Rosh Hashanah 5766 — Are you a net asset to the planet?

Today is the great Day of Judgment. Our prayers today reflect a teaching from the Talmud that tells us that God has two books open today, the Book of Life and the Book of Death. The totally righteous—those who have all assets and no debts, all mitzvot and no sins—go straight into the Book of Life. Those who are totally wicked—all debts and no assets, all sins and no mitzvot—go straight into the Book of Death. Everyone else has their judgment suspended for ten days until Yom Kippur. It’s not that God needs more time to do the accounting—rather God is giving us more time to get our affairs in order.

But we can’t just rely on God to do the accounting—we are each charged with doing that for ourselves. The Hebrew verb to pray is l’hitpalel, which could be translated as “to judge yourself.” Today we stand in the light of God, and that light shines into our souls, giving us an opportunity to look into corners of our soul we rarely see.

How do we judge ourselves? How do we know if we are successful with our lives? Many people define success in material or professional terms: making partner in a law firm, being promoted to Vice-President, being awarded tenure. But is that what makes for a successful life? I think not. Here’s a different definition of what it takes to be a success:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

My wife Lauri found this lovely quote in the newspaper a while back, and clipped it for me. What a pleasant sounding sentiment. “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” OK, we’re all successes, sermon’s over, turn to page 266 for Musaf.

This aphorism, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but more likely by a woman named Bessie Smith, sets the bar far too low. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing that one life should breathe easier because you lived. But does that make you a success?

How about the lives that have MORE trouble breathing because you lived? How much air pollution have you generated driving your car and using electricity? How much water pollution have you created with the thousands of showers you’ve taken, thousands and thousands of dirty dishes you’ve created? How much room is taken up in landfills because of the garbage and junk you’ve thrown away? How many people have hurt feelings because
of something unkind you did or said?

Has the amount of good you’ve done for the world offset the amount of harm you’ve caused?

Often we don’t intend to cause harm. Thomas Austin released 24 rabbits on his farm in Australia in 1859. He thought it would be fun to have rabbits to shoot at, like back home in England. At first he was considered quite successful by the sporting crowd—rabbit hunting became all the rage, and there were plenty of them. By the time it became possible to shoot 1200 rabbits in one three and a half hour long session, however, it was apparent that something was amiss. Instead of being considered a great success, the introduction of rabbits came to be seen as having created a blight on the landscape, a “grey carpet” which destroyed all the crops in its path because of a lack of natural predators. Thomas Austin had failed to see the consequences of his decision to bring rabbits to Australia. The initial success was soon seen to be a dismal failure—one that Australia continues to struggle with today. The amount of good the hunters enjoyed has been entirely overshadowed by amount of harm borne by the farmers, ranchers, and the ecology.

The 16th century Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, in his classic book of martial arts strategy, “Book of Five Rings,” advises “learn to distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.” This is one of those simple ideas that can be difficult to implement. The rabbits turned out to be a loss, not a gain.

Let’s take an example. If you have two people, both making a salary of $50,000 a year, one owns a home worth $150,000 free and clear, and the other has a home worth $200,000 with a $225,000 mortgage, which is the one in better financial shape?

The one with the $200,000 house has more assets. But he has nothing of value. His net worth is negative—he’s $25,000 in the hole. The one with the house only worth $150,000 has a lot more money in the bank.

This simple piece of accounting explains why you can have a millionaire go bankrupt: someone can live in a million dollar house, but if he has two million dollars in debt, he’s bankrupt. It explains why airlines go bankrupt all the time, despite having billions of dollars in assets—they have billions more in debt. Donald Trump, with his name all over casinos, hotels, and expensive apartment buildings managed to go bankrupt—as much as he owned, he OWED more.

It’s important to understand the math, because the Jewish tradition tells us that God is right now, at this very moment, making the exact same sort of accounting with us. But that image—God as judge, we as the judged—is far too passive. It implies all we have to do is sit like prisoners in the dock while God does His job.

The truth is, we are all judged all the time. Our bosses judge our work performance. Our spouses judge our contributions to running the household. The bank judges whether we’re worthy of being given a new loan. The person sitting next to you may be judging your new hairstyle even as we speak. And I’m sure by the time I’m done many of you will be judging the rabbi’s sermon.

But how often do we judge ourselves? We each have a spark of God within us—so when we judge ourselves, God is judging us too. If today is going to be a day that changes our lives—and it absolutely has that potential—it won’t happen if WE don’t participate.

The imagery of the holidays is not meant to be simply taken literally. Rather the images are there to spur us to make a greater effort at self-scrutiny. At this time of year we’re presented with the picture of scales, hanging in the balance; you can even see them behind me, carved around the doors to the ark.

In trying to understand how those scales are balanced, the Talmud tells us we should view ourselves as though we are half guilty and half righteous. If we only do one more mitzvah, we tilt the scales in our favor. If, God forbid, we do one more sin, we tilt the scales down toward the Book of Death. As it says in the Bible, “one sinner destroys much good,” which the rabbis understand as meaning on account of a single sin much good is lost to a person. R. Eleazar in the Talmud takes this teaching even further: he says because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual is judged by his majority, it could be that entire judgment of the world revolves around whether you do a single sin—or a single mitzvah.

What I would like to do this morning is to explore how we do that accounting living today in the 21st century.

Accountants use the language of assets and liabilities. If you add all the stuff you own—you assets—and take away all you owe—your liabilities—and still have something left over, you have a positive net worth. If you have more debts than assets, you have a negative net worth—you’re either bankrupt or heading there.

Do we understand what things are our spiritual revenue, that add to our assets? And what are our liabilities, the things that add debt to our personal balance sheets?

If our personal spiritual balance comes out with a positive net worth—if the good things we’ve done outweigh the harm we’ve caused—the whole world is a better place because we are here. We get written into the Book of Life. If the harm we’ve caused outweighs the good we’ve done, we’re harmed everyone else, and our names are written in the Book of Death—the book of not necessarily those who will die immediately, but those who are causing death, causing the diminution of the Godly in the world.

We all start out with a zero balance in our account. The good things we do add to our assets; the bad things we do add to our liabilities.

Traditionally we say there are 613 commandments. 365 “lo ta’aseh’s,” “do not do’s,” the negative commandments—one for every day of the year. And 248 “ta’aseh’s,” “do’s,” positive commandments—one for every bone in our bodies.

The Maharal of Prague says that there are 365 lo ta’aseh’s, negative commandments, because 365, the days of the solar year, represent the order of creation. We have 365 things that if we do them, can disrupt the order of creation. We have 248 positive commandments because our bodies are a vehicle for bringing holiness into the world. These do’s and don’ts combine to tell us what we are supposed to do with our lives: don’t cause damage, and DO bring in holiness.

When we violate a negative commandment, we bring harm to the world. Doing harm is worse than doing nothing—as Hippocrates said with respect to the practice of medicine, “first do no harm.” The Jewish tradition acknowledges this as well. According to the Torah, if you fail to fulfill a positive commandment—for example, you fail to honor your parents—there was no explicit punishment. But if you violate a negative commandment—for example, “do not curse your parents”—there was a punishment, such as lashes or even death.

When we violate a negative commandment, the harm can have echoes beyond the immediate. If you steal from someone, obviously you cause the harm of taking someone’s property—but the harm, the damage, goes beyond that.  Anyone who has been the victim of a burglary, as I have been, knows that there is psychological damage as well. You feel violated, you feel your space has been invaded, you feel less trusting of the world around you.  The accounting for a crime like theft has to include the negative spiritual energy as well.

I’m sure none of you sitting here today is a burglar or murderer. But just because we are here and not in jail does not mean we’re perfect.

We’ve all heard that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Maimonides put together a convenient numbered listing of the commandments 900 years ago.

Negative commandment number 301 on Rambam’s list is “do not gossip.” This is probably the most widely violated commandment of all. I’ve read articles in secular psychology magazines suggesting that gossip was a good thing because it facilitated group cohesion or some such nonsense. But I’m sure all of us have had our feelings hurt by gossip. Someone gets mad at us for something we didn’t do—they sometimes get mad at us for something someone else told them which isn’t even true. When we gossip about someone we throw a stone in a pond that has a ripple effect—or in the Maharal’s terms, we create a disruption in the order of creation.

Number 305 on the list of negative commandments is “do not bear a grudge.” Think of all the negative energy we have that is wrapped up in grudges.  Do you have a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in years because of some slight? A colleague you’re mad at, and he doesn’t even know what he did to offend you? Bearing grudges goes on our list of debits.

Have you done anything to embarrass someone in the last year? If so, you have violated negative commandment number 303…and accumulated more debits in your account.

There are some commandments that require a little bit of study. Number 57 on Rambam’s list of negative commandments is a big one, but one that those of us living in the modern world might overlook: “Do not destroy fruit trees in time of siege.”

At first, you might feel a sense of relief. Gee, I haven’t besieged any cities lately, there’s at least one of the 613 I don’t have to worry about! But Maimonides explains that this mitzvah is not just referring to trees—in the Mishneh Torah he wrote “And not just trees, but any destruction of utensils, tearing clothes, destroying buildings, stopping up wells, destroying food in a wanton fashion, transgresses “do not destroy,” and the transgressor is lashed for violating a rabbinic ordinance.”

If we do any kind of wanton destruction—BING—we get demerits in our scorecards, add liabilities to our accounts. Sefer haChinukh explains this mitzvah further: The purpose of this mitzvah (bal tashchit, do not destroy) is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves.

Good people regret any needless destruction or waste. They strive to prevent unnecessary losses. Sefer haChinukh informs us that when we tell our children not to leave every light in the house burning because it wastes electricity and light bulbs, and therefore money, we are not only saving ourselves a few dollars, but are leading them onto a path of righteousness. Put into modern language “do not destroy fruit trees in time of siege” becomes “do not harm the environment.”

For every person in the United States we consume 433 gallons of gasoline every year. For a family of four, that’s over 1,700 gallons of gas every year. Between gasoline, heating oil, coal, etc.—all of the fuel we consume to live our energy-intensive lifestyles—we as a nation spew an amazing 21 tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for each and every one of us. Those gases contribute to air pollution, allergies, cancer, and global warming.

We not only do we do a lot of harm to the air, we generate an awful lot of garbage. Each and every person in the United States generates, on average, 7 pounds of garbage a day. 2,500 pounds a year. A family of four generates 10,000 pounds of garbage a year, much of it toxic and/or non-biodegradable—stuff that will be around in the environment for a very long time. Try to imagine for a moment how big a pile is made by 10,000 pounds of garbage.

When we add up the liabilities in our account—the ways in which we’ve brought harm to the world—we can see that someone who lives in America for the most part has a bigger load of debts to overcome than someone living in India. We are able to live in a way that many others cannot. We are “haves” and when we create 21 tons of greenhouse gases it hurts not only us, but it also hurts the “have nots.” In the Talmud Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai tells a story about someone who was traveling on a wooden boat who pulls out a drill and starts drilling a hole under his seat. The horrified fellow passengers cry out and say “what do you think you’re doing?” The guy with the drill says “what concern is it of yours? I’m only drilling under my own seat!”

Here in America we have a lot of choices. Someone who lives in a single family home in the suburbs and commutes to work in an SUV creates a lot more pollution than someone who lives in an apartment in the city who takes public transportation. When we create pollution we are “drilling under our own seats.” The greenhouse gases we generate here contribute to a shrinking polar ice cap and more powerful hurricanes elsewhere.

We can see that someone who lives in America starts out this accounting with a lot more debts, a lot more negative things, weighing down his scale in a bad way than someone living in a hut in Africa.

In our efforts to make the scales come out on the side of merit, there are two things we can do: reduce or nullify the bad we do, and increase the good.

We don’t have to be such a disaster for the environment. In Sweden, they only generate 5 tons of greenhouse gases per person per year—which still sounds like a lot, but it’s a lot better than 21 tons. And the Swedes don’t seem to be suffering in terms of living standard; they haven’t all given up their Saabs and Volvos.

Taiwan is a small country—they found themselves running out of places to put all their garbage, and went on a big campaign to reduce waste. They cut the amount of garbage created per capita per day down to 1.6 pounds—about one fourth the amount of garbage created per person in the United States. Instead of 10,000 pounds of garbage per family of four they only create 2,300 pounds.

We can also try and find other ways to offset the damage we do. British Airways has acknowledged that greenhouse gases caused by traveling in a jet plane contribute to global warming. They have come up with a fascinating plan—they allow you to make an optional donation when you book your ticket to nullify the effect of emissions made by your trip. If you fly roundtrip from London to Madrid, they ask for a voluntary donation of about $9 which goes to an organization called Climate Care which works to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases. You do $9 worth of harm to the environment with your trip to Madrid, make a donation of $9 to an organization that tries to fix things up. If only it were that easy to do all of our spiritual accounting! Unfortunately, it’s not.

So if we do what we can to try and reduce our impact on the environment—buy more fuel-efficient cars, prefer products that don’t have a lot of excess packaging which goes in the garbage, and we do what we can to avoid the other debts we acquire by gossiping, holding grudges, and so on, we’re still going to find a negative balance. We have to offset it with positive things.

According to the Kabbahlists, the Jewish mystics, any mitzvah you do—whether it’s giving to charity, lighting Shabbos candles, or honoring your parents—contributes to the healing or repair of the world. By doing these positive things we draw down holiness, we draw God’s presence into the world—and we thereby offset some of the damage we’ve done with those negative things.

There are several mitzvot associated with observing Shabbat negative commandment 320 is not to work on the Sabbath, positive 154 is to rest on the Sabbath and 155 is to sanctify the Sabbath. Shabbat brings healing to the world in all sorts of ways: for one thing, if you’re not driving all over town on Shabbat, you’re not creating air pollution. If you spend quality time with your family it will help heal and repair and strengthen those relationships.

Rambam’s positive commandment number 19 is to say the grace after meals. While it is meritorious to say the full birkat hamazon, if you don’t remember it, if you do nothing but say “Thanks God for the good food you provide us with” you have fulfilled this commandment. How does it improve the world and offset damage? You are bringing a moment of “God consciousness” into the world, you are making God’s presence be felt more strongly in the world—which the Jewish tradition says is a good thing.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I talked about how there is a commandment to put a parapet on the roofs of our homes (number 184), which is understood as meaning we have a responsibility to create a safe society. Anything you do to help make a safer society—whether it’s installing smoke alarms in your home or lobbying Marcy Kaptur to get her to work to have the government fund building stronger levees in Louisiana—it all helps fix the world. Giving charity of course is a great way to add “assets to your account”–there are several mitzvot concerned with giving charity.

You’ve heard the saying from school that “attendance counts.” It also counts with God. Let’s say you walked in the door today and you were completely balanced between aveirot and mitzvot, between assets and liabilities, you were right on the borderline. By being here instead of at work, you are fulfilling a mitzvah not to work on Rosh Hashana. It is also a mitzvah to hear the shofar being blown. So just by showing up, you get credit for a couple of mitzvot, which, who knows, might be all you need to push you over the top and win you a place in the Book of Life!

I recommend taking this idea of a spiritual accounting literally. Something you do with a piece of paper, or as I do it, at my computer. Not necessarily today—we don’t write on Rosh Hashana. But after Rosh Hashana is over—and before Yom Kippur—take a piece of paper, make two columns on it. On one side list your spiritual assets—the good things you’ve done in the last year, the charity you’ve given, the people you’ve cheered up, the people you’ve helped, the Shabbat candles that you’ve lit. On the other side list your spiritual liabilities—the bad things you did in the last year, the hurt feelings you may have caused, the time you may have wasted, the pollution you created.

What you’ll find is that it’s a difficult accounting. How do you trade off the air pollution created vs. the good you do by driving your parents to shul in a Hummer? It’s hard work not to make excuses for the liabilities in our accounts, or to try and write them off as not important.

An important point in the accounting is that sins do not erase merits—or vice versa. If you do a mitzvah, you always get credit for that mitzvah. Gossiping does not somehow “erase” the charity you gave. That money you gave to charity is always there giving you credit. The tradition gives you a path to erasing liabilities from your account: it’s called teshuva, or repentance. By doing teshuva you repair any damage that you did—you remove the liability from your account completely. If you keep your assets and get rid of your liabilities you can go from bankrupt to prosperous.

What this accounting can do is to help you clarify what last month’s scholar in residence, Dr. Alan Morinis, called your “spiritual curriculum.” If your spiritual balance sheet looks like Donald Trump’s business—lots of assets but even more liabilities—you might find that what you need to work on is reducing your liabilities, minimizing the harm you do to the world, doing teshuva. On the other hand, if your spiritual balance sheet is very modest and you don’t have much in the way of either assets or liabilities, maybe you should focus on doing more good things to benefit the world and those around you.

Either way, the goal, ultimately, is the same. As the Bratzlaver Rebbe put it, “Always say, The world was created for my sake. Never say, What does all this have to do with me? And do your share to add some improvement, to supply something that is missing, and leave the world a little better for your sojourn in it.”

Leave the world a little better for your sojourn in it. That’s the real measure of a successful life. When you do your accounting of your sins, your consumption, and your good deeds, can you say for sure that you are a net asset to the planet? Is the world better off because you are here?

L’shana Tova

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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