Thursday, September 17, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: The Myth of the Power of One

Recently Joy and I took the kids out to J&P Illiano for dinner. Ever since David Carp introduced me to J&Ps it has quickly become a family favorite. One of the reasons why we like it, aside from the tasty food, is that we can all eat there. Emily, our oldest, as some of you might know, has a myriad of food allergies ranging from the concerning to the scary. Therefore we are always careful especially about where we eat; sticking with the places we know to be Emily-safe.
We enjoyed our family dinner. But as we have little people with little stomachs, there are always a fair amount of leftovers. This is good for us as with our busy schedules, it is always nice to have another meal or two set and ready to go.
After dinner we all hopped back in the car and headed home, tired and full from a long day and an enjoyable meal. We got home, cleaned ourselves up, and eventually got everyone into bed.
Flash forward to the next morning, I got the kids up as I usually do. They had their breakfast. They got their shoes on and we piled back into the car to head off to school. As we got into the car, there was the aroma of last night’s dinner still lingering, when it quickly dawned on me, that we got everyone in the house the night before, but the leftovers spent the night quite comfortably in the back of my car. Oh well, best laid plans…
I walked back into the house and called out Joy’s name saying, “Guess what we forgot.” Seeing me with the packages of food she looked at me and said in a bemused voice, “I thought you were so kind to put them away last night, that I didn’t even think about it.” And I looked at her and said, “Nope, I completely forgot about them.”
I proceeded to take the kids to school and Joy ground up the leftovers. Now I mention this story not to give you a slice of life in the Rabbi’s house, but merely to mention, that these things happen. Through nobody’s fault, such a simple thing was easily overlooked. And I am sure many of you who are in similar relationships can attest to things like this happening. But more on this in a moment.
One of the great stories we love to tell in this country is the narrative of the self-made man or woman. That singular rugged or determined individual, working alone, unaided who has an idea or creates an invention that changes the world. It is part of the American dream that any person so driven can do it all on their own.
And yet, if you read and study history and our tradition, it is filled with stories to the contrary.
Our Tanaach, our Hebrew Bible, begins with the very notion of partnership. The very first partnership was between God and human beings. God created Adam. As it tells in the first story of creation, “And God saw that this was good. And God said, ‘Let us make adam in our image (betzelem Elohim), after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth. And God created adam in His image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female.”[1]
And if God needs partnerships, al achat kama v’kama, how much the more so we need them as well. This is further illustrated when in the second creation story, God created Eve as a helpmate, though I prefer the term partner to Adam. For as the Torah teaches us, it was not good for man to be alone.
We read a lot about these companions, these allies in our tradition. Abraham had Sarah. Isaac had Rebecca. Moses had Aaron. David had Jonathan. Akiva had bar Kochba, and the list goes on and on.
Even in Jewish study we talk often about chevruta, or a study partner. One is not supposed to study Torah alone, but rather in chevruta, with a partner or in a study group if you will.
And yet, the narrative of the self-made person lives on. Perhaps nowhere has this notion been more pernicious than in the world of technology. We all know names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of which there is both a documentary and a feature film of him coming out this fall. For they are viewed by some as the gods of the tech world.
And yet, the computer itself would not exist if it was not for the constant efforts of individuals working in collaboration with one another. In his book Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson argues that “the computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses.”[2]
For example there was John Vincent Atanasoff. He was “another inventor … experimenting with digital circuits in 1937. Toiling in a basement in Iowa, he would make the next historic innovation: building a calculating device that, at least in part, used vacuum tubes. In some ways his machine was less advanced than others. It wasn’t programmable and multipurpose; instead of being totally electronic, he included some slow mechanical moving elements; and even though he built a model that was able to work in theory, he couldn’t actually get the thing reliably operational. Nevertheless, John Vincent Atanasoff, known to his wife and friends as Vincent, deserves the distinction of being the pioneer who conceived the first partly electronic digital computer …”[3] But Vincent has fallen in to the annals of history, in part because rather than work with others, he ultimately “produced a machine that didn’t quite work and was abandoned in his basement,”[4] and instead the credit went to John Mauchly, who “he and his team would go down in history as the inventors of the first electronic general-purpose computer.”[5]
And yet the myth persists. We have heard terms like to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, meaning to succeed only on one’s efforts and abilities. As an aside, the term pulling oneself up by ones’ bootstraps was, “often used to refer to pulling oneself over a fence, and implying that someone is attempting or has claimed some ludicrously far-fetched or impossible task. Presumably a variant on a traditional tall tale....
The term is widely attributed to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, (1781) by Rudolf Erich Raspe, where the eponymous Baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair (specifically, his pigtail), though not by his bootstraps; using bootstraps presumably arose as a variant on the same tall tale.”[6]
So even in its origins, being a self-made person, who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps is more of a myth, a fable, than a reality.
This is because we all need others in our lives in order to succeed. None of us live in isolation. None of us has succeeded without at least the guidance, inspiration, education, elucidation, and the like from others. Or to put it another way, we are all in this journey together.
I started off this sermon with Joy and my recent adventure to J&P Illianos. Yes we did forget the leftovers, but at the same time, we worked together to get all three kids into the restaurant, seated, fed and placated. No easy task, especially when you are dealing with a tired six-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old with delusions of self-determination. We succeeded because of our partnership.
And if this is true of marriage, it can be true of business as well. In an article written by Michael Eisner the former CEO of Walt Disney Company he wrote, “On the whole, though, the institution of marriage -- life collaboration -- gets a lot more attention than the institution of business collaboration. But the benefits of working together -- of finding a partner -- are extraordinary. Partnerships promote common sense, a common purpose, and strong ethics. Think about how many of the world's most successful people have partners. Warren Buffett has been investing alongside his friend Charlie Munger for more than fifty years. The most successful person to come out of the computer revolution, Bill Gates, famously worked with partners at Microsoft, and now, in his new job, saving the world (quite literally) with his foundation, he has perhaps his best partner yet: his wife, Melinda. In Hollywood, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more successful or well-liked movie and television company than Imagine Entertainment -- run by partners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. One of the biggest retail chains in the United States, Home Depot, was started by a pair of visionaries, Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank….
A successful partnership allows you to recognize your own weaknesses, and draw on a partner's strengths, without being uncomfortable about that vulnerability. That comfort, as Warren Buffett says, comes from a complete lack of envy in a partnership. Partners must value trust, they must discover how to keep their ego in check, and they must put a premium on not just brains, but human decency. If we are in an age where loss of integrity is an ever-growing concern, then partnerships counter that. Partners also have to be comfortable with the way that someone else views the world.”[7]
If this is true of the business world, it can also certainly be true of our congregational community as well. In an ideal congregation, the clergy and staff work as partners, not just with each other, but also with the lay leadership and general membership. That should be a given, but more than that, you as members also have the unique opportunity to work as partners with each other. This is such an exceptional environment in a world where we are becoming more and more self-selecting. Here people come from all walks of life, rich and poor and everywhere in between, Democrat and Republican, Independent and moderate, life-journeyed and young, lawyers and doctors, and so much more all come together. Through this we can learn how to overcome obstacles and succeed not just in our businesses, not just in our marriages, not just in our families, but in our lives.
Here we sit in this beautiful facility. It was designed with the precise purpose of creating a comfortable and intimate space enabling us to have an imminent experience of the Divine. There are many types of Holy worship spaces. Some are like Temple Emanuel in New York City, which emanates God’s transcendence. You are amazed by the space, but also it is hard not to feel small and overwhelmed. Har Sinai Congregation, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Here it is warm and inviting.
But we could not have this space without the collaboration of many people. It started with the vision of our Rabbi Emeritus Floyd Herman and the strategic planning committee. There were lay leaders like Harold Burgin and Lori Balter. There were the Real Estate experts like the late John Colvin and lawyers like Morty Fisher and Rob Hoffman, who all worked collaboratively throughout the whole process to raise the money, work with our neighbors, and design and build this gorgeous facility. And of course we could not have the space without wonderful donors like Bruz Frenkil. Now I know I have left many off this list. My apologies. It is not intentional, but just to give a flavor, a sample of some of our amazing members who worked in collaboration to bring this dream to fruition. If you want to see just some of the many who made this space possible, you can find their names just outside of the sanctuary on a wall dedicated to their generosity and guidance.
These were a group of single-minded individuals, from all walks of life, who shared in their expertise and experiences to create the sacred space we still enjoy to this very day. None could have done it alone. Without each and every one of them, we would not be where we are today. And this is just one of the myriad of stories I hear about all the time of the collaborations and partnerships that come from being part of a synagogue family.
And that is just one example. Recently a beloved member of our congregational community, Lil Strauss, fell and broke her hip. Lil and her husband Nates have been the unofficial quintessential ambassadors of Har Sinai Congregation for years. They are beloved because they are such loving, kind and warm people. Lil had surgery this past week and is recovering, though Nates is having some medical issues as well. It is a difficult time for them, and they need all the help and support they can get. Thankfully their Har Sinai community is there for them.
I mention this because every time I have called or visited Lil, someone from our congregation was there with her. Whether it was Jay and Arlene Burman, CeCe Rund, Sherri Bell, Debbie and Walter Jacobs, or Michael Shulkin, someone was always there. And those are just the ones who were there when I called or visited. It does not include all the others who have visited and expressed concern as well.
This is what a congregational community does. We build together. We learn from one another. We engage in holy dialogues and partnerships, and we support each other.
So in this coming year, I would encourage you to reach out to a member of our congregational family, someone who you have not yet met, and share your story with them. Yes a congregation is a place where we can all come together to reengage with our sacred tradition and heritage, but it is so much more than that. It is a place where we can better ourselves through sacred partnerships with God, with our ancestors, and with our fellow congregants and community members. If we are willing to check our own egos at the door, and start Holy conversations founded in sacred trust, who knows what can happen. Maybe we can even invent a device to remind us to take our leftovers out of the car.
As we start these Yamim Noraiim, these High Holy Days, may we be blessed in strengthening our sacred partnerships, the ones that elevate us to be the best individuals, families, and community that we can be.



[1] Genesis 1:26-27
[2] Isaacson, Walter, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014, pg. 1
[3] Ibid. pgs 54-55
[4] Ibid. pg. 68
[5] Ibid.
[6] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pull_oneself_up_by_one%27s_bootstraps
[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-d-eisner/business-partnerships-marriage_b_715237.html

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