Character

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776

Once, at a different congregation, in another city, the temporary Religious school teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but couldn’t quite remember it. Finally, she went to the rabbi’s study and asked for help. The rabbi came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally, he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently. Then he looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and the lock opened.

The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe of your faith, rabbi,” she said. “oh, It was really nothing,” he answered. “I remembered that the number is written on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”

What does faith look like? What does belief in God look like? What does prayer look like? We’ve all seen those images of people at prayer with hands together, or with heads bowed, and eyes closed to show humility. What I appreciate in this story is that the rabbi’s “prayer” was with head held high and eyes open. That too, may be what prayer looks like.

Here at CKA, we have received on a very rare and occasional basis requests to film our Shabbat worship. Most recently this was for a non-Jewish college student’s documentary film about Jews. I explained that we only film during Bar or Bat Mitzvah services, and only from the back of the room with a fixed camera. And that this student may be permitted to film in that way but only with the Bar Mitzvah family’s permission. Ultimately, this didn’t meet the student’s schedule, but the question was asked about how Jewish prayer might then be shown in her film if she wasn’t permitted to film during our services. How? I didn’t say this, but what I have thought about is that Jewish prayer or perhaps any prayer doesn’t necessarily look like anything, how could it? During services it’s people together in a room with books reading and singing, standing and sitting and sometimes bowing, but that’s not what prayer looks like, that’s what services look like. We have no idea what is happening inside each person while they are praying. Are we each communicating with God? are we worrying about if we left the oven on? Are we reliving a recent argument or embarrassing moment? Are we thinking about something incredibly profane? In the story (OK, joke) I began with, the substitute teacher made an assumption about the rabbi based on what she saw. Perhaps based on his role as rabbi. But she had no idea, until he told her about what was actually going on inside of his head, about his motivations, his desires; she saw what she was looking for on the outside, a rabbi, a spiritual person, learned, someone who knew how to open things, essentially, she saw his resume, but she didn’t see his soul, she didn’t see his character.

Rosh Hashanah is of course the celebration of the New Year and the anniversary, or the birthday celebration for the world. In honor of that, tomorrow’s Torah portion for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of the first seven days of the world, Genesis chapter one. In it we learn that after separating the waters above from the waters below, creating plants, birds and fish, bugs and crawly things and mammals, finally, just before taking a day to rest, God creates people in the image of God, zachar u’nikevah barah otam, male and female God created them. But of course that’s not the whole story. In Genesis chapter two we read the story all over again, but differently. In Genesis chapter two there are animals and a lonely Adam looking to find his ezer k’negdo, his helper and partner. There are many commentaries and explanations of these two stories, are they the same are they different. Is one more correct than the other. Etc. But, in 1965, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City, wrote a book entitled “Lonely Man of Faith.”  Rabbi Soloveitchik, felt that by deeply studying the text we could understand these seeming anomalies. Instead of arguing that these two are different stories, he writes that the two accounts of creation in Genesis represent the two opposing sides of our human nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II.

Adam 1 is introduced to us in the first chapter of Genesis. On the sixth day God said, “Let Us make Adam (humanity), . . . They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.”  God tells the newly created people, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.”

But then there is Adam II – In Genesis chapter 2, we read that second account of creation and the origins of humanity:

“…and there was not a man (Adam) to till the ground.  But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord God formed Adam of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.  And the eternal God planted a garden eastward in Eden.… And the eternal God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it.”

In the first account, humans are to multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. In the second, Adam is placed in the garden to serve it and keep it. Perhaps these are exactly the same actions, but there is certainly a difference in the attitudes.

This past June I attended my cousin’s bridal shower in St. Louis. My brother. . . Adam, was kind enough to let me stay with him for the weekend. He’s a high school English teacher and always has excellent reading material, so upon arrival I immediately checked his shelves. And right there was a book I have been meaning to read, “The Road to Character” by David Brooks, the NYTs op-ed columnist.  Luckily for me, Adam had finished reading it and he let me pack it in my suitcase and leave town with it.

Brooks bases his book on Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith.” Brooks begins where Soloveitchik’s work ends.  His book, “The Road To Character,” expands on Soloveitchik’s views of Adam I and Adam II.  He applies the Adam I and Adam II metaphors to how we lead our lives today. Primarily this book is collection of portraits, the life stories and motivations of historical and modern people of character whom Brooks admires. That part was fine. But for me, the introduction was poetry, if it had been my own hardcover copy of the book the entire introduction would have glowed from having every line and every sentence highlighted. Instead I made due with sticky notes.

Brooks says:

Modernizing Soloveitchik’s categories a bit, we could say that Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, resume Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.

Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.

While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose.[1]

Essentially, Adam I embodies our resume virtues while Adam II embodies our eulogy virtues.

I expect that almost every one of us would say that Adam II, our eulogy virtues, the kinds of things we hope will be said about us when we die, the characteristics we hope we will be most remembered for, I expect we would say those are the more important virtues, the ones we should be working the hardest to cultivate. But I would also expect that most of us spend the majority of our lives and our time working harder on our resume virtues. Now it’s not our fault, our society and our world is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues much more than the eulogy ones.

For starters, they are easier to list. Degrees earned, experiences experienced, talents, skills, achievements. When I first learned how to write a resume many moons ago, I was taught that it should never be longer than a cover letter and one page of the other relevant information. It was hard to keep everything to one page, and that was long before I had done much more than earn a high school degree and work some odd part time jobs. Once I’d actually done something or learned something, it got even harder to limit all my shiny Adam I qualities to one page. By the way, the rules have changed. Resumes these days are long. Job seekers are encouraged to list everything they have done, everything they know and to account for just about every moment of their work life, since their work life began. No one leaves out the lost year at the beach anymore, that’s included to show what a free spirit (read: what an Adam II) the applicant is. That job that didn’t go so well, that job the applicant was fired from, that’s there too so that the applicant might explain what was learned from that experience about how to better function as part of a team, how to be humble or whatever. Even our best Adam II qualities can become Adam I qualities when our pragmatism and drive for success causes us to list them on our actual resume.

No one teaches us how to write our own eulogies though. There are no classes on creating great memories for your grandchildren, or how to “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to us.”[2] No one teaches us how to just be and experience and cherish all that we find in the world. We talk about how to make moral choices, we teach it here and in other synagogues, mosques, and churches about the mitzvot, the rules of ethical behavior, but there’s not test we are required to pass to prove our serenity. There’s no way to show our deeper Adam II qualities, there’s no degree to earn in this, and so cultivating that part of ourselves is done only in whatever time remains after we have finished cultivating our Adam I qualities.

Brooks tells us, “Soloveitchik argued that we live in the contradiction between these two Adams. The outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam are not fully reconcilable. We are forever caught in self-confrontation. We are called to fulfill both personae, and must master the art of living forever within the tension between these two natures.”[3]

On this Holy Day, we are required to ask ourselves how we are doing.  Are we more devoted to being Adam I’s or Adam II’s?  While our daily life mostly requires an Adam I existence,  I would suggest that during these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we reflect on our Adam II qualities.  I suggest that two character traits by which we lead our lives can take us closer to becoming an Adam II.  These traits are true humility and the ability to recognize that we are not alone and that creating a successful eulogy resume requires us to ask for help from others.

A Hasidic tale tells of a man who came to the Zaddik with a complaint. “All my life,” he said, “I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me.” The Zaddik replied: “The trouble is that while you do run away from fame you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you.”

We don’t become Adam II by chasing it, the hard work to become more of the person we would like our eulogy to be about is all internal, the minute we hope others will see it and notice, we are only adding to our resume.

Brooks writes of the great need for humility along the journey to Adam II. He notes that at the end of World War II, on the radio show, Command Performance, “The actor Burgess Meredith read a passage written by Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent…’We won this war because our men are brave and because of many other things—because of Russia, England, and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.”[4] More grateful than proud, that may be the definition of character, that may be the best definition for Adam II for our eulogy virtues.

As we prepare for the next ten days and really for the rest of our lives, let us nurture that second part of our natures, the internal part, the part that accepts both gifts and challenges with serenity, the part that is the core of our character. More grateful than proud, seeking more to tend the garden of our world rather than working to subdue it and force it to our will. May we, like the substitute teacher, know when to ask for help and appreciate the different ways a task might be completed. May we, like the rabbi remember that while others may turn to us with awe for our accomplishments we know and can share that it’s not our great minds or our great spirituality, it’s that the answer was written on the ceiling for us to find. David Brooks insists that he wrote his book in order to save his own soul, in order to keep himself from spending his whole life chasing the wrong goals. Soleveitchik taught us that life is lived in a constant tension between these aspects of ourselves, but, the more we cultivate our character, the more we cultivate our families, the more we cultivate our communities, and the more we cultivate our world.

May the road to character be one we all might walk and may we face our teshuvah during these Yomin Noraim between today and Yom Kippur with openness and humility with awe and simplicity. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

[1] Brooks, David, “The Road to Character,” Random House, New York, 2015, pp.xi-xii.
[2] Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13
[3] Brooks, David, “The Road to Character,” Random House, New York, 2015, p.xii.
[4] ibid. p.3-4