Congregation Or Chadash
Rosh HaShanah Day 5762
EARNED SIN AVERAGE
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
Jewish Community Center
HIGH HOLY DAYS SERMONS 5762
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
EARNED SIN AVERAGE
Think of the re-start of baseball last evening. I was thinking about the statistics of pitchers. One of the most important statistics for pitchers is that person’s ERA; the earned run average, the average number of runs that is allowed per game. The goal, of course, is to have this be a very low number. Randy Johnson maintained his low number last night, a little bit fewer than three. However, the existence of almost any number is an indication of failure. Of course, some of the blame often goes to the fielders. Nevertheless, the number is on the pitcher’s statistics.
So in other words, the pitcher is faced with this failure each time he begins a game. He knows that this number is going to be heard over and over again by millions of T.V. watchers and radio listeners. Now other players in baseball don’t have this problem. Their statistics are constantly increasing and are constantly toward the good. So we look at someone’s batting average – their runs batted in, their home runs.
However, a pitcher has a problem. It happens to be the same problem many of us have. Look at people who have to lose weight. They are losers because they are losing weight. Maybe that is why it’s so difficult to lose weight. [You have to think about that for a moment.] – How terrible it must be for a pitcher each day to face his ERA. Whereas other players are working on their slugging percentage, their RBI’s, their hits, home runs, and working towards higher and higher numbers of improvement, the ERA constantly reminds the pitcher of how badly he is doing. He is assaulted by his mistakes all the time.
So, the solution, as we approach Yom Kippur, is not to recognize simply our own mistakes and our faults, and recount our sins that we committed under duress, or by choice consciously or unconsciously in our thoughts. Rather, maybe we should have a different approach. On Yom Kippur we are made aware of our ESA; our Earned Sin Average. Of our EFA—our Earned Failure Average.
Wouldn’t it be better to look at an RBI; a number reflecting our successes, our achievements, our victories sustained over the year? Maybe we have to concentrate on how we can increase those numbers while at the same time being cognizant of our mistakes but not looking at them so seriously. Even when we look in our liturgy, we do not ask God to wipe out our mistakes. We just ask God to place a veil over our mistakes so we don’t have to look at them and God doesn’t have to look at them all the time. We should focus on our successes and the good things that we try to do.
Many of us realize that this review of our ESA and our EFA does not occur only during this time of year, but for some of us it’s what happens when we go to work. Our bosses look at our failure rates, the number of mistakes that we make. At school, we are marked down for mistakes. As parents also, maybe we focus too much, on what our children fail to do. Not very often are we credited for the good things that we do or the successes that we have.
Now Buddha instructed us that the mind is everything. We become what we think. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” The Bible, in the Book of Proverbs, teaches us, “He who calculates in his heart so is he. He who calculates in his heart so is he.” Therefore, as we focus on our failure then so it will be. If we focus on our failures, so we will repeat them. As we focus on our despair, so we will become desperate.
There have been numerous studies published by universities and individuals like Norman Cousins and Norman Vincent Peale that have documented the wonderful dividends of positive thinking and optimism. There is even a new science called, I can’t even pronounce it but it’s a fancy word describing our ability through thought and emotion to decrease our susceptibility to illness and to increase our internal ability to heal ourselves. If we think positively about our body and our body system then that will help us toward greater healing.
But what is it that stops us from acknowledging everything that’s positive in our lives? It comes from a disbelief that we can substantiate our success. People don’t feel adequate, don’t feel capable, don’t feel lovable, don’t feel loved. Some are dealing with problems from their childhood that they cannot get over, that they cannot grow beyond. So, they’re stopped from doing greater and greater things.
Another wonderful baseball illustration, if you don’t mind. Ron Guidry was a pitcher for the Yankees. In 1976, the Yankees’ organization sent him back to the minors. He was crushed and he was thinking of quitting the game. As he and his wife drove back, drove away from New York, his wife turned to him and said, “You are a great man. You’ve got what it takes to be the very best.” Finally, she said, “It’s going to bother me to think that you will never know whether you could have made it in the big leagues.” And so, he turned around. He went to the minor leagues. He worked ever harder. He was brought back to the majors in 1977 and in 1978, he was the unanimous choice in the American League for the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher that year.
It’s positive behavior and positive thinking that are the marks of every successful person. Even failure can be seen in a positive way if one can see in the failure a step-by-step process toward achieving one’s goal. When I used to be an insurance salesman, I was told a story of a young man who would go door to door trying to sell insurance policies and kept failing and failing. By the tenth door that he knocked on he’d finally sell one policy and maybe earn for himself $250.00. He became very discouraged by this until he thought for a moment, “You know, each one of those doors where I don’t make a sale is worth $25.00 to me because by the time I get to the tenth door I’ve earned that $250.00.” Therefore, he walked to every door with greater excitement, with greater enthusiasm. And I can tell you he made more sales than just one out of every 10. A reporter once asked Thomas Edison why he kept trying to invent the light bulb after 6,000 failures. Thomas Edison pointed to the reporter and said, “No, no. You don’t understand. These weren’t 6000 failures. The invention of the light bulb was a 6,000-step process.”
In analyzing our Torah portion we read this morning, we are witness to a similar phenomenon. The rabbis are curious as to why God tested Abraham. We too wonder why so many roadblocks were placed in front of his life. He was a righteous man and he should have been saying to himself, “God, why are you doing this to me?” The book of Psalms gives us the answer; “The Lord tests the righteous. The Lord tests those who are strong.” A righteous person is not someone who is ordained by God to be righteous. Because if you understand what God’s will is in your life, you walk that path to do the right thing in your life, you are a righteous person and you have your roots firmly implanted in your faith in God. Even when you face many failures in your life, ultimately you will succeed because you are walking that right path.
Like Abraham, we have the capacity for good and righteous behavior. We too have the inner strength to overcome adversity, achieve success, and have a positive impact on other people. For example, the rabbis ask why God delayed in telling Abraham to take Isaac to his particular place. He said, “Take your son, your only one, the one that you love. Take Isaac.” He could have just said; “Take Isaac.” Instead, God understood that everything in life is a step-by-step process. It doesn’t start with complete success.
You know I just noticed, sorry David, I’m going to point you out. David and Wendee Levy are wonderful astronomers here in the United States. I can tell you that David has spent hours and hours and days and days at his telescope and he doesn’t always see what he is looking for. However, because he has the patience, because they both have the patience, sometimes they see miracles in the heavens. But it takes that patience. You don’t see it the very first time.
And similarly, early in the story about Abraham God doesn’t say to Abraham, “Go to Israel you’re going to be a blessing.” He says, “Go from your country, go from your family, go from your father’s house. Go to the place that I will show you.” Why? Because each step in our lives is very, very difficult and we are not successful in the beginning. However, if we have the courage of our convictions then we can make wonderful things happen as Abraham made wonderful things happen in his life as well.
In order to achieve important goals, one’s journey will be filled with tension and difficult decisions. The ones who take these steps, despite the difficulty, grow, mature and are rewarded like Ron Guidry, like Abraham, like all of us who have struggled so hard to try to achieve something important in our lives. Where our goals might be noble and worthy we have found the risk too great to take the first step at times. Often we allow our thoughts to hold us back. There is a misbelief that others are to blame for us being held back in our lives. However, that simply is not true. We are responsible for our own lives!
Today is Rosh Hashanah. Today is the beginning of the year. Today is a new beginning for all of us. It is the head of the year. It’s the beginning to make changes. We celebrate today the creation of the world. So let us recall that in this world we have been given divine gifts not the least of which is our own creation. We are created in the divine image and therefore no role, no thought, no emotion, no body image will denigrate that worthy idea of being in the image of God. The gifts, the skills, the abilities God has given us we need to use, we need to fashion in order to make our lives in this world a better place. God stepped back from the artistry of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and hesitated for a moment, and handed the paintbrush to us. The ongoing creation is in our hands. We need to appreciate all the wonderful gifts that we have. But we also need to appreciate the wonderful gifts that others have as well. We have received many gifts from other people as well and we need to thank them for what we’ve been given.
There is a wonderful, wonderful story. In a small village, there was a poor seamstress. Each new year she would make new clothing for the children in the orphanage. The director and the children were always delighted when these came because they were the only clothes that these children ever received and she did this every single year. Years went by. The village changed from a small rural place to a bustling city. The seamstress died unnoticed. The shul was small in the beginning and then became a great synagogue. The orphanage closed down. As Rosh Hashanah approached, the synagogue needed to raise money to cover their costs. The mayor of the town recalled that there was a wealthy industrialist who lived in a nearby town who was raised in a local orphanage. Possibly, he would come and help raise funds for the congregation. The man came as he was requested and explained that being an orphan was difficult– difficult living with no parents. He went to sleep each night with tears on his pillow. However, every Rosh Hashanah, he and all the other children of the orphanage would receive a new set of clothing. But what was more important to him was that there was always a note attached to every item of clothing. The mayor asked, “What was the message?” And the man answered, “It’s not important what the note said. What was important was that someone spent the time to think that I made a difference and that I was someone important. I never felt alone.”
As we go about creating and recreating let us too realize that we are not alone. God is present for those wishing to see the divine presence and we need to appreciate God’s role in our lives. God is the bestower of many gifts that help make the darkness become light in our lives. God helps us see there are blooms on every flower in this world. There is no way that we should retreat from this world, but we should be a part of its greater creative process. How do we make progress especially in times of darkness and tragedy? By first understanding where we come from, where our roots are grounded. We are grounded in God, in our faith, and by taking risks like our ancestor Abraham took risks. We need to cross boundaries and limits we once felt were impossible.
Dag Hammarskjöld, one of the great Secretary Generals of the UN, who died tragically, wrote something quite marvelous in his diary. And what was interesting is no one thought that this very stern, cold man would have a diary. However, it’s one of the more impassioned books I’ve ever read in my life. It’s calledMarkings. He wrote, “Never measure the height of the mountain until you’ve climbed to the top of it and then you will realize how small it really is.” It is something in us that stops us from making that climb – a weakness of thought. This weakness, this fear of failure, even fear of success, often comes from not understanding the divine gifts that we have, that we have been given, the blessings that have been bestowed upon our lives. Abraham knew he had blessings. Abraham asked God, “You knew that I would sacrifice my son if you willed it. You knew what was in my heart. Why did you afflict me like this?” And God said, “It was my wish that the world would become acquainted with you. You are the banner of righteousness that all can witness and learn from your example.”
So let us learn from Abraham’s example of living, of struggling, that there are tests, roadblocks, and struggles in our life that challenge us, but they make us better. Raise us up so we can become greater and greater at greater and greater blessings. Not for ourselves, but for the glory of God and for our communities. This is achievable only if we think that it is achievable. In one of our mystical texts, Or Zaruach, there is a story of an old man near the end of his days. His entire life was in studying Mishnah and studying Talmud. Just before he dies, he turns to one of his students, raises his own hands in front of his face and asks his students, “What are these for? I don’t know what these are for.” Your hands are for Mitzvot, to do God’s will. Your lives are to bring Brachot, to bring blessings into this world. The Mitzvot are the means by which we bring God’s will into reality and the Brachot is an understanding that we are blessed by these divine gifts. And both are raised to a level of Kiddusha, of holiness.
Therefore, let us strive just as Abraham did, with each step achieving greater and greater holiness in the world. This is the goal of the positive steps we can take – to enhance not simply who we are, or what we do in the world, but to enhance God’s glory in this world as well. Just as important about how we see accomplishments of our family members and friends and co-workers, we must acknowledge them as well. When was the last time you expressed your appreciation to your spouse, your partner, your loved one or your children? When was the last time you made that co-worker feel a little bit special and honored to be working side by side with you? We need to be aware of these things, too.
So today, as we begin a new year, instead of faults and mistakes and sins, let us look at accomplishments, successes and victories. Remember we are doing the best that we can with the awareness and the skills and the knowledge that we have been given. Remember the origins of your gifts, your God and your family.
In coming back to baseball, there are over 700 baseball players in the professional leagues. All have different skills. None of them is perfect. Not one of them bats a 1,000. Errors are part of every game of life. Rabbi Bernard King, many years ago, noted that to be a good batter you only need to hit 3 out of 10 pitches and that would probably get you into the Hall of Fame. You have a failure rate of 70% and the world honors you. A batter lives with this adversity. The ERA is the adversity a pitcher lives with. Yet the motto is, “Wait until the next game, next year. I will do better.”
So here we are, opening day for the Jews. Let us not concentrate on our ESA, our earned sin average. Or our EFA, our earned failure average. Our goal is to take ourselves for a few days back to the minor leagues, work on our skills, improve our averages on the field of life and come back to do the best that we can. Amen.
Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash