We’re All In This Thing Together (Rabbi Freedman’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon)

In an episode of the TV sitcom “Friends,” entitled “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS,” two characters, Phoebe and Joey, engage in a contest based on the theories of philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act, they wonder, one in which someone benefits while the person performing the act receives nothing in return?  Joey believes not; Phoebe sets out to prove him wrong.  After several failed attempts, Phoebe lets a bee sting her “so it can look cool in front of its bee friends.”  Surely, she believes, this is a selfless act; Phoebe allowed herself to be hurt so that the bee could benefit.  Nope, Joey points out; the bee likely died soon after losing its stinger in Phoebe’s arm.

More resolute than ever, and with the end of the episode looming near, Phoebe tries one last-ditch effort. Despite having a deep dislike for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), she makes a $200 pledge to the local station during a fund drive in which Joey is taking calls.  This act would seem to have all of the hallmarks of selflessness; Phoebe wants to spend her money elsewhere, but instead gives it to an organization she dislikes.  However, Phoebe’s act has an unintended benefit.  Her phone call lands Joey, a struggling actor, on camera.  And, of course, she feels good that her benevolence inadvertently helped her friend.  In other words, Phoebe got something out of it (a good feeling), and her selfless act is ruined.

Ultimately, Phoebe finds what theologians, evolutionary biologists  and neurologists have all discovered: It’s difficult to prove the existence of a truly selfless act.

I recently came across a 2006 Duke University study focusing on anonymous charitable donations, one of the highest levels of tzedakah, according to Maimonides.  In this study, researchers found that subjects that contributed to charities received some benefit, just like Phoebe.  Using an MRI, the researchers found that giving tzedakah activated the same reward center in the brain that was activated when the participants received money, giving them (to use a technical term) a warm fuzzy feeling.

Evolutionary theory also points to the idea that true altruism does not exist and is merely a means to ensure that our genes will continue to proliferate.  It’s built into our very DNA to help others for the survival of our genetic code.

Take the dictyostelium discoideum, a single celled amoeba, that when faced with an environment where resources are low, sends out a chemical signal to all the other little dictyostelium discoideum in the the area and they all meet up and become one big, slug-like creature.  This collective of amoebae then finds a nice windy spot.  Then the top 20% of the slug become a hardened stalk and die while doing so, in order that the other 80% can climb up and catch a passing breeze to better pastures.  The top 20% literally sacrifice themselves for the other 80%, ultimately for the good of the species as a whole.

This same theory applies in humans beings.  Author Richard Dawkins, in his book, “The Selfish Gene,” considers humans as mere “vehicles” for a genetic line. Since we pass on half of our genes, when we protect our offspring or blood relatives at the risk of our own lives, our altruistic behavior is merely our genes acting to protect their lineage.

And Judaism also agrees with Joey – true altruism does not exist.  According to  Judaism, helping others and helping ourselves are one in the same and intrinsically tied together.  In this way, Judaism avoids the dualistic, antithesis between self and others and instead seeks to meld the two through the idea of mutualism; in other words – we’re all in this thing together.

In our tradition, the purpose of human life is service to others – here and now. In the creation narrative, which we will read tomorrow morning, mankind is destined to be ruler over everything in creation, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”  According to Genesis,  all of humankind has a part to play in this world.  The words on the atarah (neck-piece) of my tallit are attributed to Rabbi Tarfon, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena – it is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  We each have to do our part.

And our part is directly tied to our ability. Some would say, therefore, that our ethical ambition in this world should be the desire to increase our own strength, knowledge, wealth, and power.  The better off the person, the better able he or she is to help others.  Every person should strive to become the the best person they can be.  However, on the other hand, and flowing from that same concept of service to others, what is ours is ours only as a means to help others. It is the duty of the more fortunate to look after the poor and downtrodden; to help them to strength,in order to perfect our world.  Hillel’s maxim, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when then?” epitomizes this synthesis of self and the others.

Or put more simply – we’re all in this thing together:

(At this point in the sermon, the following song was played for the congregation – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TXNSipWUiE)

We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

Well my friend, let’s put this thing together
And walk the path with worn out feet of trial
‘Cause if you wanted we can go home forever
Give up your jaded ways, spell your name to God

We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

In this beautiful song by the Nashville based bluegrass band, Old Crow Medicine Show, we are reminded of the famous saying by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal – All the world is a very narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid.”

We’re all in this thing together.  Walking the line between faith and fear.  The fear that both Old Crow and Reb Nachman are talking about is egoism, thinking only of oneself.  It is the fear that Hillel spoke about, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.”  It is the fear that if we devote too much to others, that we will be left in need.

And the faith, the faith is altruism.  “V’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal – And the most important part is not to be afraid.”  The faith to not be afraid.  The faith that if we take care of others it will benefit us in the end.  That takes a lot of faith.  And we often walk that fine line, that narrow bridge, between faith and fear throughout our lives.  But I think what Reb Nachman, what Genesis, what Old Crow, what Judaism can teach us – is that this division between self and other need not exist.

Judaism teaches us that we should take our egoism and natural tendencies toward greed and selfishness – what could potentially be seen as a negative force and channel it towards the greater good of society.  This synthesis of our obligation to self and others is the essence of the Jewish idea of the yetzer hatov and the yetzer harah.  Often translated as our inclination towards good and our inclination towards evil, the yetzer hatov and the yetzer harah are inside of each of us.  At first glance, there would seem to be no merit to the evil inclination, which is characterized by selfish, egotistical, intentions.  However, we learn from a famous story in the Talmud about what would happen if the world were to exist without this inclination:

And [they]cried with a great voice to the Eternal their God (Neh. 9:4). What did they cry?…Woe, woe, it is he [the yetzer hara] who has destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, killed the righteous, driven all Israel into exile and is still dancing in our midst… You have surely given him to us that we may receive merit through him.  We want neither him nor merit through him… They [the Sages of the Great Assembly] ordered a complete fast of three day….whereupon he [the yetzer hara] was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion…. At that moment the prophet declared, “This is the yetzer [hara]… cast him in a lead barrel!” (Zech. 5:8)… He [the yetzer hara] said to them, “Realize that if you kill me, the world is finished.”  They held him for three days, then they looked in the whole land of Israel and not an egg could be found.  (Yoma 69b)

An egg could not be found because the yetzer hara – the selfish, sexual, evil impulse that drives us to want to procreate was gone.  Without the yetzer hara, the world as we know would cease; people would no longer be driven to build, to create, to have children.  So our goal is not to destroy the yetzer hara, but rather to sublimate it to God’s purpose. To achieve our fullest human potential, we need to learn to bend our impulses to godly ends.  We should not cease to lust, but should direct that urge toward love.  We should turn our impulse toward vengeance into the desire for justice and our ambition for acquiring possessions into the creation of wealth that will help others.

Take for example the founder of the White Dog Cafe, Judy Wicks.  In her recent book, “Good Morning Beautiful Business,” she tells her story; the story of how the cafe gained international acclaim for its socially responsible business, serving farm-fresh local food and building the local living economy movement.  In some ways our traditional capitalist economic system has perpetuated a worldview of separation by teaching individualism and competition and viewing nature as a resource to be exploited.  But Judy Wicks, along with countless others, has taken the yetzer hara of capitalism, and channeled it towards good.

We can see time and again, how working together for a common good can benefit us all.  How working for what might not be in our immediate self interest actually helps us in the end.  We’re all in this thing together.  Or as the Texas populist Jim Hightower said, “When everyone does better, everyone does better.”  Or what our RiSe Up! Social Action chair Dan Seltzer would call “enlightened self interest.”

Through our interfaith community organizing group, POWER, we are currently working with the Spring Garden School, just around the corner from the synagogue.  We are doing this work because it is the right thing to do.  But also because one day, with the help of community groups like RS, our interfaith partners and socially responsible businesses like the law firm, White and Williams, Spring Garden can become the next Meredith or Greenfield – top tier city public schools.  Imagine what this congregation and this neighborhood will look like when one day, more and more young Jewish families move here, join RS and send their kids to the Spring Garden School.  For the sake of our congregation, our neighborhood and our city, I hope that you will help us fix the Philadelphia public schools.  Please come speak with me or any member of our POWER local organizing committee (LOC) to find out about how you can help.

Unfortunately, lack of quality education is not the only issue facing our community.  I met recently with Laureal Robinson, the principal of the Spring Garden School.  She told me about how 90% of students at her school are economically disadvantaged and receive free, government sponsored breakfast and lunch.   She also told me how she often sees students taking some of their free lunch and putting into their backpacks to take home, how some students show up Monday morning in dirty cloths, without any school supplies, and hungry .

27% of Philadelphians, almost 500,000 people in our city are part of the  government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The average person gets $35/week to feed themselves through SNAP.  Try feeding yourself on $35/week; it’s not easy.  When children are hungry, they can’t learn.  When parents are hungry, they can’t work.

Over the next few months, we will be assembling a task force to examine all the issues around starting a hunger relief initiative from our congregation.  With partners like Project Home, The 11th Street Family Health Center, and Chosen 300 Ministries, we as a congregation  could serve a healthy, filling meal to our neighbors in need, one night a week.  If you are interested, I hope you will join us in this noble pursuit and come speak with me.

Through feeding the hungry in our neighborhood, we can help our own congregation and lift families out of poverty, and help make this community better for everyone.

A recent study from Project Home showed that in neighborhoods where Project Home set up hunger relief initiatives and affordable housing, that contrary to what one might think, crime went down and property values increased.  We’re all in this thing together.

I recently took a group of our confirmation students to a local soup kitchen on a Sunday morning.  After the experience, they said it was the best class they’d ever had and asked if we could do that every week. The biggest question that faces many congregations around the country, and our own, is how to keep teenagers involved in the congregation after bar or bat mitzvah.  Our confirmation program this year will focus on our students getting out in the community and helping others.  Through this work, they are connecting to our city, each other and their faith.  We’re all in this thing together.

As we enter this High Holy Day season, we begin the truly difficult work of heshbon hanefesh – accounting of our souls.  We stand on that narrow bridge, between faith and fear, between “if I am not for myself, who will be for me,” and, “if I am only for myself what am I.”  But as Reb Nachman reminds us, the most important part is not to be afraid.  May this High Holy Day season strengthen our resolve and may God give each us of the courage, the faith, to help others, so together we can make this whole world a better place to live for everyone.  We’re all in this thing together.

Shanah Tovah