Rosh Hashanah Day Two – Kan Bonim


When Jimmy Graham dropped a pass during a pre-season practice, Pete Carroll came bounding over. To Graham’s great surprise, instead of chewing him out, Carroll gave him some fatherly advice just to focus more. When a psychologist observed the Seahawks training camp back in May, he said “You can’t figure out if you’re in a yoga class or a pro team’s conference room.”

Nothing is more physical than the game of pro football. Yet, Carroll tells his players that their beliefs are what will spell the difference between victory and defeat. He has staked his reputation on the idea that developing a player’s inner life is as important as honing his physical skills. Is Carroll a maverick? Or, is he on the cutting edge of our culture?

A few weeks ago, Janine and I had to have our roof repaired. The whole experience was incredibly disruptive. When I worked at home, the pounding above my head was unbelievable.And, I was beginning to feel very unnerved by this whole project, until I remembered something I learned in Israel this past summer about a different kind of building.

One of my teachers at Hartman, Danny Siegel, does marriage counseling. And, he told us that he would love to come to the house of every recently married couple and put up a sign on the door. And, the sign would say in Hebrew: Zehirut! Kan Bonim!/loosely translated: Beware! Work in Progress!   Or, Pay attention! Something is being built here.

In other words, marriage takes inner work. The process of building a family relationship can resemble a messy construction site. But, if we can say, kan bonim/something is being built here—that’s hopeful. It means we’re working on something. We’re not finished. But, we’re creating something. Watch for us to be more than we are now.

And, then my teacher took it a step further. He applied this idea to the whole State of Israel. He said, wouldn’t it tell us a lot about this country if when you got off the plane at Ben Gurion airport, you saw yellow tape all over the place, as if the whole country were one gigantic construction site, and instead of the words B’ruchim ha’baim l’eretz yisrael/welcome to Israel you’d see the words “zehirut! Kan bonim/ Pay attention! Something is being built here,” with all of the progress and the messiness that these words imply.

I recently had an experience of “kan bonim” right here in Seattle. Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray visited Israel this past summer. He was invited to speak at 40 Years of Pride Conference in Tel Aviv. So, he turned that invitation into a tour of Israel.

And, when the Mayor returned, he spoke warmly and eloquently of how impressed he was with Israel. To me, the most remarkable part of his trip is that the mayor of one of the most liberal cities in America visited Israel at all. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s climate, just visiting Israel today is a political statement. And, the Mayor was roundly criticized for making the trip.

Nevertheless, the Mayor has become a friend of Israel. And, when I heard this, I thought to myself: We can put out the yellow construction tape at Seatac airport, with a big sign, Kan bonim. Something is being built here. It’s small, but it’s significant. There’s a movement of the heart. We can make something of this. It gave me hope.

I’m always looking for new sources of hope. So, over the summer, I re- read To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted to read the prequel, To Set a Watchman, so in order to compare the two, I had to reacquaint myself with the classic that Harper Lee published in 1960.

And, I wanted to see if I could recapture how inspired I felt by Atticus Finch when I first read the book. To my delight, I loved it just as much, reading it in 2015.  But, here is what surprised me. I associated this book with bold political change. It was published right in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks was 1955. Little Rock, Arkansas was 1957. The March on Washington was 1963. Big changes were taking place in America, and Martin Luther King, jr. was playing on a national stage.

But, To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t about big players. Atticus Finch was a lawyer in a small town. He stood up bravely in court to defend a black man falsely accused, but he lost the case. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t about big things. It was about small things. It was written from the perspective of a small child.  And, it was a celebration of the small man and woman and their capacity for everyday heroism.

Boo Radley was a damaged person, but he saved the life of Jem and Scout. Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose was a nasty elderly woman.  But she was also a person of tremendous courage. She refused to take drugs in her last days of illness in the face of pain, because she wanted to remain clear minded. And, Atticus wanted his children to know her, so that they would understand that even the most unattractive person is capable of something noble.

So, although To Kill a Mockingbird was written at a time of great political upheaval in America, it is not about change in the outside world. It’s about inner change. Nothing dramatic changes in Maycomb as a result of Atticus Finch’s courage. But, his young daughter notices. She changes. She becomes a different person because of what she’s seen in her father’s home. Kan bonim. Something was being built in this home.

This idea of the home as an incubator for social change is very Jewish. When a Jewish couple gets married, we tell them that the breaking of the glass reminds us of the destruction of the Temple when our people were broken apart.

And, we tell them it’s their job to rebuild the Temple by creating a loving home. Kan bonim. This is where a fragmented world is rebuilt. It starts with two people.

It’s a beautiful idea. It’s also an idea rooted in political pragmatism. When the Romans destroyed our independence as a nation, the rabbis realized that political change was no longer possible. At that moment and for the next 2000 years, we lost our ability to change history. In this climate, a new form of Judaism emerged.

The great revolution of Rabbinic Judaism was to teach us to appreciate the small things in everyday life. The Rabbis lived in a world where we were forbidden to play on a big stage. So, they magnified the importance of the small: small people, small acts of kindness, small wonders of nature.

The initial motivation of the Rabbis was political defeat. At that moment, our people could do little to impact the outside world. So, the rabbis came up a brilliant new idea: that each of us is capable of inner growth, and that the battle to change ourselves is the most important thing we can do.

In his new book, The Road to Character, David Brooks says when we think about making a difference, we most often think of achieving something external: performing a service that will have an impact on the world, or creating a successful company.

The people Brooks most admires are all accomplished in the outside world. But, they are equally focused on their internal life. Brooks says “the external drama up the ladder of success is important, but the central drama of life is the inner struggle against one’s weaknesses….the person who does that, the person who successfully struggles against weaknesses may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature. Maturity is not based on talent….It is earned not by being better than other people, but by being better than you used to be.”

The Talmud, the Rabbis’ great work of genius is over twenty volumes long and too 500 years to create. But, it’s possible to sum up Rabbinic Judaism in three statements. First: Kol ha’mekayem nefesh achat, k’ilu kiyem olam maleh. Whoever sustains a single life, it’s as if he sustained the entire world.

Second: Ben Zoma omer: ezehu gibor? Ha-kovesh et yitzro. Ben Zoma says: Who has control? Someone who exercises self-control. Third: the words of the Amidah: thank you God, al nisecha she’b’chol yom imanu for your miracles which are daily with us, —- by which we mean things like the miracle of our own bodies, and the miracle of a beautiful sunset.

All three of these statements are addressed to the inner life of the person. We may or may not be global movers and shakers. But, each one of us can have global impact by concentrating our efforts on helping a single person.

We may not be able to build the Trump Tower. But, if we are working on ourselves, every one of us can hang a sign outside our door which says “zehirut: kan bonim!” Pay attention! Something is being built here.

We may not be larger than life Biblical heroes. But, every one of us can be a moral hero.

I love the perspective of the rabbis. I think it is very profound. But, I have to admit, there is something about it that has always troubled me. David Brooks put his finger on it in an article he wrote called “The Small Happy Life.” Brooks asked readers to send him essays describing their purpose in life. One of them, Elizabeth Young, writes “I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important.”

Instead, she says “perhaps….everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that… provide meaning and chances to be generous and kind. Brooks quotes a doctor who used to think her purpose was saving lives. Now, she says, “my purpose is simply to be the person who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis.”

And, my question when I read this was ‘what’s wrong with the need to do something important?” And, I agree that it’s helpful for the doctor to be there for you on the phone, but what’s wrong with saving lives? As Jews, for many centuries we had no choice but to live small happy lives. We did not have access to power.

But, thank God, things are different now. We have a State of Israel. We have a fabulously successful American Jewish community. Why should we content with being small?  Controlling the inner workings of my soul is a poor substitute for controlling my destiny, controlling my land, controlling my own political future. Why do I need an inner life, if it’s just a consolation prize for my lack of an outer life?

I’ll never forget when I lived in Israel in the early 1970’s. I went to see Fiddler on the Roof. And, when it came to the Anetevka scene where the Jews were expelled from their homes, the Israeli teenagers were laughing. They could not handle the idea of Jewish powerlessness. And, they associated powerlessness with Diaspora Judaism.

We American Jews, too, have also concentrated our efforts on being successful in the outside world. And, in the process we have re-defined Judaism as something external. For us, Judaism is about tikkun olam/repairing the world. Creating the union movement, playing a key role in the Civil Rights Movement, being the only white group in South Africa to oppose apartheid,  Israel sending 200 medical personnel to Haiti to rescue a nation in despair.

All wonderful. But, you know, the Rabbis would not have recognized our Judaism. Repairing the world? What are you talking about? The world simply wasn’t available to them to repair. The world belonged to the Romans. Shaping the outside world was simply not an option for them. So, they became geniuses at re-shaping the inner world.

Does that mean the great insights of the rabbis are of no use to us? I guess that depends on how powerful we imagine ourselves to be. And, I learned this from three people. Attul Gawande, Kohelet, and Donald Trump.

In his book, Mortality, Attul Gawande says that as people get older, we begin to focus more on smaller horizons. We become less grandiose in our ambitions. And, we become more interested in the blessings of a single day.

Two millennia before Gawande, there was a man named Kohelet. Kohelet lived life on a grand stage. He was wealthy beyond belief. He was powerful. He had tasted all of life’s pleasures and then some. But, as he gets older, he tells us: don’t pay attention to any of those things. Enjoy life with the woman you love. Take pleasure in the moment.

This is strange. This sounds like Rabbinic Judaism. Enjoy everyday miracles. Be kind to one person. Think small. But, Kohelet wasn’t a powerless person. He was a mover and a shaker. Why did he sound like the Rabbis who had no choice but to concentrate their efforts in a smaller sphere?

Because, as Kohelet advanced in years, he realized he was mortal. He was honest enough with himself to realize that in the ultimate scheme of things, his power was limited. And, when powerful people face their limitations with honesty, we don’t call that weakness. We call it humility.

And, here I want to express gratitude to Donald Trump for helping me to understand the value of an inner life in a new way. Remember when Trump said that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured. That made him a loser.

So, I asked myself, ‘why is Trump wrong’? And, I found an answer in the Hebrew language. In Hebrew, as we said before, the word for hero is gibor. Gibor comes from the root gavar. Gavar means to overcome. A hero, in our Tradition, is someone who overcomes.

By Trump’s definition, a hero is someone who wins. By this definition, the three young firefighters who lost their lives in our own state are not heroes. And, all those who lost their lives in battle to fight for our country are not heroes. They lost! They lost their lives. And, those who lose the battle against cancer cannot be called heroes no matter how bravely they fought. We can begin to see how absurd life becomes if we define worthiness only by success in the outside world. But, if a hero is someone who overcomes, then of course, McCain is a hero. He overcame torture. He overcame fear. He overcame great pain.

I came across a beautiful example of overcoming in attorney Brian Stevenson’s extraordinary book, Just Mercy. Stevenson was appealing the unjust murder conviction of a black man by the name of Walter McMillan in Monroe County, Alabama. The local black community came out to support McMillan, and the white leadership tried to intimidate them.

Mrs. Williams was an older black woman, appointed by her minister to represent the community in the courtroom. When her name was called, she walked toward the courtroom with great dignity. But, when she saw the police dog at the entrance, she lost her nerve. It brought back painful memories.

She went home, upset and ashamed of her fear. She prayed all night long. The next morning, she begged the minister for another chance. As she approached the entrance, Stevenson could hear her saying to herself “I ain’t scared of no dog. I ain’t scared of no dog.

When Mrs. Williams got up very close to the dog, she said in a very loud voice, “I aint scared of no dog!”  She moved past the dog, and she announced  in an equally loud voice, “Attorney Stevenson I’m here.” And, Stevenson thanked her for coming.  “No, no,”she said, You didn’t hear me Mr. Stevenson. I’m here. I may be old and I may be poor, I may be black but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness….I’m here because you can’t keep me away.”

Mrs. Williams teaches us that you have to be a hero on the inside before you can be a hero on the outside. All of the great heroes of our people are of this mold. Joseph was a hero, not because he ruled Egypt, but because he overcame his hatred for his brothers. Abraham built a nation. But, most of what we learn about him has to do with his inner life. One of his finest moments comes in today’s Torah reading when he summons the courage to reassure his child in spite of his worst fears.

Sheryl Sandberg is someone who is mostly known for what she has overcome in the outside world. But, now we can also admire what she is overcoming inside of herself. Sheryl Sandberg is  COO of Facebook. Sandberg is famous for her book Lean In in which she encourages women to be more aggressive in pursuing leadership in the business world. But, this past year, Sanberg faced a very different kind of challenge. Her husband, Dave, died suddenly and tragically at the age of 42.

Here are the words of her Facebook posting:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband…I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void….Or you can try to find meaning….I want to choose life and meaning…

I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I am thirty years wiser….I have gained a more profound understanding of what it means to be a mother, both through the agony I feel when my children cry…and from the connection my mother has to my pain…

I have learned gratitude…As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, ‘Celebrate your birthday, goddamit. You are lucky to have each one’….”

Sheryl Sandberg is not leaving Facebook. She’s not doing a recall on her book “Lean In.” But, she is discovering a new balance in her life. Having devoted her life to achieving greatness in the outside world, she is now building something inside of herself. In the spirit of Kohelet, she has become more gentle in her expectations of life and she can take greater pleasure in small victories.  This is not defeat. It’s wisdom. It’s not helplessness. It’s maturity.

We Jews are high achievers. We have accomplished much in the external world. We’re proud of the fact that we are players on the world stage again. And, we will never again be denied our place on that stage.

But, to be a more complete people, a more mature people, we need to work on our inner lives. Once, we rejected the words of Ben Zoma out of our own insecurity. We thought that mastering our own souls was a poor substitute for conquering the world.

But, we are stronger now. And, we  have begun to realize that the development of our inner lives will make the whole of our lives much richer and much sweeter.

Where shall we begin? Our Tradition has a wealth of possibility. But, let me suggest that the texts we have in our hands can serve as the beginning of a daily spiritual practice. If we spend just a few minutes a day with them, they could add much meaning to our lives.

  • Kol ha’mekayem nefesh achat….one who sustains a single live, sustains the world….These words can give encouragement to us as parents when our children have exhausted us, when we have driven them around one too many times, when their constant needs have put us over the top, and we may have forgotten for just a moment what a difference we are making in the world by loving them.
  • Ezehu gibor? Ha’kovesh at yitzro? Who is heroic? She who overcomes. What would it be like to spend a few minutes a day with this question: What would we like to overcome today? What frustration? What temptation? What jealousy? What fear?

And, finally,

  • Modem anachnu lach….al nisecha she’b’chol yom imanu/Thank you God for your miracles which are daily with us. What miracles are we grateful for today? Our grandchildren? A day free of pain? Waking up in a free country?

I would love to put yellow construction site tape at the entrance of our synagogue this year and hang a big sign with the words, “Zehirut! Kan bonim!” Pay attention! Something is being built here!

What is it that we are building together? We are creating a wiser, more mature people. We are saying that to be a gibor/a hero is both to conquer the outside world and to conquer the inside world.

It is to wake up in the morning with a sign on our door: kan bonim. We have work to do. We have demons we have to struggle with, weaknesses we have to overcome, things that block us from connecting more deeply to other people.

Jewish practice can help us with these things. It can help us to build ourselves.

May our congregation this year be a place that we can turn to help each of us grow as a person. Because, as David Brooks said, ‘no person can achieve self-mastery on her own… we need help from a tradition that educates the heart.

We have such a tradition. Let’s work together to understand the ways in which it can help us to become better human beings. When people walk through our doors this year, may they sense that something is being built here.

And, may that something be ourselves.