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Tipping the Scales

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that a good portion of the TV that I watch are reality cooking shows - Top Chef, Masterchef, Masterchef Junior.  This summer, I returned to watching a show that used to be a favorite of mine: Restaurant Impossible.  For those of you not familiar with it, the recipe for Restaurant Impossible is fairly straightforward, and is basically the same every week:  British restauranteur Robert Irvine comes to the rescue of a failing restaurant. The gimmick is that he has two days, and $10,000, to turn the restaurant around.  In each show, he meets the people running the business - usually a family who are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, often on the verge of losing their house and/or their retirement because of their failing restaurant, and whose relationships with one another are fractured if not entirely dysfunctional.  Robert samples the food, which ranges from bland to terrible, sees how they run a lunch service, and susses out the dynamics among those running the restaurant.  While he meets with the owners and the staff to change bad habits and fix the menu, a builder and a professional designer work to completely remodel the inside.

The owners are not allowed to see what is going on as the designer and builder and their small army of staff and volunteers do their magic.  And then, in the last five minutes, after straightening out the family dynamics, the management of the restaurant and the food, Robert brings in the owners, eyes-closed, to their remodeled restaurant.  The owners come,  open their eyes, see their restaurant completely transformed, and then they almost always cry.  And I have to admit, I usually cry too.  Then all the customers come in, they love the food, and the closing titles let us know that since Robert’s visit, business is up and the restaurant is doing much better - as is the family that was on the verge of collapse.

Why do I love this show, even when I can completely predict exactly how it will turn out each week? Even when I know that there are probably restaurants that Robert Irvine visits that don’t make the cut, that aren’t salvageable, where the magic doesn’t happen?  Even when I know that every bit of music and editing is designed to expertly manipulate my emotions, so that I join in with the owners’ tears? 

I love it, I think, because “Restaurant Impossible” promises redemption, every week.  Not easy redemption - the people Robert deals with have to look honestly and painfully at all of their dysfunction, and make some hard choices.  But they are regular people, and the show doesn’t mock them, or ask us to mock them. It asks us to sympathize, and invites us wonder what we would do if we were in similar circumstances. And the show promises that if there were just someone out there to appear on our doorstep, willing to tell us some hard truths while also building our confidence and giving us hugs - and maybe a good recipe or two - we too could figure things out.

But alas, even though the world today can sometimes feel like one large catastrophically failing restaurant, a truth-telling British chef with enormous biceps and a small army of  workers is not going to magically appear to help us straighten out the mess.  That work is up to us.

Restaurant Impossible gives Robert Irvine two days, $10,000, and some additional help.  What does Jewish tradition give us?  Well, we get ten days - the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Turning, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. We have a small army of helpers - everyone in this room - to do this work together.  And we have a whole guidebook of instructions—the machzor in your hands—to help us get it together.

Robert Irvine begins each episode getting the lay of the land, trying to figure out what the problems are.  Running a restaurant is hard - 60% of restaurants don’t make it past the first year. Being a human being is hard, too. And our tradition recognizes this. While the liturgy refers to Rosh Hashanah as a celebration of the day that the world was created, there is a rabbinic teaching that this day, the first day of the month of Tishrei, actually corresponds to the 6th day of creation - the day on which human beings came to be.

In the book of Genesis, each act of creation is accompanied by God seeing that “it was good.”  The land and the sea are created and v’yar Elohim  ki tov - and God saw that it was good.  The trees and grasses and plants - ki tov. The sun, moon and stars - ki tov.  Every kind of bird, all the creatures of the sea, all of the land animals - ki tov. And then, finally, God creates human beings, looks at all that has been created, and pronounces it all tov me’od, very good! 

Yet a mere 5 chapters later, God realizes that perhaps humans aren’t so good, after all.  In fact, humanity has become so bad, so hopelessly violent and corrupt, that God decides to start all over again - to wipe out all life on earth with a gigantic flood, and to start over with an ark-full of animals and one guy, Noah, and his family.

It’s quite an audacious statement, when you think about it, for the Torah to suggest that the Source of Life Itself regretted Its signature creation, humanity, after just a few generations.  The rest of the Torah, in fact, can be read as a series of episodes of “Human Beings Impossible”—an exploration of what would it take for God and humanity to get it right, to create a human society that fulfills the promise of those first days of creation.

These early chapters of Genesis also reflect an understanding that the fate of humanity and the fate of the earth are intertwined; only now, so many millennia later, are we belatedly coming to realize the same thing.  We have a lot on our shoulders.  Not just the wellbeing of our species, but of life on this planet.  It’s a bit daunting, to say the least.  Enough to make me want to curl up on my couch and watch “Restaurant Impossible” reruns for eternity.

And yet here we are, celebrating the creation of the world, and the creation of humanity, and proclaiming that we get yet one more chance.  Another year, another opportunity to look deep within ourselves, and to look around at our world, and decide how we want to respond.

Overall, the Jewish view of human nature is neither naïve nor pessimistic.  We are balanced, in any moment, between the yetzer ra—our negative, destructive urges—and the yetzer tov—our capacity for good.  And even more than that:  Jewish tradition insists that every human being is not only precious, but consequential. What we do really matters. This claim is at the core of these Ten Days of Teshuvah.  The great medieval scholar and philosopher, Maimonides, wrote in his foundational book of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, about the work of teshuvah. This is what he says:

“It is necessary for every person to see themselves throughout the whole year as being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and to look upon the entire world as if it is  evenly balanced between innocence and guilt.  And so if you commit one negative act, you tilt the scale for yourself and the entire world to the side of guilt, and cause its destruction.  But if you do just one mitzvah, one positive act, you tilt yourself and the entire world to the side of merit, and bring about liberation and redemption for yourself and the entire world.” (Laws of Teshuvah 3:4)

I find this teaching equal parts terrifying and empowering.  What does it mean to see myself as if each of my actions is weighed upon a cosmic scale, balanced between salvation and destruction?

In my experience, most of us have an easier time with the first part of Maimonides’ teaching—the idea that any negative act we do has cataclysmic consequences.   Our brains have evolved in such a way that the negative registers with much greater tenaciousness than the positive.  Our fears, our regrets, our sense of inadequacy, tend to stick with us. When offered 90 percent praise and ten percent critique, it’s the critique that sticks in our mind, gnawing at our self-confidence.  We make one mistake, and our shame can overwhelm us. Or if we are not of a self-critical bent, then our inability to deal with our own failings becomes a goad to blame others, to shift our own shame and insecurity onto those who remind us of our limitations.  But either way, this hyper-critical stance does not tend to actually contribute to acting better.  It wears us down, and wears down those around us, and the scales just keep dipping towards the side of guilt.

On the other side of the scale, too often we feel entirely powerless to effect change.  Either out of laziness, cynicism or despair, we fail to act.  I decide that my one action won’t actually do much to change anything, so why bother?  Or perhaps I do act, and things don’t change, and my despair at the world grows larger, until I wonder if it’s worth doing anything at all.

So what would it take for us to believe that “if you do just one mitzvah, one positive act, you tilt yourself and the entire world to the side of merit, and bring about liberation and redemption for yourself and the entire world”?

What would it be like to believe that each and every positive act that I perform, every deed that in some way brings a bit of healing, of kindness, of justice, into the world—that that one act might be the one that saves the world?

I honestly think that if each of us believed that, and lived every day with that awareness, our lives—and the world around us—might look quite a bit different.  Many of us are aware of the Lubavitch sect of Judaism, also called Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who among other things wait on street corners to find someone Jewish and get them to do a mitzvah like putting on tefillin, or shaking a lulav on Sukkot.  Why do they do this? Believe it or not, they are not trying to get everyone to become Chabad Jews.  They sincerely just want as many Jews as possible to do one more mitzvah.  Why?  Because they fervently believe in the coming of the Messiah, and they just as fervently believe that every Jew who does just one more mitzvah helps bring the messianic age that much closer. 

While I don’t share the theology or the politics or the Jewish practice of Chabad, and while I imagine that their vision of a messianic future is quite different than mine, I admire their fervor, and their chutzpah. Because of their deep faith in the positive part of Maimonides’ instruction, the power of each and every mitzvah to bring about redemption, they go looking for Jews wherever they can find them, and often in places - in prisons, in small towns, in countries with tiny Jewish populations - where no one else is willing to serve.

What might we accomplish, if we Reconstructionist Jews—if every member of every progressive Jewish community—had the same level of belief in the power of every individual act to tip the scales towards redemption?  If we were that chutzpadik, and that willing to live according to that belief?  What would we be willing to sacrifice?  What might we dare to do?

I was reading last week about the Emmy awards, and the historic moment when Billy Porter became the first openly gay man - and the first openly gay Black man - to win the award for lead actor in a television drama. As part of his acceptance speech, Mr. Porter said to the audience, “We are the people, we as artists are the people that get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet.” I love this, and I’d love to expand on Mr. Porter’s words, and suggest that each of us - whether or not we are artists—have the opportunity to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of at least some of the people who live on this planet.  That is what it means to tip the scales towards redemption. Robert Irvine does it one restaurant at a time. We can do it one person at a time, one institution at a time, one neighborhood block at a time. 

This process we are entering into, the liturgy and rituals of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, are set up to help us do this work. These words were written, these rituals were shaped, for people who weren’t so different from us. Like us, they had to struggle with illness and death, with heartbreak and loss.  They faced violence and prejudice, social and economic oppression.  They dealt with political upheaval and chaotic historical change. And, like us, every year they would come together for these High Holydays and say, okay, let’s try again. Let’s see if we can tip the scales towards redemption  and liberation for ourselves and the entire world.

Tomorrow, during the morning service, there is a section that is unique to Rosh Hashanah, called Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.  Three sets of shofar calls are arranged around these three themes, each an exploration of a different aspect of Divinity, and our relationship to It.

The first is Malchuyot.  Here, God is celebrated as the cosmic Ruler.  Malchuyot invites to imagine ourselves in service to Something vast and awesome, the ultimate Power in the universe.  If we take this a bit less literally, we can understand Malchuyot as an attempt to give us a sense of perspective, of our relative place in the order of things.

Four years ago, I went down to New York City to visit my childhood friend Cindy, who was in the final weeks of her life. She had hospice care at home, but was still able to go out, and when I saw her she had recently visited an exhibit about the Hubble Space Telescope.   That morning, sitting out on her balcony, she said to me, “You know, there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there. One hundred billion!  So why,” she said, “do some people think they are the center of the universe?”

Cindy was a good Jewish atheist, and she had no connection to religion or any kind of formal spiritual practice. But Cindy understood Malchuyot.  She understood that the universe is very very large, and we are very very small. And I believe that that awareness helped Cindy face her own death with a certain amount of equanimity, with a matter-of-fact grace and good humor.   She understood that Malchuyot is not meant to frighten us, quite the opposite.  Once we let go of needing to be at the center of things, it can be quite a relief. Malchuyot helps remind us that we are part of a much greater whole, and we can let go of the need to take ourselves quite so seriously.

After Malchuyot comes Zichronot.  Zichronot means “remembrances,” and this part of the liturgy is filled with Biblical verses about God remembering those in need, remembering the children of Israel, remembering us.  This remembering is filled with love. If the God of Malchuyot is distant, vast and mysterious, then the God of Zichronot is close by and compassionate.  Tiny specks of stardust that each of us may be, we are each remembered. We matter. The Source of Life Itself has a stake in each of us.  We are not alone.

And then comes “Shofarot” - the plural of shofar, the ram’s horn.  Shofarot is about hearing the call, and becoming aware that we are being called to something, for something. We read this verse:  Eloheinu v’elohey avoteinu v’imoteinu, t’ka b’shofar gadol l’cheruteynu - Our God, our ancestors’ God, sound the great shofar for our liberation.  Shofarot is about waking up, and being called - to listen, to learn, to act, in service of our own liberation, and the liberation of the entire world.

So, right here in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we find some helpful instructions for tipping the scales in the right direction:

Malchuyot - the universe is vast, and we are very small.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Zichronot - the universe is vast, and each of us matters. Each of us is remembered, each of us is loved.  Never forget that you are needed.

Shofarot - Liberation is possible, if we are ready, if we can stay awake, if we can hear the call.

We come together for these High Holydays and say, okay, let’s try again. No matter how crazy the world around us, no matter the suffering each of us feels, let’s see if we can tip the scales toward liberation, and bring the messiah just that much closer.  And then, just maybe, we can open our eyes, and look around, and see a world redeemed.

Shanah tovah!

Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780



Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784