Rosh Hashanah Day 1
I saw a wonderful little film the other day, called Dark Horse. Dark Horse is a documentary about Janet Vokes, a barmaid from a small town in South Wales who has a dream of breeding a racehorse. It’s not a complete fantasy. When she was growing up, she had experience breading birds and then dogs.
But, breeding a racehorse was an entirely different matter. People from the working class do not usually have the funds to breed a racehorse. It’s expensive to buy the horse and it’s expensive to train the horse. So, Janet and her husband convince 23 other villagers to go in with them on this project. They buy a broodmare who has a racing history. They hook her up with a stallion. Several months later, a cute little horsey is born. And she names him Dream Alliance.
People continually underestimate Dark Alliance for two reasons. First of all, his mother always finished last in her races. So, he lacks the proper bloodlines to succeed. And, just as important, his working class owners also lack the proper breeding. No one believes that a horse owned by this group will amount to anything—just as they don’t expect these Welsh villagers to amount to anything.
That’s what this film is really about. It’s not about the horse, it’s about the people.
I am not going to spoil the film for you by telling you what happens. But, I will say that this horse far surpasses everyone’s expectations of him, including his working class owners who would have been thrilled if he had just won a couple of local races, and called it a day.
I mention this movie because I believe this film has an important message for us in this election year. And, that’s especially true if we connect this film to the core message of the field of Positive Psychology, which I’ve been reading a lot about lately. If you go to a positive psychologist, she will tell you: “Don’t talk to me about your problems.” Positive psychology says that if you want to change your life for the better, don’t focus on fixing what’s wrong in your life. Instead, identify something you’re already good at. And, do it better. That’s exactly what the Janet Vokes did. And, as a result, she was able to do things she never imagined she could do.
So, as we look around the world at this time of the year, let’s first ask ourselves: What’s working? I know the high holidays are supposed to be about fixing ourselves. But, I hope you will forgive me if I begin today by talking about some of the things that are right with the world.
This is not a systematic list. These are just a few of the stories I have come across since the summer that make me feel pretty good about being alive at this time and in this place. Here is story number one. This past spring, 9 year old Zion Harvey got to do something most kids his age only dream of. He threw out the first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles-Texas Rangers game.
But, Zion is no ordinary 9 year old and throwing a ball for him was no ordinary feat. When Zion was two years old, he lost both his hands and legs below the knee to a life threatening infection. A year ago, Zion became the first child to undergo a double hand transplant. It took a team of 40 doctors and nurses eleven hours to do the surgery. And, a year later, amazingly, Zion can do most things that kids his age can do.
It’s worth going online and seeing for yourself. Because what is most impressive about Zion is his spark and his spirit. He is all of nine years old. He is completely comfortable in front of the tv camera. If you can call a nine year old, charismatic, he is charismatic. He has a presence. He is full of life and energy. He is determined to get as much out of life as he can. And, when the reporter asked him what lesson we should draw from his experience, he looked the reporter right in the eye and he said: “Before you quit and say ‘I give up’—try everything first.”
I find it inspiring to know that someone like Zion Harvey exists in the world. I am inspired by his brave mother and his incredible doctors. And, I am grateful to live at a time and in a country where the perception of what people with disabilities can achieve has changed dramatically. We still have a long way to go. But, there was a time not so long ago that having a disability meant living a very limited life. Not any more. Not in the America of today.
You know, in so many ways, this is a pretty good time to be an American. The America we live in today is far from perfect. But, it is more inclusive, more generous and more accepting than it’s ever been before—and maybe more than any society in history. A lot has changed in a relatively short period of time. A lot has changed in my lifetime. When I was growing up, blacks and whites were still drinking from separate drinking fountains in the south. Asians were called Orientals and white people thought all they could do was run a laundry.
The word gay was never mentioned. There was no such thing as handicapped accessible, or translations for the deaf at a public event. A deaf person would never appear in a tv drama as a love interest, as happened recently in the tv series Switched at Birth. All of this has changed in practically the blink of an eye.
And, the barriers continue to fall. Fifteen years ago, an African-American high school student named Ryan Speedo Green made his first visit to the Metropolitan Opera on a school trip. He’d had a rough childhood. At the age of twelve, he’d been taken from his home in shackles and placed in juvenile detention for threatening his mother and his brother.
But, he’d had a teacher who believed in him in spite of the fact that he threw a desk at her on the first day of school. And, now in high school, he announced that he was going to sing at the Met. And, last week, at the age of thirty, Ryan Speedo Green, made his debut at the Met, singing in La Boheme.
There’s now a book about his journey called “Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family”. Green hopes that his story will inspire troubled children. He has spoken with children in the detention center where he was held. And, he says to the them, “I want you to know this is not the end….because if I can do it, you kids can surely do it.”
It’s not only America. There are good people doing incredible work all around the world. When I was in Israel at Hartman this summer, we took a field trip to Lod. There we met Shirin Natour Hafi, a Palestinian Israeli citizen. Shirin has a masters degree in Hebrew literature from Bar Ilan University. For fourteen years, she taught Judaism and Hebrew literature to Jewish students who had immigrated from other countries. Most of her students never even knew she was Palestinian.
After 14 years as a teacher, Shirin started her own school in Lod for low income Palestinian Israeli students. Shirin is Muslim but she does not wear a hijab and she wears jeans. The day she started her high school, the local imam issued a fatwa and said that any student who attends her school should be killed. Shirin didn’t care. She said, the imam only gets to preach on Fridays. I am the imam of my school.
Shirin is tough. She has to be. Her students come from drug infested, crime ridden neighborhoods. When they arrive in school, she opens their bags. If there are no books, she sends them home. But, her students love her because they know she cares. When students said El Al would never pay attention to them, she took them to the El Al offices and introduced them to the executives. She invited El Al and Google to teach in the school.
Yossi Vardi, the Israeli Bill Gates was so impressed with her that he funded her school which in five years has grown from 150 to 1100 students. Shirin absolutely refused to allow her students to feel sorry for themselves or play the victim. Her message to her students and to us was simple: there are good people out there. Find those people and work with them.
I want to share with you one more story before I tell you why I am telling you all these stories. When I was in Israel this past summer, a tour guide pointed me to a place I had not visited before. On a little side street in midtown Tel Aviv, sits the tiny house of Joseph Bau. To gain entry, you have to call the phone number on the website and one of Bau’s daughters, Hadassah, comes down to let you in.
Joseph Bau was Israel’s first animator. He created his own machinery from spare parts he picked up on the street. More importantly, Joseph Bau was Oskar Shindler’s forger. In the movie Shindler’s List, Bau was the Jewish laborer who created all the fake passports. And, you may remember a wedding that took place in the camp. That was Bau and his wife Rebecca.
That’s enough of a life story! But, it doesn’t end there. After being liberated, Bau moved to Palestine and he became the forger for the Mossad. But, he was also an artist and a linguist. He loved the Hebrew language and he wrote a book about it. What comes across in the tiny house that his daughters have turned into a museum is the incredible spirit and joy that radiated from this remarkable man. And, he taught his daughters that they are required to laugh at least once every ten minutes. The State of Israel was built by people like Yosef Bau. Multipy Yosef Bau by a million and you get the State of Israel.
In all of the examples I’ve given, there is something of the dark horse. In none of these cases, did people content themselves to fixing what was wrong in their lives. They didn’t just aspire to be ‘not miserable’. And, neither should we. We should aspire to thrive and to flourish.
There has been a lot of talk about aspiration in our presidential election campaign. And, the word that we have chosen this year to embody our highest aspirations is ‘greatness.’ Donald Trump wants to make America great again. Hillary Clinton says America is already great. But, where we are on the greatness scale at this moment is less important than what we mean by greatness. And, before we give our support to a leader who promises to make America great or keep America great, we ought to know what they mean by greatness.
What do we mean? Our Tradition has some very strong opinions on this subject. The Torah tells us that early in human history, our human ancestors said to each other: hava nivne lanu ir u’migdal/come let us build us a city and a great tower—migdal comes from the word gadal, meaning to become great. V’rosho ba’shamayim—and the top of this tower will reach into the heavens…..v’naaseh lanu shem—and let us make a name for ourselves.
God didn’t like it. God mixed up the languages of the laborers and the tower was never finished. We don’t really know why God didn’t like it. But, the Rabbis hazard a guess. They say the problem with this tower was that the laborers didn’t have health insurance. And, they were exposed to danger needlessly without the right equipment. And, if a worker fell off the tower, no one cared. They just replaced him. Nobody reached out to his family.
None of that is in the text of the Torah. But, the rabbis were on the mark. Because, very soon, the Torah tells us a second story that is meant to be a direct response to the story of the tower. God speaks to Abraham and God says: v’eescha l’goy gadol….I’m going to make you a great nation. Va’agadla shmecha/I’m going to make your name great.
What does that mean? We know it can’t mean that Abraham and his descendants are going to build big towers to heaven. The Torah has already said that this is not the greatness God wants human beings to strive for.
So, what does ‘goy gadol’ mean? What does it mean to be a great nation?
Six chapters later, the Torah tells us that when God is about to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Amorah, God thinks out loud: “Can I hide my intentions from Abraham….How can I do that….v’Avraham hayo yihiyeh l’goy gadol/Abraham is going to be a great nation.
Now the Torah defines what that means:
Ki yedativ/for I have singled him out
L’maan yetzaveh et banav v’et beito acharav/so that he will charge his descendants—
V’shamru derech Adonai la’asot tzedaka u’mishpat—to keep the way of God to to do what is just and right.
And, in case there is any doubt what it means to ‘do what is just and right,’ Abraham demonstrates by coming to the defense of Sodom and Amorah. Even if they are wicked, Abraham argues, maybe there are enough good people among them to turn the cities around. And, what was the wickedness of Sodom? They were cruel to outsiders, unlike Abraham—the father of this great nation to be— who opened his tent wide to strangers.
There is nothing wrong with building a tower. Tower building is about power. Power in and of itself is neutral. But, greatness is something more. The Torah knows very well how we are most likely to define greatness, and that’s why it consciously shifts our thinking. So, Moses says to the Jewish people:
Ki mi goy gadol asher lo chukim tzadikim/what nation is as great as you? Who has such righteous laws?
And, Moses’ greatness is defined the same way. The Torah says, vayigdal Moshe/Moses became great. How did he become great? Va’yetze el echav/he went out to his brothers. Va’yar b’sivlotam—and he identified with their suffering.
And, God’s greatness is defined this way. The Torah says: ‘ha’el hadol hagibor v’hanora’—the great, mighty and awesome God. What comes next? ‘Oseh mishpat yatom v’almanah, /God champions justice for the orphan and widow and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing’. That is greatness.
The leaders who defined America have always understood this. Emma Lazarus understood it when she deliberately overturned the conventional definition of greatness in her brilliant poem The New Colossus, now emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, (2x)
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
(that’s not the American ideal)
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch…
and her name
Mother of Exiles.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…..
Send these, the homeless, (tempest-tost) to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
What is so striking about this poem is its intentional re-definition of greatness. American greatness is to be defined not by conquest, not by domination, but by its ability to offer hope where hope is scarce.
Every American election should be a midrash on Emma Lazarus’s poem. This is our mission statement. America’s greatness is that it decided to become the place where the dark horse has a chance. The immigrant, the one who no one expects anything of, the one without the right pedigree—that person has a chance to flourish in America. This is America’s greatness—our re-definition of greatness.
This is the greatness that Tom Brokaw spoke about in his book, ‘The Greatest Generation.’ This generation lifted millions of people out of depression. This generation rescued the free people of Europe from a deep darkness. This generation left the vulnerable in our own country with greater protection.
This is the greatness that John F. Kennedy spoke about when he challenged America to defend human rights at home and in the world.
And, it’s the greatness that Shimon Peres spoke about in his very last interview. When he was asked ‘why is America great?’ Peres answered ‘Because they are givers. America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe.
To build on this kind of greatness–this is the meaning of teshuvah. That’s why we’re here today. Teshuvah means to cycle back to a quality in ourselves that is especially admirable, and then to figure out a way to use it in new ways. In positive psychology this is called a signature strength.
What is the signature strength of the American people? Here I want to quote newly married couple from our congregation: Josh and Haley Schwartz. They said it best. In discussing their jobs, they said it’s really important to be a good listener, because “there is so much inside of people that they want to get out.’
This is the signature strength of the American people. For generations, people whose path to fulfillment was blocked have come to America and they find here an environment in which everything that was previously locked inside of them can come out.
And, not only immigrants. Think of Zion, and the medical hurdles that could not restrain his exuberant personality. And, not only Americans. Think of Shirin and the way she draws out the talents of teenagers who didn’t know they had any. Think of Yosef Bau. So much to offer the world. He was imprisoned by a regime that did everything to destroy his individuality. But, what was inside of him found a way to get out into the world.
The unblocking of human potential is the signature strength of the Jewish people. When God said to Abraham, ‘I will make you a great nation’, God followed it with these words: v’nivrechu v’cha chol mishp’chot ha’adama/All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.
What does this mean? What is a bracha? Bracha/blessing is about the unleashing of hidden human potential. That’s what it means. Rabbi Ron Aigen taught that Bracha comes from an ancient word meaning ‘a chick that is about to burst out of its shell.’ When God says to us: v’nivrechu v’cha’, God means: “your job is to help people get what is locked inside of them out into the world.”
This is the central idea of Judaism. Judaism teaches us that the dark horse has a chance. And, each of us has something of that dark horse in us. Each of us has unrealized potential. Each of us has a come from behind capacity within us. And, we find this capacity addressed everywhere in our Tradition:
- · It’s in the daily spiritual practice of our people. We get up in the morning and we say to God ‘rabbah emunatecha’—thank you God for seeing something inside of me that hasn’t yet come out into the world yet.
- · It’s there when we bless our children on Friday night, and we say to them—there is so much inside of you that is yet to emerge.
- · It’s in the miracle of the State of Israel where a strength and a courage that no one suspected existed came out of the soul of the Jewish people into the world. If ever there were a dark horse in human history, it’s the State of Israel. Time and again, Israel has surpassed expectations. And, when America invests in Israel’s future, it is investing in a model for unleashing pent up human potential that can inspire all peoples.
Human greatness is not about military strength or economic power. The signature strength of the American people and the Jewish people has always been about human flourishing:
- · It’s about creating a world in which little girls anywhere in the world have the same opportunities as little boys
- · It’s about creating a world in which people in their old age still have so much to offer the world
- · It’s about the dark horse within people we know, our family, our friends. What capacity for wisdom and for love have we underestimated in them?
And, it’s about the dark horse within every human being, regardless of color. Ruby Sales is an African American preacher. She was influenced as a child by black folk religion, a way of thinking that inspired black people who were looked at as disposables to see themselves as essential players.
She says her parents were spiritual geniuses who always made her feel important, regardless of what the society around her was saying.
But, even more remarkable, Sales says that feelings of disposability are not limited to black people. She says she wants to create a black theology that gives hope to the white heroin addict in Massachusetts and to the 45 year old white person in Appalachia who feels eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller than it was yesterday.
She says Americans must feel that it’s more sexy to uplift black people than to raise up white people who feel unimportant—but, “that’s wrong,” she says. America must be a place where every person has a chance to feel important, and where one person’s uplift does not spell another person’s defeat.
Each of has the power of blessing. Each of us has the ability to draw out the beauty of another human being that until now has been blocked from seeing the light of day. We do it when we love our life’s partners. We do it when we encourage our children. We do it when we say a kind word to a friend.
And, we have a responsibility to do it for the many millions of people who cannot do it for themselves—the poor, the persecuted, the disadvantaged, the down and out, —whoever they are, and wherever they come from. That mission should always be first in our minds whenever we talk about our goals for the future. If ever we should abandon it, we risk becoming a shadow of our truest selves. We certainly would not deserve to be call great.
Our signature strength is our idealism, our compassion and our humanity. May we use it in novel ways to benefit the world this year. If we do, then the world will blossom in new and unexpected ways, and we will be worthy of the greatness of soul that God has implanted within each one of us.