sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5777

The Pursuit of Character

Bringing About a Sense of Wholeness

When we as individuals are whole, then our world stands a chance of being whole.

Every year at this time I feel very fortunate. As a Jew, as a rabbi, it is my duty and privilege to think deeply about some existential questions. What are the cornerstone values of my life? How am doing in pursuit of these values? In what ways do I need to re-organize the way I live my life to best serve my values?

The book, The Road to Character, by David Brooks, gave me the opportunity to think about these important themes. Calling attention to the two creation stories at the beginning of the Torah, the author begins his exploration of how we fashion for ourselves a character of substance. Drawing on the biblical studies of the great Orthodox scholar, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks writes about the biblical Adam, noting that the early chapters of Genesis present two different personality types in the presentation of Adam, representing opposing sides of human nature. You see, there are two, not one, creation stories.

In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik interprets the first two chapters of Genesis as offering two images of Adam which are, in many ways, at odds with one another. Adam I, in chapter one, who Rabbi Soloveitchik calls “majestic man,” is created by God and immediately given the charge, as we read toward the end of chapter one, to “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it; hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth.” In essence, God has presented the first Adam with a utilitarian view of the rest of creation. It is Adam’s, and he is to take command of all creatures, knowing he is master of the earth.

Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes that Adam I perceives the universe as a domain for his power and sovereignty. It is a domineering approach to living, and largely one of self-interest. The world seems to have been created primarily to support humankind and our continued existence.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik sees it, there is nothing inherently wrong with Adam I, but it’s a different model of person than Adam II, of chapter two. This second archetypal person sees the world differently and bases his world view in terms of his covenant with God. After God creates Adam II, God places him in the garden of Eden and tells him the garden is his to till and tend. Then God creates an “eizer” for him, a helper, a partner, called Eve, for Adam was not meant to live by himself. God’s intention, from the start, was that Adam II would live in relationship, with God and with other people. Adam II was meant to be relational.

Adam I and II are people who live by very different guidelines. Using today’s descriptions, Adam I is described as “the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, resume Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.”

And who is Adam II? “Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong – not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.”

Our challenge as humans, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, is to live in the contradiction between these two Adams, because, as Brooks explains, the “outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam are not fully reconcilable. We are forever caught in self-confrontation. We are called to fulfill both personas, and must master the art of living forever within the tension between these two natures.”

As an example, Brooks cites this line of thinking: “For Adam I, input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.”

For Adam II, though, it’s the inverse.

You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave…Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning…To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.

So then the question is, how do we address our shortcomings, our liabilities, our ambition, and selfishness in a helpful way? This is precisely what we are intended to be thinking about during this season. For four weeks now, since the beginning of Elul, members of the Jewish community across the globe have been engaging in the process of introspection, and for it to be meaningful, it has to be painful. Our mind will take us to dark places – of moments we wish not to revisit, to words we would like to take back, to decisions we wish we had made differently.

In my reading, I came across this teaching from the great Rambam, or Maimonides, the twelfth century Aristotelian and writer of the philosophical Guide to the Perplexed. “Ha-adam yeish lo shtei shlaimuyot: shlaimut haguf…shlaimut hanefesh – humankind has two kinds of peace: peace of body…(and) peace of spirit.”

The Hebrew root for peace is shin, mem, lamed, and it commonly means peace, but it also means something deeper, richer – wholeness. And in this sense, it means wholeness of body and spirit, a person who is integrated, who is whole.

The biblical character I find most compelling, because he is so very human, is Jacob. He can appear maddeningly driven by self-interest, but he is considered a patriarch because he comes so very far from the person he is in his youth. In time, having been smoothed out by the vicissitudes of life, Jacob becomes, in the end, a full person, a mensch.

Consider: when Jacob flees the home of his mother and father, after tricking Esau twice – out of the birthright and the blessing of the first born – he wakes up and has a vision of God, exclaiming, “Truly the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!” After his epiphany, Jacob sets up a monument to God and makes this pledge: “If God is with me and watches over me on this path that I am taking and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return b’shalom, in peace, to my father’s house, then the Eternal be my God.”

Jacob, a young man launched onto the world before he was ready, simply wants to return home, in peace, safe, untouched, unharmed. The masterful medieval biblical commentator, Rashi, writes that Jacob’s words convey this nuance: Jacob wants to come back in peace, b’shalom. But when he comes back later, in chapter 33, the Talmud notes he came home “shalem,” not “shalom,” conveying, rather than returning in peace, he was returning intact – integrated, whole, complete.

He had to go through the school of hard knocks, having been tricked by his father in law, Laban, into marrying Leah when he intended to marry Rachel, having been tricked into serving Laban for fourteen years without pay. Jacob is no longer callow. He is ready to confront the brother he fled, Esau and confront the ways he wronged his brother.

On the eve of meeting his brother, he lays down for sleep, by a river, and according to the text, wrestles with a man. Is it an angel? Is it his guardian angel, or Esau’s? Is it God? Is it his own conscience?

Jacob emerges victorious, although his hip is wrenched. This physical manifestation of his internal struggle will be with him for the rest of his life, reminding him of the virtues of having gone through the struggle and the rewards.

The man he wrestled with blesses him, changing his name from Jacob to Yisrael, Israel, for he has, the texts tells us, wrestled with God and human beings and prevailed. He is now a man of substance, of gravity. He has wrestled with himself and with God. He is now complete, he has become whole. Wholeness and completion for Jacob were not found in outward measures of success, riches, fame, or power, rather they were measured by what was inside of him – character, resilience, solidness. He has become Adam II.

I love this biblical example, but I fear that our modern world more often seems to conspire to make us think that the Adam I qualities are the ones we should exhibit – toughness, success, wealth, and outward signs of self-confidence.

This seems to be reflected everywhere these days. UCLA researchers sampled college freshman, surveying what they value and want out of life. Comparing results from 1966, 1990, and today yields dramatic differences. In 1966, 80 percent of freshman responded that they were strongly motivated to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. Today, less than half of them respond that way.

And whereas 42 percent of college freshman in 1966 said that becoming rich was an important goal in life, by 1990, 74 percent expressed that goal. As Brooks writes, “Financial security, once seen as a middling value, is now tied as students’ top goal.” And while back in 1966, he concludes, “students felt it was important to at least present themselves as philosophical and meaning-driven people, by 1990, they no longer felt the need to present themselves that way. They felt it perfectly acceptable to say they were primarily interested in money.”

And current research on adults shows concerning results as well. Our increasingly individualistic society has had an adverse effect on what we might call intimacy between people and people’s ability to show empathy. And if, as I would assert, we will do best as individuals and as a society if we can turn to those with whom we have deep relationships to refine and nurture our souls, then the increasingly small number of people we can turn to is distressing. The research shows that several decades ago it was common for people to have four or five close friends who they could tell everything to, but now the answer is two or three, and most concerning, the number of people with no confidants has doubled. The report, from the AARP, records thirty-five percent of older adults being chronically lonely, a 20 percent spike from a decade ago.

These trends are alarming and are everywhere reflected in our culture. If you go to the website Google ngrams, you can see the results of a Google search of contents of books since 1800. Type in words like community, share, and common good, and you’ll see some sharp declines, while if you type search words like self, I can do it myself, and personalized, you’ll see startling increases. Usage of the word bravery declined 66 percent during the twentieth century, gratitude is down 49 percent.

All of these results point to social trends that have changed how we approach life and how we see ourselves fitting into the world.

In a world that is increasingly individualistic, we need our faith community more than ever. Excessive focus on becoming Adam I makes us focus on that which will not make us whole, that which will not help us develop character or integrity. And that’s where our synagogue community, which provides us with a wisdom tradition that is time tested over three millennia, and also is open to new wisdom, comes in.

Another way to look at it is this way: in his book, Brooks distinguishes between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. What a great metaphor. We spend so much time building merits that look good on paper, but in the end, we know in our hearts that what really matters is filling our days and nights with the experiences that reflect the kind of character traits that are joyfully and lovingly recalled in eulogies. This is a scary thing to contemplate. What are the virtues that we imagine people will speak of at our funerals?

As a congregational rabbi, it is my honor to be with families when loved ones have recently died. So often I am moved very deeply by the way they speak of the person they are mourning. I’ll ask them what their loved one’s core values were, what they taught them, what they modeled for them. Often, the most touching and loving memories flood to the surface. But sometimes, sadly, nothing comes forward, because, either those values were never spoken of, or all of the person’s core focus was on the resume virtues and all the family members could speak of was a love of work or a hobby. This is Adam I.

But for the sake of our souls and our society, we really need more of Adam II in each of us – because that leads to wholeness. What is wholeness? It is the quality you can sense about another person – that he or she lives for causes larger than the individual. It is when memories of our loved one are consistent with that person’s everyday actions and how others viewed the person.

Every one of us has made a decision to be here today. You have taken time from your busy lives, on a school and work day, to move off of the treadmill of life, to stop and turn toward – your faith, your community, your God, and your inner voice.

Just by doing that you have taken the first step toward finding that sense of wholeness – you’ve chosen to be here – with me – with your community, to think about the bigger issues.  Let’s face it, you knew I wouldn’t tell you to go out and do just for yourself this year – to tilt toward the Adam I part of yourself.  No, you came to hear my words of encouragement to embrace that bigger, Adam II part of yourself. The part that, when you find it, makes you feel whole.

So this year, as we think about who and what we will be in the year 5777, I encourage us also to think about what will bring us that sense of wholeness because, when we as individuals are whole, then our world stands a chance of being whole. This year, let’s live with our eyes open, constantly checking to make sure our compass is straight and our priorities are balanced, and that each day we are living our values.

I’d like to end with these lovely words from an unknown writer:

If there is sincerity in the heart,
There will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character,
There will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home,
There will be order in the nation.
When there is order in the nation,
There will be peace in the world.

And in the coming year, our world needs peace. Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be God’s will.