Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Second Morning


September 19, 2012 – 2 Tishri, 5773

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

On the first Sunday in May in 2003 in the affluent Chicago suburb of Northbrook, girls in the junior and senior clases met at a park for the annual “powder puff” football game.  But the game was not about good-natured fun.  In fact some say no one even brought a ball.

As part of a hazing ritual in which senior girls initiated their junior classmates, videotape of the so-called game shows how junior girls were punched and slapped, covered with urine, paint, fish guts and trash, wrapped in pig intestines and smeared with excrement.  One girl needed stitches from the beating; another suffered a broken ankle.  The tape also shows that alcohol was available to the participants, all of them underage.

Upon learning of the incident, the school principal suspended 28 girls and four boys for 10 days.  And then came the phone calls.

Three families sought legal orders to rescind the suspensions, claiming that missing school would cause the students irreparable damage.  The father of one 18-year-old boy allegedly involved in the hazing told the Chicago Tribune, “They make one mistake, and you’re punishing them for the rest of their lives… This may affect college.”  One student’s complaint notes that the suspension would preclude her from attending the prom.

A Kansas City teacher found that 28 students had plagiarized on their botany projects.  After parents protested, the school board ordered the teacher to lower the weight of the project in the final grading.  In Bethesda, Maryland, the family of a boy who was kicked out of school for helping another student cheat on the SAT filed suit asking for $1.1 million to compensate for the “loss of invaluable childhood friendships … and loss to his reputation.”

Think of the message these parents are communicating to their children.  While many parents say they think bad actions should yield bad consequences, when push comes to shove, a good college is often seen as more important than good character.  Joy Behar, who wrote an advice column in Good Housekeeping magazine, received a letter from a parent whose daughter had been admitted to a prestigious college, and afterward read her essay in which she wrote a deeply moving story of overcoming the hardship of losing her brother to cancer.  Problem was, however that the girl is an only child and had made up the entire essay.  Her mom wanted to know if her daughter should inform the college that she was not truthful in her essay.  And the response?  Joy said her daughter needed a good talking-to, but they ought not inform the college.

A 2010 Ethics of American Youth survey found that 59 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test at least once during the previous year, and 34 percent said they cheated at least twice.  One in three said they had stolen something from a store, and 39 percent said that you had to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.

I mention these stories because in many ways we are all guilty of the massive erosion in character and integrity we find in our society today.  Far too often we are taught and teach each other that nothing is worth doing unless it looks good on your resume, that nothing is wrong unless you get caught, and if you do get caught, evade, cover up, obfuscate, litigate, but under no circumstances should you stand up and take responsibility.

This was the advice given to Commander Scott Waddle of the U.S.S. Greenville submarine.  In 2001, the Greenville surfaced underneath a Japanese trawler called the Ehime Maru, sinking the vessel and killing nine of the passengers and crew in one of the worst accidents involving a submarine in the history of the U.S. Navy.  In the aftermath of the accident, Commander Waddle asked his superiors if he could apologize to the families of the victims and was denied the opportunity.  When the court of inquiry denied Commander Waddle immunity from testimony he might offer, he chose to testify anyway, to explain in his own words what happened.  Here is the opening of his remarks to the court:  “I accept full responsibility for the actions of the crew of the USS Greenville on 9 February 2001.  As the commanding officer, I am solely responsible for this truly tragic accident.  And for the rest of my life, I will live with the horrible consequences of my decisions and actions that resulted in the loss of the Ehime Maru and nine of its crew instructors and students.  I am truly sorry for the loss of life and the incalculable grief that those losses caused the honorable families of those lost at sea. … I understand by speaking now I may be forfeiting my ability to successfully defend myself at a court-martial.  This court and the families need to hear from me, despite the personal legal prejudice to me … and because it is the right thing to do.”

Throughout his testimony, Commander Waddle refused to pass the buck on to those officers below him whose mistakes had not averted the accident.  A gifted and talented Navy officer, his entire career was torpedoed because of an eight minute span in which he and his men did not perform at their peak.  As Commander Waddle writes in his account – “Eight minutes and how eternal are the results.”  Sometimes what we do in eight minutes can change our life forever, but we can transcend our mistakes and move forward. If we are willing to accept the consequences of our mistakes, we may come to learn that deep down, we are more than the mistakes we commit on a given day.

Each of us who comes here this Rosh HaShanah, each of us who enters this sanctuary today, has done things we regret.  But what will redeem us these High Holy days is a resolve to stand up and take responsibility for our lives, to own up to our faults, our mistakes, and the harms we have committed.  We must dedicate ourselves to doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do.

In 2003 and 2004, I was privileged to chair a task force of leaders in Livingston, New Jersey that sought to build a more emotionally and spiritually safe community.  In one of our discussions, we spent more than an hour trying to identify how the community defined success.  We came up with lots of criteria – success meant attaining a level of economic wealth equal to or better than the wealth from which we came.  Success meant being the best at what you do, be it on the athletic field, in the arts, in the classroom, in our varied professions.  Success meant ensuring that our children have a solid foundation on which to build their lives – high achievement in school, attendance at highly competitive colleges and universities.

And if that is all that success entails, then why not lie to get a job, why not cheat on a standardized test, why not steal from a store – after all, if success is all that matters, then who cares how you get there?

Success ought to mean more than what we can list on our resume.  Success should be defined not by being the best, but by doing our best.  Success should be defined by not by our place in line but by what we accomplished to earn our advancement.  Success should not be defined by the quantity of our assets but by the quality of our character.

The ironic thing is that we are happier and more at peace when we stand up and accept responsibility for who we are and what we do.  Real living is found in the struggle, in the growth that comes in looking ourselves square in the mirror and honestly coming to terms with the image that looks back at us.  Real living comes in saying “my fault” not “your fault”.

My good friend Michael Brooks serves as the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Michigan, and received a phone call many years ago from the father of a young man who got caught cheating on an exam, and the university had decided to expel him.  The father asked if Michael would meet with the young man.  Michael met with the student and over the course of their conversation said to him, “What were you thinking?  You cheated on an exam.  That’s terrible.  They’re going to expel you.  They should expel you.  But I’ll tell you what.  If you spend the next year doing some real soul searching, and you take real stock of who you are and who you want to be, you call me, and I’ll get you back in.

And so the young man left.  And he took stock of himself, and called Michael who got him back in.  The young man thrived at Michigan, went to the University of Michigan medical school, did his residency in cardiology at the University of Michigan, and now practices in Ann Arbor. Michael turned to him recently and said to him:  “You know what was the best thing you ever did in your life?  It was cheating on that test.  Because if you hadn’t cheated on that test, you never would have engaged the struggles that you fought, and you probably would never have grown to be the fine and sensitive person you are today.

If God had wanted us to be perfect, then God would have made us perfect.  But God understood that real living comes from growth, and real growth comes from struggle.  I once got a fortune cookie that explained it best – it said:  “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

But if we never take responsibility for ourselves, if we never take responsibility for our faults and our failures, then we will never grow.  Owning up to our misdeeds and mistakes is hard – it hurts, it’s embarrassing, but it’s so necessary if we are to realize our spiritual potential.  Because a life that endures no struggle, a life in which there is no struggle, is not really living.

What do we teach our kids when they come home with a 79, and we call their teachers and beg for the “b”?  And what do we teach our kids when the teacher won’t change the grade, and we call the guidance counselor?  And when the guidance counselor won’t change the grade, so we call the principal?  We teach them that what matters is not the struggle, but the grade.  We teach them that it is not their personhood that matters but their report card.  Better we should teach our kids that they are more than their GPA, more than their test scores, more than their athletic statistics and more than the trophies they may or may not collect. We think that by running interference we are easing their way, but instead we may leave them completely ill-equipped to face the struggles of the real world.

At one of our task-force meetings, someone shared just the right metaphor.  When you see a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, and you see it struggle to break free of its chamber, you would think that the right thing to do is to help it, to rip open the cocoon and release the butterfly.  But if we do this, then the butterfly will never take wing.  Through its struggle to emerge from the cocoon, the butterfly cleans the mucous off its wings.  Without the struggle, its wings will be laden with mucous and it will never fly and die.  It is only through its own personal struggle that it can survive.  And it is only in our own personal struggles that we can survive as well.

I wonder what would have happened to that young woman who lied on her college essay if she had confessed to her dishonesty.  What do you suppose would have happened if she had called the dean of admission and taken responsibility for her lie.  If she had said:  “I’m young and I made a mistake.  I thought that my life wasn’t interesting enough, so I made up a fantasy because I thought that was what you wanted.  But I’ve learned that it’s more important for me to be just me than to live a lie.  And so here’s another essay that explains what I’ve learned.”  Maybe the Dean would have rescinded her admission, but I suspect not.  I suspect he would have admired her decency, her integrity, her character, and said this is the kind of kid we need at our school.  And even if he had rescinded the admission, think of how good her essay would be when she applied the next year, an essay that reflected on the idea that there is more to life than admission to college.

I pray that we might find within the strength to struggle, we who are called Yisrael – God wrestlers.  I pray that in the coming year we will take ownership of our lives and assume responsibility for the choices that we make.  I pray that we will have the faith to see that though we may get battered and bruised in the struggle to live life with honesty and integrity, the strength of our character and our soul will only grow from the battle.  I pray that like the butterfly who must assume for itself the lonely mission of its own redemption, that at the end of the struggle, having taken responsibility for ourselves and our lives, we will find that we have wings with which to soar.  On these holidays, God opens the Book of Life to our page and asks us to take responsibility for all that we are and have become.  May it be that as we sign our names to that page, that our signatures also inscribe us for a New Year of blessing, of meaning, of wholeness, and peace.