Editor’s Note: Rabbinic Intern Lily Lucey originally gave this sermon during the outdoor service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (Sept 2021).
In the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar, this controversy was popularized when the powers-that-be at Starbucks announced that the stores would be eliminating plastic straws altogether over the next couple of years. For environmental reasons. Several countries, as well as U.S. cities, and various companies have already made this move or have been wrestling with the idea. Plastic straws were an easy target for someone who cares about the environment. A tiny way to make a dent. Even young children have taken it upon themselves to convince people to give up straws as a small way to make a big impact.
Now, I enjoy sarcasm as much as the next (sometimes more). And I completely understand that straws don’t appear to pose as immediate of a threat as some other causes. But the thing is that the overuse of the plastic straw actually IS a bad thing. While I realize that the sentiment of this meme is a harmless cynical joke (or even at best an attempt to provoke action for a cause that the people posting it feel strongly about), the premise of this type of argument doesn’t sit quite right with me. It’s basically this: There are more important things to be thinking about, so let’s not get too excited about some small pointless victory.
See, there’s some pretty bad stuff going on in the world. And not just right now, of course. As Jews we know well that the world has always been in need of repair in some way, shape, or form. There’s a lot of work to be done. Obviously, the dripping sarcasm of “neat how we ban plastic straws before assault rifles” is a comment on the fact that we have much bigger issues to address.
On a personal level, as a vegan since age 10, although I don’t push this on anyone else I’ve had my fair share of this type of logic thrown at me throughout my life. People come up with all KINDS of judgmental questions. “Well, you don’t eat meat, but you wear leather shoes, don’t you?”
No, I don’t, but if I did… So what? I should just go ahead and eat an animal because I’m going to use a different one for my shoes? I’m not buying this logic. My friend called me nearly in tears once because her roommates were teasing her. They told her that she was being hypocritical for only buying products that are not tested on animals, since she wasn’t even a vegetarian. She was eating animals, so why would she care if companies also tested on them?
So in a nutshell, people are saying, DON’T DO ONE GOOD THING, BECAUSE YOU CAN’T DO ALL OF THE GOOD THINGS.
Our tradition doesn’t promote this logic. “Save a life and save the world.” One good thing matters. Maybe you’ve heard the popular story about the little boy standing on the beach and throwing starfish back into the ocean one at a time. A man walks by and says to the little boy, “There are thousands of starfish up and down this beach. What difference can you possibly make?” and the boy says, “I made a difference to that one.” I’ve heard this story used countless times in Jewish settings, because it speaks to the way we approach repairing the world, as we know from Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We are required to do what we can, to the extent that we can.
So “hypocrisy” as a concept has no home in conversations about doing good things. As it is, figuring out the right thing to do can often be overwhelming enough. Sometimes we feel that we undoubtedly know what’s right, but the problems seem too big to solve and we don’t know where to begin. And sometimes even just knowing what’s right is less clear. I have a teacher who, with a sly smile, typically calls out the time and date before asserting his own conclusion or interpretation of text. I hear this as: On this date and time in history, this is what I think. Subject to change based on new information I acquire. This is not hypocrisy; this is an acknowledgement of the fact that we only know what we know when we know it. We do the best we know how with the information that we have at the time. There are many circumstances where this applies to “doing the right thing.” Let’s say for example that you proudly donated to a charity for years, only to find out later that they don’t use the money in what you would consider an appropriate way. Next time the cashier at the grocery store checkout asks you to donate to that charity, you wonder if she or he is judging you for saying “no.”
Life is full of choices like this. And there’s relativity in the choices we make. Sometimes we have the means and the luxury of making a decision that someone else would never be able to make. Sometimes we have information that others don’t, and others sometimes have information that we don’t. What might seem like a no-brainer to one person is a loaded or impossible choice for another. And some days it’s all we can do to just get by, just get through the day. Jack is too embarrassed to talk about it, but since his dog died two weeks ago, just getting out of bed is an accomplishment for the day. Jenny looks happy in her Facebook photos, but dragging herself to marriage counseling was the best and only thing she could do for her family this week. We do what we can, when we can. Sometimes the victories seem smaller than others, but who are we to judge?
We read today a classic story of decisiveness, one which has its challenges for us to understand. When God asks Avraham to do the unthinkable, Avraham does what he fully believes he is supposed to do.
There are different readings of this text, of course. We may feel that Avraham failed the test, as God would never want him to do such a thing. We may feel admiration for Avraham’s “Hineini” moment. No matter how we feel about Avraham’s actual choice here, maybe at least we can agree that he believed he was doing the right thing. In the text itself we don’t have words to explain what he was feeling, but we know that he offered his most precious love to the moment, to be present for the one who needed him. So in this moment, he had courage in his conviction and made what he thought was the right choice. This moment of utter embrace for his beliefs is an incredible example of showing up and being present for the cause at hand. But in order to be fully present in this way, he had to “sacrifice” being fully present for anyone else. By doing what he did, he couldn’t have a full relationship with both God AND Isaac at this moment. Or with Sarah, for that matter, whose feelings we can only imagine.
How do we get perspective about what’s important in any given moment? How do we know when to sacrifice one thing for another? I don’t know about you, but I when I express that I’m feeling overwhelmed, people tend to offer a lot of advice about not sweating the small stuff. And there are times in our lives when this perspective makes sense. Take a second and think of a time in your life, or the life of someone you know, when a crisis occurred. During this time, how did you feel about the bills that normally give you grief, the co-worker who makes you want to bang your head against a wall, the dishes in the sink? When something terrible happens, in that moment nothing else about our day-to-day matters. When there is a death in the family, a significant natural disaster, a communal tragedy, or a friend in trouble… we drop everything. We pour our heart into the thing or the person who really needs us. We suddenly heed the advice about “not sweating the small stuff” because we have some perspective on what “really” matters in that moment. The details of our day-to-day life, or the “important” projects that we were working on, are temporarily not important at all when put in perspective. For weeks, months, or years, you’ve been working on a task that ONLY you could possibly do right. Now you suddenly have no problem turning it over to someone else.
But does this mean that those things, the “small stuff” items, were never important in the first place?
Absolutely not. In fact, some of the trivial (“small stuff”) items that we neglected during the time of crisis are actually quite important. Once the crisis has passed and the healing process has begun, the mundane once again becomes significant. As it should! What if we neglected the quote-unquote small stuff all the time?
So I don’t think there’s a right answer to the question about how we get perspective on what cause to commit to and what to sacrifice. We have to say “hineini” to whatever we’re doing in the moment. Let’s say you have a job that requires you to give care to other people in some way: a doctor, nurse, teacher, psychologist, etc. When you are in the moment caring for someone, it’s pretty clear that being invested in the person you’re caring for is important. It’s also clear that in a time of crisis for you, someone else can do the job. In other words, we immerse ourselves, put our heart into whatever it is that we’re doing and have some confidence in our choices, offering our own “hineini” to the circumstance that needs it.
The hazard of this immersion is in the sacrifice: that we can’t be everything to everyone all at once, EVER. When I say it’s a “hazard” I don’t mean that it’s something we should carefully avoid. I just mean that we need to offer ourselves and each other some forgiveness. In order to be present for God, Avraham was willing to sacrifice his familial relationships in that moment. Every single choice we make has consequences. Everything we do affects someone else. I think parents are in Avraham’s position more than we realize. Sometimes a parent feels that it is necessary to do something that isn’t the perfect choice for his or her child, for the greater good or even for self-care. And vice versa, sometimes a parent chooses his or her child over something good that could be done in the world. There is no room here for the concept of hypocrisy. We make choices. We do the best we know how in the moment.
There will never be one cause for the entire population of the world to be focusing on at one time. It takes all of us. We are all kinds of people, who can offer different perspectives at different times in our lives. If some of us want to save the environment, and some of us want to devote our time to a human rights or safety issue, GREAT. And if some of us are accomplishing something just by getting out of bed that day, that’s okay too. Hineini. Hineini in whatever way I know how. Yes, there is always more to be done, but knowing that it’s enough for the moment allows us to take one step at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and get something done.
The song “Seasons of Love” from Rent always floats through my mind at this time of year because we have an opportunity to step back and evaluate. The song asks:
How do you measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life
How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life
Of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died
It’s time now to sing out
Tho’ the story never ends
Remember a year in the life of friends
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love
“Measure in plastic—plastic straws…” Oh, okay, so that’s not really in the song. But some activists out there are measuring in plastic straws right now. Why shouldn’t they? A good cause is a good cause. No need to compare it to a “bigger” one. Do you think the boy on the beach should have abandoned his cause? There’s an “aww” moment in the end of that story because we generally agree that doing one good thing with your whole heart is worthwhile. When we each do that one thing, we add up to a whole great big world of good things.
There are a lot of questions right now about how we can make this world better. I can’t necessarily tell you the right thing to do. I also can’t tell you that in your heart, you’ll always know the right thing to do. I can tell you that sometimes we have to make choices and do the best we know how in the moment. We can’t fix every problem all the time. We can’t each be everything to everyone at every moment. But when you look back over the past year or consider the year ahead, how will you measure your year, and how will each of our individual measurements add up to a greater sum, together? How will we celebrate and support each other in repairing the world, one tiny piece at a time?
- Parashat Ha’Azinu: D’var Torah & Sermon – 10/8/22 - Thu, Oct 13, 2022
- Open Hearts: Yom Kippur Sermon by Lily Lucey (5782/2021) - Fri, Sep 17, 2021
- Mourning Doves: Grief and Hope: Kol Nidre Sermon by Lily Lucey (5782/2021) - Fri, Sep 17, 2021