Yom Kippur Sermon 2017

Seven Practices for Putting Our Values Into Action

Values Tension

It’s nice to have values. Honesty, kindness, courage, reliability. Values are both the ends and the means of a life worth living, a society worth living in. Values are, on the whole, fairly straightforward. It’s only when you try to act on them that everything becomes a bit more complicated.

Consider Chidi, a character on the tv show The Good Place. The show’s premise involves an elitist version of heaven, the “good place” where only the very best of humanity makes it. Chidi had been a professor of ethics and moral philosophy. His whole life’s work was to study values and how we act on them. You’d think him an exemplar of the goodie-two-shoes in the Good Place.

But even he had trouble – as it happens, involving shoes. Chidi valued honesty. So when a professor buddy of his showed up wearing newly purchased, very expensive, ugly as anything big red boots, and asked Chidi if he liked them, Chidi choked. He didn’t want to lie, to violate this foundational value. But neither could he puncture his friend’s enthusiasm. He chose to lie.

But the feeling of betraying his values continued to eat at him. He finally worked up the courage to restore his integrity and tell his friend the truth – three years later. Chidi exploded with honesty, declaring his bottled up abhorrence for those ugly red boots. His friend looked down with the saddest of puppy faces. Chidi followed his gaze, and there were those boots, still on his friend’s feet, the one possession that made him happy through difficult times. Needless to say, Chidi lost a friend that day.

Although he tried to act on his values, he did not fully appreciate the way the value of kindness and the value of honesty were in tension. Values tension happens when several of our values suggest opposite courses of action. While we may never fully resolve values tensions, we must recognize it at least in order to avoid the agony and misfortune Chidi experienced.

Values Fraud

Values and the difficulty of acting on them also appear in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur, which we will chant later today. The selection comes from the prophet Isaiah, our community’s namesake.

Like today, the Jews of Isaiah’s era fasted on Yom Kippur as well, long ago when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. But Isaiah tells us that God was not pleased with the people’s fasting. Isaiah chapter 58 begins with a chilling demand: “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a shofar, and tell to My people their transgressions, and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).

The next verse lists the values of the people: to seek God, to delight in God’s ways as a nation that does justice, to draw near to God. The people want to pursue a religious life, a rich spiritual connection with the divine, and in the midst of their fasting they call out, wondering why God isn’t listening. Isaiah’s reply highlights their inability or refusal to act on their values.

“Is not this the fast I desire? To break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to take the homeless poor into your home, and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

The people Isaiah addresses are not experiencing values tension. They are perpetrating values fraud, declaring their belief in justice and spiritual life while acting directly counter to those values. God wants relationship, but our spiritual lives must flow into our interpersonal relationships, our work, and our play. For Isaiah, religion is not about fasting and seeking God, it is about fasting and remembering thereby that our society has many vulnerable populations, has broken systems and brokenhearted individuals, and when we engage in ritual and repair of the world, that is how we encounter God.

Sometimes our values are in tension with each other, and sometimes our values are in tension with our actions. We know what we should do, but fail to act, or continue to act counter to our values. Isaiah 58 promises that when hypocrisy is converted into action aligned with values, then we shall see the world we want and be the people we truly desire to be.

Jewish integrity requires that we align as best we can the thoughts we think, the words we say, and the actions we take in every facet of our lives.

Values Irrelevance

But what happens when you actually do find yourself acting with clarity in alignment with your values, and still everything seems like it’s destined for disaster? What happens when you do the right thing and it doesn’t seem to matter at all?

Psalm 11 echoes this anxiety. It opens with the psalmist hearing a voice speaking to him, saying:

“Flee to your mountain, like a bird. The wicked bend the bow, they have made their arrow ready upon the string, to shoot the upright of heart. When the foundations crumble, what is it the righteous have accomplished?” (Ps. 11:1-3)

This question haunts me: When the foundations crumble, does it matter what people acting on their values do? Can even the wisest and kindest person make a difference? In a chaotic, corrupt system, our conversation about our values might shift from values tension, from hypocrisy, to something even more depressing – values irrelevance? It is plausible, I think, that we could come to a position many have held or currently maintain: that in a world that does not always reward integrity, the only good is survival. Flee to your mountain, little bird. Get out while you still can. Find your bubble of comfort and stay there, because outside of it lies danger and pain. What can good people do? This is the question of the hour, that rustles our wings as we speak of flying to Canada, or to Mars, depending on which crisis you fear.

But in the second part of the psalm, the psalmist responds to that voice urging survivalism over ethical action. For the psalmist, God is present in the world, even if seemingly distant. “God is righteous, loves righteousness, and the upright will behold God’s face.” Ruin will rain down on the instigators of evil, while those who live by their values with integrity will eventually find themselves in intimate relationship with God. For the psalmist, faith in God’s ultimate justice prevails, with the implication that the righteous person will persist.

I take some comfort in this courageous poet from millennia past. I do believe God is present in the world, and I do believe that we should remain engaged in improving ourselves as spiritual and moral creatures. What I take from the psalm is this: Bewildering times call for clear blueprints that can guide our action and restore our faith that our work will make a difference.

Seven Practices

And so I want to offer a robust set of seven practices for putting our values into action. Each of these practices is doable, yet not always easy. I confess, this is an ongoing process for me too. I’m all about thinking about action and not always actually doing it. But, if we work at deepening each practice in our lives, I can’t help but think that we and our world can be transformed.

  1. Practice number one. Make in Personal. As Rabbi Shanks reminded us in her Rosh HaShanah sermon, each one of us has a stake in the society we live in. Neutrality is not a virtue, it is a condition of spiritual paralysis. In the book of Genesis, God’s spirit hovers passively over the depths at the very beginning, but quickly moves into action, creating and ordering the world in meaningful ways. We too must hover only long enough to understand our part in the ongoing creation of an ever-improvable world. We discern our part and make it personal by finding and telling our stories that reveal choices we’ve made around our values, and what we have learned from those moments. One of my stories: As a sixth grader, I was known as a nice guy. One day in class, someone was calling this unusual girl who didn’t fit in names. She turned to me, and said, “Jay, you’re a nice person. Tell them to stop.” And in that moment, embarrassed by her, I just looked the other way. The shame that I felt keeps teaching me that my silence can hurt so much more than someone else’s vocal abuse. I aspire to be my sister’s keeper, to speak on behalf of those who are threatened by bullies. You too have stories that reveal your values and that teach you to take this world personally.
  2. Practice number two. Seek relationships. It’s good to introspect and figure out your place in things, but not everything is about you. Rather, it is about us. Treasure the relationships you already have, and continue investing in them. But seek out new ones as well. Who here could you learn from, who could expand your heart? Who is at this moment a stranger but could be the helping hand you need in the future? Naomi Klein writes, “We have to shift away from thinking our possessions protect us. Relationships are our most important resource.” The more we know we each other, the more we respect each other, the more we trust each other’s human decency, the more we become a holy community. It happens one conversation at a time.
  3. Practice number three. Show up. Showing up is easy sometimes, especially when our friends are also going. But it can also be scary. Showing up means leaving our cynicism behind, letting ourselves be vulnerable and uncomfortable. Showing up together is a communal mindfulness practice. Can we be present with the public moment, open to surprising insights and grappling with tension that can be exhausting to confront? The habit of showing up is a muscle we build through appropriately pushing our boundaries, whether at a march or a meeting or a celebration or a service. Where do you want to push your boundaries in the coming year? How will you show up?
  4. Practice number four. Stay humble. Stay open. Stay curious. We always have more to learn, about how things work, about possibilities and potentials, about how other people see things. The practice is simple. Keep finding more puzzle pieces and building a bigger picture of the truth, like the three blind men who discover they are all describing different aspects of the same elephant. Read, research, discuss, dialogue. Notice when you lose curiosity, or become defensive, or boil over in indignation. You may be in the right, but then again these moments may also be an opportunity to hear a new voice that broadens your perspective.
  5. Practice number five. Normalize love. In an atmosphere that amplifies hate, and given our natural human tendency to normalize the status quo, we must amplify and normalize love in our own relationships and communities. When we are shocked and dismayed by hateful events, it’s easy to get angry and then to slip into sorrow. Krista Tippett suggests we try to move away from sorrow towards compassion. She writes that unlike sorrow, “Compassion goes about finding the work that can be done.” Act on love when you can, act as if you love when it’s hard, act and there will be love.
  6. Practice number six. Act imperfectly. I know I can get stuck in analysis paralysis, waiting until I have just one more puzzle piece to get a better understanding, or waiting until the “solution” is just right, but that’s not very practical. Perfect shouldn’t get in the way of putting our values into action. We practice imperfection by noticing when we are thinking in extremes, that something needs to be a 10/10 in order for us to get on board or it isn’t worth it. There are so many numbers on that scale, ten in fact! Fill the scale out a bit, set realistic goals, and try to move from a 1 to a 2, or maybe even a 3 within the next year. Imperfect actions are the ladder to paradise. Don’t let perfection paralyze you.
  7. Practice number seven. Find your mountain. Psalm 11 does not think highly of the bird fleeing to the safe mountain, but we need our mountains on occasion. We need those spaces where we are very comfortable and feel safe, where we can rest, recharge, spend time with like-minded friends. The mountain lifts us up, and it also grounds us. The mountain might be Shabbat, it might be yoga or poetry or golf, it might be the symphony or anything else that brings you joy and lets you just be. The mountain is there for you to visit, but not for you to stay. Your mountains help you have the strength to get uncomfortable when you descend back into the sprawling, complex world.

And we all need strength. Preparing this sermon was hard for me. I like my mountains of refuge, I like to hover like God did before creation, thinking and rethinking and doubting and planning and holding off on actually doing anything.

In many ways, Yom Kippur is a time set aside for us to hover in preparation for new endeavors. We suspend life symbolically, not eating, not drinking, not working on anything but our souls. We make teshuva, returning to our understanding of right living, of integrity. What I’m asking of you now is the same thing I’m asking of myself, to push our comfort zones and do more acting on our values rather than just thinking and talking.

After this service, you’ll each receive a bookmark listing these seven practices. They are there to remind you of a balanced approach to making a difference in this world. The details of your practice will vary from person to person. But when we collectively put our values into action, the prophet Isaiah tells us “our light will shine through the darkness, and we shall be like a well-watered garden” (Isaiah 58:10-11).

We can rise above our fears, and be a source of clarity and nourishment for each other, for this community, and for the world.