I recently came across a report from a professor at the Harvard Business School. She had been hired to improve the accuracy of the numbers customers give on their auto insurance forms.
We know how it goes—the forms ask us how many we miles we drive each year. We fill them in, and sign a declaration that the numbers we reported are accurate.
Well this professor had a suspicion that these numbers were not always accurate. The reason? Sometimes it could be blatant dishonesty, but other times it could be simply rounding downward since people thought fewer miles would lead to lower rates.
Her challenge was to figure out a way to change the form to encourage customers to be more accurate. She decided to create a new form. The key difference would be the placement of the signature line. Instead of coming after the reporting of the numbers, the signature would come first.
In other words, the first thing the customer would do is sign a declaration indicating that everything he or she is about to report will be accurate. The professor would then test these forms against the others, which remained in the traditional way, where we sign at the end.
What were the results? The customers who used the new kind of form reported much more accurate numbers. The professor surmised that by signing first, customers get aware of their own sense of self—their own ethical principles. When they sign first, they are reminded to take this form seriously, to fill it in accord their values. Therefore, they tend to be more honest, more careful, more deliberate, when filling in the numbers.
Have you signed your name?
Can this professor’s discovery be applied to more than auto insurance forms? I think so. I think its discovery points to the very reason we gather here every year on these Days of Awe. We are signing a form saying Judaism matters to us. We are signing a form saying the ethics and wisdom of our tradition matter to us. We are signing a form saying the generations who came before us, and those who will come after us, matter to us. We are asking God to sign our names in the Book of Life. But more importantly, we are signing our name in the Book of Jewish Life. It belongs to us, and we belong to it.
As with auto insurance, we have to pay a premium. It’s not only membership dues and donations. It is our time. It is our energy. It is our insight and skills. But the benefits accrue over the long term. They live on after us in our children and grandchildren. And they add tremendous value to our lives.
Who Are You?
The first benefit is identity. Judaism gives us a sense of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. This feeling of identity can apply even for those who weren’t born Jewish but have affiliated themselves with the Jewish community. It is a matter of choice, not birth. We both create and discover our identity, and at times, it can surprise us. As Martin Buber once said “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
A Friday night service we had this past May at Solel drove home this point for me. We were celebrating the adult confirmation class. For sixteen Sundays I taught a group of adults some of the same basic principles and texts from the high school confirmation class. During this service, four of the students gave short talks about what they learned and what being Jewish means to them. As they spoke, I was touched not only by what they said. I was awed by the experiences and stories they shared.
One student began his journey in the South. He had lived all over the country, describing himself as a wandering Jew. He never had a Bar Mitzvah and as a scientist, he identified with its strictly rationalist worldview. Yet here he was, studying, belonging, and celebrating his Jewishness.
Another student began her journey in Oak Park. She had also lived all over the country. She had always identified strongly with Jewish culture and social justice. Then this year, as an empty nester, she decided to visited Israel and learn more about Jewish religious tradition. Her knowledge and spirituality grew. And that evening she, too, was affirming her identity.
The final student began her journey in Milwaukee. After her Bat Mitzvah she rarely visited a synagogue. But with her own child now entering elementary school, she wanted to better understand who she was and where she was going. She discovered the Solel community and began studying. And here she, too, was discovering and shaping her identity.
A birthright is not only a free trip to Israel for college students and young adults. It is belonging to the world’s oldest religion. It is signing our name to our own Book of Life. Without our signatures, the book will not go on.
Why Are You?
A second benefit of our Jewish life is meaning. A more cynical rabbinic colleague commented recently to me that there is no overarching sense of meaning in life. There are only moments of meaning. In other words, life is a series of disjointed events. Some are wonderful. Others are painful. Some feel right. Others feel out of place. No thread links them together in a meaningful way.
Viewing life this way is like seeing a great movie as a series of disjointed scenes. One might show a kiss. Another might show a loss. Yet, we would insist they share no thematic connection. That seems absurd, right? Maybe good for understanding an obscure French film, but not for making sense of our lives!
Our lives are not, to quote Shakespeare, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Rather, they are like a story whose ending has not yet been written. They are filled with characters, subplots, highs and lows, twists and turns. But undergirding them is a narrative: if we pay attention, if we shema, listen, it can be a narrative growth, of development, of the unfolding of our unique spirit.
A recent book by Bruce Feiler makes this case superbly. Feiler wrote the New York Times bestseller Walking the Holy Land. This year he published a new book called The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More. The thesis of the book is that every family has a narrative. It can be either an ascending narrative: we came here with nothing, we worked hard, and are enjoying the fruits of our labor. A descending: once we had it all. Now look at us.
Or the most common and, in fact, healthy is what Feiler calls the oscillating narrative: this one goes, “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.” Do we know where our family fits in?
If not, we should, because knowing our family narrative makes us happier and healthier human beings. A sense of identity begets happiness. Scientists found evidence for this by asking children a series of questions:
They included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
Researchers discovered that the children knew the answers to these questions, had a much greater likelihood of thriving and coping with difficult circumstances. They felt greater control over their lives. They were even more resilient after 9/11. They had what Feiler calls an “intergenerational self,” finding meaning in seeing their own lives as part of a larger group and narrative.
Our One Big Family
Aside from strengthening our own families, this research can help us understand the power of Judaism. The Jewish people is one big family. What binds is not just birth. It is a narrative, a story. The story begins with Abraham, is carried forward by Moses, is sealed at Mount Sinai, and is affirmed in the mouths of our children this every day. Today we have come together for this big family reunion. But to fully appreciate our birthright—to experience the benefits Feiler so keenly identifies—we need to know our family story. We need know our traditions, our values, our texts, our language, our history. This knowledge is the secret to our happiness. It is the secret to our survival.
Two thousand years ago the Roman historian Josephus hinted at this truth. He wrote, “Should any one of our nation be asked about our traditions, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.” I’m not sure Josephus could say the same thing today. Let us prove him right. Let us make Jewish learning a part of our lives so its message becomes engraved on our souls. Come to Torah study, come to downtown lunch and learn, read a Jewish book. We will be better off for it. Knowing what we are gives meaning to who we are. When we sign the Jewish Book of Life, we sign a commitment to be who we are by learning about what we are. We commit to learning our family history.
Where Are You?
We have discussed two benefits to signing our names in the Jewish Book of Life: identity and meaning. The final benefit is awareness. When we take our Judaism seriously, we become aware that we are always in God’s presence. This awareness teaches how to live.
One poignant example drives this lesson home. It is about a young man named Nadav Ben Yehuda. After finishing army service in Israel several years ago, he began traveling. He had a passion for mountain climbing. For two years he climbed several mountains around the world. Then he began preparing for his ultimate goal. He wanted to be the youngest Israeli to summit Mount Everest. The week he chose was not an easy one. In fact, four people died on Everest during it. By the time he was 1000 meters from the top, Nadav faced 125 miles per hour winds, and it was 40 degree below zero. Despite these conditions, he continued to climb.
When Nadav was 250 meters from the peak, which he could now see, he stopped. He saw the body of another climber sprawled out on the ice. He looked dead, but Nadav decided to take a closer look. As he did so, he recognized the man. It was his friend Aydin Irmak. Irmak was from Turkey, and they had met at the basecamp. Aydin had left for his climb before Nadav. He had reached the peak and then collapsed on his way down. He was slowly freezing to death.
Nadav decided instantly what he had to do. He picked up Aydin and carried him down the slopes. Throughout the descent Aydin pleaded with him to put him down so they both would not die. After eight hours, they made it to a campsite where a helicopter came to their rescue. Both their faces were covered with severe burns. Nadav had to take off his gloves to carry Aydin, and his hands were blackened to a crisp.
After they recovered, Aydin asked the Nepalese authorities to give his certificate for reaching the top of Everest to Nadav. They refused. Yet, even as his life-long dream to be the youngest Israeli to scale Everest was lost, Nadav said he never doubted his decision. He had a responsibility to his fellow climber. Even as relations between Israel and Turkey deteriorated during this time—this was 2011– a young Israeli carried a dying Turk down Mount Everest.
Would we have done the same thing? God only knows. What I know is that Nadav was driven by a higher goal than simply climbing the world’s tallest mountain. He knew he belonged to a people for whom pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is the highest calling. And so do we. And like Nadav, we sign our names in the Jewish Book of Life when we live by the values discovered by Abraham, taught by Moses and studied by all of us this every day.
As we ask God on this sacred day, “Remember us unto life, O Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, O God of Life.”