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Kol Nidre - 2008 / 5768

09/20/2008 09:07:16 PM


Rabbi Carey Brown

In 1978, a young, little known golfer named Tom stood over a birdie putt on the fifth hole of the final round of an important tournament. He was neck and neck with an established, championship-caliber golfer. When the young golfer moved his putter behind the ball, the ball moved a fraction of an inch; no one else but Tom could have known that his putter had moved the ball.  Much to everyone’s surprise, he called a penalty shot on himself. In the end, he lost the tournament by just one shot.  After the tournament, he was asked by a reporter why he called the penalty shot.  He replied, “It was the only thing I could do.  When you break a rule, you suffer the consequences.  I have to live with finishing second for a few days.  I have to live with myself for the rest of my life.”  That golfer’s name was Tom Kite, who went on to become one of the leading professional golfers of our time.
What a contrast from the headlines we read today from the world of professional sports!  As baseball records are broken and Hall of Famers inducted, debate rages over whether or not asterisks should be posted next to the names of players suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.  I’m still not sure who won the Tour de France after a significant number of the cyclists dropped out of the race because of doping.  The NBA is reeling from a scandal with a referee who admitted to gambling on games in which he himself was working as an official.   And now, our beloved Patriots are in the midst of a cheating investigation for video taping the opposing team’s signals.

What is the distinction between Tom Kite and our contemporary sports examples?  It is not simply a difference in using or not using illicit means to get ahead.  It is a difference in outlook and self-image.  It is a difference in one’s perception of how to measure success.  How did Tom Kite measure himself during that golf tournament? Against the standard of being true to his ethical self.  The others measured themselves solely against the attainment of their pursuit.

Athletes are not the only ones measuring themselves against the wrong criteria.  We are all encouraged to do so in our every day experiences.  Think about the forces we encounter in any given day that attempt to influence the criteria by which we measure ourselves.  Consider people who go through extraordinary lengths to make their bodies look like the airbrushed figures on magazine covers?  What about families living beyond their means because they measure their worth against the material possessions of their neighbors.   Consider parents who feel the need to measure their own success by the endeavors of their children.

When I was living in New York City while attending rabbinical school, I was amazed by the pressures that families felt to get their children into the best pre-school, to start them on the right path to the Ivy League.  A story broke in the news about one prominent parent offering insider stock tips to nursery school administrators in exchange for admission.

Our children, especially, are aware of the measuring sticks that they face on any given day.   Teens get measured all the time – we measure their SAT scores, their AP courses, we even measure the number of community service hours they log each semester.  Sometimes, I am afraid, kids forget how to be kids when the focus is all upon the measure.  Consider this anecdote I read recently:

“It was the end of a long week, and the teacher’s class was so preoccupied with their upcoming math test that she found her lesson constantly interrupted by anxious kids wanting to know more about the test, the grading, how much of their final grade would rest on this exam, and so on.  Unable to get her kids to focus on the day’s lesson, she told them to put away their binders and that they would spend the rest of the period drawing.  A dozen hands shot up, all wanting to know how she would grade their artwork.” (The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine, 2006, p. 56)

As Jews, we recognize that measuring ourselves against artificial criteria can be damaging to our souls.  Especially at this season, we remember that we are instructed to take an accurate measure of our souls, a heshbon nefesh, in order to account for our deeds.  When we take that measure, we cannot do so by comparing ourselves to the dubious criteria imposed by society.  Rather, we take a close look at how our actions reflect the ethical imperatives of our tradition.

What are the Jewish scales with which we measure our selves?  In Judaism, the imagery of scales carries great significance.   The traditional image associated with the month of Tishrei, our current Hebrew month, is that of a scale.  At this time of the year, especially, we consider the imperative to use honest weights and measures. Tomorrow, in our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, among the many ethical mitzvot presented in Kedoshim, in the holiness code, is that of moznei tzedek – using just scales. The Torah reads, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity.  You shall have an honest balance and honest weights…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

There is an enormous corpus of Rabbinic literature dealing with honest scales.  Just as in our generation, the rabbis of old were aware of the reality of market pressures that tempt people to use damaged scales to cheat customers.  I myself can remember frequent admonitions from my grandmother warning me to watch the butcher so that he didn’t put his thumb on the scale.  Likewise with Ancient Jews.  Imagine this scenario:

Walking through the gates of Jerusalem, the whirlwind of activity nearly lifts Shimon out of his sandals: merchants selling sacrifices, moneychangers charging exorbitant rates, artisans peddling ceramic and stone wares, bankers offering loans… As a small farmer from the Galilee, arriving in the big city for the festival, Shimon is wary: how can he be sure that the moneychangers' shekels are pure silver? What if the oil lamps he purchases in the city's upper market are defective? How would he know that a pound of figs – was really a pound?

And so the rabbis devised numerous rules and regulations to ensure that the market was always fair.  For example: 

The Mishnah (Bava Batra 5:10) ruled that: “A wholesaler must clean out his measuring instruments once every thirty days... The retailer cleans his measures twice a week and polishes his weights once a week; and cleans out his scale before every weighing.”

In addition, throughout the Talmudic period, the rabbis appointed a special official, an agronomos - a Greek word for marketplace police - whose job it was to inspect measures and weights and to fix prices for basic commodities (BT Bava Batra 89a).

Maimonides codified the penalty for false measure further.  He wrote, “The punishment for unjust measures is more severe than the punishment for immorality, for the latter is a sin against God only, the former against one’s fellow man.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Theft 7:12)  For Maimonides, the scales we use for measure do not just reflect our accountability in the marketplace, but how we measure up in our ethical character.

Today, we alone are responsible for policing ourselves.  Each of us has to be our own agronomos and gauge the ways in which we assess ourselves against the ethical standard.  What are the values by which we should be measuring ourselves?  Society might be sending signals that we should be using one set of measures to determine our actions, but Judaism teaches that there is another, more essential guideline for our measuring.

The Talmud teaches us that when we die, we will meet God in the here-after and be asked six questions about our life.  I am sure that you can imagine that the questions will not include : What was your SAT score?  How many frequent flier miles did you acquire? or What was your dress size?  Rava, one of the great voices of the Talmud, declared that these would be the six questions (Shabbat 31a):

Nasata v’natata be-emunah? — Did you deal faithfully with people in your business practices?
Kavata itim la-Torah? — Did you fix time for study?
Asakta bifria ur’viah? — Did you invest in the continuity of the Jewish people?
Tzipita lishuah? — Did you live with hope in your heart?
Pilpalta b’chochmah? — Were your arguments for the sake of heaven?
Havanta davar mitoch davar? — Did you seek deeper meaning in life?  
What is notable about these six questions?  What makes them good questions?  For one, these questions are not quantifiable.  Our tradition teaches us that the important things in life are those elements that have infinite quantity, and therefore are impossible to measure.  Eilu d’varim she ain lahem shiur: These are duties whose worth cannot be quantified… (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

Feeding the hungry, gemilut chassadim – acts of kindness, honoring parents, and making peace between people.  V’talmud torah k’negged kulam – And the Study of Torah is equal to them all because it leads to them all.

Such deeds, just like the ones in our six questions, make up the recipe for what is truly important in life. 

How would we fare, standing before God, responding to the six questions posed by Rava?  Fortunately, today is not the end of days for those of us standing here this day.  But on Yom Kippur, we are in many ways preparing for this scene, standing in judgment before the Holy One.  Each New Year, we have an opportunity for a rehearsal.  According to our tradition, today is Yom HaDin — the Day of Judgment.  We stand on trial before God. Our lives hang in the balance. The awe-filled and fearsome melody of Unetaneh Tokef transmits the message: "This is the Day of Judgment. For even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You..." Our tradition interprets that not only do we stand before God, but we also stand before our community, and our conscience.

Before we know it, a year will pass and we will find ourselves here once again, accounting for our shortcomings and reflecting on our successes. In the months to come, what will you change that you might say with sincerity:

“I have dealt faithfully with others,
committed myself to lifelong personal growth,
dedicated myself to the future of the Jewish people,
lived with hope in my heart,
argued for the sake of heaven
and searched for the ultimate meaning of my life?”
Will you be able to stand before God and say: “Yes, mine has been a life well-lived?”

Yom Kippur marks the climax of our season of repentance, when we are acutely aware of how we might take measure of our selves, of our souls.  We cannot measure ourselves against any external benchmark.  We cannot measure ourselves by any quantifiable means.  We can only measure ourselves by how true we are being to our own standards and how far we have come back to who we are truly meant to be.

Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva. 

Help us to return to You, O God; then truly shall we return.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782