My Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5778

You might have heard that I’m not very good at sports.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like watching sports.  Or at least I used to enjoy watching sports.  I loved watching football, although I never really grew attached to one particular team.  I was raised a Mets fan, which meant that I hated the Yankees and the Giants were associated with the Yankees, so I couldn’t be a Giants fan.  As for the Jets, well rooting for one losing team in the Mets was enough and I didn’t have the energy to care about the Jets.  When I went to college, our team probably would have lost to the Allen Eagles, so no great attachment there.  We were outstanding in hockey, though!  Before I went to rabbinic school, I worked in Cleveland.  So, yeah, the less said the better.  Instead of following any particular team, I just liked watching a well played game.  Blow outs bore me stupid.  But a close well played game?  I love it.

I understand why people around here love High School Football so much.  There’s the ritual of it, the music of the marching bands, the bonding of the community.  High School Football is called the State Religion of Texas for a reason.  Why, it’s even got prayer involved.  Please God, let him make the field goal.  Thank you God for the win!  Maybe we would get more people at our Friday night services if we had an opponent.  I’ll have to think about that.

I’ve stopped watching football and I admit that I miss it.  The thing is, I know that football players are seriously hurt in normal play.  We understand now how serious traumatic brain injuries are, especially repeated ones.  If I had children, I would never let them play organized tackle football.  People shouldn’t be injured, permanently disabled, and die early just for my entertainment.  So I don’t watch football anymore.  And I do miss it.

I do still enjoy watching baseball, but I just can’t bring myself to care about any professional team.  You see, when I lived in Cleveland, Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, even though we had voted for a bond issue to build him a new stadium.  But no, he was jealous of the Indians.  And the fact that he moved them to Baltimore!  Baltimore!  Who knew the pain of losing the Colts to Indianapolis.  By the way, I come by my sports grudges honestly.  I found out later in life that my mother was actually a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan until they moved to LA and hasn’t watched a baseball game since 1958.  The point is, I can look at sports with enjoyment, but also a sense of detachment because I know that the owners don’t care about the fans, so why should I care about their teams?

It’s because I have this sense of detachment that I find very interesting a recent phenomenon of how sports teams try to get better faster.  In essence the fastest way to get better is to be as bad as possible, lose as many games as possible, and consequently move up as high as possible in the draft pick for new talent.  They’re trying to reset expectations as low as possible to get as many new good players at one time.  I have a lot of sympathy with playing the whole expectations game.  These five sermons I give over the course of the High Holy Days are really high pressure with super high expectations. 

Partly the expectations are so high because we rabbis are the most naive people in the world.  Rabbi Donniel Hartman taught us this when he was the guest lecturer at the May meeting of the Rabbi’s Association of Greater Dallas.  Rabbis are the most naive people in the world, he maintained, because we actually believe that when we give a sermon people will listen and change their behavior.  And that, he said, has got to be one of the most naive beliefs in the worlds.  These sermons are also high pressure because, well, look around you.  Look at how many people are here!  This is my Super Bowl, but without the concussions.  These sermons also have such high expectations because everyone tells me how great my sermons are, which just makes it that much harder to outdo the last one.  Now I realize that they aren’t really that great.  It’s just sampling bias.  That is, the people who love my sermons stay behind to tell me just how great I am.  The people who don’t love my sermons, on the other hand, hit the parking lot as fast as possible and don’t get sampled.  It’s easy to feel like a genius if everyone around you tells you you are.  But it ain’t necessarily so.  So yes, expectations for these sermons are unnaturally high.  But have no fear.  Like the teams that want to get better faster by losing more, this sermon should be lowering expectations to more reasonable levels.

But what are reasonable levels for expectations?  What is the proper role for expectations?  When I’m faced with these types of questions, I find that it’s best to start at the extremes and work my way to the middle.  Let’s start with having absolutely zero expectations.  As it is sometimes said, when you have zero expectations you can never be disappointed.  Don’t expect to get a raise?  You won’t be disappointed when you don’t.  Don’t expect to remain healthy?  You won’t be disappointed when you end up in the hospital.  Don’t expect to remain safe?  You won’t be disappointed when you’re assaulted.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  When you have zero expectations, you begin to accept evils in the world because you had no reason to think, no expectation, that they wouldn’t happen.  When you have zero expectations, you learn to let things slide.  You’re not disappointed, but things also don’t get better.

Let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum where one holds onto expectations of perfection.  In my experience, nothing in this world is perfect.  Which means that if you hold on to expectations of perfection, you will be perpetually disappointed.  By definition, nothing in this world will ever live up to your perfect expectations.  Which is why there’s a saying in politics, an arena where you are never able to achieve 100% of your goals: don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  If you insist on getting 100%, on achieving your expectations of perfection, you’re far more likely to get nothing.

The impossibility of achieving expectations of perfection is implicitly recognized in the Hebrew Bible.  Deuteronomy 15:4-11 reads:

There shall be no needy among you — since the Eternal your God will bless you in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion — if only you heed the Eternal your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.  For the Eternal your God will bless you as God has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.

If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.  Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.  Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching.” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.  He will cry out to the Eternal against you, and you will incur guilt.  Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.  For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open you hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Did you notice the progression?  “There shall be no needy among you” an expectation of perfection.  “If, however, there is a needy person among you” an acknowledgement that the world is not perfect.  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land” a resetting of expectations lower than at perfection.  It seems that neither expectations of perfection nor zero expectations are the way to go.  So how should we set our expectations? 

To a certain extent, how we set our expectations needs to be variable depending on the situation.  There seem to be two dangers when setting expectations.  One danger is setting unreasonably high expectations because if you set the goals too high then it will only serve to demotivate you.  I used to use an app called Duolingo because I wanted to brush up on my modern spoken Hebrew.  The way Duolingo works is that you choose an amount of time you can devote to it every day, the most common being two units or twenty minutes a day.  As you progress through the lessons they turn gold to indicate mastery.  At some point you have to review the lesson or they turn blue again representing the fact that you might forget something that you haven’t reviewed recently.  Well, the higher up the ladder I progressed, the faster the past lessons turned from gold to blue.  So I found myself in the sisyphean task of reviewing more and more blue lessons and never making any progress into new lessons.  In fact, I found that I would fall further and further behind as time went by.  I just stopped using the app because it was too demotivating never to be able to make any progress.

Ironically, the second danger in setting expectations comes when expectations are set too low.  Ironically, too low expectations can be just demotivating as too high expectations.  With expectations that are set too low, people may internalize the message that they aren’t capable of achievement and not bother trying.  People will live down to low expectations.  Alternately, they may feel that there is no value to trying since there is no achievement in accomplishing such a low goal.  I remember one time when my senior rabbi and I were speaking with a group of students.  My senior rabbi didn’t ever want to hurt a student and would never tell a student that they were incorrect.  He would say something along the lines of ‘interesting answer’.  But that time when we were talking, one student remarked, “you won’t ever say we’re wrong, will you?”  When we set the bar too low, it cheapens any sense of achievement and that can be just as demotivating as a goal that is forever out of reach.  So what we need to do, is to set expectations at a high yet achievable level.  People will live up to high expectations, as long as they are achievable, even if they have to stretch and grow to do so. 

The important part of setting expectations is making sure that they conform to reality rather than some theoretical ideal.  In theory, any kid who is really talented can grow up to be a basketball superstar.  But let’s look at the reality.  In 2017 there were almost 33,000 men playing college basketball in the United States about 1/3 of which played at the Division I or Division II level.  There are 30 NBA teams with 12 active players per team which means 360 slots available.  An average player stays on an NBA team for 4.8 years, which means that 11,000 college athletes compete for 360 slots.  Actually the odds are worse for various reasons, but I didn’t want to do the math and you’re already bored.  The point is, if you make it to a Division I or II school, you still have less than a 4% chance of making it to an NBA team.  You have to ask how realistic it is that you’re in the top 4%.  By all means, hold on to your dreams, because dreams motivate us to achieve greatness.  But at least conform your dreams to reality.  Let me put it another way: lottery tickets shouldn’t be the basis of your retirement plan.  Or, in the words of the rabbis: we don’t rely on miracles.

It’s also important to have expectations grounded in reality for the ones we love.  Realistic expectations make us more accepting of flaws in other people, thus improving our relationships.  When we expect something from the ones we love when they aren’t capable of giving it to us, all it does is breed disappointment and resentment, which isn’t good for any relationship.  Realistic expectations also make us more accepting of the flaws in ourselves and help us live with who we are.  Me?  I’m a nervous traveler.  It took me a long time, but I finally have accepted it about myself.  I get to the airport ridiculously early for flights, but it’s what I need and I no longer resent the fact that I spend far more time hanging out in airports when I travel than most people do.  I no longer resent it, because it’s who I am and it’s what I need.  I can’t judge myself based off of what other people need, only what I need.

Rabbi Zusya, a great chasidic rabbi and moral exemplar, was once found crying by his disciples.  ‘Why are you crying?’ they asked.  ‘I’ve discovered what I’ll be asked when I stand before the Heavenly Judge,’ he replied.  ‘I won’t be asked why weren’t you as kind and welcoming as Abraham?  I won’t be asked why weren’t you as great as Moses to lead your people out of slavery?  I won’t even be asked why weren’t you as great as Joshua to lead your people to the Promised Land?’ ‘Then what will you be asked?’ enquired his disciples.  Zusya replied through his tears: ‘I will be asked why I wasn’t as great as Zusya.’  That is the question we all have to answer this day: why haven’t we lived up to our own highest selves?

Good yontev.