Every year for the past 19 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and part of our New Year cycle. This year’s greeting is below. For the more traditional among you, I’ve attached a Rosh Hashana (New Year’s) card for your viewing pleasure as well as an annual recap at the bottom of this message.
I was listening to the Moth (themoth.org) storytelling podcast a while ago when I heard an interesting story. A friend of the storyteller loved Mother Theresa. The friend managed to intercept Mother Theresa when she came to New York. Wanting to do important work, the friend asked to join the Sister of Charity in India. Mother Theresa took one look at her and said (I paraphrase), “You can’t do what I do if you want to do it for yourself.”
The storyteller’s friend was crushed.
But to me, Mother Theresa seemed to be wrong.
Of course we want to do things for ourselves. We want to make the most of our lives. What could be wrong with working with Mother Theresa – or being Mother Theresa – as a path towards accomplishing that?
Perhaps (I thought) the difficulty was in our different religions.
In mainstream Orthodox Judaism, there is no special weight placed on personal sacrifice. The emphasis is on impact, not suffering.
But I wasn’t willing to simply disregard her answer so I continued to wrestle with it.
Now, I believe I both understand and agree with what she was saying.
When we’re born, statisticians might take a look at us and say “you are X, Y and Z and so you’re likely outcome is Q.”
You might be poor, African-American and born in rural Georgia in the late 40s. The statistician can make a very confident determination of your outcomes. Of course, you might end up a Supreme Court Justice (Clarence Thomas).
You might have been born in 1878 as the only child of three who survived past infancy. Your mother might have been a housecleaner and your father a cobbler. Statistically, you were going to go nowhere. Of course, you might end up as one of the world’s great mass murderers (Josef Stalin).
You might be born to a prostitute in a Kentucky cave in 1875. A long (or even fruitful) life is probably not in the cards. And by all the measures a statistician would use, you might end up fitting perfectly. But you might have met a man named Lomax in 1939 and thus influenced generations of American music and culture (see The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience).
You might have an IQ of 68. The statistician would set your course. But you might conclude your academic career with a Ph.D. in Operations Research from Columbia University (my father).
Or you might have been born in Skopje, Macedonia in 1910; one more nobody in a backward land. You’d be statistically irrelevant. But, perhaps, you could become Mother Theresa.
Statistics can be interesting. They can be borderline irresistible in their apparent power. But they don’t really apply to an individual. An individual can defy the statistics, by being an outlier. Or an individual can accomplish things statistics can’t even measure.
This weakness of statistics is one of many reasons we should be loath to cast people’s fates on the basis of their backgrounds. This weakness of statistics is one of the fundamental flaws of eugenics and its continued intellectual offspring. This weakness of statistics – and their apparent power – is one of the reasons the Bible forbids the counting of people.
Of course, our goal shouldn’t just be to overcome the statistics. It isn’t necessary or sufficient to live a life of note, of fame or of power. Stalin, Hitler and Mao all beat the statistics – and (as Stalin might note) created their own.
Instead, we should seek to lead a life of positive impact. We should take our creative and spiritual potential and we should try to convert as much of it as possible into reality.
When I read the opening of the Torah (Bible), I see the description of the human challenge. It is a challenge that is relevant whether we believe in G-d or not. When we live in Eden, we do not create; we lose our drive. And we when we do not create, we lack the fuel for building spiritual meaning. A life without productive work rots us – humans are meant to do more than live, we must built.
In my reading, we are cast from Eden not because we sin, but because we need evil to drive us to create good. But once we realize sufficient creation, we can find ourselves in a sort of Eden. And then we stop creating, just as the Torah describes. And then, paradise is lost and destruction drives us to create once again.
We see this pattern again and again. Societies rise into relative Edens. And then, fat on success, they fail. Families experience tremendous wealth and growth. And then, fat on success, they fail. Companies rise, get fat, and collapse. The Torah describes the arc of the Jewish people in the same way – they will wax fat and kick. Sometimes it takes a generation – sometimes many more. But the pattern repeats itself continuously. True creativity, amazing lives of positive meaning, rarely rise from Eden-like societies and situations. They arise from pain.
It is the human challenge to break this cycle. We shouldn’t need evil to drive us towards our potentials. Of course, the cycle isn’t easy to break. There’s a reason it has repeated itself for thousands of years.
Historically speaking, many (but not all) of the people receiving this email live remarkably blessed lives. We rarely go hungry; few of us are malnourished. Even the poor have access to life-saving therapies unavailable just a century ago such as antibiotics and aspirin. And despite the decline of the Rule of Law (particularly with the rise of laws citizens can’t possibly understand), we live in a remarkably free society. While sickness and pain and death affect all of us, many of us also enjoy unprecedented health and life spans. We live, historically speaking, near Eden.
In this situation, our desire to lead a meaningful life often isn’t enough to propel us through the challenges of creation and the uplifting of our souls that creation can enable. In this situation, we often need something more. And failing to find something more can lead to collapse and suffering.
When I was about six years old I went through a thought process I imagine every six year-old goes through. I posited (although I didn’t use that word) that I was the only real person and that everybody else was there to test me; to see if I’d push myself and make the most out of my life. I figured, until recently, that it was a harmless exercise. I’d even recommended it to others. As I saw it, whether or not other people were real, the test would remain the same. The behaviors and drives of a successful life would be the same.
But, of course, I was wrong. In order to pass the test and go beyond the statistics, you need to draw on a reservoir of strength. And many of us in our state of blessing, lack the fuel needed to go beyond the statistics.
The storyteller’s friend had the same challenge. As Mother Theresa said, “You can’t do what I do if you want to do it for yourself.”
That answer reveals two pathways to a life of meaning.
While we might live in a near Eden, others are very very far from it. To motivate ourselves while remaining close to Eden; to realize the greatest possibilities of our lives; we must open ourselves to being motivated by the challenges of others. One of my favorite examples, William Wilberforce, was motivated by the pain of slaves and their lack of ability to realize their own creations. But this motivation can be far more mundane. Southwest Airlines is famous for getting the most out of their crews by emphasizing that their efficient performance enables the elderly grandmother to afford a ticket to visit a grandchild. They motivate their staff by reminding them that their creation – an efficient airline – can give others spiritual value.
And, of course, as Mother Theresa’s title suggests, we can also be motivated by a desire to serve the divine. Our faiths are different; our understandings of how to improve others’ lives are different; our shortcomings are different; but the motivations can be the same.
As she wrote in a diary entry (with the sacrifice bits removed):
‘Today I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health… Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard.’
It is my goal in the coming year to move beyond asking, ‘how can I create more from my life?’
Instead, I need to learn to ask, ‘how can I help others make more of their lives?’
The answer to both questions has always been the same. But the second question carries with it the power of others’ needs and the motivation to push oneself further and harder than would otherwise be possible. The second question, powered by empathy, opens up a world of additional willpower.
The second question carries with it no answers – but provides the power to make one’s answers into reality.
Of course, the pain of others is not an ideal motivator. Ideally, there will be no evil and no suffering. Ideally, we will judge between this good and that good. And ideally we will create nonetheless.
With Rosh Hashana, we start a New Year. A New Year full of creative and spiritual possibility; a year in which we must seek to convert that possibility into reality. In my reading, the core of the Rosh Hashana service is the statement that we will do the right thing out of the joy of divine service – so G-d need not give us – any of us – pain.
Somehow, we need to learn to create without suffering so we can aspire to something even better than Eden.
My family and I ask Kaparah (forgiveness) for our sins against you – intentional and unintentional, known and unknown. I ask Kaparah for failing to drive myself as effectively as possible. I hope to change this in the year to come. Of course, we extend the same forgiveness to you.
Perhaps most importantly, I pray that we all experience a year in which we can use joy to drive creative and spiritual growth. It is a New Year, a year of open possibilities. Statisticians , economists and other wise men and soothsayers may make their predictions, but we make the reality.
Joseph Cox & Family
p.s. last year I said I was writing a book. I am actually writing two; both of which have received very positive feedback so far.
One is a work of fiction tentatively titled “Powder.” As a brief summary: Fulabaso Yogula is a 14 year-old street kid in West Africa. But he’s not just any street kid. His mother and father were important people – before the clans had them killed. Starting on the streets of Garubia and rising to the halls of power, Powder captures the dangerous, exciting, tortured and redeeming life story of Fulabaso Yogula. The first two chapters have been posted at 365shorts.com. The rest will be released serially.
The second book is called “21st Century Pshat: A Year’s Aliyah Insights.” This year in shul, I’ve been delivering innovative one to two minute divrai Torah before every Aliyah (if you don’t understand that sentence, it probably isn’t for you). I started with parshat Shemot and have posted 249 divrai Torah so far. This is also at 365shorts.com.
By way of a Rosh Hashana update – Nava is six and the trips are 4 and half. Nava is entering 1st grade while the Trips return to Pre-K. They are all, k’naina hora, doing well – Maayan Torah is doing a wonderful educating them. Nava is very strong academically and physically as well. She might be 6, but she can lift the occasional 14-year-old. Itai remains the What You See is What You Get (WSYWYG) child. His empathy is something to behold – we used to joke that could punish Itai by taking away Yitzchak’s desert. Over time, he is learning to control his power and we expect it will serve him well. Yitzchak is the most determined of our children. For the Chai Lifeline Jumpathon he did 614 jumps – the average was close to 60. For her part, Yaira is very sharp and very beautiful. She is a spark plug and something special to behold.
For those who don’t know, we are planning on making Aliyah next June. Because of this, we took the opportunity this summer to explore the parts of the Pacific Northwest (e.g. the Canadian Rockies) that we hadn’t seen before. The explorations have been great and the kids have loved them.
The monsters are beautiful and things are going well. G-d willing we will go from strength to strength.
Rebecca, Joseph, Nava, Itai, Yitzchak & Yaira