Contact Rabbi Suzy Stone via email.
Life is Short: Play Ball!
A businesswoman is sitting on the beach when she sees a fisherman approach the shore. Impressed by his fish, she asks:
“How long did it take you to bring in that catch?
Just a short while.
So why don’t you stay out longer?
Because this is all I need!
Then what do you do with all your free time?”
The fisherman replies: “I sleep late, catch a few fish, have a nice dinner, and relax with my family.”
The businesswoman explains that she has an MBA and can help grow his business. “You could buy a bigger boat, then use the proceeds to open up your own shop.”
Then you could move to the city to open a distribution center.
You could expand your business internationally, and take your company public.
Then when the time is right, you can sell your shares and become rich!
And then what?
Then you can retire, sleep late, catch a few fish, have a nice dinner, and then relax with your family.”
I’m guessing everyone has a version of this story. “If I can get good enough grades in high school, then I’ll get into the best college. If I can get the best internship, then I’ll get hired by the most prestigious firm. Or if I work long hours and impress my boss, I’ll get a promotion, etc.”
While this story could be considered a critique of being a workaholic, research suggests that this story depicts a new religious phenomenon sweeping the US known as workism. While I’m sure none of us consciously signed up to be a part of this growing religious denomination; I would argue that most of us here tonight are card-carrying members without even knowing it.
As historian Derek Thomspons explains in an article entitled “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable” published in 2019 in the Atlantic:
“The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
Simply put, workism is the belief that our jobs can provide everything we need in life– from community and meaning, to self-actualization and self-worth; thereby replacing what people used to find in organized religion, civic society, neighborhood associations, and even bowling leagues.
For example, what is the first question you usually ask someone you meet on campus, or at a party? “What’s your major,” or “what do you do?”
On one hand, it's a benign question. If you know what I study, or where I work, perhaps you’ll know how I spend my time, or what I value? But herein lies the problem. Our work has become shorthand for who we are!
While there is nothing wrong with work being a source of meaning in our lives, the problem is when it becomes the source of meaning. We’ve fallen prey to the idea that our professional selves and our personal selves are one in the same. As Mark Twain once famously said: “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Yet, as Thompson argues, “our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office,” (ibid).
Interestingly in a country that is polarized on almost every single issue, workism is perhaps the last truly universal value that still unites both the right and the left. Yet, the problem with putting all of our eggs in our “work basket,” is that we are careening towards an unprecedented amount of physical and mental exhaustion.
In a new book entitled: “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic,” researcher Jennifer Wallace notes that 70% of students believe they are more valued and more appreciated by their parents when they do well at school.
Therefore, she argues:
“When we talk about pressure, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and loneliness… it primarily comes from feeling that our worth is contingent on our achievements.”
Research published this summer at Baylor University confirms that our unwavering commitment to “achievement culture” directly correlates with our nation’s rising rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
Furthermore, workism is getting in the way of the joy we used to derive from our friendships and relationships.
As knowledge workers, we are like sharks swimming with one eye open, always waiting for our next assignment, notification, task, or project to ping us at all hours of the day.
As the popular psychologist Ester Perel notes, “We give our best time, attention and care to our work and bring the leftovers home for dinner. In a way, our work – as well as our devices - have become our new mistress.” Thus, proving once again, that workism is slowly, but surely, fraying the fabric of our society from the inside out.
Third, and perhaps most ironically, the harder we work, the more work there is to do. Take for example, Oliver Burkeman, who wrote a weekly advice column on productivity for 14 years. Recently, in his book entitled “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” he declared:
“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed…. The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control– when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists [are over]; when you’re meeting all of your obligations at work [and at home]; When nobody is angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball.”
Thus, the more we try to master time, the more time masters us. However, research shows that the solution to this productivity trap is something psychologists call the “Paradox of Limitation.”
Meaning, the more we face up to our own limitations, and the more we confront the finite nature of time here on earth, the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. (Burkeman 32)
This limit embracing attitude means organizing our days with the understanding that we will never have enough time to do everything we want to do– or that others want from us, so at the very least, we should stop beating ourselves up for feeling like a failure.
As Burkeman reminds us, the average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, and insultingly short. Assuming we live approximately 80 years, each of us has a TOTAL of 4,000 weeks on this big, blue spinning rock we call earth. (Burkeman 3)
As Steve Jobs’ once famously said in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Thankfully, Yom Kippur serves as our once, yearly death rehearsal, in which all of our rituals are meant to heighten our awareness of the paradox of limitation.
For example, on Yom Kippur we wear white to remind us of a kittel, the white shroud that traditional Jews are typically buried in. We avoid wearing leather shoes because leather is a luxury that protects us from feeling the frailty of our flesh and bones. We abstain from eating and drinking and all bodily pleasures. We mimic death so that we can remind ourselves what we are truly living for.
As Rabbi Bunim once taught, every human being should carry 2 pieces of paper in our pockets. One says:
“Bishvili nivra ha-olam: The world was created for me.”
Notice, it doesn’t say: “The world was created for me to WORK.” We have the right to be content and happy in the here and now. Not 10 years from now, or after one more promotion, car payment or the corner office.
The second piece of paper should read:
“V’anokhi afar v’efer: I am but dust and ashes.”
While this proverb is often misinterpreted as being about humility, it’s actually a poetic way to remind us that our time here on earth is fleeting. Just as humans (adam) are taken from the earth (adamah), so too shall we return to the earth as dust and ashes.
In other words, Rabbi Bunim is ostensibly asking us: What if we found out we only had a few months, a week, or a year left to live? How would we spend our time? What amends would we rush to make? What words would we need to say? What priorities would we want to re-center in our life?
Ultimately, Yom Kippur is here to remind us that rather than trying to use our time wisely, we need to start letting time use us. We often forget that the world is bursting with wonder, and the point of all our frenetic “doing” is to experience more of that wonder.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught:
As civilization advances, our sense of wonder [continues] declines….[Yet] Mankind will not perish for want of information; but rather, for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.
So as we turn to the last 24 hours of these yamim noraim, these days of awe and wonder, we have a very important decision to make. Will we continue to worship on the altar of workism?Or will we use our finite time here on earth to stop planning for the future and start living for today?
Making a dent in polarization by seeing each other wholly...and holy!: Debbie Yunker Kail's Yom Kippur Sermon
Contact Debbie via email.
Growing up, you would have been safe to say I was not into sports. Aside from playing tennis, I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell you the first thing about football, baseball or basketball teams.
And then, In 8th grade, I asked my parents to buy me a Charlotte Hornets t-shirt, which I then proudly wore to school.
Why? I noticed a boy I had a crush on liked them and I thought it would help him notice me.
I thought I could send a message to someone by what I was wearing.
I even thought maybe I could change my behavior or interests by what I was wearing. Maybe if I wore this shirt, I would start caring about this team, paying attention, and having something to talk about! Or ideally, instead of having to start a hard conversation, someone would start it with me based on what they noticed about me.
Wearing our beliefs and our preferences can be fun as a conversation starter. Being from Boston, it’s in my Bostonian ‘contract’ that I have to say something everytime someone is wearing any NY Yankees gear…even though I couldn't tell you one player on either team right now. When I see you with a concert t-shirt of a band I like, I immediately want to tell you about the time I saw them too or ask you about your experience.
We gravitate towards those who we think will be like us- whether it’s because we see someone in a band or sports t-shirt, carrying the same brand of water bottle or bag as us, or wearing a shirt or sticker advocating for the same social issue or political candidate we are rooting for. In fact, many of us likely seek out these cues - knowingly or unknowingly - as we consider who we will schmooze with or befriend.
But here’s where it gets problematic – Just as someone’s clothing has made me want to talk to them, I can stand up here and honestly say that I can think of occasions when it has made me not want to talk to them, too. It could be superficial – “Wow there’s an early adopter of a fashion trend I’m not on board with!”
But more likely, I, and maybe some of you, have seen people wear things that feel like they are flaunting social/economic status or political beliefs that I feel uncomfortable with or maybe even disagree with..
Our brain needs groups to survive. In his book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein cites a 1970 paper by Polish Jew Henri Tajfel that “the instinct to view our own with favor and outsiders with hostility is so deeply learned that it operates outside of any reason…our brains know we need groups to survive, so when we feel cast out of our group, it triggers a massive stress response.”
There are parts of our personality that act like preferences but can act like identities when challenged; this could be when someone talks down about our favorite sports team or as Klein cites a 2015 paper from Patrick J Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover, “The behavior of partisans resembles that of sports team members acting to preserve the status of their teams rather than thoughtful citizens participating in the political process for the greater good.”
The leaders of our political systems know this about our individual behaviors. As Ezra Klein writes, “put simply, is this: to appeal to a more polarized public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public. This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and so on. Understanding that we exist in relationship with our political institutions, that they are changed by us and we are changed by them, is the key to this story. We don’t just use politics for our own ends. Politics uses us for its own ends.”
What do we do then? When we see ourselves shying away from someone or something that is outside the scope of our personal comfort politically or socially?
Well, Rabbi Suzy’s first tip from last week - pause - works pretty well here too!
And then what? We are headed into another election cycle, and here I am leading a pluralistic Jewish organization where we are founded on the idea that we are literally open to all. That Judaism should unite us above our sports teams, our fashion status symbols, and our political persuasions.
When I first became interested in understanding this aspect of our society, I was actually comforted by understanding the sociological, psychological, and historical explanations of some of the polarization I see in my daily life. Maybe this helps you too!
And, as it turns out, Judaism does have some knowledge we can lean on.
Tip 1: Record the non-winning opinion. Or in our day to day life, this could mean, read from sources we think we might disagree with.
The Talmud, one of our main Jewish texts that helps us interpret the Torah, is essentially a discussion on the page. It records several opinions right there for us to read and wrestle with, even as it might present a final guiding principle we are encouraged to follow.
It says in Mishnah Eduyot 1:4:
And why are the words of Shammai and Hillel mentioned in vain? To teach future generations that one should not stand fast upon their words [i.e., that they should not hold too tightly to their opinion], for “the fathers of the world” [Hillel and Shammai] did not stand fast upon their words.
The Supreme Court does this too by the way, when they publish dissenting opinions.
In both places, a serious effort is made to record opinions that were not the “winner.” Hillel and Shammai famously debated all kinds of topics, and these debates are recorded for us to study today. And you’re at services with an organization called Hillel, not Shammai.
Why? Understanding the variety of perspectives out there helps us gain further insight into our own reasoning. It pushes us to give clear explanations for our perspective, and our tradition teaches us that we must study and understand opinions different not just from our own, but from the “winning” one! That our societal fabric actually depends on our ability to do this.
Tip 2: Our namesake Hillel says in Pirke Avot, Do not separate yourself from the community. A 16th century commentary on this by the Maharal of Prague defines community as society. With this, I would add to that - see your community with the broadest definition you possibly can.
Tip 3: Find some way to appreciate others’ views and ideas
Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in pre-state Israel talked about three forces wrestling within the Jewish people in 1912 – spirituality, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He saw these forces leading people to have different visions about the destiny of the Jewish people. He then brilliantly validates all three! He doesn’t say we as a people have to get together and rank them, or exile everyone who believes one that’s different from us.
“It is well understood that in a healthy situation all three of these ideals are needed together. And we must always strive for this healthy situation…that each should generously appreciate the affirmative task of the other…”
And he goes on – not only should we appreciate the hard work each of these three values would take to fully actualize! He says:
“This awareness should proceed to the point that not only does one recognize the affirmative task of each of these ideals, but it should proceed further to the point of appreciating specifically the opposition of the other ideals to one’s own ideal…;or each group must be influenced by the opposing force of the other…this will save each group from the defects of fundamentalism and extremism.”
I hate this and I love this!
This is not easy, what he calls for. Rav Kook teaches us that every human being needs to come to their own synthesis by following guidelines and the process of allowing ourselves to be influenced by views opposing ours. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because some of these people are our neighbors so we might as well try to get along.
This is what’s going to save us from fundamentalism and extremism. Pushing myself to not only appreciate, but be influenced by opposing views is going to save society?!
Wow. Why do I hate this? It’s hard!!
Why do I love this? Well, each time I have tried to talk to someone with a different perspective, I have grown. Notice I said talk - this is not advice to go fight with people who don’t want to understand you. As you can see in the sources I shared, these recommendations require two willing parties, not one.
I love this advice because this is Hillel in a nutshell. At Hillel, we believe deeply that there is no one way to look or be Jewish. We look around and see students of different colors, different Jewish backgrounds, different preferred pronouns, and wearing some sports and concert t-shirts I personally would not recommend :)
But anyone who has been a leader at Hillel knows that our leadership training is all about ways to learn each other's names and stories, not to assume anything about someone based on the color of their skin, hair or shirt.
We also encourage students to come as you are - there is no particular dress expected here.
My aim in setting our culture this way is that if new people come as they are, and student leaders engage with their stories, we will build a true kehilah kedosha, a holy community.
If students here are having that experience of being seen wholly, and of seeing each other wholly, I truly believe you will take that out into the broader world and engage with others outside of the Jewish community in the same fashion. Because once you’ve felt it, you know what it feels like and you can replicate it.
So, on today, this holiest of days – together in our holy community - I have to tell you. That Charlotte Hornets t-shirt I wore had no effect. I know, you’re shocked.
We can all stop sending subliminal messages and instead join ways to talk to each other. In your residence hall, in your classes, even at Hillel. Stop accepting these messages and engage.
Let’s agree to give ourselves grace for when we find ourselves judging someone by their appearance. Let’s give ourselves grace for the moments we have missed the mark in getting to truly know someone. And let’s together commit that we can make an impact in our broader community and decreasing polarization by pausing, staying connected to community, and finding ways to appreciate and be influenced by others’ views.
My hope is that when we meet back here again next year, welcoming in 5785, we all have stories to share about how we have all done our little part to bring our corner of the world closer to someone else’s.
Contact Rabbi Emily Langowitz via email.
My sophomore year of college, I decided that it was a good idea to take Organic Chemistry. Anyone in here who’s a science major or premed is probably groaning in sympathy. I was neither. I just liked chemistry. I was also a smart kid used to the idea that if I could just work hard enough, I would “do well.” And then I took the Orgo midterm. I still remember what it felt like, getting our exams back at the end of the following week’s class, walking out into the crisp fall air, steeling myself to look at the inside of the test booklet. I wasn’t expecting an A. Barely anyone got an A on an Orgo exam. I would take a B. Heck, I told myself, I would even take a C! I turned to walk down the street, took a deep breath, squinted my eyes, and flipped the page open.
Thirty nine. I got a thirty-nine. I think there was actually a moment where I turned the page upside down and thought—sixty three! Sixty three isn’t so bad.
The moment of seeing those numbers on the page exploded the way I usually understood myself. You see, I allowed myself, often still allow myself, life on a spectrum with only two possible points. Either I am brilliant, or I am an idiot. Either I am kind, honest, compassionate, caring, or I am the worst person ever. Either I succeed, or I fail. Suddenly I had to find a way to reconsider those binary expectations. To ask myself to keep trying, keep studying, keep valuing myself, while acknowledging that if I failed another exam I would still be smart, I would still be kind and honest, I would still be me. I would just be human.
At this time of year, though, it can be particularly hard to extract ourselves from the world of “either-or”. The beginning of a new semester at school, and the beginning of this High Holy Day season cause us to assess how it is we’ve lived our lives, how it is we want to grow and improve. It’s easy to see all the ways we haven’t lived up to our best selves. Easy to take all the ways we’ve missed the mark as indications of our worst.
If you are like me, you are using this season of rebirth, this marking of a new year, to set some resolutions for the year to come. I don’t want to suggest that setting new goals and expectations is, at its heart, a dangerous activity. But researchers at the University of Scranton have found that only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are successful, indeed that less than half of those who set expectations at the secular New Year last beyond six months. That doesn’t mean that we should stop expecting things of ourselves. Yet maybe there is a way to blur the lines a little bit, to smudge the boundaries of a model centered around success versus failure, to better inhabit the vast space between Either and Or.
Certainly the language of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy doesn’t always help with this challenge. We have ten days, and ten days only, to make a change of existential significance. Our prayers confront us with the idea that either we will be sealed into the Book of Life or not, either we will enter the gates of repentance before they close, or we’ll be shut out. The unetaneh tokef prayer, which we heard earlier this morning, opens a haunting section with the question: Who will live and who will die? Either life, or death. Sometimes this language squeezes us into a system of expectations that leaves no room for nuance. No room for the capacity we have to fail and to grow, to muddle our way through life doing what we can.
But if we were to throw out all of the language of this season by declaring it rigid and unyielding, we would be buying back into that either-or system. And there is much within Judaism that recognizes the sacred messiness of human effort. Why else would we set aside time each year to apologize, if not for the fact that our tradition knows we will continue to fall short? I find one of the most compelling models for a more pluralistic approach in the liturgical refrain we recite throughout these days of awe: Avinu Malkenu. The words of Avinu Malkenu describe, in one simple phrase, a God who is unified across duality. God is a parent and a sovereign. Comforting, personal, close, and powerful, majestic, transcendent. Each time we say Avinu Malkenu we remind ourselves that God is not either-or. God is One. God is many things, and One. And we, human beings, made in the image of God, are full of that same complexity and completeness.
Many years ago I read a poem by the contemporary Israeli poet Dana Marcovich. She writes:
“Hakol lo ba’rosh,” “Everything in my head says no. No you’re not able, no you’re not a champion, no you’re not a cannon, not a bulldozer, not a tiger. But then again, why should I be able, why should I be a champion, why should I be a cannon, why should I be a bulldozer, why should I be a tiger, when it is possible to be human?” The cannon, the bulldozer, the tiger—all are created entities, but only human beings are said to be b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. To be made in God’s image charges us not to strive for perfection, but for wholeness. It means embracing all the parts of ourselves that fall between the two poles of Avinu and Malkenu, of success and failure. For I find that it’s only when I accept my human wanderings as part and parcel of my holiness that I’m able to continue reaching for a greater purpose.
In case you’re wondering—in the end, I passed Organic Chemistry. It took a lot of work. A lot of extra problem sets, done to the same OneRepublic song on repeat. (Whenever I hear it, I still find myself thinking of hydrocarbons against my will…) But it also took the moment of getting that thirty-nine and choosing not to label myself a failure. Because stepping outside of the world of Either-Or and embracing my humanity allowed me to keep striving with kindness. It opened me up to the process, not just the end results. It let me enjoy the preciousness of learning, in all of its forms.
My hope for us all this New Year is that as we set our goals and resolutions, as we look at how we want to grow closer to our best selves---and we should! Because being in relationship with our tradition, and our community, and our God; repairing the world, these things require us to expect big things from ourselves—as we enter this year of 5784, let us approach our endeavors with more gentleness. So that in six months, when we realize that we’ve only succeeded with half of them, we’ll be able to smile, let go, keep trying. Let us seek the fierceness of a tiger, the strength of a bulldozer, the grace of a champion, the power of a cannon, but at the end of the day, let us be exactly what we are: wholly, beautifully, perfectly human.
Contact Rabbi Suzy Stone via email.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I wanted to be the first one to tell you that we are facing a brand new epidemic in America – it is called “Short-Termism.” Symptoms may include:
Basically, short-termism is anything that is easier to do in the here and now, but will create more complex problems down the road. “Making short-term decisions is the equivalent of hitting a rough patch of ice, and slamming on the brakes.” While we may feel in control at the moment, we will eventually end up on the side of the road calling AAA.
The problem is, when we no longer feel in control, we tend to gravitate towards zero-sum thinking such as: “Of course, my friends are selfish and they will ever change;” or “Of course, American politics are broken beyond repair;” or, “Of course, war and famine is irreversible.”
However, in a truly transformative book published last year by Ari Wallach, entitled the “Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors our Future Needs,” there are three main ways to inoculate ourselves against this new spiritual, and intellectual, disease economists call short-termism.
First, we need to stop and breathe. While this sounds absurdly simple, we all know that when something unpleasant, or unexpected, happens, such as: When you get a news notifications about another horrendous natural disaster, or a text from a family member in crisis, or a simple social media notification from friends hanging out without us, our amygdala basically takes over and we are quickly skidding through black ice once again. Yet, if we pause, take a few short breaths, we can at least reset our system so we aren’t trying to brake on thin ice.
For example, by a show of hands, how many of you use your cell phone as your alarm clock? And how many of you, check your text messages, notifications, or news, while still laying in bed? Thus, many of us have not even made it out of bed before we become triggered by a looming deadline, a forgotten birthday, or a classmate, friend, or co-worker who needs you immediately, if not sooner.
Yet, the great scholar, and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankel, once said that between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, lies our freedom. In other words, we are only free when we can learn to be like a match that is struck, but does not ignite!
For Frankel, who survived four different concentration camps, freedom was not only a grand gesture that took place the day the camps were liberated; but rather, in the day to day moments when we resist letting the matchbook burn without our consent.
The second antidote to short-termism is believing that we can do better. As Professor Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, explains, there are two mindsets we can inhabit at any given time, and we often vacillate between them on a day to day, or hour by hour basis. In a fixed mindset, we believe that we are born with certain realities and abilities that we cannot change. When we inhabit a growth mindset, we believe that change can be developed through hard work and dedication.
It is the difference between saying: “I’m not good at math,” versus “I’m not good at math yet.” Or “I don’t have hope;” versus, “I don’t have hope yet.”
By adding this simple, provocative word, “yet,” neuroscientists have found that a growth mindset can actually benefit our brain’s neuroplasticity.
Similarly, in the study of Jewish ethics known as Musar, there is a concept known as hitlamdut. It comes from the Hebrew root – למד — L.M.D – which means to learn. Yet, in the reflexive form, it is the process by which you cause yourself to learn by thinking in certain ways, even before your actions can catch up to your thoughts.
For instance, let’s say you are just minding your own business and someone really offends you or throws you off track. Rather than letting the whole matchbook go aflame, the Jewish practice of hitlamdut asks us to pause, take a breath, and ask ourselves: “What would a patient person feel or do right now? What would a generous person feel or do right now?”
Even this half second pause may be enough to stop the matchbook from igniting in order to help us become a more patient, kind, or thoughtful person in the here and now.
As the great medieval scholar Maimonides once taught, hitlamdut is the essence of all Jewish learning because learning Torah is not the practice of gaining information. Rather, the purpose of Torah learning is to impact and transform our lives!
Number three, we must start to think about the Longpath.
The Longpath is a mindset in which we see ourselves not as isolated units but rather as links in a longer Chain of Being. Our fundamental goal is to become the great ancestors our future descendents so desperately need us to be. How do we begin to achieve this?
For Wallach, it all starts with neuroscience. Because the hippocampus, our memory making machine, cannot tell the difference between past, present, and future, we can ostensibly trick our brains into committing to small positive actions by asking ourselves:
“How do we want our descendants to feel in 100 years?” This is what psychologists call “future-casting,” which activates a form of transgenerational empathy. In turn, this allows our brain to act more compassionately, sustainably, or even more productively, in the present moment.
Thus, the Longpath is not a goal; rather, it is a process that requires us to move beyond thinking of failure and success in 70-80 year increments.
As Wallach explains, Plato and the other Greek philosophers are the only reason that we currently measure success and failure, virtue or vice, in the span of our own lifetime.
But as Jews, we have a very different way of measuring time– especially today– of all days. We often say that, on Rosh Hashanah, that we are celebrating the world’s birthday. But unlike a human birthday, which celebrates us becoming a year older. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of a brand new, and newly born, world.
As we say after each and every shofar blast that we will hear tomorrow: “Hayom Harat Ho’oalm,” or “Today is the birthday of the world.”
But anyone who has ever sung Happy Birthday in Hebrew, “yom huledet sameach…” knows that the word for birthday in modern Hebrew is ילד (Y.L.D), which is not the same as הרת (Ha.R.T). Thus, Yom Harat Olam, doesn’t connote birth, but rather, conception. In other words, today, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the world is eternally pregnant with potential.
This is what Wallach calls the “Longpath,” and what we Jews have always called Rosh Hashanah. As Rabbi Naomi Levy teaches: “Every single one of us, somewhere in our lives, we are pregnant forever. There is something we’ve already conceived that is pleading with us, ‘Let me be born.’ Maybe it’s a creative endeavor…. Maybe it’s a career shift. … Maybe it’s the words ‘I’m sorry,’ or the words ‘I love you,’ or the words ‘I forgive you.’ They are fully formed inside your mouth, but you haven’t gotten up the courage to actually speak them.”
Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, an existential invitation is being made: Can we stand up, and see ourselves, and the world, with new eyes? Can we clear away the debris of disappointment and despair? Can we avoid thinking that we are too late, too tired, too weak, too hurt, or too flawed to change? Because today the world is born anew. And tonight, as we enter 5784, the world is eternally pregnant with potential.