Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
Rabbi Matthew D. Cohen
As many of you know, my son Ayden and I spend a significant amount of time playing music together. A little over a year ago we decided to share our music with the rest of the world which has turned into a weekly Facebook Live jam session from a bedroom in our house known as “The Cohen Fam Jam Room.” Thanks to Facebook technology we can see exactly how many views our videos get in addition to the comments and “likes.” The really good jams are the ones watched by thousands of people and get hundreds of “likes” and comments. And it is gratifying to watch the numbers of views and “likes” climb by the minute! That’s when we know we’ve nailed it! However, some of our videos are only viewed by the tens or low hundreds with much fewer likes. Those are the less-than-average ones.
How many of us post pictures, stories, quotes, articles, videos, status updates, locations check-in’s or your personal thoughts on social media? And how many of us check our post to see how many “likes” or comments it elicits? How many of us hit refresh on our devices with the hopes to see that number in the red circle climb? It’s instant gratification. It means that someone agrees with us. It validates our point of view, be it about politics or our love for cat videos. It means that our taste in restaurants or hotels is in line with our friends. It means that what we say, think, or do has value and meaning. But what happens when the “likes” are fewer in number? How do we feel when the refresh button yields no results? Does it mean we have bad taste in restaurants? Are the pictures we post of our family and friends just not that interesting to anyone else?
Does it mean that we have less value and self-worth? If we measure it by the sheer numbers, then yes, it does.
I am a numbers guy and I’ve been conditioned to think that way, especially as a rabbi. My experiences in larger congregations led me to believe that a successful worship service or program was based on the number of people who showed up. When someone asked how any given program went, the first thing that usually came out of my mouth was the number of heads in the room. The more the better, right? The bigger the better, right? At least that’s what I’ve always thought.
I was at Regional Rabbi’s conference last February in Dallas where I had the opportunity to meet a number of my Texas colleagues. The first question rabbis usually ask one another at these types of gatherings is, what’s the size of your congregation? As you could imagine, the rabbis from Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston made me feel like small potatoes. Who am I? I am just a rabbi of this small secluded barrier island off the Gulf of Mexico. What impact can I possibly make in my rabbinate that can compare to these rabbis with thousands of members in their respective congregations?
The fact is, I counted numbers from the outset of my tenure as the rabbi of CBI. I thought 30-40 people for a Shabbat service was a lousy turnout. I was used to 100-150 people at an average Shabbat service. I went from 30-40 people at any given Shabbat Torah study to an average of 4-10 people. The fact is, I felt pretty insignificant that first day of the rabbi’s conference in Dallas. Then something happened.
As I was eating breakfast at my hotel the morning of the second day of the conference, a text came through from a CBI member. It said the following: “Good morning Rabbi. Just a note of thanks as you go about your day. My husband and I woke up this morning and were both thinking how last Friday night’s service is still carrying us through a busy week. He heard me humming prayers as I was making our son’s lunch. Normally I’m taking deep breaths getting ready for whatever craziness lies ahead. Your calm, centered, musical, and soulful connection to our faith is inspiring and peaceful. Thank you! We are grateful for your presence in our community.”
Something inside of me shifted the moment those words came through on my phone. Those words challenged me to reassess how I evaluate my self-worth and success. It caused me to reflect on the meaning and purpose of my work. It led me to reflect on the impact I can have on people’s lives, even by the tens or ones.
This past March, Sandy Richbook and I attended the Shallot seminar on Rabbinic transition. One of our sessions focused on how we evaluate the success of our congregational programming. Most, if not all the time, congregations measure success by quantifiable measures. How many people came to the event? Was there enough space? Was there enough food? Did the event meet budget? Who complained? These are the questions that most of us ask when evaluating our progress and success, including me.
While numbers are important to us (especially in terms of finances and budgets), perhaps, as the seminar suggested, we need to broaden our scope in terms of how we evaluate ourselves. Instead of counting how many people showed up or if the program met our budget, we need to ask questions that measure the value of the program in terms of relationships, impact, and meaning. Did this program deepen or make new connections in the community? Did the experience change or add to people’s understanding of themselves or the world around them? Did it make the world a better place?
When we think of it, the social media “like” phenomenon is nothing new. It simply reinforces our need and desire for numbers. The more the better. The bigger the better. It’s how we evaluate the success of our congregational programs and worship experiences. It’s how we evaluate the success of our personal and professional lives. The focus on quantity in our lives can become at best a distraction and, at worst, idolatry. Of course, there are many spheres of life where we need quantity: the quantity of dollars that it takes to run our congregation or the quantity of dollars in our personal savings account so that we can sustain ourselves, our family, and the community around us. However, I’d like to point us to our Jewish tradition which teaches us how we are evaluated by God. I turn to Psalm 15:
1 Adonai, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Eternal;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
Psalm 15 teaches us that God does not evaluate us based on how much money we make, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the lavish vacations we take, or the number of friends we have on social media or in real life. The Psalm teaches us that it is the way we live our lives that earn us a place in that sacred tent. It is how we live our lives with intention, meaning, and purpose. We are evaluated by the impact we make on this world, no matter what we may assume to be major or minor. Only God knows the answer to that. God evaluates us by our contributions. God evaluates us by the way the teachings of our Torah move us to live a life worthy of God’s blessings - one that will save us a seat inside that sacred tent on top of that mountain.
We are now entering into this new year of 5780. Some of us may have spent time in the month of Elul preparing for this moment. The days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are meant for introspection and reflection. It calls us to resolve to do our teshuvah and make necessary changes in our lives that will help move us forward, be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually. However, we have prepared for this moment, I ask, how will we evaluate our success in the coming year? Perhaps some of us may seek forgiveness for the pain we have caused someone else. Instead of measuring our success based on the result of the damaged relationship, let’s evaluate ourselves based on our authentic apology or the fact that we found the courage to take that most difficult first step in admitting our faults.
Perhaps some of us may seek to make changes that will lead to living a healthier lifestyle. Instead of measuring our success based on the number of times we get to the gym in a week or the number of pounds we lose in the first month, let's evaluate ourselves based on how we are feeling? Are the changes in our lifestyle giving us the strength of mind, body, and/or spirit that helps carry us forward in a positive and productive way?
Perhaps some of us may evaluate the success of this High Holy Day service by the quality of the music, the length of the rabbi’s sermon, the length of the actual service, or the variety of desserts at the Oneg. These are the questions that have been asked since Mount Sinai.
I am challenging all of us to evaluate the immeasurable: What impact did this Rosh Hashanah experience have on us and our community? Did the experience add meaning to our lives in a way that will help carry us forward into the new year? Did this communal worship experience enrich and deepen our relationships? Did this experience reinforce or add to the holiness to our community? How has this experience transformed us? Who we were when we walked into the building a couple of hours ago verses who we are right now and who we will be tomorrow?
The most important evaluative questions are the ones we ask ourselves: What did I contribute to this experience that made it more meaningful? How did my contributions impact the outcome? How did my presence and intentionality help deepen the sacred relationships in our community? Ultimately, these are the questions that we will ask ourselves one day as we look back on the life we lived. These are the questions that will determine our self-worth and value. These are the questions that God needs us to ask ourselves every day. What are the gifts, blessings and miracles that we will contribute that will help determine the outcome of the world. What are the contributions that will earn us a seat in that sacred tent on top of that great mountain?
When I think back to how I evaluate the success of my Facebook Live jams with Ayden, I wonder what really determines the success of our jams? Society causes us to idolize numbers and therefore the good jams get thousands of views and hundreds of likes. But, the real success is not in the numbers. The success is the relationship and bond my son and I are building together. The success is the quality time we are creating and sharing together as a family. Perhaps the success is in the immeasurable impact our music has on people's lives. Maybe we inspire people to play music. Maybe we inspire parents to spend more time with their children. Maybe we are simply spreading much needed joy into the world.
Perhaps, our Facebook Live jam sessions are repairing the world in a way that will earn us a seat in the sacred tent on top of that great mountain, alongside each and everyone of you!
Shanah Tova u’metukah!