Resume virtues or Eulogy virtues?

Rabbi Arturo Kalfus

Goldstein and Cohen were friends and business competitors.

Goldstein, after much delay, finally gave in and agreed to go on a camping trip with Cohen. At the end of the first day, exhausted, they set up camp, ready for a night under the stars. At that very moment, they hear a growl coming from the woods, the leaves rustle, and not more than ten feet away, they see the outline of a very big, very angry and very scary black bear.

Without missing a beat, Goldstein reaches over, grabs his sneakers and starts lacing them up. Cohen sees what his friend is up to and whispers, “Goldstein! What are you doing? You can’t possibly outrun the bear”. Goldstein turns to his companion and says, “Cohen, I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you!”

We are often taught that in order to get ahead in life, we need to be strong and when necessary, we need to step on someone else in order to climb to the top of the achievement ladder. Goldstein, did not think twice. What was instinctive in him was to find a way to survive without thinking about others.

How did we get to this situation where achievements trump values?

In fact, it starts quite early. One author describes that if you go to the elementary schools around Washington DC, you will see, what he calls the Uber-moms. These are successful career women who decided to take time off to make sure all their kids get into Harvard. And you can usually tell the Uber-moms because they actually weigh less than their own children.

These children are drilled daily on how to prepare to pass the most difficult test to get into their desired kindergartens, which lead into desirable elementary and later high schools which feed into the IVY Leagues. And these are the kids who turn into the workaholics of America. This is a culture devoted to win almost at any price. It is the culture of Goldstein who steps over Cohen, saving himself and letting his friend behind with no compulsion.

It is a culture of high achievers with token values. Everything they do is preparing them to develop new skills.

I will never forget the time I told a friend of mine about our children going to their regional Reform Jewish camp where they were developing life-long friendships and strengthening their Jewish identity, by learning and living by good values. He looked at me as if I was mad. His children were going to a camp in which they could develop marketable skills, because there is no time to waste!  There is computer camp, math camp, college camp, you get the idea. For him, Jewish summer camp was a waste of time. For me, it was such an important experience in teaching core values and I am so glad that our kids had that life experience for all their formative years. My friend was only interested in marketable skills. I was interested in character formation.

What do we do when there is so much competitive pressure to spend more time, energy and attention toward success, and we spend less time and energy to develop good character?

78% of high school students report that they cheat. They believe that achieving that good grade is more important than actually learning! We teach more and more to develop talents. We are attracted to those who are famous even as we hear about scandals among political leaders, sports figures, business leaders and even religious ones. We live in a culture defined by our external abilities and material achievements. We are always busy, maneuvering our daily life and cutting the ethical corners to get ahead.

For our children, character has been sacrificed on the altar of college acceptance. We seem to be only concerned about the GPA’s while the souls of our youngsters are being lost.

Where has character gone? Why do we often feel that we are smaller than what we ought to be?

The Greek philosophers were also concerned with success but they measured it quite differently. For them, success was measured by the quality of your character. According to Aristotle, character is the product of good habits. Good habits create virtue. And virtue forms good character.

To have character, to be a Mentch, is what Judaism is all about. Rabbi Hillel summarized all the Torah saying: “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you”. In our Torah, good behavior and ethical living through our Mitzvot, leads to being in tune to what God wants from us. And God wants from us to achieve a life of holiness. Inspire a child to get into the habit of putting coins into a Tzedakah box and she will develop good character.

Have the courage to come to a Yom Kippur service to listen and reflect about our weaknesses with the view of improving in the upcoming year, that is one step to strengthen our character. “Al Chet she chatanu lefaneicha, for the sin we have committed before You by, gossiping, by empty promises, by refusing to compromise, by avarice and greed…” These prayers encourage us to develop better habits that lead us into having good character.

I would like to think that Yom Kippur is not about showing up at Temple to make appearances and think about the break-fast. Yom Kippur is about confronting God, almost in a manner of speech, naked. Without pretense, without our protective societal shield we build around ourselves. Here we are, with all our faults asking for forgiveness, so we will have a better opportunity to develop our character.

A traditional teaching says: “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are”.

Over this past summer I read an incredible book that inspired me to think and address this issue with you today. The name of the book: “The Road to Character” by David Brooks.

In it, Brooks distinguishes between, what he calls, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.

The resume virtues are the ones you list on a resume, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the virtues that are spoken about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being- whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

It is paradoxical that while we would all agree that the eulogy virtues are the most important, we pay significantly less attention to them.

In Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s book “The Lonely Man of Faith” he notes that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis and he argues that they represent two opposing sides of the human being which he called Adam I and Adam II. These two Adam’s resemble the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues that I just described. These two sides are in tension with each other.

Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, resume oriented Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.

Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to develop a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in sink to some transcendent truth.

Adam I savors his own accomplishments. Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose.

Adam I lives by the utilitarian logic of economics. Input leads to output, effort leads to reward. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility.

Adam II has a moral logic. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself.  To nurture Adam II, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.

Adam I can live in moral mediocrity. But Adam II aspires to have a much better character and to live a life of significance.

So on this Yom Kippur, do you want to live a life conflict-free, a life of tranquility, or are you ready to step up and develop your eulogy virtues while we are still alive? To develop your Adam II or your eulogy virtues, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses and be ready to struggle to overcome them. Today, I hope, you will choose well!!

I want to share with you a moving example of the eulogy virtues we wish, we all had, while we are still alive.

Recently, our Temple members John and Gilda Jacobs lost one of their beloved daughters Rachel in a train crash. With their permission, I want to share just a few pieces of the eulogy for Rachel Jacobs. At a young age, Rachel Jacobs was an example of a life well lived, a life of character.

“Rachel, in your short life, you were beloved on the earth. Your impact has been felt from your early years of childhood, until your tragic death. Indeed: You got what you wanted from this life: To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on earth. Todd, Rachel’s husband said: I challenge all of you to make the same commitment to your life partner. It made every second I had with her worth it, leaving me no regrets about our lives together. We had lived life passionately and with purpose”.

A friend said: “It is amazing how we are all interconnected, and how one life can touch so many others. I know, I am a better person having known Rachel. She’ll be missed by so many! Rachel was brilliant, witty, alluring, honest and intimidatingly smart all while somehow also being incredibly, almost impossibly kind and giving. She was curious and daring, travelled the globe, and went even farther in her limitless ever questing soul.”

“You will have to remember Rachel’s core values: You have to live within a loving community, you have to continue to be present in people’s lives. You have to remind yourselves often that you continue to care for others. You have to live differently, more engaged, more committed”.

Perhaps her father John said it best: The world has lost a truly exceptional person.  The world has lost an unbelievable light!

This is a life lived with character, with depth, with meaning.

We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I, and often neglects Adam II. You’re not earning the eulogy you want. You may not have enough depth of conviction. You may not have enough commitment to tasks that can lift your spirit and mend this world.

When we die, what would you like your eulogy to be about? Not many will remember your resume virtues. Let’s take the example of Rachel to heart and decide today, on this Yom Kippur, to pay more attention, not to what we have taken, but what we have given. Let’s pay more attention to what we can do to be more loving, creative, giving and kind.

God is more concerned with your character than He is with your comfort.

God is more concerned with your holiness than He is with your happiness.

God is more concerned with you as a person that He is with your possessions.

The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 8:1) tells of Rabbi Yossi ben Halfata who was once asked by a Roman matron to explain what exactly God has been doing since the six days of creation. Rabbi Yossi replies that ever since that first week, God has been building ladders: Some ladders for people to ascend and other ladders for people to descend.

May we, on this Yom Kippur find ways to ascend the ladder of significance, virtue and character.

May we find the resources within us to also descend and be able to find and overcome what we can of our weaknesses, and offer help to someone else struggling with their lives.

May we, on this sacred day, realize that our accomplishments are important, but it is our character that will truly save us.

Ken yhie Ratzon,

May this be God’s will.

Amen.