I Didn't Get Here Alone

The Jewish New Year is upon us. As I write this we have just concluded Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those unfamiliar with this most sacred Jewish holy day, it is the annual day when we reflect on how we performed character-wise in the last year, considering those things which we could have done better and when we make a solemn promise to ourself, our God, our community and those close to us, that we will take real steps to be better people in the year that comes. With each passing year I realize that no matter how many strides I have made in recent years to become the best version of myself I have ever been, there is still a long way to go. The lyrics to a Dwight Yoakam song act as a succinct reminder of the way most of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, should feel upon such self-reflection:

I’ve got a long way to go before I get there
I’ve got a lot of field to hoe, the sun is so high
I’ve got a lot of miles to row
And the next few only show
That there’s still such a long way to go

It is an important reminder that I must always keep striving for a perfection of character I will surely never reach. I can always be better. This is not the same thing as the dog chasing his tail. Even if we never get to the end of the road, with each fresh step we make our lives and the lives of those around us infinitely better.

Another important reminder of this concept came in an unusual form.Rather than attend my own synagogue for Yom Kippur, I had the pleasure of attending the services at the synagogue of a Rabbi who is a friend of mine. This would turn out to be perhaps the most significant High Holiday service I have ever attended. My friend gave my son and I the honour of reading the sermon- a sermon written some 40 or 50 years ago by the late Rabbi Monson, one of the most renowned North American rabbis of the 20th century. The sermon related several stories which were an allegorical lesson of how most people focus their admiration on a person they deem to be “successful”, all the while forgetting that said person would not be successful were it not for a person or people sacrificing behind the scenes, toiling often in penury and obscurity to propel the wealth and fame of someone else. It was a reminder to any of us who have tasted career and financial success not to forget those who sacrificed to help us succeed.

It is very easy for those of us blessed to have a fortunate career, to receive the praise and the big pay cheque, to be the boss and make the rules, and to have people to do our bidding, to think it’s somehow deserved because we are entirely self-made. We forget that we didn’t do it alone. I always try to remember this, but the sermon drove home the point especially poignantly.

I grew up in a family that lacked formal education and would be considered lower middle class, yet went on to become highly educated and develop a successful law practice that provided me a level of status and income before the age of 30 age that most people never achieve. I then had a fall from grace, mired in a cycle of addiction and depression in my late 30s, and at the same time went through divorce and financial collapse. As a young lawyer I had a brashness and arrogance at being a rising star, all self-made in my own mind. These days, having clawed my way back to and beyond my wildest professional dreams, I often feel a certain smugness, having triumphed over such adversity that would have kept a lesser man down to the mat for good.The sermon was a stark reminder that no matter how much ambition I had, no matter how smart I was, how hard I worked, how well I networked, none of my career success to date or in the future would be possible without parents who worked night and day and did without all the while raising me with the right values; without mentors who gave freely of their own time and attached their good names to me for my benefit exclusively; without dedicated staff working long hours for relatively (by comparison to my take) little pay and who tamp down their own ego and ambition to make sure I look good and come out on top; without friends who helped in innumerable ways, often at risk to their money or reputations, to give me a hand up. I know all of this intuitively, but it is important to be reminded.

So I write this article not just as such  a reminder to myself, and a thank you to the unnamed people referenced above (they know who they are), but to anyone reading this who has the good fortune to be successful in their business or profession. Human beings have a natural tendency to believe their own press. There is a perception, often not entirely wrong, that people who have achieved success resonate a certain arrogance or sense of self-entitlement. We must remember that to do so is an insult to all those people behind the scenes without whom we would have no success at all.  Those of us with any sort of profile in our profession, our community, our social circle, must lead by example to ensure in their milieu the concept of Tikkun Olam (leaving the world a better place than we found it). And we must ensure that every individual with whom we have contact is treated with dignity and respect. Money, fame, status, does not make one individual better than another. Perhaps with a bigger house or nicer car. But not better. So if you are at the top of the mountain looking down, you must never forget that you didn’t get there alone. And if you’re admiring the king of the jungle, don’t forget that there’s a queen or prince who helped to crown him.

Atheism v Religion: A Parent's Perspective

My oldest son is almost 15. Last year when we were on a tour of Israel’s holiest sites with a group led by our Rabbi, my boy- a fiercely proud Zionist who wears a Hebrew Hammer-sized Star of David around his neck, has attended Hebrew School since he was two and a half, celebrated the Sabbath regularly in both his mom’s house and mine, and has participated in leading Saturday morning services at our synagogue- announced that he was an atheist. Upon further thought he modified his statement to “an agnostic leaning toward atheism”. This realization, which he came to at the age of 11 and voiced to me seriously for the first time when he was 13, prompted him to ask what I thought was a fairly deep question for a young teenager: Can I be both an atheist and a practising Jew? More recently, as we prepare for the upcoming Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, he asked if he still had to attend synagogue with his siblings and I since he does not “believe in praying to God”. My answer to both of his questions was “Yes”. I am quite satisfied with the rationale I laid out for him to support my affirmative answers to his questions and I have decided to share my reasoning here. However, since my answers would apply equally if we were of a non-Jewish faith I will substitute in the first question reference to any or all religions for the words “practising Jew”. To the second question, I will refer to other houses of worship as opposed to solely the synagogue. Further, although the terms atheist and agnostic are not the same, I consider the discussion equally relevant to anyone on the agnostic-atheist continuum. And before my devoutly atheist friends jump on any of my points, this is not a column debating the merits of religion versus atheism, but rather an attempt to reconcile the involvement of religion in one’s life even if that person is dogmatic in their atheism.

The practise of one’s religious faith, while typically thought of as containing as its overriding tenet a belief in God or a supreme deity, does not necessarily have to contain that component. There are a great many benefits to being active in one’s church, mosque, synagogue, temple, or other religious community that simply put, do not require as a condition precedent the belief in an almighty. Studies show that teenagers active in religious youth organizations through their church, synagogue, or temple perform better in school. People who are active in their church are less likely to commit crime, more likely to help their neighbours and  to volunteer for community service. Other studies show that people who attend worship services regularly rate their level of happiness higher than those who do not belong to a religious structure. Further, the benefits of being part of a like minded religious community are particularly felt during life cycle events such as birth, death, marriage, divorce, as well as significant milestones in our children’s lives. This is to mention nothing about the sense of belonging to a community of people of like values who care about one another. Or of the intimate friendships, business relationships and romantic partnerships that arise through the social interactions which occur as a result of one’s involvement in a religious community.

While my son does not accept the literal teachings of the Hebrew Bible that he has studied in Sunday school lo these many years, he has very clearly grown into a fine, well behaved young man who is tolerant and understanding. He tries to live a “Jewish life”, meaning an existence based on certain moral and ethical paradigms and a desire to not only succeed but to help others. In an era when we are inundated with materialism, consumerism, celebrity obsession and a culture of entitlement, it is often only through religion that our children develop a sense that there is a vastness to the universe and that said universe does not revolve around them. It is through religion that they are instilled with values that involve making the community richer for all.

It is almost trite to say religion provides a moral compass by which to live our lives. And I concede it can be argued that morality does not necessarily need to come from religion. We all know very decent atheists who adhere to a strict moral code and live to serve. Conversely, we can all think of individuals whose conduct runs contrary to their religious posture.  But the exceptions would seem to prove the rule. It is simply easier for communally beneficial values and morality to take hold early in life, and remain dear to us as we age, when we are not trying to figure it out on our own. Much better to develop as a member of a larger community with supportive friends, teachers and role models to help guide us.

My son has accepted my assertions as above and feels perfectly confident continuing to live and practise culturally, and (at least tangentially) religiously as a Jew, but still wants to know why he has to attend synagogue. He argues in his defence that he finds it difficult to pray to a God he does not believe in, but goes on to point out if he did chose to pray he could just as easily do so at home. Which leads us to the second question he posed.

I took this opportunity to ask him to consider that if he went through the liturgy and took out the references to God, what would be left? How about a series of affirmations, meditations, and reflections about being thankful for what he has; remembering not to take his health, material objects, happiness, friends or family for granted;  a sense of the vastness of the world; an introspective look at his dreams, joys, fears, and regrets; a reminder to try every day to live a better life by being a better person. It is one of the few times, if not the only time in our perma-wired society, that he will be away from his smartphone, detached from his ipod, disconnected from his computer and unplugged from all technology. It is only during synagogue services that he is in a place where there are  none of these outside distractions. It is only in this instance, I reminded him, that he can truly engage in even a brief period of genuine, deep and profound self-reflection. Those moments, even absent a belief in God, will serve to make him a better person.

So to my son I say: I am proud of you for being able to think for yourself, for your pride in your heritage, for your courage to ask difficult questions, for your desire to figure out the difficult answers; and for living a Jewish life. I have no issue with you being an atheist and no intention to change your mind. But for all the reasons discussed above, you still have to go to synagogue next week.