With a sliver of the moon in the night sky, allowing us a greater glimpse of the stars in heaven, we begin this new month like all other months. The difference is that this month of Tishrei begins with a name and not with the number “1.” It is called “Rosh Hashanah.” “Day of Judgment.” The number of a day of the month is just part of a sequence. A name seeks for you to ponder as to the origin and meaning of it. I propose that we look upon our Rosh Hashanah, our Day of Judgment differently than in year’s past. It is not God who is judging your past deeds; rather, it is you who will judge your future steps.

I am told that there was once a new-age bookstore in Berkley, California (what a surprise!). On a large sign in front, in large letters at the top it read, “Yoga doesn’t work.” Below that in smaller letters, the sign said, “Transcendental Meditation doesn’t work.” And, below that, in smaller letters, the sign said, “Communism doesn’t work.” Below that, “Religion doesn’t work.” Below that in smaller numbers still, “Therapy doesn’t work.” And then, in great big letters, the last line said, “You have to work.”

What kind of work must we do on the High Holy Days except ask for forgiveness for past deeds? It is less about the mistakes you have made and more about the work required to make you a better father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, and friend. Leo Tolstoy put it best: “An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life – becoming a better person.”

My friends, this is a time to look forward; not back. It is a time to improve who you are for yourself and in the eyes of others. In the book of Numbers there is an interesting verse about the Israelites preparing to fight a battle for God:

“Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Let people from you be equipped/armed (הֵחָלְצוּ) for the army … to execute the vengeance of the Eternal'” (Numbers 31:3).

The Hebrew term הֵחָלְצוּ used here is translated as “arm or equip” (for battle). It may also be understood as “remove” as in וְחָֽלְצָה, “he shall remove his shoe from off his foot” (Deut. 25:9). Interesting!

In preparation for war, you need to equip yourself with uniform, boots, protective clothing, and guns. This different use of the verb suggests that when a person goes off to battle, they need to “remove” something in order to win the battle. They need to remove from themselves all thoughts of personal honor or glory and think only of the task ahead for the sake of God. What is wrong with glory as a motivation for warriors, to be a champion on the battlefield? Well, perhaps if one were fighting alone that would be fine!

You are fighting alongside your neighbor. You and he and she must understand how together you will defeat your enemy and be victorious. Thoughts of glory therefore distract the army from working together on the battlefield.

If you think about it, many tasks we take on at home or at work are affected by elements we should probably consider removing in order to do a better job. Our thoughts, our judgments, our biases can get in the way of accomplishing what we are tasked to do. That is not to say that experience doesn’t matter. Of course, we have learned behavior which affects our outlook; however, when our outlook becomes, “I know everything,” then we fall into the trap Tolstoy referred to by becoming arrogant. Once we become that, then we cannot learn new things and we do not get better!

Like the warriors in our biblical story, we need to remove from our thinking our personal interests of getting ahead, or getting recognition, or thinking we know everything, or our sense of laziness as we hand over tasks to others.

A call to arms – or our case “removal” – is a call to have honest and pure intentions. If the motives are not sincere, harm may result. The group, the family, the battle, or the enterprise may not achieve the desired results without it.
We can agree that we are not alone in this world. Just look around; in this room alone there are 700 people who think differently than you. They may think they have the answer, too, and it is probably different than yours.

When we agree to a venture, a task, a goal, we inevitably are doing something with or for others. We are in a collaboration. We are accepting the idea that we are part of a team and not acting alone. Of course, we would rather work alone, but that is not always possible. It is unnatural for some of us to work collaboratively with others. But this year, I am urging you to consider it. In order to create that kind of culture where you can be a better human being.

Amy Edmonson, Harvard professor of Leadership and Management, suggests that three important key components are necessary – You must be: curious, passionate, and empathetic.1

  1. Curiosity drives people to wonder what others know, what they bring to the table, what they can add. We live in a world that has become much more complex than it was in our parents’ generation. The truths about family are no longer true. The certainties at work, in our community no longer exist. If we accept that then, we need a different approach. We need greater diversity in order to find answers to our concerns and overcome obstacles, and to succeed where for some reason we failed yesterday. This is known in the academic world as the John Milton effect.
  • John Milton was born in 1608.
  • He wrote in 7 different languages and read 12.
  • He invented 600 words. 135 of them begin with “un-“.
  • At the peak of his career, the British library held 35,000 books. If you read two books a year for 50 years you would get through all of them. Milton came very close to doing that. He knew almost everything a person could possibly know.
  • Here’s the catch: If you remove from the equation books that are self-published, there are 600,000 books published each year. In 1638 Milton knew everything. Today, he would barely know anything.

We can only know a small slice of anything.

Synagogues maintained themselves a generation ago, and Jews belonged because they were supposed to. It was tradition. Not so true today. People join for many reasons: teach my kids, like the cantor, like the rabbi, etc. And there are larger numbers not joining for even more complex reasons.

We have to redefine our religious community and how we work. “The issues we face are so big … and so challenging that we cannot do it alone, so there is a certain humility and a recognition that we need to invite other people in.”2 So, we open conversations with other synagogues in our community.

David Biale, a contemporary historian of Jewish culture, teaches, “Ours is a self-conscious age, when we raise questions about old ideologies and ‘master’ narratives and no longer assume as unchanging or monolithic categories like ‘nation’, ‘homeland’, ‘exile’, ‘Israel’.” These categories were foundational for previous generations, but perhaps not ours. “We are conscious, perhaps more than any earlier generation, of how our contemporary culture and commitments influence the ways we view historical subjects” and our relationship to them. Because of that complexity, we have to work harder to succeed, and we have to work harder together!

Working together does not come naturally. How do armies manage to bring together men and women of different ages, experiences, and cultures and unite them to fight for a cause worth fighting for? One might suggest that it is boot camp where they just break them down, so that they follow the orders of their commander.

We don’t have a boot camp opportunity in life, to break people down who have been brought together to work on something – nor should we! On the other hand, there are those among us in this congregation who have experienced this boot camp mentality in our families and our workplaces. We are aware of overbearing parents and bosses who by their crushing wills have their children and employees abide by their will and their dictates.

The first challenge is to overcome “self-protection”, which is a natural instinct. You are concerned about yourself and your own survival. It is no wonder that those thinking like this are less interested in others and will be less passionate to carry through with an effort. The challenge to positive collaboration in today’s world is to admit to your children, your employees, your friends that you don’t have all the answers. Plus, if you are truly curious, your humility allows the answer to come from unexpected places. The clearest example in our scripture is the story of David and Goliath. King Saul, had he not been curious about what this scrawny kid was capable of, would never have defeated the giant and the Philistines!

A display of curiosity helps others realize that you are interested in their ideas as opposed to arguing and rationalizing your own position. Curiosity is honestly wanting to know what others are bringing to the table to achieve shared goals. This year we can try to be thoughtful about what needs to be learned rather than having the answers. We do this by creating a two-way dialogue about where we are going and why.

As parents, we cut off that dialogue. As teachers, we cut off that dialogue. As bosses, we cut off that dialogue. Why? “I told you so.” And that should be enough!

  • Fundamental truth of that action: you cannot see when someone is holding back.
  • You cannot tell someone had an idea in their head they did not share.
  • You cannot tell that someone was in over their head and did not ask for help.
  • You cannot tell that someone is aware of a mistake or failure and did not share it.

There needs to be the space to share ingenuity and when you have all the answers you will not discover the genius you are smothering!

  1. Passion fuels the enthusiasm for everything we do and encourages people to care and stretch, go all out to make something happen. If you create an environment where you love what you have then what you have, you will love. Showing up is never enough. One Chasidic master taught that zeal and enthusiasm is the foundation for every virtue. With it, all other virtues are perfected.

Judaism teaches that drifting along with no passion or doing the same mitzvot without enthusiasm is actually a sin! You will be receiving gifts and blessings this year unexpectedly. Recognize them with gratitude and let them spark you to be of service and do good because it becomes abundantly clear that you are holding gifts in your hand that are to be passed on to others with the same enthusiasm as you received them. Others who witness this in you will become infected with the same passion, I assure you.

  1. Empathy is the ability to see a perspective other than your own. You all know the adage, seek first to understand … then to be understood. For most of us we look at relationships in one of three ways:
  1. Functional – you do your work. I do my work. The other guy does his work. Reach goal.
  2. Superficial – you have it. But it doesn’t matter. And I don’t care.
  3. Transactional – I do for you and you do for me.
  4. But rarely: transformational! – built on a foundation of genuine understanding.

Empathy means I take You into account. I adjust my expectations accordingly. We even say, “if you only understood, you wouldn’t be judgmental.” King Solomon from our own tradition, three thousand years ago, taught us this lesson: “In all your getting, get understanding.” Wisdom comes from understanding. Without it, people act unwisely. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I will get to know him.” He understood something about transformational relationships.

Fred Rogers once said, “When you combine your own intuition with a sensitivity to other people’s feelings and moods, you may be close to the origins of valuable human attributes such as generosity, altruism, compassion, sympathy, and empathy.” What this means is that we need to be able to listen more to others rather than rationalizing or arguing3 and becoming defensive when an alternative solution offered by others may lead everyone in the right direction. People want to feel valued and of value.

Moses argued, therefore, that only the most righteous men could go into battle for the Eternal. They were the ones with the right temperament to carry out the task together.

Others were ordered to return home (Deut. 20:8).

Moses chose the most righteous to successfully defeat the Midianites that day. You can easily say, “Rabbi, I am only average. I am not righteous.” King David, his son, King Solomon, and our Sages from ages past would argue with you. They wrote their wisdom literature a thousand years after Moses. They were not writing a history of our people. They were writing for their communities and their congregants, and for my congregants. They were saying to them as I am saying to you tonight: You can be righteous! You can be wise! The 98th Psalm (verse 2) – which we read every Friday night – says it best:

Adonai has made known the power of salvation,
And revealed righteousness to all nations.
For God has come to inspire us to be righteous,
To bring uprightness to all people.

The world is a complicated place. The world is a difficult place. Working with people you don’t normally work with is challenging and unnatural. Families are difficult. I get that. You get that. But just as the ancient Israelites were able to remove their misgivings, arrogance, and their egos, and Moses chose them because these were the righteous ones, so can you be called to righteousness.

I leave you with this image from the movie Paper Chase, Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.: As he welcomes the L1 students to their first year of law school he says, “Look to your left. Now, look to your right. One of you will not be here next year.”

Message: For me to succeed you must fail. It is a message of scarcity. I will succeed and you will be fired.

Now, I want you to look to the left. Now, look to the right: how quickly can you find the talents, skills, and hopes of your neighbor or family member and convey what you bring and they bring to your future. Create the future that you cannot create alone.

Be righteous by working a little harder to improve the conditions of your world. This is the hard work for you this year, if and only if, you step forward with a little curiosity, passion, and empathy. Amen.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu um’tukah.


[1] Teaming Culture, Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business Review, December 17, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/12/the-three-pillars-of-a-teaming-culture
[2] Paul Pullman, CEO, Unilever
[3] Mark Louchheim, Bobrick News, Summer 2019.