The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

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.

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