stirred some deeper yearning in him. Maybe he joined Hillel’s school, became a great sage, and brought up more disciples.

The text invites us to self-reflection. Are we more like Shammai or Hillel? Do we act like takers, with no time for anyone who isn’t obviously useful to us? Or are we strong enough to embrace the chance to add value to the world, regardless of whether we will benefit directly?

Takers who call the world an unforgiving place forget what givers know: the world is what we create it to be through our actions. We will either suffer from self-fulfilling scarcity, or reap the rewards of generosity. As one writer explained, “Givers advance the world. Takers advance themselves and hold the world back” (Grant, 258). Which one are you?

It’s clear which one we ought to be. A thousand years before Solomon, God called Abraham, the first Jew, to “be a blessing.” That was in our first mission statement not because the world is perfect, but because the world needs blessing. We too are called — as children of Abraham, of Solomon, of Hillel — to be a blessing, to be givers, to add value, to advance the world.

In the end, when we step through the door to our final passage, to that mystery beyond this life, no one is going to ask us how much money we made, how many deals we closed, how quickly we were promoted. One last sincerity screening will confront us with a single question: did you give more than you took?

L’shanah tovah tikateivu — May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year of giving.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Penguin Books, 2013.