Real Hard Work

Rosh HaShanah 5777

   

“Love Easy Money?” asked the front business page headline in the Chicago  Tribune.[1]  “Unsealed Trump University playbook results in free sales lessons,” promised Phil Rosenthal, the article’s author, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  A series of scathingly sarcastic assessments filled the column, printed the day after a U.S. Judge in San Diego ruled the purported “playbook” of the presidential candidate opened to the public.  One particular piece captured my attention: this playbook had a “section identifying what Yale University’s psychology department apparently considers the most persuasive words in the English language.”  These twelve words I found fascinating: you, new, money, easy, discovery, free, results, health, save, proven, guarantee and love.[2] 

We in America, it seems, do “Love Easy Money”.  So, while not surprised the ad industry hired psychologists to study words most likely to motivate people, I was intrigued to see those twelve words in front of me.  As a rabbi reading the article, I sensed there was a sermon somewhere: I searched for the original study.  I never found it, but what I discovered was more interesting.[3]  Basically, the whole thing is bunk.  A British website exposed the whole sordid story of how false advertisements about scientific studies in the Sixties were reprinted often enough to be accepted as academic truths in the Seventies.  Yale University never studied persuasive words published in anyone’s Playbook.  The whole thing is a sham on top of a sham. 

If the list is fictitious, psychological truths underlie the phenomenon: nothing sells in these dollar days like a quick and facile route to remarkable results.  We don’t require any institute of higher learning to prove people want outcomes that are: Easy, Proven, Guaranteed, Free.  It is not just a sign of the times; human nature drives us to improve our lot in life.  Given a choice, most opt to reap the greatest rewards for the least amount of work. Unfortunately, just as the Yale University study doesn’t exist, neither, really, do Get Rich Quick schemes, shortcuts to love, health or happiness.  Just like the “12 proven words”, Get Rich Quick schemes and their promised paths to easy money are a complete canard; their empty promises succeed only at selling something; they are of little help in building anything. 

Get Rich Quick schemes are the opposite of what we celebrate on this New Year’s Day.  Get Rich Quick promises the rapid acquisition of fortune and fame; Rosh HaShanah holds out hope for a slow turning of our personalities towards our better selves.  Get Rich Quick is immediate: the focus is now.  Rosh HaShanah takes time: ten days before judgment on Yom Kippur, a calendar year in which to prove our potential to live up to promises. Get Rich Quick seeks to garner the greatest material reward for the least amount of work.  Our High Holy Days offer an opportunity to reap that powerful—albeit intangible—spiritual satisfaction that results from intense, sustained effort.  Dissembling schemes—from pyramids to Ponzi—falsely promise it is easy to acquire everything we want.  Rosh HaShanah instead holds out hope that, if we keep our proverbial noses to the aching grindstone, we might become a little better day-in, day-out.  Rosh HaShanah is about real, hard work.

            Rosh HaShanah has always been about hard work, from the very beginning.  Today we commemorate the Creation of the entire universe; moving from chaos and disorder to light and darkness, the sun, the moon and stars, land and water, plants and animals and all is more than a herculean effort, it is the most massive undertaking in cosmic history.  Thus we say today in our liturgy, HaYom Harat Olam, “Today is the birthday of the world.”[4]  On this day, we imagine, all of Creation was created.  When we say HaYom Harat Olam, "Today is the Birthday of the World", we shouldn't be thinking of party hats or piñatas, cake or candles. Today is not about frolic and revelry, but a chance to connect with the real, hard work of bringing something worthwhile into existence.  Rosh HaShanah reminds us that, without a great deal of planning and effort, nothing of value can be created.

 

Our New Year is meant to connect us to the moment of Creation, to the value of creating.  Ironically, for a tradition that asserts “Today is the Birthday of the world”, Judaism imagines that this New Year’s day marks not the very first day of the Creation, but the sixth day, the day on which we human beings were brought into being.  An astonishing midrash in Pesiqta deRav Qahana focuses us on the origins of humanity, and tells the tale in an astonishing rush of twelve epochal hours, the twelve most metaphorically formative hours in human history:

 

In the first hour, God conceived the idea of humanity;

by the second hour God convinced the Heavenly Host we should be created;

in the third, God gathered the dust of the earth;

in the fourth, God kneaded it together;

in the fifth, God assembled the pieces;

in the sixth, stood up inert Adam;

by hour seven, gave us the breath of life;

in the eighth, entered us into Eden;

in the ninth, gave us commands, which we already violated by the tenth;

in the eleventh hour we were judged;

by the end of the twelfth, God rendered the divine decree of humanity’s fate.[5]

 

The sixth day of Creation was a busy one, indeed.  Not only did human beings enter existence, but the entire pattern of our spiritual and material lives was established.  Moments after the metaphorical breath of life was breathed into our lungs we were instructed in the Divine ways by which we should live; it took us under sixty minutes to violate the terms of existence in Eden. God had to decide what to do with us: no sooner than sin arrived, God allowed for repentance and paved a path for teshuvah, for humanity to turn away from wicked deeds and return to Divine paths.  In fact, in this eleventh hour of our Genesis saga, God created the patterns of repentance that remain the core of our High Holy Days.  Realizing that to be created human was to be imperfect, God created—our tradition imagines, on this very day—a way to overcome our failings and turn ever closer to that seed of Divinity implanted within us all.

 

This remarkably busy first day has a lot more to do with work than the spiritual labor of teshuvah required to overcome human error.  Repentance provides a way to move beyond mistakes we make; that hardly means we are not accountable for the many wrongs we commit.  Work—remarkably difficult toil, literally pained labor—was the eternal punishment for violating God’s command.[6]  Yes, we were afforded the opportunities of repentance: after all, God did forgive humanity the errors of Eden.  But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a price to pay as we went forth into our new world.  In the Garden, humanity had no material concerns: food was plentiful, shelter was unnecessary, and—in the days before shame—clothing was likewise unwarranted.  Expelled from Eden, the Earth’s abundance no longer catered to Adam and Eve; they became responsible for their own basic needs. “Only through hard labor will you eat, all the days of your life,” is God’s precise punishment.[7] Today is not only the metaphorical commemoration of the day humanity was created, but also the anniversary of the imagined moment we were destined to lives of real hard work.

 

I take neither the text of Genesis nor the extended imaginations of our Rabbis as literal truth.  Today is not the Birthday of the World; human beings were not fashioned out of mud and then kneaded and forged into our current form; the entire human saga of sin and repentance did not play out in the first twelve powerful hours of our earthly existence.  The story of our Creation, the tales we continue to tell about it—even this commemoration of the emergence of planet Earth—are our religious metaphor, our ancient fable attempting to explain the nature of our lives.  Of the many morals of these stories, one is very clear: from the very beginning, to be human means to toil, to strive, to labor.  We are connected to work.  The material necessities and satisfactions of our world are not handed to humanity; we need to toil to acquire them: often, really hard; sometimes, unfortunately, even in vain.  Importantly, the stories of Eden and expulsion speak about the spirit as well as the tangible.  Our work, from the very beginning, from that eleventh hour of our first day, has hardly been only physical in nature. 

 

The ancient Sage Rabbi Elazar taught that our lives of manual labor are intricately connected with spiritual uplift: Redemption and Work are one and the same.  Just as redemption requires divine partnership, so too does our work require blessing.  Just as we need to see to our physical labor every single day, so too do we need daily to see to our spiritual salvaltion.[8]  Earning a livelihood is just like earning atonement; taking care of our spiritual well-being requires no less effort than the daily toil of tending to our material satisfaction.  That is the Divine pronouncement on human beings—one we imagine delivered this very day—that we have to toil every day of our lives.  Humanity is destined to daily struggle: working at our jobs, taking care of our families, ensuring we have food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over our heads.  But intertwined and inseparable from these physical labors should be our spiritual efforts, the daily struggle to work on our personality, to guide the moral well-being of our family, to ensure our neighbors have food to eat, strangers clothes to wear, every human being a roof over their heads.  Spiritual uplift and manual labor are one and the same: we cannot engage in one without the other.  In other words, the spiritual work of Rosh HaShanah, of building our better selves, is actually our task each and every day of our lives.

 

  Rosh HaShanah is about real, hard work.  Let’s focus for a few moments on the daily grind of even our spiritual labor.  An easy example revolves around the temptations of technology.  It actually takes work to wean ourselves off our cell phones, to pay attention to the people around us.  First, we have to make the conscious choice that constantly looking at our phones in the presence of others is not the best path to building relationships.  Next, we need to put our phones away, to resist the urge to place them on the table where they are constantly, distractingly, in our line of sight.  Then we need to train ourselves to hear an alert, to feel a vibration, and to ignore it; we need to focus, enjoying the conversation with the people in our presence without wondering about the messages our buzzing pockets tell us we’ve received.  In our world accustomed to such unnecessary immediacy, we have to do the hard work of adjusting to not knowing everything instantaneously, of accepting the fact we will miss what’s happening over there because we are paying attention to the people right here.  It ain’t easy.  Something as simple as paying less attention to technology is a daily grind; it is no easy effort at all.

 

The hard work of weaning ourselves off technology is nothing compared with the toil of making more thorough changes in our calendar or character.  Say we are not happy with the amount of time we spend at work compared to the time we share with our loved ones.  What would it take to strike a better balance?  Short of drastic, often impractical measures like changing careers, it takes a lot of forethought, attention to detail, and commitment to a plan just to figure out how to take the kids to school only once a week, to make it home for one family dinner.  It is no easier changing our character.  What if we decide we are too shy and want to be more outgoing? Such a change necessitates serious support, calls for thorough training in learning how to open conversations, requires real dedication—every time the timid impulse arrives—to overcome it, to reach out and to connect.  Conversely, choosing to curb our arrogance, to be a little less loud, can be a full-time job.  In this instance, we need to learn to listen actively, to stifle that impulse to share every thought that enters our heads; we need to enlist the help of good friends who will remind us when overstep and miss the mark.  Changing our life balance, our personal habits, or the traits of our character is neither easy nor quick; this is real, hard work.

 

Creating a character is hard work.  Often, with limited resources and under imperfect conditions, we are called to the great labor of fashioning our own existence.  HaYom Harat Olam: these three words might not be the most persuasive in the Hebrew language, but they contain great potency. You see, there is a deeper secret about how intricately entwined are our liturgy and our labor: HaYom Harat Olam actually talks of neither birthdays nor even Creation.  Hebrew knows two words for making things: the first, Beresheet, is a weird word reserved for a single purpose: it describes only the Divine Creation of the Universe depicted in the Book of Genesis; no human being can ever be the subject of the verb Beresheet.  In contrast, our second Hebrew term for creating is yotzer, a human word which literally means to fashion, as a potter might at his wheel, an author at her desk.  When our ritual reminds us of the world’s Creation, neither the Divine beresheet nor the human yotzer are used.  Instead we hear, HaYom Harat OlamHaYom “Today”, Harat Olam “the world”—quite literally—“is conceived”.  Today the world is conceived.  Conception precedes existence: today we celebrate that world waiting to be born.  HaYom Harat Olam: today we conceive the world we want to be, imagine the lives we hope to live, pledge to create a character of lasting value.

 

Today, we conceive our world.  We do not prove our personality these twenty-four hours, but simply set our sights on who we want to be in the coming year.  During these High Days of Holiness, through introspection and resolve, we conceive the character we want to create: in front of us lies the labor of living up to our aspirations.  This is the true secret of Creation:  Hayom Harat Olam is not just the liturgy of Rosh HaShanah day; “today I can conveive myself anew” should be our mantra each and every day following.  The real lesson of Rosh HaShanah is that we wake up every morning with the ability to create the world: every day we have the opportunity to remember our plan for our personality, our commitment to our character, and say, “Hayom Harat Olam: today I can continue to re-create my world, to refashion my life.”  Little wonder the Talmudic teacher Rav taught: Today [only] marks the beginning of your work, of all that you hope to do.[9]  Today we but draw the blueprints conceiving of our character; each and every day of the coming year, we will be busy in the labor of building our better selves.

 

HaYom Harat Olam: Today is the Birthday of the World.  What do we celebrate being created today?  The world, for one.  Humanity, as well.  And, along with humanity, the cycles of sin and repentance that, from our first hours, allow us to move forward with our lives despite the mistakes we often make.  There is one further commemoration at this moment of conception: we celebrate the chance we have to re-create our lives, the blessing we are afforded every day of our lives to conceive ourselves anew.  Today we have an opportunity for reflection upon an improved self, to think about the spiritual work we want to undertake, to complete our blueprint of a better self for the year 5777. Rosh HaShanah is, was, and always will be about getting down to work. Such is the secret of our High Holy Day playbook: we take no shortcuts to material gain, but commit ourselves to the long and winding road of constant spiritual improvement.  The spiritual labor our High Holy Days demand is work that is real, the continuing creation of our character, the daily opportunity to conceive ourselves anew.   May we, in the coming gift of the year 5777, dedicate ourselves to building better selves, improved communities, and a world repaired.  May we be ready to get to work.[10]



[1] Phil Rosenthal, “Love Easy Money? Unsealed Trump U. playbook results in free sales lessons,” The Chicago Tribune, Thursday, June 2, 2016, Section 2, p. 1: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/ct-rosenthal-trump-university-0602-biz-20160601-column.html 

[2] Rosenthal, “Love Easy Money?,” The Tribune, June 2, 2016, Section 2, p. 6.

On a separate matter, two of these words, “Free” and “Love” also happen to be the titles of songs by Prince, who passed away in the year that will have come to a close by the time this sermon is delivered.  In tribute to him—and also to David Bowie, who died in the year 5776—I have included twelve of each of their song titles—including one song title they have in common-throughout this sermon.  Happy hunting!

[3] I discovered this quotation, and the entire expose of this “lingua-canard”, on the October 17, 2001 posting of the “Ben Locker” blog: www.benlocker.co.uk/copywriting-myths-the-12-most-persuasive-words-in-the-english-language/ . In turn, Locker attributes the information to this post at Language Log, by Benjamin Zimmer: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/003662.html .

The basic story is as follows:

On August 14, 1961, Wallach’s stores of New York ran a clever ad in the New York Times attributing eleven of these words to a non-existent “Marketing Magazine”; a few months later, Levitt and Sons builders of Bowie, MD, placed a clever spot spinning the never-given guidance of the non-existent “Marketing Magazine” into a masterful sequence: You can discover an easy and proven way to save money, and help guarantee your future health and happiness.  Buy a home in one of America’s finest communities.  You’ll love the results.  Over the next nine years, this list appeared over and over, with some alteration; in 1970, syndicated columnist L. M. Boyd attributed them to Yale’s psychology department. 

[4] היום הרת עולם . Below are different renderings of the liturgy’s language from different translations:

Union Prayer Book for the High Holy Days, Sinai Edition (2001, Reform)

This is the day of the world’s birth
This day all Creation stands before God
As we are Your children, show us a parent’s compassion.
We look to you for forgiveness.  May Your countenance
Shine upon us and be gracious to us, O God of all Creation!

 Gates of Repentence (1978, Reform)

 This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You, whether
as children or as slaves. As we are Your children, show us a parent’s compassion; as
we are slaves, we look to You for mercy: shed the light of Your judgment upon us, O
awesome and holy God.

Mahzor Lev Shalem (2010, Conservative)

 Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether
as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with
us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You
expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us, and as day emerges from night
bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One.

Mishkan HaNefesh (2015, Reform)

 This day, the world is born anew, and all creation awaits Your judgment.
We are Your daughters; we are Your sons —
So love and remember us in the way of mothers and fathers.
We are Yours in service —
so let there be light to guide us in the corridors of justice and on the path of holiness.

[5] Midrash Pesiqta deRav Qahana, chapter 23.  Translation is my own.

[6] Genesis 3:16-17.  Just as Eve is sentenced to difficulty in labor [עצבונך /itzbonech], so, too, is Adam sentenced to a lifetime of laboring [עצבון /itzavon] the earth.

[7] Genesis 3:17. Specifically, the “curse” of Adam is we need to toil כל ימי חייך /Kol yamei chayyecha/Every day of our lives.

[8] Midrash Beresheet Rabbah 20:9.  Translation is my own.  The technical term of comparison employed here,  הקש /hekesh, literally means “is parallel to,” and I render it “are one and the same”. 

[9] See Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 29:1: היום תחלת מעשיך [זכרון ליום ראשון] ., “Today marks the beginning of your work [a rememberance of the First Day.”]

[10] For those keeping track at home, below are the hidden titles, including #7, which is a song title used by both artists.

From Prince, a total of twelve titles, excluding the multiple times I used the word “it”, itself a monster jam:

  1. “Free”, from 1999.
  2. “Love”, from 3121.
  3. “America”, from Around the World in a Day.
  4. “Sign of the Times”, from Sign of the Times.
  5. “Chaos and Disorder”, from Chaos and Disorder.
  6. “The Sun, The Moon and Stars”, from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
  7. “7”, from 0(+>.
  8. “New World”, from Emancipation.
  9. “Planet Earth”, from Planet Earth.
  10. “Shy”, from The Gold Experience.
  11. “Arrogance”, from 0(+>.
  12. “Reflection”, from Musicology.

From Bowie, a total of twelve titles:

  1. “Candidate”, from Diamond Dogs.
  2. “Dollar Days”, from Blackstar.
  3. “Fame”, from Young Americans.
  4. “Time”, from Aladdin Sane.
  5. “A Better Future”, from Heathen.
  6. “Day-In Day-Out”, from Never Let Me Down.
  7. “Seven”, from ‘Hours…’.
  8. “After All”, from The Man Who Sold the World.
  9. “It Ain’t Easy”, from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
  10. “Changes”, from Hunky Dory.
  11. “Stay”, from Station to Station.
  12. “Little Wonder”, from Earthling.

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