"Making modest changes" (Adapted from sermon from Rosh HaShanah eve 2018)

Last November, the record was set in Israel for the most expensive document ever to be sold at auction in Israel.

The story of that document starts nearly 100 years ago. In 1922, Albert Einstein had recently learned that he had won the Nobel Prize. He had a previously scheduled lecture in Tokyo, so in Tokyo he was receiving numerous letters and telegrams congratulating him on winning the Nobel Prize. Someone had sent him a package, so a bellboy from the hotel came up to deliver the package to Einstein, who looked in his pocket to find some change to give as a tip to the bellboy. But he didn’t have any.
So he told the bellboy instead: “Let me write you a note. Maybe someday it will become more valuable than a regular tip. And if not, then well I’m just giving you some good advice from my experience.” So he wrote, in German, on the Japanese hotel stationery, these words:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” 

Nearly 100 years later, it turns out, this year at auction in Israel, the note turned out to be more valuable than a regular tip, fetching a truly shocking amount of money.

The exact amount is not relevant to our discussion tonight. Because what IS relevant to us on the cusp of a new year is the content of Einstein’s note: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” I am wondering to what extent we agree with this advice, and to what extent Jewish tradition agrees. To some degree, these words appear to reflect Einstein’s thoughts at this stressful point in his life when he was one of the most famous scientists in the world and was deluged with people congratulating him on his Nobel Prize. Regardless of his pride at this achievement, which came only through his pursuit of excellence and success, at that moment he may have been longing for the privacy and simplicity of a more modest life. It’s hard to imagine that someone so accomplished was really encouraging us NOT to strive for excellence and success.

There’s another way to understand his note, but you have to remember that it was written by a scientist: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” So what we have here is a graph with 2 axes. One axis is about the level of stress in one’s life, and it runs from calm, to constant restlessness. The other axis is about ambition, and it runs from a modest life to the pursuit of success.  (But of course he didn’t fill in the entire chart. Maybe his real message is you should pursue success, but in a calm sort of way.)

This famous message of Einstein’s is definitely resonant with the themes of this new year, when we contemplate what we want our new year to look like, by what criteria do we judge it, and how do we determine what counts as ‘success.’ Einstein’s statement sounds like a variation on a different question: when I am faced with so much I want to do in my life, how much should I focus on the big things, and how much should I focus on the little things? To what extent should I set my mind towards making a colossal transformative impact on the world or on my family? To what extent should I seek out the the grandest and most spectacular pursuit of success? And to what extent should I focus on the smaller opportunities to have an impact - the mundane and routine everyday actions, the smaller and more modest opportunities that arrive each day?

I have a favorite text from the Talmud that I like to think about at this time of year, which makes a similar point to Einstein’s, in asserting that every small action we take has significance, and that it is wise for us to consider that our small and modest actions actually can change the world. According to the Talmud: (Tractate Kiddushin 40b): “One should always regard oneself as if one’s deeds are perfectly balanced between meritorious deeds and destructive deeds. And even more so - one should regard the world the same way - that it is exactly balanced between good deeds and misdeeds. And if you do one more mitzvah, you will cause the scale to tip towards the side of merit - for you and for the world. And if you do one more misdeed, you will cause the scale to tip towards the side of demerit - for you and for the world.”

Please note that this text is not saying that we truly ARE perfectly balanced between good and bad deeds. Most of us, truly, aren’t. For most of us, this passage is not about REALITY. Rather, this passage is about how it is recommended that we REGARD ourselves, and how we regard the world.  There are advantages to regarding ourselves, and the world, as equally positioned between good deeds and misdeeds.

If we assumed that our misdeeds dramatically outweighed our good deeds, we would be likely to conclude that the next decision we make won’t actually change anything; we are irredeemable already. And if we assumed that our good deeds dramatically outweigh our misdeeds, we would be likely to conclude that we are basically doing well enough, and that certainly there are enough good deeds in my profile to offset whatever unfortunate thing I am going to do next. But according to this passage: we are each only as good, or as bad, as the last thing we did. We become the people we are and develop the character we have based on numerous little things we do or don’t do each and every day.

What would our lives look like if we really believed that our fate - and the entire world’s fate -- might be riding on the next decision we make? It would probably be stressful to live this way. But my sense is that it would yield thoughtful decisions, and more acts of generosity and foresight. In decision-making, I think we would be more likely to prioritize the needs of others and to take the long-term view more often.

The Talmud’s approach in suggesting a focus on smaller, everyday deeds is also a wise way to contemplate Teshuvah - repentance, return, renewal, and change in our lives which is our primary task on these high holy days. Jewish tradition asks each one of us - whatever our ages or life status - to create a list of ways we plan to change and improve in the coming year, to get ever closer to being the people that God can help us to be. Here, too, it makes sense not to overlook the small opportunities for change. Because the large and dramatic opportunities for change are simply less likely to be successful.

This is a lesson I learned from a former member of our synagogue who works as a personal trainer. I was trying to schedule a time to meet with her to discuss some items of synagogue business, and I said: “Can we try to meet in mid-January?”

She responded: “If it’s ok with you, January is my busiest month. Can we schedule our meeting for February by which time my schedule will have calmed down a bit?”
I paused and said: “Does that mean what I think it means?’

She said: “Yes: January is super busy because of New Year’sr esolutions, but I know a certain percentage of the clients won’t stick with it by February so I”ll have more time in February. That’s true for me and for every personal trainer I know.” And thinking about the history of my own new year’s resolutions, I knew she was right.

The Israeli psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar has written about why New Year’s resolutions so often fail. He says it’s because they rely on will power, which most human beings don’t have a lot of. So he says that your best bet if you want to introduce change into your life Is to accomplish it through rituals, setting aside a small amount of time each day for some action that will further your goal in a very modest way but that will become an automatic part of your routine. I think both the Talmud and Albert Einstein would approve. If you have to choose between the modest goal and the spectacular goal, you have a better chance of success with the modest goal.

The Talmud’s focus on modest actions every day may also be our most appropriate approach to the unusual era we all have the pleasure to be living in. No matter who you are or what your political perspective is on any issue, you have never seen times like this in your lifetime. I speak to many people who say “I cannot remember being this exhausted.” People who say, “I never was a news junkie before, but now I feel like if I’m not on top of ten major news stories every day, I’m falling behind.” Or people who feel overwhelmed by the amount of work or volunteer work there is to do on behalf of the causes that are important to them- whether it’s helping refugees and immigrants (which is such an important volunteer role for many of us in this community), or supporting Israel, or supporting particular policies in Israel or in the United States, or combating antisemitism on the right, or combating antisemitism on the left, or helping to safeguard the security and freedom that we have in this country -- however differently understood by the people in our community. There are people who feel overwhelmed by the level of partisan rancor that seems unprecedented, that makes everything seem politically charged and that makes it so difficult to make long-term progress on any cause because it seems like every advance is thwarted by people on the opposite side. I have heard people saying, regarding whatever they are trying to do, “I can’t believe that the little I am able to do is actually making a difference.”

Here too, I am inspired by the Talmud’s recommendation that we hold before us the image of the balance scale, perfectly balanced so that everything is riding on the next thing we do. Because, in fact, large and dramatic actions are simply the aggregate of all the small and more modest actions of an entire community or society.

I should add that it is necessary for people working for any cause to think carefully about the impact of their actions, and to leverage their effort by choosing those actions that will have the greatest impact. Otherwise we can be wasting our time and money and effort. Often it is institutions that can make the larger and bolder steps that can have more of an impact on fixing the brokenness of the world.  Which is why building and leading institutions and organizations is so necessary in making a positive impact on the world.

But the process of building and sustaining any institution is also the aggregate of many many small and modest deeds. And there is no effort that is too modest, no gift or act of generosity that is too small to make an impact.

The Lithuanian Jewish scholar Rabbi Israel Salanter is credited as saying the following towards the end of his life, though the words are wise whether he said it or someone else did: “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. When that was too hard, I tried to change my country. Then I decided - I’ll start changing my town. But that was too hard so I decided to change my family.  But now I realize that the only thing I can change is myself.

“But now I realize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.”


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