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We Can All Come Out Ahead

Yom Kippur II 2015/5776

Have you ever been caught on the highway and traffic slows down to a standstill? You assume you are behind an accident, and traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. When you finally pass the cause of the delay, you find out that in fact the accident was not on your road but happened in the lanes going the opposite direction, and that the delay was because of rubbernecking.

Rubbernecking is a very strange phenomenon. It gets me really upset because really the slowdown does not have to happen. So why is there rubbernecking, why do people slow down to look at an accident in the opposite direction? I call this the ‘Lot’s wife synadrome.’ When Sodom was being destroyed Lot and his family were told not to look back, and when Lot’s wife did, she was turned into a pillar of salt. Why is it bad to look back? When I asked people why they looked back, some said that they looked to make sure no one was hurt, or to know to pray if someone was hurt. It might also be a morbid fascination, for the same reason that horror movies are popular, or that they show so much tragedy on the evening news. That is a topic that deserves its own treatment, however the third reason is the one i would like to focus on. I think one of the reasons people look at accidents is because deep inside they feel reassured that the accident happened to someone else and not to them. The underlying world outlook is that there is a kind of zero-sum balance in the world that a certain number of accidents happen, and so if it happened to someone else that means there is less chance it will happen to them.

This outlook is what you can call a ‘win/lose’ world outlook. This term was coined by Steven Covey in the late 90’s, in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The premise of the 4th Habit, which is to think win/win, is that most people live with the belief that there are a limited number of pieces in the pie, and if someone else gets more, that means I get less. This outlook is reinforced in so many aspects of our society, from competitiveness in school to SAT scores to rankings of employees according to their productivity in the workplace. The bell curve reinforces this outlook, and the rationale behind it is if there is direct competition between people it will spur them on to greater achievement. However there is a down side which pits one person against another.

Someone told me about his experience in law school which illustrated this aspect of our society. it was before finals time and he had missed a number of the lectures over the semester. He asked one of the person in his study group for her notes from those lectures. She delayed giving him the notes, once she forgot them, then she could not find them. Finally she said to him, to tell you honestly I am not comfortable giving you my notes because I have to look out for myself and make sure I place best in the class and so I cannot help you in your work.

This win/lose outlook permeates so many aspects of our society, and in doing so it trickles down to become part of our personalities. And instead of trying to help others, many people feel that they cannot help anyone else and just have to ‘look out for numero uno’ because ‘it’s a tough world out there.’ It also tends to exacerbate jealousy because we are made to feel that I should have what someone else has. It is the reason why people are often critical of others and put them down, we have whole cultural genres called sit coms and reality tv which pit people against each other and turn petty ill will into an art and into a joke.

This outlook on life is caustic for society, and leads to small minded-ness, meaness of spirit and selfishness. Part of our work on Yom Kippur is not just to look at our past actions and to try to correct them, it is to look at our attitudes and personality traits and try to adjust them. Steven Covey advocates what he calls a win/win outlook on life, that for me to win it does not mean that someone else has to lose, and that I do not have to bring someone down to come out ahead. This is what he calls the abundance mentality, that there is enough to go around for everyone.

This outlook is the foundation of Torah values, and was formulated in the Torah 3300 years ago, placed as the most important value a person can have by Rabbi Akiva 2000 years ago and articulated by Namanides 1000 years ago. The Torah tells us to ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves,’ and Rabbi Akiva tells us in the Talmud that this is the underlying principle of the whole Torah. Now what does this mean, to love another person ‘as ourselves’? If you really loved another person as yourself, then if they had something you did not have, you would give it to them. In the end you would wind up giving away almost all you have because there is always someone else who does not have it. Since Judaism does not have vows of poverty where you give away all your belongings, as some religions do, this must not be the proper way to understand it. Nahamanides instead says that you should wish unto others what you would wish for yourself. The result is that if someone has prosperity, good fortune, gets a promotion, finds a great fiancé or wins the lottery, you are as overjoyed for them as if it had happened to you. This is abundance mentality. I can be happy for another person’s success, without feeling that it will detract from my own and even if I do not have what they do. How do we achieve this? Ultimately if we view our blessings coming from the Almighty, then we feel that we are all given what we are supposed to have in life from the Almighty, and we are accepting of what we have. In the Rabbi business, I am happy to report that we share stories, speeches, ideas for talks and generally have a very supportive attitude towards each others’ success. I guess this is good news, because if the Rabbis at not living by win/win then we are in really big trouble.

There is a whole business philosophy predicated on finding the partnerships that are win/win to build upon. The world of economics does not have to be a zero-sum gain. Now granted, there are some situations where it is difficult to see the win/win. If there are four employees in your group, and there is only one spot open for promotion, then if someone else gets it that means I will not get it. So how do we deal with such situations? Covey does concede that there are some situations where there is no avoiding win/lose.

However in the spiritual realm, win/lose where I accept that someone else will get something that I want and that I will not get it, or I will give them what I have, can be a win/win as well. In personal relationships people who have what we call ‘emotional intelligence’ realize that the more I give to another person, or the more I let them have something that I want, I am not losing out but in fact I am gaining.

The great ethical teachers noted a phenomenon in interpersonal relationships that seems counter-intuitive to some. They noted that the more you give to someone, the more you love them. If I would ask you who loves whom more, do parents love children more, or do children love parents more, I think you would answer that parents love children more, yet it is parents who usually give much more to children that children give to parents. So the more we give to someone, the more we love them. R Eliya Dessler explains this by noting that when you give to someone you ‘put more of yourself into them’ so to speak, and so you feel they are an extension of you. Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm says that when you give to another you feel good about the giving, so you love that person because they bring out the best in you. So the win/win is that you come out feeling good about the giving, and in the end you are getting more then you give.

On Monday I came across an amazing personal piece in the Huffington Post. The writer, Richard Paul Evans, NY Times bestselling author, describes the terrible state his marriage was in. He and his wife were always arguing, and they were both dug into their positions, not wanting to budge. Each chore to be done in the home was evaluated by the other and bargained over in terms of who would have to do it. Their relationships was win/lose, and every day was a battle to make sure each of them won more than they lost, or that they did not wind up having to do more than the other. Their kids later told them that their dread of their parents getting divorced was overcome by the feeling that maybe they should get divorced because of how much fighting was going on.

Things finally hit rock bottom and when the author was a way on a business trip he called out to G-d and begged for something to change. Then he realized that the only responsibility he could take was for his own change, and he resolved to so. When he came home from the trip, his wife hardly acknowledged his presence. He realized how alienated he was from the woman he was sleeping inches away from. The next morning he woke up and he said to her ‘what can I do for you to make your day better.’ She looked at him incredulously, and thought that this was a bad joke. But she went with it, and said ‘you can clean the kitchen.’ That morning he cleaned the kitchen. The next morning he woke up and said ‘what can I do to make your day better?’ She laughed at him again, and said ‘clean the garage.’ Maybe she said it just to spite, but even though he had a busy day he spent two hours cleaning the garage. On the third day, she saw he was serious and said that he should not do anything for her. He said ‘I have to, I made a vow to myself to do this.’ ‘Why?’ she asked? ‘Because I love you and care for you,’ he said. She then broke down and said that the problem was her, and that she was stuck in her unhappiness.

Eventually after a month of doing this his love for her grew, and she truly saw how much he loved her. Decades later he is grateful for the insight and realization he had after crying out to G-d. Today on Yom Kippur, when we call out to the Almighty, let’s think about how we can envision our lives and our relationships with other as a win/win, wish for the success of others, and appreciate the spiritual pleasure that comes from giving in and giving to others. Oh, and next time you pass an accident, speed up, don’t look and just offer up a prayer for the safety of and wellbeing of everyone involved.


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