Kol Nidre – The Road to Character

Kol Nidre
September 22, 2015
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

The Road to Character

Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah!
Just over 3 weeks ago we learned of the death of acclaimed author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks. As the NY Times stated in their obituary for him, Sacks “explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories . . . using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.” Like his life, Sacks’ death has touched many. Robin Williams’ powerful portrayal of him in the film “Awakenings” exposed Sacks and his work to a broader audience.

In February, I read a NY Times op-ed Sacks’ published entitled, “My Own Life.” In the piece, Sacks recounted his response to learning that he had terminal cancer. I made a note to myself that his column might be fertile material for a sermon on this very evening when Jewish tradition beckons us to face our mortality. Sacks wrote, “I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face-to-face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted . . . It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” That last bit has stayed with me.

To me, the ending of Sacks’ piece summarizes the core message of this day of Yom Kippur. None of us ever knows when we will draw our last breath. None of us knows how many pages are left for us to write on in tradition’s metaphorical “Book of Life.” To paraphrase Oliver Sacks, it is up to us, each of us, how to live out the life that is to be ours. On this most sacred day of our Jewish year, each of us is called to assess our lives. We are called to answer the question, How do I want to live my life “in the richest, deepest, most productive way [I] can?”

A book I was very excited to read this summer was NY Times columnist David Brooks’ latest work, The Road to Character. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, “Brooks’ writing often makes me stop and think, even when I don’t agree with him.” I read Brooks because he always challenges my sense of perspective. I believe The Road to Character is an important book. On this Kol Nidre night I want to lift up a powerful, and central part of his thesis. Brooks posits that we live our lives by two different sets of virtues: what he calls “Resume virtues” and “Eulogy virtues.” He writes, “Resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to [your] external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues.” He proceeds to “confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former.” Brooks contends that we live in a world which celebrates the resume values, and demands that we enhance those values. Think about it for a moment. Which set guides you in your daily life?

Over the last 35 years, I have written hundreds of eulogies. There have been times while preparing a eulogy that my mind would drift to wondering what might be said at my funeral. With his book Brooks handed me – and hands all of us – a useful framework for reflecting on our lives along with Oliver Sacks words, “It is [now] up to us now to choose how to live out the [time granted us.] [We each must] live in the richest, deepest, most productive way [we] can.” This is the focus to which we are called on this day of Yom Kippur. As we engage in heshbon ha-nefesh – taking stock of our soul, of our life, we should each ask ourselves David Brooks’ question, “By which set of virtues am I living?” This is what we must ask ourselves today. Am I on the path I want to be on? Am I living the legacy I intend to leave my loved ones when it comes time for someone to reflect on my life?

Part of what drew me in as I read Brooks’ book earlier this summer was the fact that in unpacking his notion of resume and eulogy values, he drew on one of the most powerful Jewish theological works of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. I studied it in college, again in Rabbinic school, and I’ve returned to it over the years. Often referred to simply as “the Rav,” Soloveitchik was one of the most important figures in Modern Orthodoxy, and Jewry in a larger sense during the 20th century. He was an important figure here in the Boston Jewish community as he was the head of the Maimonides School.

In Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik writes of a distinction between two paradigmatic figures in the Creation narratives as we read them in the opening chapters of Genesis. He names these figures Adam I and Adam II. Soloveitchik compares and contrasts these two models as emblematic of the struggle central in each human life. Brooks borrows these two figures to flesh out his two models of virtue. He names Adam I as the career-oriented, ambitious, largely externally focused person. Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things. There are measures of Adam I in each of us. It is driven, at least in part, by the yetzer ha-rah which is often described as “the inclination to evil. However, over the centuries teachers have noted that describing yetzer ha-rah simply as “evil” is too facile. In the Talmud we are taught that the yetzer ha-rah plays an important role in human creativity. I’ll say more about it tomorrow morning.

Adam II, as Soloveitchik presents it, and Brooks elaborates, is the more internally focused person. Adam II wants to attain a serene inner character and may outwardly appear quiet. Adam II has developed a solid sense of right and wrong. For Brooks, this is the person who is not driven, or is at least not primarily driven by the desire to attain worldly success. Adam II sees success as having a transcendent, sacred purpose. Adam I wants to know “how do things work?” Adam II seeks to understand “why things exist.” Adam I’s motto is “success.” For Adam II “life is a moral drama.” Adam II is driven by charity (or might we say tzedek and tzedakah), love and redemption. Consciously or not, each of us struggles with both of these natural human inclinations. Rav Soloveitchik writes that “we live in the contradiction between Adam I and Adam II.” To this Brooks adds, our task in life is to master the art of living between these two sides of human nature.

Brooks recounts the stories of a number of figures, some well-known, others lesser-known so that we can witness how certain people have lived the struggle along “the road to character.” In each chapter Brooks focuses on a particular dimension of character: for example, Self-Conquest, Struggle, Self-Mastery, Dignity, Love, and Self-Examination, and more. Through telling the stories of different people, some well-known, others less so, to unpack these characteristics. I thought it might have been subtitled “Profiles in Character.” By book’s end, David Brooks has laid out a curriculum, as it were, for pursuing character development. Indeed, in his final chapter he offers a summary of his key points. Each point could have been a stepping off point for a worthwhile message on this holy day.

In our busy lives, many of us do not take, or make the time for reflection. We do not pause often enough for introspection, for heshbon ha-nefesh – the soul work our tradition prescribes as a healthy part of living. This soul work is not relegated solely to this day of Yom Kippur, or in a larger sense, these Days of Awe. Jewish tradition erects a framework to enable us in this self-reflection. We must each embrace the paths that suit us. It may be through worship; by engaging in regular study; or by the work of tzedek, the pursuit of justice. Last year ago I spoke of mussar as one of our tradition’s pathways to examining and perfecting ourselves. While reading Brooks I realized mussar can be viewed as a Jewish Road to Character. The opportunity for self-reflection can come by entering what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the palace in time,” Shabbat, which can aid us in slowing down, stepping back, and reflecting. In today’s world we are educated and pushed to enhance our Adam I side. We are encouraged to pursue our resume virtues. A successful life is so often defined as a life of material success and recognition of that success by those around us. Yom Kippur calls us to embrace our Adam II side. This Holy Day, its liturgy, and most especially the Viddui/Confession calls us to focus on that more internal landscape. Viddui is our tradition’s acknowledgement of human frailty. In the eyes of our tradition it is inevitable that we will, in the course of living our lives, fail in one, and often more ways. Our communal confession pushes us to consider our sense of purpose, our place in the human moral drama of life. In our quieter moments, we allow ourselves to turn inward and face our hearts and souls, our lives as individuals. We are called to check our internal moral compass. With each High Holy Day season we promise to make adjustments that will play an important role as we steer ourselves into and through the New Year for which we pray we will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Then we charge back out into the fray of daily life.

On this day, we should ask ourselves: What is my intention for the year ahead? Will I focus only on my resume values? Will I also think and act in regard to my eulogy values? Am I only working on Adam I or can I also set as a goal, work on my Adam II side? Brooks admits that he wrote the book as an act of challenging himself as he is not sure he can follow the path of character. By sharing his act of self-reflection, I believe he has offered us a model and given us all a framework with which to engage ourselves in this significant act of self-examination. Come sundown tomorrow, as we stream out of the synagogue and into the New Year we can choose the ways in which we will each continue the process of reflection and course correction.

One final notion David Brooks presents is what he calls a “Crooked timber” approach to life. He brings this notion from a teaching of philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Brooks uses this notion of “crooked timber” to reflect what he terms a “moral realist’s” approach to the reality that we are all flawed. “Character,” writes Brooks, “is built in the struggle against [our] own weaknesses.” A “crooked timber” approach to life does not excuse failings. It acknowledges that we are, all of us, to varying degrees weak, foolish, and sometimes “just plain inexplicable.” Living as “crooked timber” is acknowledging and accepting that we are, each of us, in some way broken. Our Adam II side asks us to approach this brokenness and the struggle to perfect ourselves and to repair what is broken which can lead us to a strengthening our character. It can help us strike the appropriate balance between resume and eulogy virtues; between our Adam I and our Adam II side. There is no single path for each and every person. Each of us has our own struggles to meet; our own challenges to face. Yet, the power of relationship and community allows us each to walk our particular path without facing the struggle of life alone.

This day we take a long hard look at ourselves. The Road to Character, both for David Brooks, and for our Jewish tradition passes again and again, through life in the world; through our daily interactions with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers. May we carry our words of contrition during this Yom Kippur away as this day fades and turn to living in what we pray will be a year of manifold blessings. May we live the commitments we make this day – to one another, to God, and perhaps most importantly, to ourselves. May we carry Oliver Sacks’ words as a charge for life in the year before us: It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me! I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

G’mar Hatimah tovah
May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life
for a year of sweet blessings and shalom!

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One thought on “Kol Nidre – The Road to Character

  1. […] me, know that I have been a student of Judaism’s Mussar tradition for a number of years now. Last Yom Kippur I spoke on the subject ofmussar, which at the time I described as “the Jewish road to […]

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