sermon: Yom Kippur 5778

Why We Need Yom Kippur

It’s Not Easy Being Moral

While doing the right thing often puts the do-gooder on the right side of history, it’s harder than we think to do the right thing in the moment.

When Yesinia Guitron started getting complaints from customers — mostly Mexican and undocumented — at the bank where she worked, she realized something was horribly wrong. Guitron, a personal banker at a Wells Fargo office in St. Helena, realized some of her colleagues — under intense pressure to meet sales quotas were opening accounts without customers’ knowledge. She didn’t know, and wouldn’t learn until many years later that what was happening at her branch was part of a nationwide scandal. She knew it was wrong. And she took action. She called the Wells Fargo ethics hotline. She told her manager, she told human resources, she spoke up in meetings. The atmosphere for her turned toxic and finally, after two years at the bank, she was fired for not meeting her sales goals.

Whistle-blowers and others who do the right thing are usually seen as heroes — people who stood up for what they believed even if those beliefs cost them something. But often, it’s not until after the fact, that do-gooders are seen that way. And interestingly, while doing the right thing often puts the do-gooder on the right side of history, it’s harder than we think to do the right thing in the moment.

It seems that after a particularly bad rash of corporate ethics scandals a few years back, business schools recognized a need to beef up their ethics courses. And it turns out teaching ethics is also harder than it seems. That’s because knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it are two different things. It has generally been assumed that an immoral boss, by virtue of his or her position of power, could convince a subordinate to do something immoral. Ethics instructors and researchers thought that if students clearly understood what was going on — if they were properly informed — they could resist the faulty or immoral instructions, but that’s simply not true. In an article in California magazine, Brooke Deterline, a consultant on business ethics, says, “just because we rationally know” we shouldn’t follow immoral orders “doesn’t mean we don’t do it. It’s much more complicated than that.”

For some, anxiety over conflict causes them to acquiesce when they should refuse. But most of us believe we will do the right thing when the time comes. Most of us identify with Yesinia Guitron rather than her Wells Fargo managers. Research suggests, though, that despite our good intentions we might be fooling ourselves. Two notorious experiments have proved how quickly power can corrupt and how people were willing to submit to a corrupt authority and cause harm to others, even in situations they could easily have walked away from. In the well-known Stanford prison experiment, students posing as guards quickly became abusive toward their prison charges. And in another experiment, participants were assigned the role of either “teacher” or “learner” and the teachers were allowed to administer an electric shock when the “learner” failed a particular test. Soon, the teachers were following instructions and administering the highest-level shock to their subjects, despite their screams. Both experiments chillingly demonstrate a human tendency toward conformity, as well as cruelty.

We tend to think of the Wells Fargo, Enron, or Bernie Madoff examples and say to ourselves, well, we wouldn’t act that way. But that lets us off the hook too quickly. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all do the wrong thing sometimes. Our wrongdoings won’t, I pray, be epic, but if we are honest, all of us, at times, cut corners, choose ways to make our lives easier, or go along with the crowd.

There’s a story about an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy, who comes home with a note from his teacher that says, “Jimmy stole a pencil from the student sitting next to him.” Jimmy’s father is furious. He goes to great lengths to lecture Jimmy and let him know how upset and disappointed he is, and he grounds the boy for two weeks.

“And just wait until your mother comes home!” he tells the boy ominously. Finally, he concludes, “Anyway, Jimmy, if you needed a pencil, why didn’t you just say something? Why didn’t you simply ask? You know very well that I can bring you dozens of pencils from work.”

As Dan Ariely articulates in his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, “If we smirk at this joke, it’s because we recognize the complexity of human honesty that is inherent in all of us.” It is a challenge to always do the right thing. And Ariely suggests that “certain types of activities can more easily loosen our moral standards.” Or as the Talmud teaches in Pirke Avot,

מִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה, וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, v’aveirah goreret aveirah.
One mitzvah may lead to another, but one sin also leads to another.Avot 4:2

So how do we prepare ourselves to act honorably and resist lowering our standards? In one study, students who cheated on a particular test readily condemned others who did the same thing while rationalizing their own behavior. But when asked to remember seven digits before analyzing their own actions, they were more likely to condemn themselves just as they had the others. The implication is that when their minds were busy with the numbers, they weren’t able to rationalize their bad behavior. Ethics experts use examples like this to help devise ways to instruct others. Maybe it’s not that we need to be taught more clearly right from wrong but how to make better choices in the moment.

“Evidence suggests that those who act in unethical ways later regret it because they haven’t thought enough about it beforehand,” said Don A. Moore, a professor at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Or as the great American author Ernest Hemingway wrote: “I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

This High Holy Day season is our yearly opportunity to conscientiously consider who we aspire to be. It’s not enough to say to ourselves, I will be an ethical person, because all of us tend to think we’re ethical people. Business ethicist Brooke Deterline explains, “Our natural survival instinct easily overcomes doing the right thing, and the thought is, ‘How do I protect myself in this moment?’” In order to make sure that instincts don’t override morality, it’s important, she teaches, that we practice acting courageously, despite fear and confusion. Visualizing ourselves standing morally strong and tall in difficult situations helps us, in times of real decision-making, to act morally when it’s needed. “Courage feels like discomfort — it doesn’t feel powerful. It feels uncomfortable and awkward. We’ve got to get used to acting with discomfort.”
Francesca Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard tries to encourage morality by encouraging those facing a predicament to reframe the issue from what should I do to what could I do, because it opens up a range of possibilities rather than reducing the choices down to simple right and wrong, because in the moment choosing “right” may not be so easy.

I often say that our Jewish heritage is full of great wisdom and again I am struck by this notion. For our family tree is not populated by morally upstanding heroes or ancestors who always did the right thing. Take Abraham. While our patriarch Abraham is touted as being noble for heeding God’s initial call to move to a new land and to worship only one God, Abraham is also a prime example of someone who was faced with a difficult moral quandary when faced with an immoral order from a one in authority. I’m talking about when God, the ultimate authority, asks Abraham to take his only son Isaac up the mountain and to sacrifice his son. It is only at the last moment, that God stills Abraham’s hand, thus sparing Isaac’s life. This passage is so troubling because it is not obvious to us in modern times, nor probably to our forebears in ancient times, that Abraham’s following God’s orders was the right thing to do. We often reconcile our discomfort with this passage by reading it as a testament of Abraham’s great faith in God.

But every time I read it I wonder if perhaps another interpretation is as a cautionary morality tale — should Abraham have argued with God as he does with Sodom and Gomorah? Is blind allegiance ever warranted? In light of my fuller understanding of how difficult it is for human beings to make the moral decision all the time, I now wonder if in fact Abraham made the wrong decision and rather than God stilling Abraham’s hand because he now had proof of Abraham’s loyalty, maybe God stilled Abraham’s hand because God never really wanted Abraham to go along with the request in the first place.

And there’s another example of a patriarch choosing the immoral path – Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s blessing. Like Abraham, Jacob acquiesced to a greater power. In Abraham’s case it was God, in Jacob’s it was his mother.

Our tradition has given us many examples of those who faced moral quandaries and even though they may not have chosen what we would consider the correct course of action – these biblical characters are ultimately redeemed. The biblical lessons we have learned are the same as those the ethics experts have learned from the latest psychological research – we are not necessarily wired to put the needs of others over our own needs.

And if our ancestors knew it and if current research keeps proving it, then our job is to acknowledge how hard this is. It’s hard to do the right thing and that’s why we desperately need this day of Yom Kippur. We simply have to get comfortable saying I am sorry, because we won’t do it right every time. We have to constantly re-commit ourselves to it every year, because wrestling with morality is a big part of our tradition. 

Remember, we are the B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. It was Jacob who wrestles with the Angel of God and prevailed, meriting the angel’s blessing and changing his name to one who wrestles with God. Another way to think of wrestling with God is wrestling with morality.

Business ethicist Thomas White, of Loyola Marymount, shared the story of a top executive who visited his class and told the students:

Odds are you’re going to be asked to do something you know is wrong at some point — and either you can do it or you can leave. Everyone has to have a line they won’t cross.

It’s easier, the executive concluded, to figure out that line before coming to it.

One thing research has also shown to be true is that people tend to do the right thing when they are being watched. This is fascinating if you think about it. We often talk about community as providing help to us in times of need, solace in times of distress, and joy in times of celebration. But it turns out that community also plays a role in our morality. Being a part of a community forces us to try harder to live up to the standards of that community. So, by virtue of being here tonight, we’ve all made a de facto choice to try to live within the moral standards of this religious community. And that’s a big commitment because the very nature of this community is that we talk about values and decisions and morals and ethics daily, weekly, monthly, and annually. All those moments provide a touchpoint — a reminder — of things we value.

There is no doubt that we all are influenced by those around us and that the moral resolve of our community pulls us in the direction of the moral and bolsters our own resolve to act morally. Sir Henry Taylor, a British writer in the 1800s, wrote: “Conscience is, in most men, an anticipation of the opinion of others.”

On Yom Kippur we’re reminded both that the bar our community sets is a high one and that we’re likely not to make it over at least some of the time. But we’re also reminded that it is our job, just as our fallible ancestors tried – to keep trying. To keep getting better at it.

Yom Kippur is about acknowledging that we may miss the mark at times but it also is about acknowledging that we aren’t allowed to give up.

Yom Kippur is about acknowledging that we may miss the mark at times but it also is about acknowledging that we aren’t allowed to give up. Being Jewish means living a life of purpose and part of that purpose means to continue, always, to strive to do the right thing. As we’ve learned, that can be difficult. So, part of what I do and what we as a synagogue community do, is that we keep the conversation front of mind at all times. If the way to act morally in difficult situations is to be prepared, then engaging fully in Jewish life and in ethical conversations is a great place to start.

After Yesinia Guitron was fired from Wells Fargo she was out of work for two years. Her lawsuit against the bank failed. A single mother, she ended up on food stamps and although she’d prefer still to be in banking, she now works as a property manager. But she knows her children and many of her colleagues are proud of her. And she says she never considered any other course of action. “I’ve always stood up to the bully. I think everyone can tell right from wrong — I think we all have that understanding, she said.”

May this be a year of recommitting ourselves to being guided by the ethics and morals of our religious tradition and may we draw from the wellspring of power that comes from a community dedicated to morality. May we guide each other, challenge each other, lift each other up and be blessings to the world. Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be God’s will. Amen.