Rabbi David Eshel

Rabbi David Eshel Rosh Hashanah 5777

I am a solid and consistent 5 foot 9 and three quarters.  In my early 20’s I was a solid and consistent 5’ 10” and a half.  My body didn’t shrink.  So what did?  My hairline. I was reminded of this recently looking back at old photo albums.  Boy did I have a nice head of hair. Laughing and smiling with friends, UCLA football games, barbeques, road trips.  We were free of worry, open to the future, filled with dreams.  Or so it seems in the pictures. Truth is we were filled with fear, searching for purpose and our place in the world.  We had no idea.  It is what many of my generation are calling the in between life.  The time before careers, before spouses, before, children, before mortgages but after leaving the sanctuary that was our room in our childhood homes.  A time of self exploration of values, of virtues, of our strengths, of our weaknesses, and of who is it that we want to be. 
Writer and Educator, Parker Palmer, calls this the tragic gap, the place between our reality and our dreams and we all live in this very real place all the time. Between our reality and our dreams between who we are and who we want to be. Today as we welcome the beginning of a new year, we are afforded the opportunity to consciously dwell in that space as we engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls.  Looking back at those pictures, am I the person I wanted to be?  Are you?  Are we better than we were as we sat together just a year ago? Not just better off but better human beings?  And this gap is about building character.
WE have the power to determine who we are and how we are.  And there is new science that says if we focus on this, we can consciously develop our character and ultimately live more meaningful, purposeful lives.
Character matters and strong character qualities can be learned practiced, nurtured and cultivated.  This powerful idea has paved the way for a whole quote unquote new era of social science.
I say quote unquote because the truth, this is not a new idea.  The truth is, our people have been wrestling with this for generations and it is called Musar, a jewish ethical movement about living with meaning and purpose, hundreds of years old. If science proves we can develop who we are, Musar offers the tools to help us.
It teaches that we pick a quality, we focus, we practice, and we work.  And neuroscience agrees focus and repetition strengthen pathways in the brain to make practice easer over time.
But none of it happens unless we believe we can change, that we believe we can grow.  That we believe the tragic gap is really a gap of opportunity. One theory suggests that people have one of two mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.  A fixed mindset means, what we have is what we have.  We were born with certain traits and we’re stuck.  A growth mindset says, no, we can evolve, we can learn, and we can build.
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University teaches… growth mindset is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed and can change with our effort.  She calls it the power of not yet.  she writes, “I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got a grade of, “Not Yet”.  And I thought that was fantastic because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere.  But if you get the grade “Not Yet” you understand that you’re on a learning curve.  It gives you a path into the future.”
A story is told of Franz Rosenzweig, one of our greatest Jewish thinkers, that he was once asked, "Are you a prayerful person? Do you pray everyday?" his answer was not yet. Not no, but "not yet" – and there is a critical difference between the two. No implies that I am not doing it now nor do I have any plans to do it any time soon. Not yet means that while presently I may not be there, I am still open to the possibility, open to the potential.
What are our not yets?
For example, Are we not yet as patient?
Are we not yet as compassionate?
Are we not yet as thankful as we would like to be?
What would our lives look like if we were?
Consider the story of a New York City cab driver:
I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a for few minutes I honked again leaning on the horn. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but I didn’t.  Instead, I took a breath, I put the car in park, walked up to the door and knocked. ‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice.
After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.
By her side was a small suitcase. Behind her an empty apartment save a cardboard box in the corner filled with with photos.
‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’
She took my arm and we walked slowly.
Oh, thank you! Thank you!
‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.’
‘Oh, you’re such a good boy.
When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’
‘It’s not the shortest way,’
‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.
I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left, the doctor says I don’t have very long.’
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.
For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.
We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.
At one particular building she just sat staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
And finally, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now’.
We drove in silence to the address she had given me.
Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door.
‘How much do I owe you?’
‘Nothing,’ I said
‘You have to make a living,’
‘There will be other passengers,’
Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.
‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’
For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten me as an angry driver, the guy who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had honked once, then driven away? What if I insisted on just getting the ride over with.
I don’t think I have done anything more important in my life than I did today.
Patience, Compassion, Gratitude
It’s making a choice and infusing it into our daily lives, the little moments, that can lead to real and tremendous change.
For the next ten days, from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur.  In the teaching of Musar let’s practice together.  We pick only these three, from a long list of character traits and qualities.  But let’s start with three.
Let’s all slow down. For the next ten days, let’s take a deep breath before we act or make a move or share our words. If we are in a long line at the grocery store or sitting in heavy LA traffic, picking up our children from school, engaging with a co-worker, a subordinate, or boss, waiting for our parents or waiting for our spouse. make the decision to pause and not get worked up. Getting impatient won't make things move along any faster.
For the next 10 days through out the day, in every interaction we have with someone, intentionally recognize all that we have in common with that individual.  At our core, we are all human beings. We all need food, and shelter, and love. We crave attention, and recognition, and affection, happiness. In our minds, let’s run through this list of statements.
Just like me, this person is seeking happiness
Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering
Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
Just like me, this person is learning about life.
Write it down.  Try it for 10 days.  What are we thankful for? Try and be specific. 
THE HEBREW TERM for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already ours.
Talk about it.  Let’s share our lists with family and friends.  Saying it out loud to others will help reinforce our feelings.
Express it.  Let’s tell the people in our lives how we feel about them, how they have affected us, what they mean to us.  
10 days…that can lead to a year… that can lead to a life time.
Who we are matters. Character matters. And strong character can be learned, practiced, nurtured, and cultivated. So as we sit together this Rosh Hashanah morning looking at our selves, cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, we start.
We start today, together, closing the gap between who we are and who we want to be embracing the “not yet” building on ourselves, with open and growing minds on our journey toward the best version of ourselves in this new year. Shana tova.

Founded in 1862 as Congregation B’nai B’rith, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is one of the most highly respected Reform congregations in the U.S. and the oldest congregation in Los Angeles. The temple building, built in 1929 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, features a majestic domed, Byzantine-style sanctuary encircled by a 320-foot mural depicting scenes of Biblical and Jewish history. The recent restoration of the temple building is the subject of the award winning documentary, "Restoring Tomorrow", and features Senior Rabbi Steven Leder as he shares the history and present temple, and its many outreaches to the communities in LA that they serve.  Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the Senior Rabbi and Pritzker Chair of Senior Rabbinics. With a cum laude degree in writing from Northwestern University, study at Trinity College, Oxford, and his Masters in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College, RabbiLeder was ordained in 1987. He is the author of 3 books, numerous essays, and Torah commentaries. He is a fellow in the British-American Project, a think tank that brings together leaders from America and Great Britain, and earned the American Jewish Press Association’s Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary.