Rosh Hashanah, 5777/2016

When I was in the fifth grade, my family went to Israel for a year. My father was on sabbatical, and he and my mother decided it would be an important and precious opportunity for all of us to live in Jerusalem for a year. It was. And I have stories to tell. Like glass doors in our apartment and fights with my younger brothers and crashing into one of those glass doors and the scar on my face.

Other stories too. For Hanukkah vacation, we went on our first road trip out of Jerusalem. We headed south for Eilat in our little Peugot 404. It was long before seat belts. My parents sat in the front and the four us crowded on the bench seat in the back. There was a regular highway from Jerusalem south to Beersheva. Beersheva was, and is, the northern tip of Israel’s long southern desert – and as we headed out into the Negev, the road became only one lane of asphalt rolled out onto the desert floor. One lane for both directions of traffic. That meant if two cars, or a car and truck, came from opposite directions, one had to move out onto the sand and let the other pass. It was going to be a long way to Eilat.

But we didn’t get too far. Within minutes of our heading out on this road, it began to rain. First, a few big fat raindrops on the windshield. But within minutes, we were in a flashflood. Heavy rains poured onto the desert dunes around us, and silt from the hills washed onto the narrow road. Our car skidded, rolled off the road, and we tumbled, the car somersaulting into a ditch below. The car landed on its wheels; the rains stopped as suddenly as they started. My parents spun around. The car was smashed like an accordion. We were all alright.

We climbed to the top of the hill. The desert was still. Other than a Bedouin shepherd, staff in hand, leading his sheep (we could have been back in the Bible), we were all alone. And then an army jeep whizzed by. Two soldiers jumped out and looked at this straggly group of six people. My parents explained what had happened. From relief or being scared or I don’t know what, I started to cry. One soldier said, “Lama at bocha? Why are you crying?” The other jumped to my defense: “Hi lo bocha. She’s not crying. She has a cold.”

We piled into the open jeep and rode back to Beersheva, where we got a taxi and drove back to Jerusalem. We got back to Jerusalem in time for the first night of Hanukkah. Every night of Hanukkah, we say two blessings as we light the Hanukkah candles. The second one – ”[sing] she- asa nisim l’avoteinu bayamim ha-heim baz’man hazeh.” – gives thanks to God “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” My parents changed the blessing by a single syllable: “[sing] bayamim ha-heim U-va’zman ha-zeh.” – “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days AND at this time.” This happened 55 years ago. There are two things I have always remembered. The changed Hanukkah blessing. We have sung it that way every year; our children and their children sing it that way. We give thanks for the miracles of those days and for the miracles of now. And I remember the kindness of the soldier who jumped to my defense – who saw that I was crying and wanted to spare me any embarrassment.


Of all the qualities I once wished for myself, kindness was not among them. Courage, joy, ambition – yes. Kindness? Kindness seemed for wusses.

So I was surprised to see how moved I was by a graduation speech forwarded to me by one of one of my sons-in-law. Three years ago, George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. “Here is something I regret,” he said. “In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class…She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

“So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased…I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear…At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: ‘How was your day, sweetie?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, fine.’ And her mother would say, ‘Making any friends?’ and she’d go, ‘Sure, lots.’

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

“And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

“One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.

“Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

“But still. It bothers me.

“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
“Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly, Mildly.

“Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kind to you, I bet.”

“Now,” he continues, “the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

“Because kindness, as it turns out, is hard.”

We think that being kinder works against us. We live in a zero-sum world: the real world offers limited resources, limited jobs, limited places at the table, and someone else’s loss is my gain. We think it’s a given: if someone else get a piece of the pie it means one less piece for you. But is this true?

Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania set out to study successful people in a huge range of professions. He found the usual correlates to success: ambition, talent and opportunity. But he also found a fourth ingredient in successful people: reciprocity – the way we give and take. “Every time we interact with another person, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return? As an organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, “ he writes, “I’ve dedicated more than ten years of my professional life to studying these [reciprocity] choices at organizations ranging from Google to the U.S. Air Force, and it turns out that they have staggering consequences for success.

“Over the past three decades, in a series of groundbreaking studies, social scientists have discovered that people differ dramatically in their preferences for reciprocity – their desired mix of taking and giving.”

“Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor…Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts.

“These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people.

Givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need. “If you’re a giver at work, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return…you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas and connections with other people who can benefit from them. It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others – providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for other.”

“In the workplace, few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead. We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting…If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.” How many of us approach our personal relationships this way? It may even be unconscious, but we keep a running list in our minds, keeping score of who did what, how much effort it took, even who hurt the other more, who apologized last, who “owes” more. (Do I sound like I’m talking from experience?) When we give to another person in this way, expecting an even exchange of favors, it’s not the same as giving. It is a form of keeping score. Giving with strings attached is not received as an act of generosity – not in the workplace, and not with our spouses or partners or friends.

Adam Grant published his results in 2013, in a book called Give and Take. In a style that reads more like suspense and a detective story than business, he writes: “If I asked you to guess who’s the most likely to end up at the bottom of the success ladder, what would you say – takers, givers, or matchers? All three reciprocity styles have their own benefits and drawbacks. But there’s one style that proves more costly than the other two…[Y]ou might predict that givers achieve the worst results – and you’d be right. In the short range, across a wide range of important occupations, givers are at a disadvantage: they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.

“So if givers are most likely to land at the bottom of the success ladder, who’s at the top – takers or matchers? Neither…”It’s the givers again.” It the short run, it looks like the giving strategy doesn’t pay off. But in the long run, it often does.

Adam Grant’s research covers occupations as diverse as entertainment, sports executives, financial advisors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, doctors, writers, politicians, engineers, entrepreneurs and sales people. “Let me be clear,” he writes, “givers, takers and matchers all can – and do – achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. People tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when givers win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”

One of the reasons we aren’t more kind is that we think being kind works against us. But being kind, giving without expectation of return, being genuinely concerned with the successes of those around us, (coupled with care and respect for ourselves) turns out to be a good strategy for the workplace, as well as for our homes and friendships. It’s also the most important strategy in building the world we want to part of it. Just think – whether you are a giver or a taker, you probably want the people who take care of you to be givers. You hope your doctor, lawyer, teacher and yes, financial advisor will focus on contributing value to you, not on claiming value from you.

You, too, might have thought as I did, that kindness is for wusses. It might be nice and sweet as a spiritual value – but in the real world, it isn’t practical. Not only is it practical, it turns out that we don’t do well when we divide ourselves into our practical and spiritual selves. We need to be whole. We are each one person. The values that make us better people will make us better partners, better parents, better friends, better leaders, better bosses and better colleagues. In research conducted world-wide, “giver values (working for the well-being of others, responsibility, social justice, and compassion) “are the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries – in more than seventy different countries from around the world – from Argentina to Armenia, Belgium to Brazil, and Slovakia to Singapore. In the majority of the world’s cultures, including that of the United States, (values that are under assault in this election), the majority of people endorse giving [and kindness] as their single most important guidance principle.” In America, more people leave their jobs not over salary – but over the quality of the workplace. We seek places of empathy, of genuine caring, where our talents are acknowledged, our creativity and passions encouraged. [9 Things That Make Good Employees Quit Dr. Travis Bradberry]

When we don’t bring these values with us to our relationships and our friendships, when we don’t experience them in the workplace, we are working against ourselves – we compromise our own integrity. We anticipate the self-serving behavior of others, and ready ourselves with a competitive and adversarial stance. Expecting the worst in others ends up bringing out the worst in ourselves. [Robert Frank, Cornell economist]

During World War I, the story circulated about a small waif pestering an American GI for a chocolate bar. Frustrated and annoyed by her constant badgering, he finally took a newspaper with a map of the world printed on it, tore it into pieces and gave it to the girl. “When you put this together,” he said, “I’ll give you the chocolate bar.” To his shock, she returned a few minutes later with the whole thing taped together. “How did you do it?” he wanted to know. “It was easy,” she said. “On the other side of the paper was a picture of a person. When I put the person together, the world came out all right.”

Framing this in religious language, Judaism teaches us about tikkun – repair. Tikkun olam – repair of the world – is a mandate for each of us, a religious obligation to do our part in making this world a better place. We forget that repair of the world, tikkun olam, needs to be in balance with tikkun ha-lev, the repair of the heart. Our work on the inner world, in our hearts, needs to go side-by-side with our repair of the world around us. So here is the remarkable thing about kindness. We don’t have to prioritize tikkun olam, repair of the world, over tikkun ha-lev, the repair of our heart – or insist that we must first fix our inner life before we can be concerned with those around us. Working on being kinder to others makes us a kinder and more generous person. Thinking about others helps us already to become less selfish and less self-absorbed. Caring and doing for others will lift us from the entitlements and pre-occupations that have made us small. What will make us great? What will make America great again? Making a society where working for the well-being of others, social justice and kindness are at the top of our list.

2,800 years ago, one of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, our Bible, said, “What, o mortal, does God require of you? Only this: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micha 6:8]

Being kind. It’s easier said than done. Sometimes in the short run, it’s a tough decision to make. We may sacrifice popularity, or status, or a business deal. The arc does indeed bend toward justice and goodness, but not always immediately. Sometimes the decision to be kind is really difficult. We need help. We need to marshal the forces of goodness in this world to help us. Thirty years ago, a member of Kol Ami, Peter Meyer, already then an old man, gave me this prayer:

O God
So far I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped Haven’t lost my temper

Haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or over-indulgent. I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on
I’m going to need a lot more help.

We do need help. And if you think it’s hard to be generous and kind in the workplace, it is much harder to be kind with people that we know and live with. Our own emotional needs, and past injuries, and expectations loom largest with our most intimate relationships. I share advice not because I’m a master; I‘m a master of none of this. I share because it’s what I need and hope to learn. Robert Covey, zichrono l’vracha – of blessed memory, taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” “Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes,” Covey writes, “and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and gives them to you. ‘Put these on,’ he says, ‘I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these.’” [Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, p.236] How long do we “listen” to someone before we jump in to fix the problem, or say, “I know exactly how you feel,” or, “Let me tell you what I did when this happened to me.” Deeply actively listening to someone, without an agenda, without a need, without thinking about what we would say, listening to understand someone, is a gift to give to another human being. It would be an act of great generosity, and kindness (not to mention wisdom), if I started intense conversations at home that way. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Humility before God reminds me that I will not live forever. That I am here to love and to serve and to give thanks.

The eve of Rosh Hashanah is also a reminder that we will not live forever. We are so conscious of those from whom we parted in this last year – and so acutely aware that for us, too, our days and years are numbered. This isn’t morbid. This is a good reminder: thinking about our mortality helps us consider what is most important. Who am I? Who do I want to be? What will matter most to those I love when I am gone?

In the words of another prayer:

“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” [attributed to Stephen Grellet]

May this be our blessing Amen.

May we be blessed as we go on our way May we be guided in peace
May we be blessed with heath and joy May this be our blessing,

May we sheltered by the wings of peace
May we kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their way to every soul May this be our blessing,
Amen. Debbie Friedman