Thursday, September 24, 2015

Eulogy Vs. Resume Virtues - Kol Nidre 5776

Eulogy Vs. Resume Virtues
Rabbi Joe Black
Kol Nidre - 5776
My Dear Friends. 
I want to begin tonight with a story.
Two brothers, Sam and Seymour, worked together in a small town.  Over the years, they earned a well-deserved reputation as two of the most callous, corrupt, coldblooded businessmen ever.  They drove other stores out of business; they monopolized commerce; they abused their employees; they deceived their customers.  They used every trick in the book, and a few they wrote on their own, to enrich themselves while despoiling others.  Throughout the city, people despised them.  Their reign of terror lasted many years.

Eventually, as it happens, Seymour died.  Sam went to talk to the rabbi about the funeral.  He walked into the rabbi’s office and declared: “Rabbi, I am prepared to make a gift of five hundred thousand dollars to this synagogue.  But there is one condition.  At my brother’s funeral tomorrow, you have to say that he was a mensch.”  Regretfully, the rabbi replied, “I’m sorry, but there is no way I can do that.  His actions hurt too many people.  The whole congregation will know that I am lying, and I cannot compromise my integrity that way.”  Sam responded, “I will make it a million dollars.”  The rabbi hesitated for a moment, but then he shook his head again and answered, “I can’t do it.  Everyone in town knows how he lived his life.  I can’t say something that is so blatantly untrue, even for a million dollars.”  Sam retorted, “Two million dollars, Rabbi.  I will give you a check right now for two million dollars, if you promise to say these exact words: ‘He was a mensch.’”  The rabbi caught his breath.  Two million dollars was a lot of money.  The things the synagogue could do with two million dollars—the people it could help, the lives it could inspire, the gaps it could bridge.  Finally, the rabbi agreed.  He took the check, immediately deposited it, and wrote the eulogy.

The next day, the funeral was crowded with people curious to hear how the rabbi would eulogize such a man.  At the appropriate time, the rabbi began to speak.  “We all know what kind of a man Seymour was.  He lied.  He cheated.  He swindled.  He had no sense of right and wrong, and he ruined people’s lives without a second thought.  And yet,” the rabbi concluded, “compared to his brother, he was a mensch![i]
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Sitting around a table with a family preparing for a funeral is one of the most meaningful responsibilities that I am privileged to perform as a Rabbi.  Over the past few weeks I have had the sad task of having many such meetings.  These are sacred conversations – filled with laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.  When we first sit down together, I often ask families to “Paint a picture with words” about their loved one.  As family members share with me their thoughts, feelings and history with the deceased, a portrait begins to emerge.  We usually start with basic facts, but soon anecdotes and memories come to the surface. These conversations often do not have a linear flow to them.  They ricochet from topic to topic – from generation to generation – depending on the perspective of who is sharing. But once the gates of memory are opened, more and more recollections, reminiscences and beautiful stories emerge.  Eventually, the impact of a lifetime of relationships begins to take shape in front of me:  Personal influences, values, courtship and marriage, parenting, grandparenting, travel, friends, hobbies and talents all come spilling out. 

People are often curious about the process of writing a eulogy.  “It must be hard to write about someone you’ve never met,” they say to me.  My answer is always:  “Not really.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better if I didn’t know the person, because then I won’t have to extricate myself from the text.”  Creating and delivering a eulogy is one of those times when we, as clergy, are able to truly have an impact on people in need.  Our task is to take the love, experiences and relationships of family and friends and put them into words.  If a eulogy brings comfort – it is because the truth has been told.  A eulogy should not “sugar coat” the life of a person.  But it should reflect the overall character of the deceased and help all those who knew and loved him or her begin the journey towards healing.

Some eulogies are more difficult to write than others – especially when things are left unsaid around the table; when traumatic memories or unfinished business cause those left behind pain.  Other eulogies, however, write themselves.  I can always tell when a family’s grief is not blocked by the ache of things left unspoken.  Their grief is palpable, but they have no regrets about the way that their loved one lived his or her life.  Even when death comes too soon – when, God forbid, a young person tragically dies – as we as a community have recently experienced - if he or she left this earth with healthy relationships and a sense of their own self-worth, the pain of grief –while palpable and often paralyzing - can at least be tempered by an awareness of a life that was fully lived – however brief it may have been.

Sometimes these eulogy conversations are heavily weighted towards accomplishments:  jobs held, awards presented, titles and degrees achieved – and these are important – but not as important as one might think.  There is a difference between a Resume and a Eulogy. A resume tells us what a person did.  A eulogy reflects on who a person was and how she lived.

This past summer, I read a book by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled The Road to Character. In his book, Brooks writes about how our vision of success and meaning has changed over the last few generations – beginning in the post WWII era where we formulated the concept of the American Dream.  We have shifted, he posits, from a culture of humility and service to one of self-love that can swing quickly to self-absorption.

All one has to do is look at today’s “Selfie” obsession to find evidence of how much this concept has taken hold.  The cost of focusing on the self can be measured in its impact on the general well-being of society as a whole. 
In a recent article, Brooks writes
“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?[ii]  

Brooks goes on to write about two different concepts that he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.”  Simply put, Resume Virtues are those qualities that are focused on our own accomplishments:  Jobs obtained, salaries negotiated, bank accounts accumulated and awards received.

Eulogy Virtues, on the other hand, are those aspects of our character that will be cherished long after we are gone:  our relationships, our ability to touch other people’s lives for the better, our laughter, our tears, how we made a difference in the world through giving of ourselves to others.

Now there is nothing wrong with striving towards success in one’s business or profession.  Setting up goals and achieving them is an important part of living a full life.  But when our desire for fame and fortune eclipse our connections with family and community; when our self-aggrandizement becomes the be-all and end-all of our existence, we need to take a step back and reconsider our priorities.

Brooks does not make an explicit value judgement between these two differing modes of measuring our lives – but his message is clear nonetheless.  He refers to the great modern Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik’s masterpiece, The Lonely Man of Faith where we learn about two different creation stories in the Torah.  He labels them “Adam I” and “Adam II.”  (One caveat here – when Soleveichik – or I for that matter - uses the term “Adam” or “Man”  “he” , we  means human being – not simply males….)

Scholars have long pointed out that the first two chapters of the book of Genesis tell very different stories.  In Genesis Ch. 1, we are presented with Creation in very broad strokes.  In each successive day, God creates the world as we know it – culminating in the forming of Man and Woman.  Humans are given the mandate to subdue and master nature.  All of the earth’s bounty is created for our pleasure and consumption. The first person – whom Solevetchik calls “Adam I” -  approaches the world and relationships—even with God, in functional and pragmatic terms. Being created in the Divine Image, in this instance, means that Humanity’s ability to conquer the cosmos is our birthright – our destiny.  Simply put, Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature.  Adam I is resume virtues.  This aspect of our self wants to build, create, produce, and discover.  For Adam I, it’s all about status and accumulation.

Adam II, on the other hand, is the main protagonist of Genesis Chapter II. He represents a different kind of person – someone who is looking for meaning and purpose in life. Here we find the story of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge and the snake. Adam II does not rule over the garden, he takes care of it – he nurtures it. He is introduced by the words, "It is not good for man to be alone" – and through his sacrifice of a rib and the creation of Eve he gains companionship and the relief of his existential loneliness.  Adam II has a calling, a sacred purpose; he experiences joy and failure, loneliness and love.  He is tasked by God with naming the animals and establishing relationships – with the entirety of God’s Creation.  While Adam I subdues nature to accommodate his own needs,   Adam II realizes his sacred purpose in life.  He represents, you guessed it, eulogy virtues.

Adam I and Adam II are not polar opposites.  We need both to be fully human.  Our rabbis taught that if we did not have drives for success, power and money, nothing would every get accomplished in our world[iii].  And yet, if our lives are only spent accumulating status, prestige and money in lieu of relationships, service and spiritual growth – we lose our ability to fully appreciate the true meaning of the gift of life in all its glory.

Tonight is Kol Nidre.  For the next 24 hours, we acknowledge our mortality, our fragility and our frailty. We refrain from eating and drinking. We confess our sins – to one another and to God.  Traditionally, Jews wear a kittel on yom Kippur – a white garment that is reflective of a burial shroud.  The imagery is real and jarring.

In the Unetaneh tokef prayer we read:  “You write and You seal, You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.[iv]

In a very real sense, the message of the Unetaneh Tokef is that God is challenging us to ask ourselves:  “What will be written in my eulogy?” 

When we hear the question: “…who shall live and who shall die..” , it’s hard not to think of the conversation that will take place around our kitchen table with the Rabbi or the Cantor after we are gone.  What will our loved ones say about us?  Will they talk about what we did, or who we were?  Will they recite our resume, or highlight our humanity? Will the tears and laughter mix mix together to paint a beautiful portrait or will the conversation be stilted and filled with meaningful and painful silence?

Over the next 24 hours we will contemplate our lives, our purpose, our values and our vision.  We will acknowledge that things are rarely black and white.  We know that there are times when we rise to our highest destiny – when we are selfless in our thoughts and deeds – when, like Adam II, we work for the betterment of our world. But we also know that there are times when we focus on getting ahead, on accumulating stuff, on bending the people and the world around us to our will; when we look at the world around us through the prism of Adam I.

Tonight, our tradition teaches us to take a long and hard look at the question:  How am I living my lifeare you living your life?  Do my actions reflect Eulogy or Resume virtues?  For most of us – the answer will be….. both. They key is how we manage to tip the scales in favor of our humanity and away from our hubris. Some of us may not like what we see.  We may feel that we need to change- to shift our priorities.  But change, as we all know, is difficult.  It’s painful. It’s unsettling.

The same prayer that shakes us to the very core, the Unetaneh Tokef – with its message of mortality – also provides us with a channel for change.  In the very last line we find the following: 
Uteshuvah, U’tefillah, Utzeddakah maavirin et roa hagezerah
Repentance, Prayer and Acts of Righteousness temper judgement’s severe decree.

These three concepts:  Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzeddakah – in a very real sense can provide us with a roadmap that can help us to negotiate the tricky pathways between Adam I and Adam II – our Resume and our Eulogy Virtues.

Teshuvah, loosely translated as “repentance,” requires that we look deep inside ourselves and ask if our actions and our values are in synch with one another.  And when we come to realization that they are not (as is often the case…) we need to work hard to rectify this imbalance.  It takes guts to admit our wrongdoings.  It takes even more guts to ask for forgiveness – but this is our task on this most sacred of days.

Tefillah – prayer – is the act of verbalizing and acknowledging our deepest joys and fears.  Praying is not easy.  It takes concentration and practice to be able to speak to God – however you define God.  But unless we are able to strip away the layers of self-absorption and denial that accumulate over the years, we deny ourselves the ability to be completely open and honest.  True prayer does not change the world – but it can change our souls – when we allow ourselves to let go of the inhibitions and expectations that society places upon us.  Prayer is at one and the same time a solitary and a communal act.  As I said on Erev Rosh Hashanah, one of the key purposes of religion is to teach us that we are not alone.  Jewish prayer takes place within the context of community.  We share our frailties and vulnerabilities with one another.  Our prayers are deliberately written in the plural form:  “Avinu, Malkeynu, Chatanu”:  OUR Parent, OUR Sovereign, WE have sinned…. Not ME, MYSELF or I.  And yet, we cannot allow our communal supplication to overshadow the fact that each of us has fallen short of where we want to be – where we need to be….. And so, we pray – opening our hearts and our mouths as we cry out to the source of mercy and meaning in our world.  When our prayers come from the depths of our souls, we can begin to reflect on who we are and who we truly want to be.
And this brings us to Tzeddakah.
If all that we do on this Yom Kippur is to acknowledge our sins and ask forgiveness – but if we do not leave this sacred place committed to putting our humility and desire for change to work – we have accomplished nothing.  Tzeddakah does not mean charity.  It means Righteous acts.  It means looking at the world, seeing inequity and injustice and doing all that we can to repair the damage that has been done.  It means finding ways to give of your time and your good fortune to build up and support the institutions, organizations and individuals who labor on your behalf to make the world more whole.  Tzeddakah is not merely writing a large check to the Temple (although that IS a start.)  Tzeddakah means that you realize that each of us was put on earth for a reason.  It means transcending the self-centeredness of Adam I and opening the doorway for Adam II –inviting him into your life and committing to emulate what he stands for.
What are you passionate about?  How do you want to make a difference in life? There is a phrase attributed to Socrates that states:  ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.[v]’ Now is the time for us to commit ourselves to creating a legacy of character

My friends – change is not easy.  It involves sacrifice and practice.  It does not happen overnight – but it does requires that each of us take the first step.  Tonight and tomorrow, as we delve deeply into the recesses of our souls, we have a sacred opportunity to commit to changing our lives – our character, our values and our vision.  Now is the time. 

I want to conclude with a story:

Once there was a father who had a son who was very rebellious.  Every day, this boy would test his father through his actions.  He refused to listen.  He rejected authority.  He caused his father great pain.  One day, the father went to the store and bought a hammer and a bag of nails.  He went into his yard and he pounded a nail into the fence post.  Each time his son acted out, he would take another nail and hammer it into the post.  As the days and weeks went on, the nails accumulated until the fence was completely covered.  One day, the boy asked his father about the nails in the fence.  His father explained that each time he disobeyed, another nail would be added.  He also said that, if the boy started to obey and change his ways – every time he saw that happening, he would remove a nail.  All of a sudden, the boy had a change of heart.  He saw the nails and realized the pain he had caused his father.  And so, he began to consciously think about his actions.  He listened.  He began to show his love and affection.  And each time he did this, another nail was removed.  After a short period of time, the nails were all gone.  The father came to his son and told him:  “Son, I’m so proud of you.  You’ve learned an important lesson.”  The son, with tears in his eyes said, thank you father – but as I look at the fence – I still see the holes where the nails used to be.  His father replied – those holes are reminders of the past.  That cannot be changed.  But each time you see them you will be stronger as you look ahead to the future.[vi]

My friends, as we travel together through the rest of this holy day, may we all resolve to find ways to improve ourselves and our souls.  May we find the courage and the character to change – to make ourselves and our souls more complete.  We know that change can be painful.  It means that we acknowledge that the path along which we have been travelling may not be right one for us.   And yet, if we commit ourselves to truly accepting the fact that our lives and our legacies make a difference, then we are making the most of the gift of life that God has bequeathed to each of us.

And when the time comes for our loved ones to look back and tell the story of our life may our eulogies reflect our values and our vision for a better world.

AMEN G’mar chatimah tovah[vii].




[i] Thank you Rabbi Ken Karr for this version of an old joke….
[ii] David Brooks:  “The Moral Bucket List” – NY Times – April 11, 2015
[iii] Bereshit Rabbah 9:7
[iv] Gates of Repentance (GOR) p. 312
[v] Plato, Apology 38a
[vii]I want to thank Rabbis Dan Gropper and Stephen Reich for sharing their thoughts on Brook’s book with me.  I appreciate their generosity of spirit and character.

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