This is a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –
A couple of Friday nights ago Rabbi Saroken spoke about an article she had read about the Uber rating system. As you probably know, Uber is essentially a remake of the taxi idea for the internet age, and if you want to use the service you install an app on your phone, and when you want a ride you activate the app, and it will match you and your location to the closest drivers.
I don’t use Uber often, but in late August Becky and I and Talia and Josh and Merav spent 5 days in San Francisco, and what we couldn’t walk to, we ‘ubered’ to. The service is convenient, it works well, and the prices are reasonable. But the odd thing about it, at least in my eyes, is its rating system. As soon as you step out of your Uber your phone dings, and it wants you to rate the driver based on a 5 star system: were they on time, were they polite, were they helpful, did they drive safely.
At the very same time that you are rating the driver, the driver is also rating you. Your rating – the passenger rating – is based on things like were you nice to the driver, did he have to wait for you for a long time, did you sit in the front seat or the back seat, and I imagine also did you tip well. The bottom line is that every Uber interaction concludes with a judgement – the passenger judging the driver, the driver judging the passenger, all based on a 5 star scale.
In my mind there is something very High Holy Day – esque in that Uber judgement moment. One of the primary metaphors that we use to help us think about our lives and about our relationship with God during RH and YK is an image of judgement and being judged. That imagery fills the Mahzor, but is best known from the Unetane Tokef prayer. In that prayer it is יום הדין, the Day of Judgement. God is the Judge – אמת כי אתה הוא דיין says the text – in truth, You are the Judge! And we are the flock of sheep, passing beneath God’s staff one by one, as God reads the record of our deeds from the year, JUDGES us, and תכתוב את גזר דינם – and writes down our verdict.
And I can’t help but wonder, after my Uber experience, if God has some kind of app on a Heavenly smart phone, where the rating system that God uses to judge our lives, like all of the internet rating systems, is based on 5 stars. And that God reads our profiles – which is the new form of the ancient book where we once wrote our deeds – and then God judges us by clicking on one of the stars on the screen – 4, or maybe 5 if we’ve had a really good year. God forbid anyone in this room would get a lower rating than that!
If that idea makes you uncomfortable, I expect you are part of the majority in the room today. Why? Because we don’t want God to judge us the way we all too often judge each other, and even ourselves, based on a FB profile using a 5 star system like an Uber passenger after a 15 minute car ride. We want to believe that God’s judgement has depth, that God knows us in a more profound way, maybe in a way that we don’t even know ourselves.
I would submit to you that that is indeed the case, that God does judge us differently than we judge ourselves, or others. I had a strange experience this past summer. Almost on a lark I decided to shave off my beard. I’ve worn a beard now for 25 years, and although I’ve shaved once or twice during that stretch, it had been many years since I was clean shaven. When I stepped out of the bathroom that morning Becky looked at me, paused for a moment, sort of shook her head, and said one thing: grow it back!
But the strange experience was when I looked in the mirror and a clean shaven Steve Schwartz was staring back at me. I almost didn’t recognize myself. And I realized how difficult it is, this task that God sets before us during the High Holy Days – which is to peel away all of the externals and to look for the inner core of who we truly are. Because that is what we should be judging, in ourselves and others! To at least for 10 days of the year forget about, the clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material things that we all too often use to define our lives. I never presume to know what God thinks or wants, but I am pretty sure that God doesn’t care if I have a beard or not. Or what suit I wore today, or what car I will drive home in.
But I do believe that God cares about the meditations of my heart – about what I think and feel and love. About my morals and values. Those are the things that form the core of who we are, and those are the things that Yom Tov is about. There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel: “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.” It is that heart that we should strive to see at this time of year, both in ourselves and in those around us.
Yesterday morning we read for the haftara the story of Hannah. On many levels it is a narrative about misjudgment, about looking at someone and not seeing who they truly are. Hannah is misjudged first by her husband who can’t understand where her deep sadness comes from, and then later by the priest Eli who at least initially too quickly passes judgement on her, thinking that she is drunk when in fact she is devoutly praying. It is only later, when she confronts him, and they have a face to face conversation, that he is able to see underneath the surface, and to gain some understanding in terms of who she really is and what troubles her soul.
Of course we all do it that. We judge too quickly, or we misjudge, or both. It is much easier to look at the surface, rather than spend the time or expend the energy needed to understand the heart.
There is a bank teller at the bank Becky and I use, and when I stand in line I always hope she will not be the person to help me. She is unpleasant, even a bit surly. She rarely if ever smiles. When I say hello to her, or try to make a bit of chit chat she does not respond. And she never looks me in the eye. And I figured – I am a pretty good judge of people. Here is an angry woman, unhappy in her job, with an attitude frankly that I could do without.
A few Thursdays ago I had to go to the bank and sure enough, my luck, I got that teller. She was as unfriendly as ever, and I finished my business as quickly as possible, glad to be away from her presence.
That evening I had to run to Home Depot to pick something up. After grabbing what I needed I went to the register and handed the light bulbs or whatever it was to the cashier, and looked up at her for a moment. And I was stunned to see, staring back at me, the very same woman who had helped me in the bank that afternoon.
And suddenly I saw that woman in a new way. I now knew that she ran from her job at the bank at the end of a long day, and went to work a second job at Home Depot. That she was weary beyond what I could understand, and probably worried about supporting a family in a way I never would have imagined. I had misjudged her in the worst possible way, seeing her for what she was on the surface, when there was a whole different reality to her life.
And I wondered, as I walked back to my car, how many other people I’ve misjudged in the course of this year. That I thought they were fine when in fact they needed my help. Or my impression of them was that they were nasty, when the reality was they were in pain and terribly sad. Or that I grew impatient with someone, when all they were trying to do was to give me a helping hand. We all do it. We misjudge people we barely know at all, and we also do it to people we know well and love, the people with whom we share our lives.
That is precisely why we need the image of God as Judge from the Mahzor. Where we all too often rush to judgement, God is timeless and eternal. Where our tendency is to see what is on the surface and to stop there, God looks straight at the human heart and to the depths of our souls. We judge others based on what we see in them at a given moment in time, but God’s judgement is based on who we might be, on our potential to grow and change for the better.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present us with that model of God’s judgement, inviting us to growth and insight, and to a greater appreciation for the ideal person residing within ourselves and others. So that we can hopefully see the challenges and the humanity within our own lives and the loves of those we love. We imagine that God’s judgement of each of us is honest and perceptive and generous. I pray that we find the heart, the love and the courage to do the same, for ourselves, and for every person we encounter as this new year unfolds.