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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2011/5772


Perhaps a dozen years ago, I began a Rosh Hashanah service with these immortal words of American Revolutionary War General Artemus Ward: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble.  It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”  And it was a contemporary professor of psychology at Cornell University, Thomas Gilovich by name, who proved old General Ward right in his book How We Know What Isn’t So.  Take, for example, the common knowledge that infertile couples who adopt are subsequently more likely to conceive than similar couples who do not.  We all know this to be true.  Why, the adoption relieves the stress the couple feels and, remarkably, a pregnancy occurs.  The only problem with what we know to be so is, to use Gen. Ward’s expression, “that just ain’t so.”  Or what maternity ward nurses know to be so–that more babies are born when the moon is full.  Again, in General Ward’s words, “just ain’t so.”  Or that things happen in sets of threes–we all know that.  And every sports fan knows that when you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re not.  Well, Dr. Gilovich, in his study, became quite the spoil sport.  For he used extensive research to show–that just ain’t so.

Ward, by way of Gilovich, was simply a springboard so I could explore with you a similar phenomenon in our Jewish world.  Why, we Jews do not believe in a hereafter, in a world to come!  For that matter, who ever heard of a Jewish belief in resurrection.  The Kaddish is a Hebrew prayer about and for the dead.  And, of course, we know the phrase “God loves you” to be a distinctly Christian one.  Again, using the good General’s words, “that just ain’t so.”

Yes, God loves us Jews also.  In fact, it was a Jewish phrase, if you will, long before it was a Christian one.  But neither Gilovich nor, of course, Ward (nor, for that matter, I) made a serious attempt to understand why we keep knowing things that just are not so.  For what is our delight in always being right—even when we are wrong?  Or the greater pleasure we take when we are right—and someone else is wrong?  Think how hard it is to hold back those four words, “I told you so,” forming that declarative “HA!” to emphasize that not only was I right and you were wrong but I was right about being right.  Consider even the somewhat sick satisfaction we take when we are right about some kind of disaster—not that, God forbid, we wanted it to happen—but then again “I told you it was going to flood—and it did.”

Then I discovered a witty and provocative book on wrongology.  Yes, it is a name created, perhaps, by its author Kathryn Schulz, meaning, the study of being wrong.  In fact, Being Wrong is the title she gave her book with the subtitle Adventures in the Margin of Error, a book built around stories of, to quote Schulz, “people screwing up.  These stories involve, among other things, illusionists, magicians, comedians, drug trips, love affairs, misadventures on the high sea, bizarre neurological phenomena, medical catastrophes…the lamentable failure of the world to end, and Alan Greenspan.”  I initially assumed she was motivated by her opening quote from Moliere, “It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right,” or by this conversation she overheard three years ago at Grand Central Station:

Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  I didn’t say pound cake.  I said crumb cake.
Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  Don’t tell me what I said.
Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.
Man:  I actually saw the crumb cake but I didn’t get it because you said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.
Man:  Well, I heard pound cake.
Woman:  Then you obviously weren’t listening.  Crumb cake doesn’t even sound like pound cake.
Man:  Well, maybe you actually said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.

But then, in a talk she gave elsewhere, she admits her curiosity in being right while wrong dates back to a college road trip she took years ago when, after 2000 miles, she asked her friend, “What’s up with the Chinese character I keep seeing by the side of the road?”  In response to her friend’s blank look, she added, “all the signs we keep seeing with the Chinese character on them.” Only then did her friend realize that Schultz was absolutely convinced that she knew the sign for a picnic area was a Chinese character. 

Then consider this:  Every time she told people about the book she was researching and writing, no one ever said to her, “I need to read that book.”  Rather they said, “I’ve got to give this book to my wife, to my boss, to my board.”  “Boy, do my kids need to read this book.”

Being right is hard-wired into our beings.  It has to be for us to live our lives.  Being right so much of the time gives us our reality.  When I get out of the bed in the morning, I can count on not floating away thanks to gravity.  When I say turn left up ahead, most people understand that they will turn in this direction.  When I, in base 10, say that 2+2=4, 2+2 really equals four.

Further, being wrong feels like being right.  In fact, we have no experience being wrong, just the experience of realizing that we are wrong.  One of Schulz’s best illustrations is that of Road Runner and Wiley Coyote.  You know the scene—Road Runner has done something to get Wiley Coyote to chase him.  He then runs off of a cliff—which works just fine for him.  Remember, he is a bird.  Then Wiley runs after him—also right off of the cliff.  And, for a few moments, everything is fine as he keeps running—until he looks down and realizes he’s in a place where he cannot be.  That is when he realizes he is wrong.  Like Wiley, we are wrong but do not realize it until it has already passed.  Then we are no longer wrong.  Schulz calls this the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Error:  “we can be wrong or we can know it, but we can’t do both at the same time.”

And we sure want to hold on to feeling right—for think how it awful feels to us when we realize we were wrong.  We might feel disappointed, embarrassed, stupid.  Even more problematic, we might think that, because we were wrong, there is something wrong with us.  Or, in its worst manifestation, we all-too-often equate wrong with bad or even evil. 

Finally, we work under the assumption that we see the world as it is rather than seeing the world as we are.  Our senses, much as we depend on them for all the evidence we receive, filter through who we are.  Some of you may remember my sermon at Kol Nidre a couple of years ago entitled “Hearing is Believing” wherein I clearly discounted the faith, if you will, we put into eyewitness testimony.  Time and time again, we have found out how inaccurate and often false eyewitness testimony can be.  But for this evening’s example, let me share with you a video I saw last November as part of my week-long seminar in Management Education for Jewish Leaders at Northwestern’s Kellogg.  Some of you may have already been fooled by it.  We were told to count the number of times a ball was passed among a group of people on a basketball court.  So intent were we on counting correctly that most of us never noticed a person in a gorilla outfit wandering into the middle of the court among all the players, standing there momentarily to beat its chest, and then wander off.  Yes, we watched the video a second time and, told to expect the person in the gorilla outfit, saw it.  But the first time most of us saw it, we were wrong about what we saw but felt so right.  Yes, perhaps one could call this an optical illusion; I saw what I was told to look for, not what was actually there.

For all these reasons, we hold on to what we know.  We confabulate, making up fables to support what we know.  We use only that evidence that confirms our position and surely do not look for any evidence that might contradict it.  Who knows, we might only listen to or read media which confirm our knowledge.  And as for those who disagree, at best they are simply ignorant of the situation.  If, after we fill them in, they still have not come around to our position, we begin to ignore them because they must be stupid.  At the worst, we may think they know but consciously distort what they know.  They might even be evil.  Certainty is reassuring—and static.  There can be just one way of being right and an infinite number of ways to be wrong.  And, of course, we know that, in general, human beings are fallible.  The world, we have learned, is not flat; the sun, we have learned, does not revolve around the earth.  We even know that the fallible human being who designed the Titanic designed its back-up systems.  In fact, we know that the entire history of science is really a history of being wrong.  But that does not mean that you or I are particularly fallible. 

Kathryn Schultz’s book is surely not a religious book; in fact, she rarely mentions any faith community.  But she does note that we are the only beings who can lay claim to being wrong, to being imperfect.  Only God is perfect.  Writes Schultz, “our fallibility is what keeps us suspended between the kingdom of lesser animals and the kingdom of God.”  So we are wrong about what it means to be wrong.  When we acknowledge we are wrong, when we embrace the reality of our error rather than insist we are right, we grow.  Only we can create stories out of our mistakes.  Our fallibility, our imperfection, is, ultimately, our strength.  And Schulz’s humble advice—listen.  In her words, “the only way to engage with the possibility that we could be wrong is to stop obsessively defending ourselves for a moment…listening is an act of humility.”  It says that other people’s ideas are interesting and important, that our own could be in error, and that there is still so much to learn. 

150 years ago, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, leader of Neo-Orthodoxy in Germany harmonizing traditional Judaism with modernity, taught about an appropriate argument, one for the sake of heaven.  It is an argument for the sake of heaven if those engaged in it are not concerned with being right but only concerned with learning what is right.  Six centuries before that, Sefer Hasidim, the most expansive work of Jewish ethics in the middle ages, taught that a person gains little from being right as compared with what a person may learn from discovering he or she is wrong.  And one thousand years before Sefer Hasidim, the ancient rabbis discussed an appropriate debate in Pirke Avot, that tractate from the Mishna primarily concerned with ethical behavior.  There, in Avot 5:20, the ancient rabbis tell us that “every controversy conducted for the sake of heaven will in the end prove fruitful; every controversy not conducted for the sake of heaven will in the end prove fruitless.  What sort of controversy was for the sake of heaven?  The one between Hillel and Shammai.  And what sort was not for the sake of heaven?  The one of Korah and his band.”

Korah, you may remember.  He led the most threatening rebellion against Moses in the wilderness.  As Moses’ cousin, he challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron in front of the people, crying out, “All of the community of Israel, all of them are holy, and God is among them all; why do you raise yourself above them?”  Korah claims holiness as if it were already bestowed, a fact.  So Korah and company have no obligation to do anything about that holiness; they are convinced that it is theirs simply by nature of who they are. 

That conflicts with the holiness reflected in the verses immediately preceding that episode, verses discussing tzitzit, those fringes attached to our garments, for us today, our talitot, for us to look at and remember and do all of God’s mitzvot and become holy unto God.  They are kind of like strings tied to our fingers to remind us to do something, in this case to listen, to strive to become holy.  This holiness is not a fact, but a goal.  In other words, if we are already holy, if we are already know everything, what is the point of listening? 

Hillel and Shammai we may not know as well.  Great teachers in the first century of the Common Era, two schools of thought developed through them and their disciples.  The Talmud relates hundreds of differences of opinion between the two schools with each asserting, “The law is according to our view” and with a voice from heaven asserting “Both these and these are the words of the living God.”  Still, in this world, one opinion had to become the dominant one; in almost every case, it was that of Bet Hillel.  Bet Hillel’s opinions were followed, according to the Talmud (Eruvim 13b), for three reasons:  1) because Bet Hillel’s disciples were humble; 2) because Bet Hillel’s disciples listened and made sure to also teach what Bet Shammai said, and 3) in so doing, Bet Hillel always put Bet Shammai’s teachings first.  Not a bad guide for a civil debate.

For we expect, in fact, as Jews, we have yearned for differences of opinion—that is how we grow.  And, as Jews, we are surely accustomed to hearing those differences expressed.  But most debates today?  In the Jewish community between liberals and conservatives, between J-Street folk and AIPAC folk, between those who would seek compromise and those who are fearful of any compromise in the Middle East; these debates now parallel those in our civil society which are so far from civil, wherein everyone speaks but no one really listens.  They often amount to the large scale equivalent of “You said pound cake.  No, I said crumb cake.”

Now Schultz does talk about attempts to create error prevention programs or techniques in two crucial areas—in aviation safety and in hospital care guidelines.  These techniques include the acceptance of the likelihood of error and openness and transparency.  The most surprising result has been with hospitals.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells of one patient who nearly died after being given the wrong anesthetic.  The anesthesiologist, rather than hiding what happened and hoping no lawsuit would come to pass, chose to write a letter of apology to the woman expressing his contrition and his care and his willingness to be contacted at any time.  He then went to the couple’s home seeking forgiveness.  Deeply moved to know how much the doctor cared, the couple instead chose to give funds to establish a program to help both physicians and families deal with the trauma of medical and surgical errors.

Yes, there are some errors which can actually kill us; there are far more that can mortify us, which can make us want to die of embarrassment, of shame, of psychic pain.  Those are the ones which bring us here, to this synagogue, to his congregation, on this day.  So look around you.  This is no place for saints; if it were, this place would not be so crowded.  In reality, the neon sign affixed to the Christian Faith Fellowship Church out on Good Hope Road announcing “Sinners are Welcome Here” should be on our building (although the village of River Hills would not be happy about that).  For we have sinned, we have transgressed, we have gone astray (which is exactly what the word erred means). 

So, again, look around you; this is your congregational family.  It has been a year since we have all been here.  Some faces are now missing, leaving empty chairs next to loved ones.  Other faces are new—a new spouse, new parents, a new infant whose bris was yesterday, new members, a wonderful new rabbi.  And there are old faces with new wrinkles or with newly graying hair or simply less hair.  Paler faces, rounder faces, sinners all.  We have come for we have erred—and we, too, have our error-prevention program.  It is a 10-day program, 240 hours—and it begins tonight and lasts through Yom Kippur.  It will remind us of the many ways we can sin, of the many ways we can go astray, of our alphabet of transgressions. It will force us out of ourselves to recognize where we have gone astray; it will help us recite the sin aloud seeking repentance; it will guide us to renounce that sin, and enable reparation and reconciliation and, ultimately, restore relationships.

So look around one more time.  As Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove has noted, “Force [your]selves to reflect on how [y]our actions have been perceived by other people.  We need to recall all those careless words, those thoughtless comments and reverse roles….reconciliation will never happen if [we] refuse to allow for another side of the story; a perspective not our own.”  For there is yet another thing you know that just ain’t so—that history cannot be reversed.  For these days will tells us that, in spite of every other experience in life that history is not reversible, history can be reversed.  These days tells us that we can retrace our steps and change our ways and be forgiven. Then, come Yom Kippur, God will forgive us.  And we will be reborn, anew in the book of life.  We have a lot of work to do—let’s begin on page 20.

Sat, December 2 2023 19 Kislev 5784