Delivered on September 10, 2018 at Rosh Hashanah morning services.
In 1987, the US Army War College coined a term that has become more pointed and more broadly taught year after year. It is a frame through which our military views their world, and more and more it is a concept that business schools are teaching its cadets, in order that they may approach their work in the marketplace with a similar spirit of engagement as our military does on the battlefield. The term is VUCA. It is an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
VUCA describes the world around us, and prompts leaders to articulate clear long-range vision and strategy in the face of the Gordian knot that is the unknown. In other words, VUCA is our military’s recognition and articulation that we are strangers in a strange land. We are wanderers making our way through volatile times, uncertain of our heading, encountering complex situations, and doubt continues to walk with us as we make choice after choice after choice along life’s path.
But this frame can also enable us to see a path through the wilderness. We can make our way through volatile and uncertain times by being clear on our own course, by casting a vision for ourselves, for our families, for our community. We do that when we say, “This is the direction that I want to travel.” Or, “This is how we behave as a family.” Or, “This is what it means to be a community, together.” We can address complexity and ambiguity by distilling our principles down to an elemental level, enabling us to say with confidence, “This is a value for which I stand.” Or, “This alone I know to be true.” Or, “This is the rule by which I live.”
We can navigate through the wilderness if we hold fast to simple, strong rules.
So, let’s try on a phrase, please repeat after me: Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah; this is the greatest principle in our tradition.
What is it?
Our Sages put it simply: Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah, ahavta l’reicha k’mocha; this is the greatest principle in our tradition, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Rabbi Akiva taught this as the principle above all others, his own Torah-based answer to the VUCA that he encountered. Akiva lived in the 2nd Century of the Common Era, in the Land of Israel when it was under Roman rule. Akiva took part in the Bar Kokhba Revolt, in which Jews took up against the Romans, and followed a man who would later come to be known as a false messiah. As it is reported in the Talmud, the Romans martyred Akiva because he continued to teach Torah, a transgression against the edicts of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Akiva lived in a time defined by political uncertainty and economic volatility. The political and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish community of his time were complex and ambiguous. Nonetheless, Akiva taught Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah, ahavta l’reicha k’mocha; this is the greatest principle in our tradition, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our Sage Hillel taught this principle, too: Once, a man seeking conversion went before Shammai, Hillel’s counterpart, and challenged, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot!” Shammai, seeing the ridiculousness of this request, pushed them man away. The man went before Hillel and asked the same thing, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot!” Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary, now let’s go and study.”
Our tradition teaches the Golden Rule. Above all else, treat your neighbor as you would treat yourself. This is the centrality of the Jewish experience. This principle is the anchor to our Jewish souls, regardless of the place and time in which we live.
Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah, ahavta l’reicha k’mocha; this is the greatest principle in our tradition, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
That rootedness is necessary. After all consider the world in which we live today. I could run down a litany of issues we are facing as Americans and as Jews. We can rile ourselves up over anonymous op-eds and Fire and Fury and Fear. We have a right to be upset about rising anti-semitism and systemic racism. We could express outrage over Conservative rabbis in Israel being arrested for performing a weddings. We can cry because to date there are approximately 500 children still detained and separated from their parents, with about 40 of them under the age of four…
But that’s not the sermon I’m going to give today. All of that is VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — and the realization that the assumptions with which we have lived for so long are being challenged. The topic for today is this: When you come to an awareness that we are living with volatility around us, what are you to do about it?
Turning inward, as we head into 5779 we each walk into this space with joys and with burdens. Happiness and sorrow are set in relief with one another during these days together. For some of us, we walk through deep valleys, because we may be sick, and not certain if this year, we can regain strength or find healing. And for others among us, we come into the new year thinking about our loved ones for whom we care. We worry about parents who are aging. We worry about kids and safety. We are both caregivers and those in need of caring as we confront uncertainty that is associated with personal realities.
Confronting uncertainty and ambiguity is scary. As the Buddhist thinker, Pema Chodron, teaches, when we find ourselves in doubt, “we can contemplate this question: ‘Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?’”1
Earlier in our service, we recited Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer that causes a lot of us a lot of consternation. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass away from this world, how many will be born into it; who will live and who will die…” We worry that some personification of God is sitting on a throne, declaring “You by fire. You by water.” And each year, when we point to a death in our families, or to the sudden, tragic death of a friend, teacher, or mentor, we ask that essential question, “Why?” Does God really sit in judgement of us?
Existential questions emerge out of our liturgy. Nagging notions of unfairness in the Cosmos creep up during the High Holy Days. Because we are thoughtful and caring people, and when we see injustice in the world, or when illness or ill fortune strike someone we love, and then we read a prayer like Unetaneh Tokef, it only makes sense that we would struggle to reconcile everything together.
I find comfort in a teaching from professor and Rabbi David Teutsch, who writes, “In our everyday lives, we live with an illusion of control. We guard our health by eating well, exercising, and getting regular checkups. We get ahead professionally by working hard and building effective relationships. At the liturgical moment of Unetaneh Tokef, we are forced to admit how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we had no control.”2
Unetaneh Tokef is a chance to articulate that we, personally and globally, live with VUCA. At Rosh Hashanah we give voice to the fear we carry that says, “A drunk driver could cripple or kill” (173), my cancer could get worse, the stock market could crash and we could lose everything, I could lose the very people I love most. During the High Holy Days we simulate one who stands on the line between life and death, and we pray that as we continue to walk through our days, that we will endure, thrive, and find out that everything will be okay.
Unetaneh Tokef is another way of saying that VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—that that is real, and that the only thing we can do in response is embrace a core concept: Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah!
If you had to distill your entire ethic down to a single principle, what would it be? What is your klal gadol?
My brother, Adam, shared with me his own klal gadol. During a recent visit to the Berkshires, he and I got into one of those great brotherly debates. We talked about the world around us. We talked VUCA. We talked about what fatherhood and marriage is like when confronted with uncertainty. We talked about what to say to our children as they become aware of the ambiguity of the world in which they live.
My brother’s klal gadol is direct: “When faced with a choice, choose the right thing.” My brother’s anchor, and the one that he hopes his children will also find connection to is to choose righteousness, to do the most correct thing among the choices placed before us.
Small reminders may be just what’s needed to make our way through the different decisions we each face in a given day. I’m reminded of this whenever working with wedding couples. When we prepare for their wedding day, we spend a tremendous amount of time working on the text for their ketubah. The ketubah is the terms by which they will live. It is the anchor to their relationship. When a couple signs their ketubah, I want them to see themselves in that document–to know how and why they work, so that the document can help them feel rooted when challenges come their way. At my own wedding, our rabbi turned to my parents and described the ketubah similarly. And then he invited Liz’s and my parents to offer us a blessing, in the spirit of our ketubah. “Tell your children what matters most about being married,” the rabbi said. My father, with tears running down his face, said “Above all else, be kind.”
Do the right thing. Always be kind. Zeh Klal Gadol Ba-Torah. These are general principles that anchor us when we navigate through uncertain times, on a personal level or on a communal level.
Such sayings are nothing new. Spiritual and religious communities have used simple sayings as a way to anchor our spirit when faced with uncertainty. In Eastern traditions they are called mantras. With mantra meditation, the practitioner selects a word or a phrases, and repeats the mantra over and over again. The mantra becomes an anchor. As the mind floats or drifts, as it is invariably will, the practitioner gently brings himself back to the word or phrase.
Zeh klal gadol ba-Torah, ahavta l’reicha k’mocha. The importance of that phrase, as a response to volatile times, was brought loud and clear in the art of Berkshire’s own Norman Rockwell. Some argue that Rockwell was apolitical, that his illustrations captured the quintessential American experience. But, for anyone who has recently walked through the Norman Rockwell Museum, I hope you’ll agree that he was a sophisticated artist. Consider the power of the Four Freedoms, when we take those images together and the meaning behind them. Rockwell was committed to the universal virtues of “tolerance for differences, courtesy, kindness, and to freedom,” and these values emerge in his artwork.
Because of his commitment to pluralism, kindness, and freedom, Rockwell found it easy to support the United Nations. On the floor of the main UN building in New York lies a mosaic that Rockwell created, titled “Golden Rule.” The mosaic–and later oil painting that you can see if you visit the Rockwell museum–is crafted out of a sea of faces. Children and adults hold their heads lowered in a prayerful gaze, with their hands clasped together under their chins. All of their eyes are focused on a phrase–a mantra, klal gadol—that hovers in front of them, written in stately, golden letters: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Zeh Klal Gadol BaTorah – This is the greatest principle. Find love and appreciation in others, as we would appreciate within ourselves. We hear the call to love one another out of the spiritual teachings, we hear it from the arts, and we hear it from science. In a collection of philosophical essays by the greatest minds of the time, Albert Einstein wrote in 1931 in which he argues that each person on earth seems to come here for a particular purpose; namely, “that (each of us) is here for the sake of others—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being on our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.” Einstein’s klal gadol, his essential principle, we are here on this planet for only a brief time, and we are here for the sake of one another. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh la-zeh, we are responsible for one another. Einstein continues in his essay, “Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of (others), both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” We are here for ourselves, and for one another. Let us be up and doing, to give as much as we constantly receive.
Zeh klal gadol ba-Torah. This is the greatest principle in our tradition. When faced with VUCA, when we have an awareness that we are strangers dwelling in a strange land and an uncertain time, what core principle do you embrace? What is the essential principle over which all others matter? What is that mantra to which you’ll fix your attention when you find your mind drifting off during these High Holy Days? If you had to distill your entire ethic down to a single principle, what would it be? What is your klal gadol?
Consider what would be at stake if we were to commit to make decisions to do the right thing, to give more of ourselves, to approach others with kindness, first and foremost. Imagine the alterations you would witness in your relationships if we filter our interactions and decisions based on a simple, guiding rule. Imagine what a difference you can make if you first and foremost commit to your klal gadol.
To be kind. To do the right thing. To love the stranger as we love ourselves. To give gratitude for the labor of our fellow human beings, because we have received greatly. These sorts of realizations are clear guiding principles that give light when confronted with an uncertain darkness.
Zeh klal gadol ba-Torah. Regardless of the place or time in which we live, this is the essential teaching from Rabbi Akiva: love your fellow, and receive love as well. And thus may we be inscribed for God’s blessing in the Book of Life.