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"When is good enough?" - Rosh Hashanah  5778 - Rabbi Celia Surget

“As people have contact with items of high quality, they begin to suffer from “the curse of discernment.” The lower quality items that used to be perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough. The hedonic zero point keeps rising, and expectations and aspirations rise with it. As a result, the rising quality of experience is met with rising expectations, and people are just running in place. As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won’t feel better about how they live”. [Barry Schwartz Andrew Ward, Doing Better but Feeling Worse: the paradox of choice]

In a 2015 article in the Atlantic paper, the journalist Olga Khazan focused on this notion of “good enough”, of our inability as a society to recognise “good enough” as a completely acceptable standard and measure of an accomplishment, rather than a diminutive or pejorative statement of appreciation. Basing herself on some of the research by the psychologist Barry Schwartz, she reminds us that there are a number of things in our evolving society than can hamper our quality of life. One of them is FOMO, which for those who don’t speak “a more contemporary version of English” means- the fear of missing out, which has been heightened by the rise of social media. Another one is the “choice overload” which makes us question our decisions, set our expectations too high, and blame ourselves for our mistakes.

And before you think- oh this is another sermon about quality of life, appreciating what we have…, I promise you, it is not. But it is about semantics, and the language we use to define our lives.

When I read Olga Khazan’s article and some of the research around it, the following Chasidic tale popped into my head:

A poor man lived with his wife and six children in a very small one-room house. They were always getting in each other's way and there was so little space they could hardly breathe!

Finally the man could stand it no more. He talked to his wife and asked her what to do. "Go see the rabbi," she told him, and after arguing a while, he went.

The rabbi greeted him and said, "I see something is troubling you. Whatever it is, you can tell me."

And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with him, his wife, and the six children all eating and living and sleeping in one room. The poor man told the rabbi, "We're even starting to yell and fight with each other. Life couldn't be worse."

The rabbi thought very deeply about the poor man's problem. Then he said, "Do exactly as I tell you and things will get better. Do you promise?"

"I promise," the poor man said.

The rabbi then asked the poor man a strange question. "Do you own any animals?"

"Yes," he said. "I have one cow, one goat, and some chickens."

"Good," the rabbi said. "When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you."

The poor man was astonished to hear this advice from the rabbi, but he had promised to do exactly what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house.

The next day the poor man ran back to see the rabbi. "What have you done to me, Rabbi?" he cried. "It's awful. I did what you told me and the animals are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!"

The rabbi listened and said calmly, "Now go home and take the chickens back outside."

The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back again the next day. "The chickens are gone, but Rabbi, the goat!" he moaned. "The goat is smashing up all the furniture and eating everything in sight!"

The good rabbi said, "Go home and remove the goat and may God bless you."

So the poor man went home and took the goat outside. But he ran back again to see the rabbi, crying and wailing. "What a nightmare you have brought to my house, Rabbi! With the cow it's like living in a stable! Can human beings live with an animal like this?"

The rabbi said sweetly, "My friend, you are right. May God bless you. Go home now and take the cow out of your house." And the poor man went quickly home and took the cow out of the house.

The next day he came running back to the rabbi again. "O Rabbi," he said with a big smile on his face, "we have such a good life now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and we've got room to spare! What a joy!"

It is not a deep, challenging story- it is rather simple, and its conclusion could not be more obvious. And it is also a deeply concerning one. The rabbi in the story never seems to concern himself with the conditions in which the family lives, but rather seems more concerned with teaching the poor man a lesson in embracing his life, however miserable it might be, at the expense of supporting him in enhancing his life and improving the quality of his dwelling for his sake and for the sake of his family. This rather challenging attitude forces the question “when is good enough”. How do we draw the line and embrace the idea of good, good enough or enough as an appreciation of our lives, as an appreciation of our accomplishments, as a measure to our successes? We seem to bypass these qualitative words in favour of those reflecting perfection.

And yet, as we begin our journey through the next ten days, with this service, and the call of the shofar, with the confessions of sins on Yom Kippur and the admissions of our imperfections, it is time to realise that the language of perfection does not feature in the machzor. Rather we are constantly challenged and pushed to reflect on ourselves, on our actions, our accomplishments, with the overarching reminder that we are but humans, and that what is expected of us is a behaviour that allows and enables us and those around us to live meaningful and fulfilled lives. That should not be an obstacle to a quest of improvement and betterment, but a point from which we can start. We will each answer the question of “when is good enough” differently, as we measure our own lives, and move through the days of awe.

Rabbi Alan Cook wrote the following prayer in preparation for 5778, which felt like an appropriate conclusion. He embraces the present all the while looking ahead and setting new standards by which to measure successes and setting challenges to ensure that we not remain content with the status quo.

Here’s to a new year!

Here’s to babies being born, first days of school, lost teeth, new jobs, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings—to all of life’s joys, and those who share them with us.

Here’s to broken hearts, cancelled plans, illnesses, sad farewells, funerals that celebrate lives well-lived—and to all who hold us up and support us in difficult moments.

Here’s to community, and recognizing that treasured friendships can be forged among those who differ from you in height, in weight, in age, in gender, in colour, in income, in race, in faith. Here’s to looking in another’s eyes and seeing all the way through to their heart.

Here’s to recognizing that love is love is love is love. Here’s to seeing that the validity of one person’s grievances in no way diminishes the validity of your grievances.

Here’s to those who daily emulate God by lifting up the fallen, healing the sick, redeeming the captive, feeding the hungry, comforting those who are in pain.

Here’s to laughter through tears, tears through laughter, and the freedom to let our emotions flow forth uninhibitedly.

Here’s to having all of our senses open to the beauty of the world around us, and here’s to the realization that one of the most wondrous elements of God’s creation can be experienced just by looking in the mirror.

Here’s to embracing passion and activism about the things that really matter.

Here’s to learning how not to sweat the things that don’t.

Here’s to believing with all our hearts that the world can be better, that the messianic age is on the horizon. And here’s to doing our utmost to make sure that day gets here pretty darn soon.

Here’s to beauty. Here’s to compassion. Here’s to love. Here’s to sweetness.

Here’s to 5778. May this New Year bless us all.


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781