The Truth About Inconvenience
Every year, people ask me when I decide what I am going to talk about for Rosh Hashanah. Well, I want to tell you I knew what I was going to talk about this year the day after Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because that was the day when I spoke to a perfectly able-bodied friend who told me that instead of going to shul, she had decided to watch the entire service from her television in her living room.
At first, I have to admit that when she told me, I was a bit surprised. But then she told me about all the perks. She began her morning by sleeping until 9, she didn’t have to come early, find a parking spot, show her ticket and save seats. She moved over to the couch in her pajamas, with no makeup. She brought a little nosh, and then DVR’d the service, so she could start the service whenever she wanted.
Of course, she told me, when she began the service she soon realized how much of the service she was used to missing when she showed up to shul at 10:30. Then, she complained that it felt like it was a rerun since she “thought” she had heard some of the prayers before. And then, when the service wasn’t moving fast enough, do you know what she did? She pushed the fast forward button. And then when she “thought” the rabbi’s sermon was getting too long, do you know what she did? There was the mute button. To which my wife Amy, never missing a beat, when I told her this story, said: “That sounds pretty good! Do you know where I can get a mute button for the rabbi?” We’ve ordered it: Amazon says: The new remote control should be at our house before Kol Nidre.
A few years ago, former Vice President Al Gore made news when he wrote a movie called an Inconvenient Truth. Well today...I want to flip his words around a bit, and speak about something else: And that is, the Truth about Inconvenience. The example of my friend on the couch may perhaps be the ultimate example of a Judaism of perfect convenience. But what my friend missed, what so many of us sometimes fail to understand is that the best things in life, the things that bring us the most meaning, are typically the things that test us, and are the hardest, most inconvenient for us to do. The best view I ever saw in the world was from the top of Yosemite Falls, but I only got to see it after spending six hours climbing to the top. The best sukkot celebrations I ever celebrated only happened when I committed to spending a few hours each year building a Sukkah. The most meaningful simchas I ever celebrated were those when we spent the money, got on the airplane, and cried in the arms of a surprised family member. We forget that even for Abraham, Mount Moriah wasn’t in his backyard! He had to walk three days through the desert to get to his final test: Akeidat Yitzchak, so that he and Sarah could become the ancestors of the Jewish people. That’s the power of inconvenience.
But as a society, we are increasingly beginning to make all sorts of assumptions about the value of inconvenience and convenience. Increasingly, we have come to assume that the more convenient something is, the better it must be. And if something is inconvenient, the worse it must be. We’ve forgotten the old adage that what comes easy won’t last long, and what lasts long doesn’t come easy. We’ve now officially crossed into a zone where we “empower our own inactivity.” We simply can’t be bothered to expend effort, to look at anything, let alone shop for something for more than 10 seconds: whether it’s for a remote control on Amazon, or whether it is even our soulmate, which we now conveniently find by swiping to the right or to the left on a cellphone. We now actively seek out the cheapest way and fastest way to get something done so long as we don’t have to inconvenience ourselves. “We’ve “forgotten what is right and replaced it by what is convenient.”
And what I want to know from everyone here is, at what point do we stand up as a society and say Dayenu, it’s enough with the hyper-convenience? At what point will we stand up and resist, and say that this constant search for the easiest, cheapest, most convenient road, isn’t always good for us? At what point do we acknowledge how damaging this attitude is to our spiritual selves, because the inconvenient truth is that Jewish choices--I hate to say it--aren’t convenient. They’re the ones that make us to get off the couch, and to make time and effort on behalf of ourselves and the people we care about?
Now, of course, before I continue with what I have to say today, I want to begin with this caveat: and that is, that normal levels of convenience, are good, necessary, and beneficial, for us to progress as a society. And I want to assure you that I am not only saying this because Amazon may yet come to Atlanta, and if my wife was a transformer her name would be Amazon Prime.
Yet I believe as we enter 5779, we must be honest with ourselves about how we have actively empowered our own inactivity. Our rabbis famously taught in Pirkei Avot that if you do not set aside fixed time to study Torah, that you will never make that time. Only now, that neglect is not only happening to Torah study, it’s happening everything else that is good for us too. Today, the simple act of nourishing ourselves has become inconvenient. Thirty years ago, the Washington Post reports, 75% of meals were cooked at home; now, it’s 50%: we are now eating out in restaurants as much as we eat at home. Food Network Shows, once cooking shows starring chefs with do it yourself at home recipes, have now nearly all become eating shows featuring restaurants: And poor Guy Fierri is clearly running out of ways he can say that the food is “the best thing he ever ate!” When I was in college, I will never forget calling my mother. “Mom” I asked, “how do I know when the water is boiling?” It was funny when I was 18 years old, but I wonder: how long will it be before we as a human race forget how to boil water all together? Today, the simple act of having a conversation with another person has also become inconvenient. We won’t God forbid pick up the phone or risk calling another person because all we really want to do is to leave a message on their voicemail saying we called. And so we send a text message. Today, the act of making our kids work, and help them develop character to live as successful adults has become too inconvenient. This past summer, Time Magazine did an expose on the number of teenagers taking summer jobs. In 1980, 58% of teens had summer jobs. In 2016, it’s 35%. Why this huge percentage drop? Could there no longer be employment? Not at all. It’s because according to one camp director: “Kids won’t work anymore...they want [and expect] everything to be done for them.” And we as parents give into them. That is the truth about how our attitudes about inconvenience are making our world worse.
And what perhaps worries me from where I stand, today on Rosh Hashanah, from this bimah, is that many of the same negative attitudes toward inconvenience that affect us in everyday things are also shortchanging us spiritually. Because living our lives in a state of Netflix induced lethargy on the couch is not how Judaism envisions living a meaningful life. Judaism prizes inconvenience. In fact, I would argue that the secret to Judaism’s success is the simple fact we go out of our way for other people: Only instead of calling it inconvenience we call it a mitzvah. I’ve always been struck by the fact that in hebrew, the word tahalich, the word for process, is the same root as the word holech, which means to go somewhere. Which reminds us that if you want to process, you have to be moving, and doing something inconvenient. As Jews, we don’t just bury our dead and walk away. We sit shiva and we say kaddish. And let me tell you that Shiva, having sat it myself for my mom, is the worst kind of inconvenience. The last thing you want to do when you have lost a loved one is having people eating you out of house and home. But as NY Times best selling author Joshua Liebman reminds us in his book Peace of Mind, is “[it is] essential to express, rather than to repress grief, to talk about one's loss with friends and companions; [it helps to] move [us] step by step from inactivity to activity again. Shiva and Kaddish are Judaism’s intuitive wisdom about human nature and its needs which our more sophisticated and liberal age has forgotten." I know that pulling our kids out of school, especially from our local public schools, when it is the Jewish holidays, is inconvenient. Our schools mistakenly and unhealthily incentivize our kids to not to miss school, and teachers don’t always understand why missing school on Rosh Hashanah should matter. But when we make the inconvenient choice, the Sandy Koufax/Hank Greenberg choice, we send a powerful message to our kids. We teach them that not all growth takes place on a school sports team or in a classroom, and we give them the space to grow spiritually. We can be proud as parents that we have guided them to understand them why Jewish choices, inconvenient choices, are the right choices. And if Sandy Koufax can miss the World Series, our kids should be able to miss an AP Class at Walton High School.
Alan Morinis once wrote that “the goal of living a Jewish spiritual life is not to reach an enlightened state in which all of life’s conundrums are unknoted with finality, but rather to become much more skilled at the processes of living.” This morning, I want to charge us to remember that becoming skilled in the process of living is all about how we spend our time inconveniencing ourselves and not about the time we spend sitting on the couch. Because the inconvenient truth about Judaism is that Judaism, let alone life, is not convenient, nor will it ever be convenient. And we should not and cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of living lives of cheap and easy substitutes, in place of choices that are right, meaningful and deep.
The Book of Life, my friends, will not be written by someone who was home sitting on the living room couch. It will be written by people who prepare meals for friends, and people who pick up the phone to call you after surgery to ask how you are doing. The Book of Life will be written when we come to synagogue on a morning when we’d rather sleep late, or when we fly 11 hours to Israel. The Book of Life will be written when we dedicate ourselves as a community, as we have begun to do, to finding ways to welcome people of all abilities into our congregation. It will be written by those who sit shiva and say kaddish, those who build sukkahs, those who climb mountains, and those who pull their kids out of school for holidays.
Because the truth about inconvenience my friends, is that inconvenience is not an obstacle. Nor is it something that with a few clicks of a mouse we can do away with. Inconvenience tests and strengthens us. It forces us to become better and moves us beyond who we are. Inconvenience is a spiritual practice of doing mitzvot that help challenge us to be skilled at the art of living.
This Rosh Hashanah, let’s resolve to get up from sitting on the couch and pledge to remember that what is easy won’t last long, and what lasts long will not come easy. Instead of a remote control, let’s take some actual, real control over our lives, and empower ourselves to be write the Book of Life for a wonderful year.