On May 8, 1951, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion of the nascent state of Israel visited President Harry Truman in the Oval Office, and presented him with a Menorah. At one point during the visit, Ben Gurion asked Truman, “Mr. President, tell me, how much does the average American earn in a year?”

Truman answered, “About $10,000.”

Ben Gurion continued, “And how much does he pay in taxes?”

Truman said, “About $5,000.”

“So what does he do with the extra $5,000?” Ben Gurion asked.

“Mr. Prime Minister, it’s a free country. We don’t ask.”

 

They continued to be photographed by reporters, and after a few moments, Truman turned to Ben Gurion and asked him, “Mr. Prime Minister, out of curiosity, how much does the average Israeli earn in a year?”

“About $5,000,” answered Ben Gurion.

“And how much does he pay in taxes?” asked Truman.

“About $10,000.”

“So where does he come up with the extra $5,000?”

“Mr. President, it’s a free country. We don’t ask.”

 

It’s an old joke that Israelis are perpetually overdrawn.  Yet we all know that at this moment, it is we in this country who are discovering just how much we owe. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, the Dow Industrials down nearly 2000 points in the last two months, $1 trillion in various bailout expenses. 

And that’s just to get started. 

According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation,

America and too many Americans have become addicted to debt. Every American is now burdened, most of them unknowingly, with more than $175,000 in federal liabilities and unfunded government promises.” 

And that’s before we even talk about auto loans, home mortgages, credit card debt, and college loans.

“Where do they come up with the extra money?” It’s a free country. Don’t ask. 

But my friends, it’s time to ask. What do we owe? And how will we pay it back?

 

On this Yom Kippur as perhaps on no other in the lifetime of most of the people in this room, it feels as if we are at a moment of reckoning, a moment when it is not only our spiritual life, but our financial life, that demands an accounting.

Now I am a rabbi, not a political leader or a professor of economics. So I do not have the grand solutions. But I do think that these enormous problems have their roots in some very basic issues, the most fundamental of which is this: We have failed to recognize each other. We have failed to recognize that we share the world with other people created in the image of God.

Chatanu, avinu, pashanu: We have sinned, we have erred, we have done wrong.

When I say we have failed to recognize each other, I mean that we have failed to recognize that we are born into debt. We are born owing others. We owe our parents, who fed us and clothed us, who changed our diapers and held us when we woke up from a bad dream. We owe our teachers, who sparked our curiosity, urged on our discovery, believed in us and challenged us and inspired us to be more. We owe our friends, who brought laughter to our lives and cheer to our hearts, who celebrated with us when times were good and consoled us when they were bad. We owe our neighbors. We owe our grandparents. We owe our sanitation workers, our policemen, our firefighters and our emergency workers. We owe our rabbis and our cantors, our social workers and our healers. We owe our soldiers. We owe our community organizers.

And we owe our children. Yes, we owe our children. We are born owing not just the images of God who came before us, and not just the images of God who raise us and teach us and provide for us. No, from the moment we are born we owe the images of God yet to be created. We owe those who will succeed us. We owe our children.

In the Torah portion of Nitzavim, which was read in synagogues not two weeks ago, Moses says to the people of Israel:

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your spouses, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God… as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant… not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut. 29:9-15)

We are born into a Covenant, a sacred promise, a bond. Even before we were created, we were a part of that bond. Even before we were created, we had a debt to repay. And once we are created, others will be born on our account. They will have our ledger to reckon with. And my friends, we are leaving behind a seriously screwed up balance of accounts.

What we are witnessing today ultimately boils down to our failure to recognize the bonds that unite us. If we had recognized, truly recognized, the other people with whom we share our streets and towns, our nation and our world, we would have lived within our means. Instead, we have been greedy.

If we had recognized our fellow travelers on this planet as images of God, we would not have allowed the poor to continue to suffer as so many of us saw our incomes and retirement accounts grow with double-digit returns.  Instead, we have exploited the weak and the poor.

If we had recognized the sacred bond that unites us with those yet to be born, we would have spent only on things we could afford, and only taken on debt that we could repay. Instead, we have robbed our children and grandchildren. 

Chatanu, avinu, pashanu: We have sinned, we have erred, we have done wrong. We have been blind. We have failed to see. We have failed to recognize.

 

But all is not lost. Today is Yom Kippur. Today God gives us the miraculous opportunity to recognize what we have wrought, and to begin to repair it.

So how do we do better this year?

The first step is recognition. As the saying goes, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Today—not tomorrow, not a week from now, but today—we must examine our lives and ask, what do we do in our daily lives that keeps us from recognizing the image of God in our fellow human beings? I’m not just talking about giving money to a food pantry or calling the White House to protest the continuing genocide in Darfur, though those things are important.

Instead I’m talking about the little things in our lives, the little daily things, like knowing our neighbors and writing thank-you notes. I’m talking about helping clear the table when we’re a guest at dinner, and picking up our parents at the airport. I’m talking about throwing away a piece of litter that we see on the street, and using a reusable mug instead of a disposable cup when we go out for coffee.  I’m talking about holding the door for someone else to pass through, and saying a bracha, a blessing, before we take a bite of food.

I’m talking about improving our habits. 

 

There is one habit in particular that is so symbolic of our age and that—oh, hold on, excuse me. My phone is vibrating. I have to take this. Just a sec.

As I was saying, there is one habit that is so symbolic of our age, and that I think both symbolizes and contributes to our weakening capacity for recognition. And that habit is how we use our cell phones.

Now there is a beauty in the cell phone, of course. It enables us to be in more places at once. We can stay in touch with family and friends. The people who care about us can reach us at all hours of the day or night. They can text us and they can call us virtually anywhere, whether we’re walking or driving or the engineer on a train, or giving a sermon.

Yet those beautiful things are a double-edged sword. Because if we’re in two places at once—if we’re talking to a friend and texting with another one at the same time—we’re not fully in either place. We’re not fully present. And if we’re not fully present, we’re not fully recognizing the person we’re with. And if we’re not fully recognizing the person we’re with, we wind up missing things. In a conversation, we miss details, because we’re not fully listening. If we’re driving, we miss the cars on the road, because we’re not fully watching.  And if we’re the engineer on the train, we miss the signal that tells us to slow down, because we’re looking at our phone instead of at the track ahead. And people die. 

We tell ourselves that we can handle being in all these places at once. And maybe some of us can. But one of the limitations of being human is that while we can be partially present in multiple places simultaneously, we can only be fully present with one person at a time. We can see lots of people at once, but we can recognize only one person at a time.

My friends, the pace of our world has become so fast that we can fly across oceans in a matter of hours, and be talking and texting and instant messaging and g-chatting and facebooking and emailing with hundreds of others en route. But here’s the news: Activism doesn’t happen on your Facebook profile. Caring doesn’t happen in an email. Community doesn’t happen in a text message.

In his classic book Bowling Alonethe political scientist Robert Putnam observed that as we have built backyards instead of front porches, as we have become ever more focused on career and nuclear families over community and civic life, our habits of communal living have disintegrated. I would add that as we have created more and more technological advances that make us the centers of our own universes; as we have made instant gratification widely achievable through overnight delivery from Amazon.com or downloading movies from itunes; as we have prided self-expression and freedom over mutual responsibility and commitment, we have sown the seeds of the crisis in which we find ourselves.

We have become more selfish, and our society has become unwoven. We have stopped practicing the habits of recognition, the habits that make life not just good for me, but good for us. We have forgotten what it means to live in a community. We have forgotten what it means to be fully present for another. We have forgotten what it means to mentor a younger colleague. We have forgotten what it means to be an image of God, and we have forgotten how to recognize that image in others.

Yet performing that recognition is the aim and mission of the Jewish tradition. At the very beginning of our Torah, in the first acts of the Creation of the world, God’s actions serve as a model for our own. “And God saw the light, that it was good.” God took the time to look. God took the time to see and behold the thing that had just been created. And God did this again and again, looking and seeing and beholding and appreciating, until finally, at the end of the sixth day, “God saw all that He had made, that it was very good.” And then God rested. God stopped doing work, and God recognized all that He had done. God saw His creations, and God appreciated them.

We are images of God. We are meant to walk in God’s ways, to practice God’s habits. As images of God we too work and create and invent for six days. As images of God, at the end of each of those days, we too look and we recognize and we appreciate what we have done. As images of God we too pause at the end of six days, and recognize and appreciate and behold the very good things we have accomplished, the things we have created and the lives we have improved. And as images of God, we too rest on Shabbat. We unplug. We engage. We recognize the godliness in ourselves and the godliness in our fellow human beings.

So this year, on this Yom Kippur, let’s do teshuva. For the economics professors and the political leaders and the financiers in the room, I’ll leave the leadership of the economic crisis to you. But for the rest of us, let’s make this year a year of better habits. Let’s make this a year of greater restraint, a year of meaningful sacrifice. Let’s make this a year of more meaningful workweeks and more restful Shabbatot. Let’s make this a year of recognition, of looking and seeing and beholding the fulness of the image of God in our friends and neighbors and fellow human beings. Let’s make this a year when we are mindful of our financial and our moral debts, to those dead and alive and yet to be born. 

Gemar chatima tova, may we all be sealed in the book of life today.

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