There’s something I need to admit if I’m being truly honest with myself and with you this Yom Kippur. I crave power. I yearn after the power that comes with knowledge, dreaming of the day that I know inside out the content of every book in my office, and more. I seek after the power of influence that comes with being at the helm of a congregation and clergy groups. I love the power that comes with physical strength, hoping to lift more and more weight, or run farther and farther. Power is something that feels really good, and something of which I can never quite get enough.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here with these kinds of feelings.
After all, it is in our nature.
When God created the first human being in Genesis, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image. They’ll have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, animals, all the earth, and everything upon it!” They shall be fruitful and multiply and subdue the world.” Part of human nature, embodied in this Adam of Genesis 1, is the will to create more, build more, have more, and become more. To have king-like power, even God-like power.
And to some degree, this yearning for more is a good thing. It breeds creativity. It pushes us to dream up new inventions, take risks for greater gain, and be adventurous. Imagine where humankind would be if we had simply been content with our lot before the discovery of fire. Or language to better communicate. Or money to be able to trade more effectively. Or electricity to make light more accessible for all. And what has propelled this creativity is not just creativity for its own sake, which may have led to initial discoveries, but the desire for bigger and better. A better, faster computer. A taller building. A farther distance into space. We human beings thrive in the pursuit of power.
But there are limits. Because when power is our focus, or whatever that placeholder for power is, we lose sight of others. How many great people in history have we heard about who have abandoned something in their pursuit of ideas, of greatness, or simply change for the betterment of human kind? Theodore Herzl and Martin Luther King Jr. are but two examples of people trying to do very serious good for their own people, seeking legitimate and well-deserved power for all of human kind. And though we know that they were so successful that their accomplishments changed the course of history for the better, we also know that their family life suffered, to say the least. And of course we can go to the other end of the spectrum, those seeking power simply for the glory of power – at the smaller scale, criminals blue-collar and white – and the larger scale, the dictators – the pharaohs of the world. Those who want to be king, to wield total influence, without responsibility and goodness to guide them.
What we find, over and over again, is that the pursuit of power usually leads to stepping on others, hurting them, and leaving them behind, in the pursuit of what we want.
Most of us here, myself included, don’t pursue power to the degree of Pharaoh. We do not seek to enslave or hold captive or keep down individuals or populations. We make choices. We might choose work over family – sometimes because we feel like we need to go make our earnings, sometimes because we feel like we need to if we’re going to get ahead, and sometimes because it might feel better in the moment to get the short-term fix of a work-accomplishment. That extra update on our linked-in profile. The new item that we can post on Facebook or Instagram to show off.
It is the pursuit of power, the pursuit from this initial God-given drive, that often leads us toward the sinning against people and the sinning against God we bring up so often on Yom Kippur. “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
Fortunately, God created another aspect within us. Another Adam — what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls Adam II. This is the Adam of the second Creation story in Genesis. The one placed within the garden. The one whose job is not to take, acquire, and subdue, but to cultivate and nurture. The one whose task, the Midrash tells us, is to discover the true identity of each created animal and name them. Not to give him power over them, but to help them be totally fulfilled. The Adam from whom a partner – a helper – is made. The Adam who is made not to be alone and rise above, but to exist in relationship, both with another human being, and with God.
David Brooks, in his book the Road to Character, discusses how there have been periods where we’ve needed more focus on the traits of Adam I. In the earlier parts of the 20th century, for success and survival, we Jews had to work really hard to prove ourselves, and seeking success and power was a perfectly reasonable thing to do for nothing less than the sake of survival. But in today’s i-generation, where things are far more about me than us, and my priorities beat those of the community on most occasions, what we need is a turn away from the power-seeking of Adam I and a turn towards the nurturing, connecting, and present Adam II. How many of us, at a juncture of decision-making, have thought, well, better to ask for forgiveness later than ask for permission now? That way, I can get what I need to done, and if I err or hurt someone in the process, I’ll say al cheit and pound my chest? Anticipating a need to apologize in advance of an action is something all too common today – something that runs through my mind too often.
Adam II operates differently. Adam II seeks peace, compassion, partnership, and community. Adam II is the nurturer, the spiritual one, the one who finds contentment and joy in connecting with others.
It is precisely this Adam that we pursue, that we seek to be, on these high holy days. David Brooks has two useful analogies for these Adams. Adam I? Pursuing this part of our being is pursuing the resume… building it up, making it seem weightier, more prestigious. But Adam II? The Adam II traits are what will be discussed in the eulogies about us. They are the things that will ultimately matter to the people in our lives, and to God. The Adam II focus, the eulogy, is not about our accomplishments and skills, it’s about the people we’ve touched, the blessings we’ve given, and the ways we’ve connected and improved those around us.
I’ve mentioned in previous sermons that when we look at the empty ark at Kol Nidre, void of its sacred Torah scrolls, it is as if we are looking into our own coffins. We stare death in the face. We consider, if this were it, would I be satisfied with the life I’ve lived? What is it that will last? Most certainly not my power and wealth – that’s only useful while I’m alive and of sound mind and body. What lasts beyond this life are my relationships. My eternal life is in how I live in others, how I am remembered, how I have taught and led future generations. Now, at Kol Nidre, my soul is laid bare. My focus is on holiness, on the big picture, and on eternity. I am held to account.
This feeling is a productive one; it causes us to hone in on how we’ve erred, which leads to t’shuvah in thoughts and actions of repentance, of fixing our mistakes.
T’shuvah is a really good thing — a gift really, from God, that no matter how far we’ve gone, we can always come back. Too often though, all t’shuvah really does is keep us from erring too much. We go through the same cycle year after year, of planning to do better, really, with all of our hearts, and then falling down the same old path. We should be able do better. After all, we’re starting not from a tarnished spirit, but from a spotless soul. We know that at the depths of our being is the purest of souls – one filled only with goodness and holiness. We’ll read tomorrow morning, Elohai N’shama Shenata Bi T’hora Hi. The soul you have given me, O God, is a pure one. Which means that we need not try to become something that we are not, to clean up the mess we’ve made of ourselves. All we need to do is return to who we truly are. Our essence. Our goodness. Our holiness.
Fortunately, there are many tools in Judaism much broader and more all-encompassing than the once-a-year high holy days— vessels in which we can journey throughout the year to bring long-lasting change into our lives. None of these practices are easy or short-term. They all require commitment, but the good news is that we have a full year ahead of us, until next Yom Kippur, to make the return we wish to do. Tonight I offer three tried and true practices that can help us return to our true selves.
The first is a focus on character traits that we all need to be whole, good, and sacred human beings; traits like humility, kindness, generosity, and strength. The Jewish practice focused on the cultivation of good traits – of good character – is known as Mussar. Mussar is an educational, spiritual, and philosophical movement started in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter, whose focus was to cultivate our spirits so that we could be most effective as God’s partner in the world. To do so, we each need to develop our own spiritual curriculum, determining where we excel, and where we need work. Where we have perfect balance between attributes like humility and confidence, or where we have not enough or too much of any given trait. The Mussar method encourages us, through study of relevant texts and stories, journaling, communal practice, and mentoring, to make ourselves aware of what makes us tick – of what will trigger certain negative behaviors leading us down the wrong path – and it teaches us to change our behavior gradually in order to lead us to a better state of being.
The Mussar teachers make very clear that we all live in the gray. None of us are perfectly good or evil; good and evil are relative to wherever we are. Every decision we have is one that can lead us to a better place in the world, or worse. We might choose in a given moment to reach out for that hug, or give that dollar to the needy person, or call that congressman to promote a bill we know will be good for our neighbors. Or, we might think, at this small moment, I need to rush along, or that dollar would be better in my own pocket, or I’m sure enough other people will call that congressperson – it’s fine if I hold back. Mussar reaches us in those moments, and demands that we reflect, and improve where it matters most: in the little decisions, in the tiny moments. A great book to start with, if you’re interested in knowing more, is called Every Day Holiness by one of today’s Mussar masters and a Torontonian, Alan Morinis.
Reflection and journaling work well for some, but some of us do better with concrete acts upon which we can focus to change our behavior. If so, all one needs to do is look to that familiar morning text Rabbi Evan Moffic refers to as the Happiness Prayer. Eilu D’varim Sh’ein lahem Shi’ur – these are the things without measure, whose reward too is without measure. It is a list of acts we can do that, for Moffic, bring happiness, and they do so because they connect us with other human beings, they bring about more learning and prayer, they give us a better appreciation for life, and they ensure that we feel more meaning in what we do. Think back to the items in our morning text: doing acts of loving kindness, visiting the sick, rejoicing with bride and groom, showing up with enthusiasm to learn, praying with intention, honoring parents, and the list goes on. All good things to do. All things that we might naturally resist when pursuing the powers that tempt the Adam I in all of us. And all things that when done over and over again, become more and more natural, until those good, sacred acts become part of us, so much so that we begin to do them instinctively.
Last, we can follow the David Brooks method. In his work in building the road to character – in building up his Adam II – he builds an entire book around his role models. People in history who have demonstrated traits he admires, whose work and being he aspires to – people like football player Joe Namath or spiritual activist Doris Day – imperfect people who have overcome great challenges to do good in this world. We have plenty of those role models in our tradition who we study and aspire to be like – Abraham for his hospitality, Moses for his humility, David Ben Gurion for his vision. Who are the best people you can think of in the areas where you wish to grow? Chances are there are many. Study them. If you can, get to know them, spend time with them, emulate their best qualities, and incorporate them into your own being.
The prophet Micah tells us that what God wants of us is simple: do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8). And this is all well and good, a perfect quote to put above the synagogue ark. An end goal. The challenge is, how do we get there? How do we limit the qualities that may push us away from it? How do we focus on the better balance we need in all of us? The answer, my friends, is by focusing on one act at a time, one trait at a time, and on those who inspire us to do better. And we do this a few minutes one day, a few minutes the next, and keep on going until one good decision leads to another, and another, and another, and our better selves become all that we know.
Most of us in this room still need to ensure that we have good resumes. Most of us enjoy the power we have and get thrills from getting more. Let us enjoy this Adam I part of our being, as long as we balance it with what this world today needs more. Someone who tries not to be God, but instead partners with God. Who tries not to own this world, but improve it for someone else. Someone who fosters, nurtures, gives, feels, and loves. This is the higher Adam. The one who our world needs most. And when this Adam becomes all that we know, we can truly feel good.
Gamar Chatimah Tovah.