I would like to thank my colleague at Chabad NDG, Rabbi Yosh Berkowicz. This sermon is his brainchild.
I think we can all agree that the year 5780 — Taf Shin Pei, or in common parlance 2020 — has been unlike any year that any of us can remember… besides for those few living centenarians who survived both COVID-19 and the 1918 spanish flu, of which there aren’t very many — and they were probably too young to really remember anyway.
This year has definitely been unique. A year that we have no reference point for, nothing to compare it to. No way to process or understand what’s happened to us.
I’ve been getting a lot of existential questions from all of you — and a lot of them from myself. What are we doing here? What’s life really all about, when you take away everything we took for granted? What really matters?
During the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar before Rosh Hashana, typically you are supposed to reflect and think about how the year went, what you can do better, what you did really well. It’s how we prepare for a new level of activity or enlightenment in the coming year.
But I’ll be honest with you — I have no idea how this year went. I personally got really sick — twice. I stayed home with my family for endless weeks. I couldn’t work or do the things I normally do. I just felt… lost.
All of this to say that we have no precedent for this coming Rosh Hashanah. All of the normal rules and conventions are out the window. Whether we like it or not, the services and the traditions are going to look different this year, what with the health protocols, outdoor shuls, blowing shofar for huge crowds in parks…
And so, I feel that my sermon which I will deliver to you also has to be different. I will say some things that for me are really unprecedented. Because I don’t know how else to address what we have all been going through… But I’m going to try my best.
However, one thing that will not change is that I will still try to make you laugh and smile through all of the tears. Because our joy is one thing we have to keep.
When I think about my sermons throughout the years they all have one thing in common. And I mean literally, every single one.
What they all have in common is the word “you”.
They’re all about you.
Now, that’s a good thing, right? After all, they’d be pretty boring if they were all about me!
And if you go to any marketing or communications course right now, the first rule they will tell you is to abuse the word ‘you’. According to them, writing should go something like this:
You you you you you you you you . Signed, me — PS — YOU.
And that makes sense. It’s the most sensible advice you can get.
And yet, this year, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to talk about you. I’m not going to talk about you.
I’m going to talk about us.
All of us.
Let me explain what I mean…
We live in a very individualistic society — Western society. And to a great extent, you can find the roots of that individualism in our own tradition and way of life, the Torah.
In the ancient world, the lives, the narratives, of individual people didn’t matter very much. It was the leader that mattered, the King or Queen, and everybody’s purpose was to serve what they represented.
If the King or Queen sentenced you to death, then that was it. There was no trial nor jury needed. You had no rights in the face of the monarchy.
And the reason why they had this power was that the monarch represented — at least ideally — the interests of everyone. That was paramount — the collective. If you didn’t fit in with the hive, then out you went.
Books and records were written about the lives and intrigues of those in power — not about the life of the simple laborer. Even today, we know very little about how the common person, thousands of years ago, saw the world.
And so, progress was made. The American Constitution, enshrining the rights of the individual against the potential tyranny of the collective. The culmination, perhaps, of centuries of slow progress towards the individual being paramount.
With that, there came even more progress. Individualism laid the groundwork for the upcoming industrial revolution, the new technologies of the past century, by unlocking the power of innovation coming from literally anywhere.
Do you know who invented the TV? The original cathode-ray tube, predecessor to the screen you’re watching me on right now?
Philo Farnsworth was a poor Mormon farmer from Utah and Idaho. He was inspired by the lines of his father’s plowed field to design the world’s first video camera and monitor that had no moving parts, but instead displayed electrons line by line — basically, the design of every TV until LCD flat screens.
He started working on his invention as a high school student from a tiny town in the middle of the United States. Even when his father died and he had to support his family, he did not give up. He went on to invent a plethora of devices and file 300 patents.
That’s the power of focusing on the individual — you never know which poor farm boy is going to be the one who changes everything, for everyone, forever.
And that brings us to today.
A Western world where we’re being told not to think about ourselves anymore. The most individualistic societies have been struggling to contain COVID, while the more collectivist societies are finding more success. There are demonstrations against using masks, even in our home city of Montreal. And what’s going on south of the border… I have a feeling that we will have trouble visiting our relatives for a long while, unfortunately…
There’s no question that COVID changed everything… but perhaps, more profoundly than we realize.
What did we, as a society, look up to until March of last year?
People with money, cars, houses, vacations.. LIFESTYLE. Bloggers, influencers, celebrities — people to inspire us to feel jealous, really.
And then it all stopped.
Nobody cared about it anymore. Nobody wanted to hear from celebrities quarantining in their mansions. Nobody wanted to see what famous, successful or wealthy people were doing with their lives anymore.
Instead, everybody realized how much they needed Joe.
Why, Joe Shmoe, of course.
Joe stocks the shelves at the grocery store around the corner from you. He had two kids from his first marriage, which didn’t go so well. His kids are grown up now, and he’s living with a disabled partner who barely gets a welfare check, and Joe’s skills from college are outdated. So he stocks the shelves at a grocery store to make ends meet. Joe’s never even heard of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
And you never noticed Joe. I never noticed Joe. We didn’t.
Until Joe didn’t show up to work, because Joe is 62, and he’s scared of catching the virus and having to go to the hospital, leaving his disabled partner to fend for herself.
And we couldn’t find our supersized package of toilet paper because there was nobody to take them out of the stock room in time.
You bet, we noticed Joe. We noticed him when he wasn’t there to serve us, for once. And we realized that Joe is a human being, and that we can’t — I’m sorry to be crude — wipe our behinds without him.
COVID shattered the illusion that individual power or wealth means anything at all. We think that we are islands, and that everything will always be available to us. That we are safe with that.
But we aren’t.
We need each other.
Look around your room right now, and pick an object, any object.
I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t just you involved in getting that object from the earth or wherever it came from to your possession.
How many people? 10? 100?
I don’t think we have any idea how many people.
During my COVID quarantine, I found myself having more time to read than I’ve had in awhile. I picked up a bunch of new favourite authors. One of them was Viktor Frankl the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. He was a Holocaust survivor and the founder of logotherapy. I’ll be talking a lot about him in some of my other sermons; I think that much of what he says is crucial during these times.
Another author I got into (for fun) was New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs. It started with one of his books, a Year of Living Biblically, which I really enjoyed, so I ended up reading his other books too. One of his more recent books, “Thanks a Thousand”, really inspired me.
The idea was deceptively simple: A.J. Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey took him across the globe and transformed his life.
He discovered that his coffee — and every other item in our lives — would not be possible without hundreds of people we usually take for granted: farmers, chemists, artists, presidents, truckers, mechanics, biologists, miners, smugglers, and goatherds.
He also gleaned wisdom from vivid characters all over the globe, including the Minnesota miners who extract the iron that makes the steel used in coffee roasters, to the Madison Avenue marketers who captured his wandering attention for a moment, to the farmers in Colombia.
By thanking those people face to face, Jacobs found some much-needed brightness in his life. And I’m sure he added some to all of those other people’s lives too.
The book really got me thinking that for some reason, we have become so disconnected with the source of our food or other products, to the point that we think “apples grow in aisle 2”. The blessing that we make before we eat is supposed to ground us and connect us to the source of the food we eat. Are we doing that in our lives? Maybe we are taking so much for granted, thinking that it’s just there and will always be there — as will the people who make it happen.
On that note, just a few days ago, somebody showed me a very peculiar video on the internet, from a Dutch broadcaster. They sent an interviewer to Ivory Coast, Africa, where much of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, to talk to the cocoa farmers.
To his shock, they had no idea what “the white people”, as they called it, needed cocoa beans for. They had never seen or even heard of chocolate — never mind taste it. One of the laborers said his parents told him they were used to make wine.
The interviewer took out some chocolate bars to share with the other men… and the looks on their faces… “this is what cocoa beans are used for? Wow!!” One of them even said, “This must be why the white people are so healthy!”
And while I was watching this video, not sure if I was supposed to laugh or cry, I saw the cocoa beans, and realized that while they had never seen chocolate, I wouldn’t know a cocoa bean if it fell off a tree and hit me in the head. I saw how they harvested them, opened them, fermented them… it was all news to me. Was there really any difference between me and them? They don’t know where their beans are going, and we have NO IDEA where our chocolate comes from. We think we know, maybe we read it in a textbook — but we don’t really know.
We don’t know what the lives of the people who do the work for us are like.
And we don’t appreciate them until they don’t show up, one day.
And the same is true for all of the things we took for granted before COVID — travel, fine dining, movie theatres… just seeing people became an unbelievable privilege.
A Chabad Rabbi I know who lives in Oregon, where there are terrible wildfires, posted the following message: “Thanks for the reminder that we need to be thankful for the air we breathe.”
I think that sums it up.
I’m sure that by this point, many of you realize that I’m touching on some of the most contemporary political themes of the past decade, many of which have culminated in storms of unrest and upheaval, and even violence in our very days.
Unlike many of the loudest voices we hear in the news, I don’t think it’s a sin to have some sort of privilege. It’s the natural product of the very individualistic society we’ve created, and a natural result of the things that our society does well to improve the lives of mostly everybody — technological and industrial innovation.
Some of us are going to win big, some bigger, and some not so much, when it comes to the individual game of wealth. That’s ok, as long as the game is fair. It’s a big IF, I know…
Just as a side note, according to the Jewish tradition, all of your potential earning power for the year is set on Rosh Hashanah. You can’t earn a cent more than was allotted to you on Rosh Hashanah itself… So there’s something else to think about during your prayers.
But I digress.
You know what, I don’t digress. Let’s talk about this.
We need to stop thinking that each of us, mostly working somewhere in the middle class chasm at the center of the great wealth pyramid, is in it for ourselves. It’s enough of the scarcity mindset. It’s enough thinking that we need to absorb every benefit we can or else we’re going to starve to death.
Every single one of you — the US, the WE — I’m talking to you. Yes, you. What do you do every day? What do you do every day that’s for you, and what do you do every day that’s for EVERYBODY?
Some of us, in our work, are balanced more towards ourselves, and some of us are balanced more towards everybody. That is natural and normal.
But no matter what your answer is to my question was, I’m asking you to do more. More for everybody. Push the boundaries, push yourself, please. If COVID was a wakeup call for anything, it’s how much we need YOU. We all need you to be better.
Being your best self isn’t something you just do to attain ‘self-actualization’. You do it to achieve the next step of Maslow’s pyramid of needs — ‘self-transcendence’. One version of self-transcendence is when you realize that you being your best isn’t even about you anymore. It’s because we — every single one of us — needs you. We need you to love more. We need you to stand up to tyranny. We need you to do another mitzvah. We need you to save the world.
That’s why we say together on Rosh Hashanah, ashamNU, bagadNU *as we bang our chest*. It’s not because we like to say NU NU Yiddish style, it’s because NU means “all of us”, in the holy tongue. We are all responsible, and we need to change — together.
Every single one of you can do it. You can make your families better, you can make your workplaces better, your communities better, your societies better. And you have no idea what the effect of that will be. As Maimonides says, “view the world as an evenly balanced scale, so that it’s your deed which will tip the scales to the side of redemption.”
All it takes is some study and meditation — to figure out what “better” even means — and then some determination to put it into practice.
And so when you’re praying for your own livelihood and health this Rosh Hashanah, I have some advice… you know, how to speak to the Big Guy. The One in Charge.
Don’t make it about you. Instead, what are you going to do with your wealth for others, and for G-d? What are you going to do with your health, and your time in this world?
If you’re not sure what to do to make things better, come to a Torah class. The Torah has a lot to say about the vision for a better world and a better future — it’s the original source for the whole idea of a better collective future for mankind. It’s out on the front of the UN building — “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
We need to use every ounce of privilege that we have to make the world better.
If you need some more inspiration, let me tell you some stories about people who used the privilege and the talents they had to make some small gestures, some small changes, that led to much greater ones.
Breaking the World Record in Blindfold Chess
Miguel Najdorf, was a famous chess grandmaster. He died about sixteen years ago. He beat every one of the world’s chess champions at one time or another.
He was most famous for “blindfolded chess,” in which the player competes with his opponents without looking at the board. The player needs to maintain a mental model of the chess board at all times.
Some exceptional players can play several games of blindfolded chess at one time: 3,4,5, up to 10 games. Several Grandmasters have been able to play up to 25 games without looking at the board, simultaneously against different opponents!
In 1947, Najdorf set a world record by playing blindfolded chess against 45 opponents simultaneously. He won almost every game. It took him 24 hours.
Why did he do it? He was after something much larger than just himself. Miguel Najdorf’s real name was Mendel Najdorf. He was born in Poland and he was a Jew. In 1939, he was invited to play in the chess Olympics in Argentina. He went, and a week later, while he was playing in the tournament, World War II broke out.
He could not go back to Nazi-occupied Poland, and so he remained in Argentina where he was unable, because of news blackouts, to get any word of his family. He had no idea what became of any of them.
After the war, between the years of 1945 and 1947, he searched for them ceaselessly, but never got anywhere. He couldn’t find any trace of them.
Finally, he decided he would find a way to send an unmistakable signal to his missing family. “I will do something that will make headlines all over the world because that’s the only way that, if any one of them is still alive, they will know it is me and that I am still alive,” he said to himself.
So he trained himself to play more games of blindfold chess than anyone because that’s what he knew. And he carried out this incredible feat not for money, or fame, but because he was so deeply motivated by his love for his family. He was made bigger by answering the call of a love that was greater than himself. He broke the world record not because he was focused on himself but because he was focused on a love that went beyond himself.
Founding the Paralympics
I have one last story for you tonight.
Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was another man who was made great by applying his energy to something larger than himself. Guttmann, a Jew living in Germany in the 1930s, was regarded as one of the country’s premier brain surgeons.
In 1938, on Kristallnacht, Jews were beaten, murdered, or had their homes and businesses burned to the ground. Guttmann, who was then the medical director of the Hospital in Breslau, risked his life by defying orders and instructing his staff to admit anyone arriving there that night, no questions asked.
The next day the Gestapo came to the hospital wanting to know why there were so many admissions overnight. Guttmann took the Gestapo around to all the new “patients, inventing bogus diagnosis. Sixty of the sixty-four admissions from the previous night were saved from the concentration camps.
Guttmann was expecting to be hauled off himself for his actions but incredibly, he was not. Soon afterward, he fled to England and was asked by the British Government to run a spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
There he single-handedly revolutionized the way paralyzed servicemen were cared for. At that time, it was assumed that paraplegics could never live any kind of normal life. The best that could be done for them was to keep them sedated on high doses of drugs, and left hospitalized and bedridden until they died.
Guttmann changed all that. He believed that they each had a life ahead of them, not just behind them. With faith and determination, they could leave their beds, go out into the world, have jobs, marry, and find happiness and the dignity of achievement.
It was an immense struggle for him as well as for them. He reduced their painkillers and brought in a trainer to make them exercise. He coaxed them out of their beds into wheelchairs to play games, competing with the hospital staff, whom he also put in wheelchairs.
Guttmann was opposed by everyone: the nurses, his fellow doctors, and the hospital administrators. They said he was attempting the impossible. With absolute determination, he kept going. As a Jew, he knew he was commanded to “choose life,” to fight for life.
In the midst of an economic crisis, Guttmann decided that his rehab program required a swimming pool. When his request was refused, he went to London, knocked on Winston Churchill’s door and was allowed in. That year, the patients had their pool.
Within a year, he had reversed the mortality rate: before his innovations, eighty percent of the veterans in the ward didn’t survive; after he got his rehabilitation program going, eighty percent did! He had every paraplegic veteran in Britain waiting for a space in his ward.
Guttmann understood that in this struggle, sport had transformative power. He saw sport as a way to regain fitness, boost self-esteem, and above all, restore personal dignity. He extended the internal games within the hospital to a national competition. In 1948, on the day the Olympics opened in London, Guttmann organized the first Olympic Games for the paralyzed, the “Paralympics”. Slowly it grew until, in 1960, Guttmann’s vision of a true Paralympic Games was realized: 400 wheelchair athletes from 23 countries paraded through Rome’s Olympic Stadium, competing in the same sports as able-bodied athletes. In the 2016 Paralympics, more than 4,000 athletes from 147 countries participated.
Guttmann was knighted in 1966.
By living for something larger than himself, he helped to transform life for many others. You don’t risk your life fighting the Gestapo or knock on Churchill’s door to demand the funds for a swimming pool if you are not living for something greater than yourself. Only when we answer the call of a cause greater than ourselves do we become great.
All of us have a desire, a hunger, to be greater than we are. But we don’t know how to do it. So we get better gadgets, and a new car, and we strive for a bigger home, but these possessions don’t enlarge our lives. There is only one thing that will truly make you bigger, and that is answering the call of a cause greater than yourself.
Throughout the High Holy days when we pray that G-d may remember us for life, we express much more than the “will to live.” We ask G-d to help us live, “ְל ַמ ַענְךָ ֱאל ְקים ַחיִּים ” — “For Your sake G-d.” We ask for a life that will be dedicated to the highest, worthiest of causes.
During these holiest days of the year, we bring our most intimate prayers and secrets to G-d: our material needs, for health, for happiness, our concerns over our children, and our fears for the future. All of them are legitimate. G-d is a loving parent who gives and forgives. But this year we must go beyond even these needs. This year, genuine greatness and selflessness is demanded of us. Our prayers must be not only for ourselves, but for G-d and Torah and for the entire world.
May all of our prayers this Rosh Hashanah storm the heavens collectively as one person, with one heart and one soul united. May G-d receive the message loud and clear, we are done with this pandemic! We have learned what we needed to learn, we are changed. It’s time, dear G-d, to turn a page and grant us a year of complete health and lots continued blessings!