Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end!...Jack Moline
Kol Nidrei, 5771/2010 * * * Civility * * * ©Rabbi Jack Moline
See if you recognize this, or something like it.
There's a problem with the reception on all of our televisions, which shouldn't happen because we are cable subscribers. So I get on the telephone and I dial 1-800 and the name of our cable provider. And here's what happens:
Welcome to major communication conglomerate customer service line. Please listen carefully because our options have changed. For cable television, press 1. For high-speed internet service, press 2. For telephone service, press 3.
If your cable service is out completely, press 1. If only on-demand services are out, press 2. If you are having trouble with only one television, press 3. Otherwise, press 4.
To better serve you, please enter your 16-digit account number, followed by the pound sign.
(Oh no – I have to go get a bill so I can find my account number.)
I'm sorry, I didn't get that. Please enter your 16-digit account number, followed by the pound sign.)
(Here it is, okay…)
If you don't have your 16-digit account number, please enter the last 4 digits of your social security number.
We are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls right now. Please consider calling back between 2:00 and 5:00 pm, when call volumes are lighter. Or, stay on the line for the next service representative. Dun dun-da dunna-dunna dun dunna dun…
(two choruses later)
Your call is important to us. All of our service representatives are busy helping other customers. Your call should be answered in – TWENTY-TWO – minutes. Dun dun-da dunna-dunna dun dunna dun…
(Okay, I'll leave it on speaker, answer a little email, put the bill back in the file…thirty-six minutes later)
Dun dun-da dunna-dunna dun dunna dun…*click*…Hello, this is Scott. Thank you for calling major communication conglomerate. May I have your 16-digit account number, please?
(Don't you have my account on the screen in front of you?)
No, sir. Do you have your 16-digit account number?
(No, I don't.)
That's all right. How about your address?
(1109 Crestwood Drive, Alexandria, VA)
And just for verification, your ZIP code?
(22302. Has there been a lot of ZIP code theft lately?)
I don't know, sir. We just have to verify it. What seems to be the problem?
(We are getting poor reception on all of our televisions.)
I see. Have you tried unplugging your DVR and plugging it back in?
(Yes, and not only did it not work, but it's only hooked up to one television.)
Of course. Well, we'll send a technician out to check your service. Will you be home today?
Between 10:00am and 9:00pm.
(No, I'm sorry, I have a few things to do today – like go to work.)
All right, how about tomorrow?
Well, I have 8 to 11, 11 to 2, 2 to 5 and 5 to 8.
(Can we narrow it down some?)
Sir, I have 8 to 11, 11 to 2, 2 to 5 and 5 to 8.
(All right, 2 to 5.)
Great. Is there anything else I can help you with?
Thank you for calling major communication conglomerate.
Next day, 5:30.
Welcome to major communication conglomerate customer service line. Please listen carefully because our options have changed. For cable television, press 1…
You know the rest. We're sorry we missed the appointment, we'll give you another three hour window tomorrow, no you can't speak with a supervisor, but one will call you within 48 hours, and so on.
Folks, the Dalai Lama would be blowing his stack by the time the cable got fixed.
The purpose of this little performance is not to entertain you – I assure you that I was not entertained when the supervisor did not call me back in 48 hours and the person I reached at 1-800-the-name-of-my-cable-company said they would review the delay and be back to me within two weeks. And I did get the reception fixed – it took ten minutes once someone actually came to the house.
The purpose is to illustrate how easy it is to become angry in this society. In fact, I would venture to guess that anger is the number one growth industry in America.
It is not the fault of the major communication conglomerate, though when combined with the electric company, the gas company, the fourteen or fifteen different divisions of your telephone company and customer service for any company with a toll-free number, they bear some of responsibility. Government, including agencies and many of our elected officials, medical and legal offices, even the occasional house of worship will force you into a game of bingo before you can even leave a message, let alone find a human being to help you.
These devices are designed to make the business they are serving more efficient. That is, in spite of the disclaimer often offered, "in order to serve you better," the answering devices serve the business, not the customer. It is less expensive to have a machine route your call for less than half a cent than to pay a human being many dollars an hour hoping you will call.
Now, nobody says to "your good feelings are not worth the cost to us of avoiding your aggravation," but that is in fact the calculus of the situation. And, quite honestly, both the communication conglomerate and the local pharmacy have, as their immediate motivation, saving money for everybody. If a bank of young women sat at a switchboard like you see on "Mad Men" or an old police movie, the cost of those people sitting around and doing nothing between clients and crimes would be passed along to you, sooner or later.
But the unspoken message, unintentional though it may be, is, "you are not worth it." It is a dehumanizing message, incidental when the wait time is mere moments and the service person you reach can help you immediately, but corrosive in the aggregate. You may notice it more when Tabitha, whose real name is Svetlana, transfers you to her supervisor Arthur, whose real name is Mohandas, who then dumps you back into a performance by Willie Nelson on continuous loop for fifteen minutes, but I don't have to tell you how your heart sinks when, instead of "how may I help you?" you hear "Please listen carefully as our options have changed."
Anger has grown incrementally in this country as the default attitude of adults the way that obesity has grown as the number one health crisis for children. We can point to the equivalent of fast food and less playground time as part of the cause, but in and of themselves, these small moments do not seem to be significant.
I don't want to give you the impression that you ought to be affirmed as a person when you call to report a power outage, but we do live in a society that claims to place an absolute value on the worth of the individual – individual rights, individual autonomy, individual enterprise, individual opportunity. And when we are told by everything from the Declaration of Independence to commercial advertising that each of us is equal to the other and that we are in good hands and that you can have it your way, it is a shock to the system of our own making to be reminded constantly that we really don't matter. Having been promised inherent worth, it is infuriating to be told we are worthless.
Our tradition, our Jewish tradition, could be understood to deliver the unhappy message of "get over it." After all, for all of the major and minor characters in the Bible, very few get names, and very many are the casualties of anonymous lives and deaths. Next month, while we are slogging through the "begats" in Genesis and wondering why we have to know these names, give a thought to the hundreds of thousands who left Egypt as nameless extras in an historic moment, who stood faceless at Sinai, who died during forty years in the wilderness. Think about the thousands put to the sword for the sin of the Golden Calf, the weak and young slaughtered by Amalek, the greedy and gluttonous who stuffed themselves with quail.
On the other hand, from the very beginning of God's creation to the teachings we cherish today, the absolute worth and uniqueness of every individual as a child of God, created in that singular image of God has been a value that drives us each to try to make a positive difference in this world.
But the Talmud has something very specific to say about the results of raised expectations that are unceremoniously dashed. It has something very specific to say about the human being who is told of his ultimate worth and then dismissed as both unnecessary and an annoyance.
Most of you are familiar with the story of the oven of Akhnai – I have taught it enough times that you should have it memorized by now. The rabbis engage in their conversation about its suitability, and a confrontation develops between Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, who is the head of the academy, and the other members. All sorts of proofs are brought by Rabbi Eliezer for his position, including God's voice proclaiming that "in all matters of halakhah" Rabbi Eliezer is correct. (BM 59b)
Generally, we stop reading the story when the collective will of the rabbis out-votes the endorsement of God – and God approves. But we do not stop to consider what it means to a man like Rabbi Eliezer that he has been not only out-maneuvered by his colleagues, but abandoned by his strongest ally.
For all of our celebration of the affirmation of human authority over Jewish law, I think most of us have a certain sympathy for poor Rabbi Eliezer. Out-voted by a triumphant majority, deposed from his position by virtue of his inability to promote his agenda – and let me remind you that no one less than God has affirmed his agenda – here is what the Talmud says next about the fate of Rabbi Eliezer at the hands of his opponents:
It was said that on that day they collected everything that R. Eliezer had declared tahor, pure, and burned them. And they took a vote about him and expelled him.
At this point, practical concerns set in. Apparently, R. Eliezer wasn't there for the vote, because a discussion ensues about who is going to tell him. And the premier scholar of the next generation, R. Akiva, volunteers to be the one.
I want to tell you why Akiva volunteers, but I first want to come back to the impact of the general neglect of our persons in contemporary society.
Our neighbors in the District of Columbia just turned out their incumbent mayor in a primary election. By almost every objective standard, his term of office had been a resounding success. Government offices, which were black holes, were functioning again. The city's physical infrastructure was improving. Metro, mess though it seems to be, was being held accountable for the services it delivers. Crime was down. The schools were improving. DC was livable in a way it had not been for many years.
So why is Adrian Fenty no longer the presumed next mayor of the District of Columbia? Everyone will tell you that he neglected persons. I offer you two illustrations. You can admire or revile his school superintendent, Michelle Rhee, but you cannot deny that whatever success she has had comes at the expense of the good will of the teachers who must educate the District's children. Mayor Fenty was completely tone-deaf to that grievance. But the better example: last Sunday, three days before the election, the new nominee Vincent Gray went to meet people where they were – he visited six churches in three hours. Mayor Fenty spent that time running a triathalon.
The pent-up frustration of people who had been put on hold was personified in the dismissive approach that the Mayor took toward his constituents. They were angry. They were disenfranchised. They were ignored. And so they voted for a guy who offered no better way to run the city, but promised, essentially, to notice them.
Insert your favorite election here. The contests are saturated with the accumulated anger of people who have been promised to have their worth acknowledged and been delivered instead recorded messages that lead to nowhere. The challenges being mounted to incumbents are being fueled by public figures who speak nonsense, but hold our hands while they do it. The anger they recognize is not limited to disillusioned Democrats or resentful Republicans. And it is being played out in politics – and in ethnic and race relations – because there are human targets in those arenas, not digital recordings and call-center voices.
We want to know that we matter. And when we do not, the veneer of good will falls away. And the result is enormously destructive. I will give it a name much too benign, but I would be heartened if we aspired merely to its opposite. The name in incivility.
Here is what happened with Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Akiva said, "I will go, for if someone goes who is not fit for the task and tells him, the entire world will be destroyed." What did R. Akiva do? He dressed in black and cloaked himself in black, and he sat down before him at a distance of four cubits [about six or eight feet]. Rabbi Eliezer said to him, "Akiva, what is going on today?" He replied, "My master, it seems to me that your colleagues have separated from you."
As gently as he could manage, Rabbi Akiva informed his teacher that he had been expelled.
[Rabbi Eliezer] tore his garments and removed his shoes, slid off of his stool and sat on the ground. Tears rushed from his eyes. A third of the olives, a third of the wheat and a third of the barley in the world [was ruined], and some say even the dough in a woman's hands spoiled.
Understand that it is the Talmud's way of telling us that the world suffered a loss of sustenance when disagreement gave way to disrespect. But before your sympathies for Rabbi Eliezer overcome you, here is the part I really need you to hear.
A great anger erupted that day. Every place Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes went up in flames. It even happened that Rabban Gamliel [who was the presiding head of the Jewish community and R. Eliezer's brother-in-law] was coming in a boat and a storm came up to capsize him. He said, "It seems to me this is because of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos." He stood up on his feet and said, "Sovereign of the universe! You know that I did not [agree to the expulsion] for my own honor or for the honor of my father's house, but for your honor, so that there would be less disagreement among the Jews!" The sea subsided.
Ima Shalom, wife of R. Eliezer, was the sister of Rabban Gamliel. From that moment forward, she would not allow Rabbi Eliezer to recite his personal prayers of supplication, tachanun. One day, she thought it was Rosh Chodesh [when tachanun is not said]…or, some say, a poor person had come to the door and she brought him some food. Either way, she found him reciting those personal prayers. She said, "Get up! You will kill my brother!" At that moment, an announcement went out of Rabban Gamliel's house that he had just died.
You can believe this story literally or not. R. Eliezer did not have the power to combust whatever he looked at. He did not create a typhoon out of his rage. And his prayers were not fatal. But the power of his disenfranchisement was such, the impact of being dismissed from his worth was such that the man entrusted with God's spirit to improve the world became instead the agent of its destruction.
That is the power of anger. And while anger has value in some situations, as a state of mind it seeks to visit the dehumanization that inflamed it on other people. It seeks revenge. It seeks harm. It seeks destruction. It seeks to seize power by any effective means to replace the power and dignity that have been taken away.
We are living in an angry society. The Glenn Becks and Chris Mathews of the world are yelling at you about it all the time. The Tea Party and Code Pink activists are taunting you about it all the time. Baptists in Kansas are angry about gays, Jews in New York are angry about Muslims, Catholics are angry about abortions, people who immigrated to the United States two generations ago are angry about people who immigrated to the United States this generation.
I have acknowledged before that I am no stranger to anger – I have often been on intimate terms with it. It has taken a lot of work, and the occasional backslide, for me to recognize the dehumanizing effect of anger and the insidious way that anger accumulates in the soul. It takes tremendous self-awareness – often the first victim of dehumanizing circumstances – to resist the seductive call to do unto others as you believe they have done or intend to do unto you.
But tonight, today and tomorrow, comes the clarion call not to give into those attitudes and behaviors that depress civil society into incivility, that reduce the joyous and raucous environment in which we live to a fractious rubble, that cause your eyes to flash with fire, your rage to whip the wind, your prayers for peace of mind to become prayers for your opponent to rest in peace. We confess to those sins, including the ones we committed just a tiny bit, but it is the aggregate impact of our role in dehumanizing others that makes them and us the agents of anger in an uncivil society.
We are up against a mighty opponent, aided and abetted by the efficiencies that ask us to listen because the options have changed and to consider disruptive inconvenience to be the definition of customer service. We are tempted to search for the nearest warm body to attack, and we find it in the men and women who have devoted their lives to service as elected officials, appointed officials and community leaders, or even worse, those nearest and dearest to us.
But the real victims are ourselves. The real victim is yourself. Say it quietly, silently, confessionally: the real victim is myself.
People will ask you what the rabbi talked about tonight. Maybe you will tell them I talked about getting through to the cable company. Maybe you will tell them I talked about Talmudic sages with exploding eyesight. Maybe you will say I talked about anger.
But here's what I hope you will say. Tell them I encouraged you not to give up your humanity. Tell them I encouraged you to forgive and accept forgiveness. Tell them I told you that at least one person – your rabbi – believes you to be better than the worshippers of anger, because the image of the one true God is impressed on your soul.