September 25, 2012
Rabbi Eric Gurvis
Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah – G’mar Chatimah tovah!
Summer always affords me more time for reading, a treat I look forward to all year long. In the months leading up to summer I create two lists of books I’d like to read. I create these lists perusing my bookshelves, my night table, and the piles I accumulate during the year. One list I entitle “fun.” This is where I list the political thrillers and novels, the baseball books and other light and/or entertaining books. The other list, I entitle “Serious.” On this list I place the “Jewish” books, the books on leadership, history and other more weighty subjects. I try to work my way back and forth between the two lists over the course of the summer months. Invariably I am in the midst of two or more books at the same time, usually at least one from each list. Without fail, I add titles all summer, as friends, colleagues and teachers recommend books as the weeks go by.
Since I spend considerable time in my car I also listen to books. Most of this summer I found myself listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I picked it up on the advice of a friend. Quite unexpectedly I found it to be one of the most gripping, informative and enjoyable books I’ve read (well, listened to) in years. I’d actually put it on both lists. Listening did not make me a fan of Steve Jobs the person. I learned a lot I did not know about him, as the book paints him as a difficult, misanthropic, yet brilliant person. In the course of listening to the book, some 26 hours in all, I learned about much more than Steve Jobs. I learned about the world in which we live; about computers, technology; the digital age; the equipment I use; and more. Though I did not come away admiring Steve Jobs the man, I did finish the book with an appreciation for the ways he impacted our world and even my life within this world. It was yet another reminder that “torah” is all around us, often in places we’re not expecting. I wish Jobs had been a better husband, father, colleague, boss and friend. Not that it would have meant anything to him, but he surely could have used a day like Yom Kippur as part of his life.
He didn’t have it, but we do! We gather together again, on this holiest night of our Jewish year, another step on our journey. Rabbis Hirsch and Berry, Cantor Halpern and I all hope this will be a meaningful day of prayer, introspection, inspiration and ultimately uplift for us all. With the sounding of the Shofar at the close of Neilah, we will fully enter the New Year at sundown tomorrow. For me, that final shofar blast is one of the most powerful moments of the entire year. It is, quite literally, bone chilling. No matter how drained I feel after the long fast, and the many hours spent in prayer and song, reflection and teshuvah/repentance, I never fail to feel a calm, a sense of rebirth and renewal after the shofar sounds for the final time. If you’ve not joined us for that moment in years past, I urge you to be with us tomorrow. It is truly a magical moment. If I could have but one moment of the year in this Sanctuary, I’m certain that moment would be a strong candidate. We Jews who are often wary of such religiously imbued moments need to embrace our authentic moments of true kedushah – holiness!
Last week I spoke of opening ourselves anew in this New Year to exploration; to asking questions, and sharing our journeys. As I said, faith in God is a tricky subject for many of us. I even learned a bit about faith from the Jobs bio. He wasn’t a particularly religious person, yet he wrestled with faith. One example comes as Isaacson records, “Jobs revered [Yo-Yo Ma] both as a person and as a performer . . . Jobs tended to be deeply moved by artists who displayed purity, and he became a fan. He invited Ma to play at his wedding, but he was out of the country on tour. He came by Jobs’ house a few years later . . . pulled out his 1733 Stradivarius cello, and played Bach. “This is what I would have played for your wedding,” he told him. Jobs teared up and told him, “Your playing is the best argument I’ve heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” That statement really struck me, and it has stuck with me.
On this Day of Atonement we reflect on our lives in this world. We are called to face ourselves with brutal honesty as we ask ourselves: What am I doing with my life? Am I making my difference in this world – in my family, in this community, in our broader community and society? Or, am I playing hide and seek — with my better sense of what I can truly be?
Last summer I had an opportunity to hear entrepreneur, writer and thinker Seth Godin speak for the first time. Ever since, I have found myself drawn to reading many of Seth’s books and his blog, which arrives in my email in-box every morning. His pithy blog pieces often provoke me to think in ways that I find useful as I think about my life, and our community, not only during these Holy Days but, throughout the year. We sometimes use his blog pieces as texts for study at our weekly staff meetings here at the Temple. Some months ago the piece was incredibly short, and breathtakingly profound. I found it so powerful that I used it in my remarks it at both last May’s Newton Community Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast and at June’s Newton Congregations Assembly. Godin asks the simple question: “Are you making a dent in the universe?” What a question, I thought. Godin concludes: “Hint. Lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.” As I finished the Jobs biography, even as I acknowledged that he wasn’t a very likeable person, I had to admit, he is most definitely someone who left his dent on our world. While he could be somewhat reclusive, he most certainly did not hide out.
Ten days ago we heard the sound of the shofar. It calls us to awaken and come out of hiding. If we have been engaged in the soul-work to which it calls us during these Days of Awe, we have been examining our words, our deeds, indeed our very lives over the course of the past year. Hopefully we are working to live the words of the Unetaneh Tokef, so that through Tefillah/ Prayer; Teshuvah/Repentance; and Tzedakah/Acts of Righteousness, we are charting a fresh course for ourselves on which we will embark in earnest with the close of this Holy Day tomorrow evening. This day we focus especially on Teshuvah/Repentance. One of the texts we read that helps us focus on this is our Haftarah portion tomorrow afternoon, the Book of Jonah. A few weeks ago, in a webinar with my teacher Micah Goodman, he asked why we read Jonah on this holiest day of our year. Yes, it teaches about teshuvah, but why a story about God sending Jonah to Ninevah, a city in ancient Assyria, enemy of the Jews. Micah’s answer: We read it “Because it is hard to find a story in the Bible about our own people actually hearing God’s call and changing its ways. So we read Jonah, which makes its points about teshuvah, even as it teaches us that we can learn from those beyond the boundaries of our own community. As God calls Jonah, what is Jonah’s initial response? He runs and hides. No Hineini for Jonah, like Abraham. He heads out of town, boards a ship heading in the opposite direction of Ninevah, and tries to sleep through the storm around him as he hides in the hold of the ship. Called by God to make a difference in the world of his time, Jonah flees, hides and sleeps. When he does finally hearken to God’s call, and calls people of Ninevah to repent – they do — immediately and Jonah is troubled by their quick repentance, and God’s acceptance of their penance. In spite of his initial response, he made a difference. He saved thousands of lives once he came out of hiding.
This brings me back to Seth Godin’s question, which I suggest must be among those we are each asking ourselves on this holiest of Days – Am I making my dent in the world? Or, like Jonah, am I hiding out so that no one will notice?
This day is about summoning our strength to be brutally honest – with God, with those from whom we must seek forgiveness, but first, and most importantly, with ourselves. Is there something holding me back? Is there something I can identify as my Ninevah, towards which I am called, by God, or by that still, small voice within that I can overcome so that this year, I will make a dent in this world? Is it through increasing my engagement within this, my Temple Shalom community; through study, prayer, acts of tikkun olam; or simply being more a part of the community? Is it through the role I might play in our broader community? Might it be in our schools? Is it through social service and communal agencies? Is it on an issue: hunger, health care, Israel, affordable housing, teen stress, or any of the myriad other issues we face today? Is it through my tzedakah? For each of us the path will be different, and it need not be only one path that we choose. But we must awaken and renew ourselves and engage. We must commit to making our dent!
One of the running themes of Steve Jobs’ life was his relationship with another brilliant and creative individual who I think we’d agree has also made his dent in our world, Bill Gates. Gates and Jobs were competitors, but in an odd way, they were also friends. Both left their dents in terms of the creativity and their impact on the digital age in which we live. To me, there is a noteworthy difference. Whereas Jobs limited his dent to his pursuits in creating the world of Apple; at one point Gates realized he could do more than make his dent through business. Whereas Jobs did not believe in being charitable; Gates realized that his impact could be through more than just his Microsoft products. Together with his wife Melinda, and the Charitable Foundation they created with their vast wealth, he turned his attention towards ways in which he could also make a difference through helping schools, and other institutions and communities through what we would call tzedakah.
In a fascinating twist, at the end of his biography, Walter Isaacson gives Steve Jobs the last word. In his own words Jobs says: “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation . . . What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how . . . We try to use the talents we have to •express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.”
Maybe that was a piece of Jobs’ teshuvah. Who knows? But today is not about his teshuvah or that of anyone else. It’s our day, with God, and with ourselves. It’s our day to ask, “What drives me?” It’s our day to wake up, come out of hiding, and consider the dent we want to make in this New Year. May this year’s journey be rich and rewarding. Along the way, may we leave our dent – on the world, on one another, and along the way may we find blessing upon blessing.
G’mar chatimah tovah – may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.