Fact-Checking our Feelings
Rabbi Dan Dorsch, Congregation Etz Chaim, Marietta, GA.
Rosh Hashanah I, 5778
When I was a reckless 18 year old driver (not much has changed, I get my pointers from Rabbi Lewis), I heard the words that no parents with a high deductible plan ever want to hear: “Son, do you have any idea how fast you were driving?”
Now, with sixteen years more experience under my belt I can tell you, I’ve learned there are a lot of great answers you can give to get out of a speeding ticket. Recently, I even used the best answer that a rabbi at Etz Chaim could give, “hey do you know a guy named Jerry Kwan?” But as an eighteen year old, I did not know what to say, so without thinking much I said what I felt: “Officer,” I said, “you know I am not sure how fast I was going, but I’ll tell you what, I feel like I was only going forty.” He then looked at me, took his radar gun, and said, “Well son, you may feel like you were going forty, but the radar gun felt like you were going seventy.” And that’s when he told me something important, I never forgot it: He said, “Son, always remember how dangerous it can be to confuse the facts with your feelings.”
Now, if you asked me 10 or even 15 years ago, I might have told you that what the officer said was true, because on some level understood the danger of confusing facts and feelings. We understood that to avoid this problem, checking the facts when we felt a certain way could help us to respond instead of react. We invested in social and emotional education to help our children learn to better understand their feelings. We knew that having the facts were critical for having more meaningful, informed, feelings, as well as making meaningful decisions. Yet in a shockingly short period of time, what made this past year, 5777, so noteworthy in my mind, is that we have moved from saying “I don’t know what’s a fact anymore,” to saying, “I don’t care whether it is a fact anymore.” And what has happened is that the radar gun of facts, that once helped us to slow down and to better understand our complex feelings has become no more. We don’t respond to what we see, we react and overreact.
Yet as we approach this pivotal crossroads at the new year, I can’t help but wonder. What could our world be like, if we once again could learn to fact-check our feelings? The hebrew word for fact, uvdah comes from the word avodah, meaning to work, I’d like us to challenge us today to think about how by working together to fact-check our feelings, we may once again succeed in building better selves, in creating a stronger community, and in restoring truth to its rightful place in our society.
First, and foremost, I’d like to recognize the role that fact-checking our feelings has in helping us grow personally. Because when we have the facts, and we are honest with them, I’d like to suggest that we are never in a better position to grow. Unfortunately, the challenge that most of us face, according to the magazine Psychology Today, is that while facts help us to think “rationally about our options,” our feelings “cloud judgment” and lead to “irrational decisions.” Rashi points out that this very irrationality is at the heart of the nearly colossal mistake that we read about in our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Questioning how God could tell Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Rashi looks at the text and notes, Va-alyahu LeOlah, God tells Abraham to take Isaac up for a sacrifice; but God, never told Abraham to kill him, did, he? Rashi views the going up for a sacrifice as having supposed to have been a great moment of father-son bonding. But Abraham’s feelings, his zealousness for God overcame him, and Rashi argues that those feelings nearly led him to make an irrational decision. And I’d like to argue that in our world where we increasingly don’t fact-check our feelings, that this happens to all of us all of the time, albeit on a smaller scale. How many of us in our lives, made the mistake of thinking that a passionate relationship was true love because we trusted in a feeling, and didn’t fact check it, and got burned? How many of us got into a fight with a close friend or family member that made us furious, but when we examined the facts, we realized that we were the ones being unreasonable? How many of us missed a moment of personal growth, because like Abraham, we reacted instead of responding, without fact checking our feelings? You know I can’t tell you how many people over the years have walked into my office wanting to make a change. They tell me they are going to sell their house, or quit their job, not because they’ve looked at the facts, but because of how a death or a divorce is making them feel in that very moment. And in nearly every one of those situations, I beg them, and they later thank me for asking them to wait six months. Not because they aren’t entitled to feel a certain way--we all are--but because we know that when feelings overcome us, we don’t always make the best choices. Did you know that roughly one-third of lottery winners declare bankruptcy? Fortune Magazine writes that among the reasons, it’s because when we are overly emotional, even with joy, we are not in a position to make good choices If we work from feelings alone, it makes it difficult to do the avodah, the work to grow personally.
Elie Wiesel once said so beautifully that what could unite our world is if we would only learn “to ask the same questions, even if in the end, we come to different answers.” And once, I recall, this looked like a promising proposition. We might have disagreed on how to best apply facts. But because we were on same wavelength, we would find all kinds of ways, in government, in our relationships, to find more time working together than fighting one another. But now that we live in a world where feelings go unchecked by facts, according to Leon Wieseltier, more often than not we find one side of a debate based in facts and another side that believes if you scream louder than the other side than they are right. And my friends this screaming has not brought us together; it’s ripping us apart from all directions. Yet if only we could learn once again to fact check our feelings, we could demonstrate that not all people who shower opinions, no matter how strongly they feel about them, are right. Think about what you knew to be true about vaccines, for example. Vaccines are responsible for eradicating horrible diseases and saving countless lives. Those of you who may be students of history know that what saved the American revolution was not the bravery of George Washington on the battlefield, but the bravery of George Washington in Valley Forge when he chose to inoculate his soldiers with Smallpox and saved thousands of lives of his troops. And yet, because of one now debunked study, there are parents and even doctors who by not fact checking their feelings and with no evidence will put countless lives of children in this country at risk this year, as the inoculation rate lowers to a point where eradicated risk returning. Take another example: support for Israel. Israel isn’t perfect: sometimes, when it comes to issues of religious pluralism, I get upset with Israel. But let me tell you something: I wake up every day, confident, and I have fact checked my feelings, knowing beyond a doubt that support for Israel 70 years after her founding is not only just, but that Israel’s very existence makes a safer, better world not only for Jews, but for everyone. But don’t go the U.N. and tell them that, because the U.N. is the very definition of one side being based in facts, and the other screaming its feelings at the top of lungs, having because of all sorts of biases, confused feelings with facts.
And so instead of creating a world of truth, which I promise you, we can do together this year, what has happened until now as a result of our inability to fact-check feelings is that what’s come into parlance in the phrase post-truth, which is really a synonym for lies. Because it has become so easy for people to believe that when you say anything convincingly that it must be a fact. Do you want to know how I know that? It’s because instead of doing the avodah, the hard work of looking at the facts, I googled “articles that say you can find anything online that confirms your beliefs,” and I found an article that agreed with me. I then went on twitter and facebook. And instead of listening to people I disagreed with to discern and distill truth, I found that my beliefs were immediately validated by people who feel just like me. Then, like 62% of American adults who get their news from social media, I spread what I perceived to be truth to everyone I know, because I got the truth I wanted to hear. Social media is not fact checking, it is “feeling checking,” and they are not the same. Case in point was this summer and the tragic events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. As we watched the horrible pictures online, nearly every rabbi received an email--I know because we discuss on “RAVNET”--with the following message: “Rabbi, we must be living in Germany in 1939.” Of course, the Images of Neo-Nazis were frightening; the rise in hate groups, disconcerting; the loss of life in Charlottesville, a tragedy. But once we were able to fact-check those feelings we realized, that we weren’t really living in Germany, were we? In Nazi Germany, hardly anyone came to the Jews’ defense. In America, this great country of ours, we took to the streets. As a synagogue we took East Cobb Park and 400 of us prayed publicly as proud Jews for the world to see. Recently, a retired colleague who was a successful pulpit rabbi for many years shared with me me a story about how easily, feelings, when not based in fact, manipulate the truth. Each year, he said, the same person would walk into the synagogue annual meeting, and say the same thing: “The entire temple is upset,” and because that person said it so convincingly, he would watch as everyone jumped through hoops. That is, until one day, not long before his retirement, having his revenge, he called that person out. He asked for names. Who was it, over all of those years, who had been so upset, and caused everyone to panic? Eventually, the person confessed that it had not been everyone in the synagogue, but that it was her Monday night mahjong group, some of whom weren’t members of the temple at all. The message being, that when our feelings pose as facts, and we don’t check them with actual facts, the truth suffers.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that “everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own set of facts.” Which is why my message, this Rosh Hashanah, is that on a day when we declare baruch dayan emet, that God is a judge rooted in truth, we must once again do the avodah, the work to determine what that truth is: and that starts with checking our feelings with facts. So that we no longer confuse the two. I want to take a look at our lives, our spouses, kids, families, and our synagogue community, and our world, And I want to ask ourselves: as the world polarizes us, what avodah, what work am I doing, to break that polarization? Feelings are unquestionably important. But if we lead with feelings, if we argue our views from unchecked feelings, instead of having an honest conversation, it becomes a game of who can scream the loudest that will only wedge our world further, and further apart.
And so I’d like to conclude, this morning, with one simple rule of thumb: And that is, when we choose to act, or talk, or make a decision in our lives, we must ask ourselves: is what we are doing do good, or does it feel good? When we strive to self-improve, do we make decisions that DO good, or like an impulsive lottery spender, will it only feel good? When we make a decision, like not vaccinating a child, are we considering the good it will do for our society, or do we just want to feel good about it? And when we work to ascertain the truth, and make our world better, do our actions do good for our world, or does it feel good, when in actuality we are doing nothing?
May we remember this year that not every speeding ticket or accident occurs because we are speeding on the road: but that sometimes, they also occur on the road of life, when we speed ahead, and we confuse our feelings with facts. Let us, through careful driving, make this year one where we go ticket free, both on the roads of Cobb County, and also in our lives.