Michelle and I are empty nesters now. Our youngest went off to college, our middle is finishing college, and our oldest is off in New Orleans saving the world. We now spend a lot of time reminiscing, thinking about when the kids were young. We have been retelling these great stories about their childhoods.
I remember one time that Rachel and I were having a daddy-daughter day in the mall. She was skipping about as we meandered from store to store. We were having a grand old time. And then she saw something in a store window, and ran over to look at it. She looked back at me, and glanced again at the item in the window. She called out, “Daddy I need that!” I asked, “What do you need?” “I need that,” she pleaded. “Do you really need that?” I asked. “Yes, everyone has it. I want it. Will you buy it for me?”
It started out as a beautiful memory. We were having so much fun skipping through the mall. One minute we were enjoying each other’s company; the next, we were locked in this intense battle. Me, the adult, against Rachel, the 10 year old, over our different understandings over what she really needs. I won’t tell you who won the battle that day. It is irrelevant to the message of the story.
But I will tell you that too often have we heard that plea – “I really NEED that”? Michelle and I used to hear those words from the kids while they were watching television commercials, cruising by the cookie aisle in the supermarket, and after picking them up from a playdate at a friend’s house. We hear adult friends talk about needing some new gadget or new car. Michelle and I struggle to clarify what we really NEED versus what we merely WANT, and then how to budget for each.
The distinction is important, because you know what happens when we fail to correctly differentiate between NEED and WANT? In the space between those two concepts, that’s where sin is born. And that’s what Yom Kippur is all about: chet or sin, recognizing sin’s existence in our lives, and to commit ourselves to eradicate it from our lives.
What are NEEDS?
NEEDS are those things that are absolutely critical to living: Sufficient food and liquids. A roof over our heads and clothing to protect us from the elements. A source of income to support ourselves and our families, to help us purchase what we truly need. Adequate care to keep us healthy. Love, the kind that warms our hearts. And an education, to stretch our minds and challenge us to live lives filled with values and ideals.
That’s my list. Some of you might add one or two additional basics to yours, but in general, I am guessing that we can agree that food and water, shelter, clothing, a source of income, healthcare, love, and education are key human NEEDS.
All the rest is the stuff of WANT: Lulu Lemon clothes, that red convertible, the new Apple watch, your daily habit of a Venti (soy half caf quadruple iced mocha latte shaken not stirred). We recognize these extras are WANTS, and not NEEDS even when they make our lives fun.
Losing Perspective Comes Easily
How do we so easily lose perspective on the difference between NEEDS and WANTS? Back in the 3rd century, a Talmudic rabbi named Resh Lakish, contemplated the same question. Resh Lakish lived as a gladiator and highway robber until an encounter with the great Rabbi Yochanan turned him onto a path toward repentance. Resh Lakish said, “No one would commit a sin without being invaded by the spirit of shtut – foolishness” (Talmud Sota 3a). When we pursue such folly, Resh Lakish taught, when we are so mindlessly distracted that we mistake WANT for NEED, we risk bringing sin into our lives.
Almost fifteen hundred years later, writing in nineteenth century Poland, a hassidic teacher Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt struggled to understand the same pattern. Rabbi Heschel of Apt wondered, “… [I]t is difficult to conceive – how a person, created in God’s image, embraced and surrounded by the light of goodness, can actually commit sin.” Heschel continued, “It comes about when, in a moment of mindless distraction, a spirit of folly enters [us], and our divine image then flees.”
My teacher Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality hears in these words the suggestion that our natural response to the world is gratitude and equanimity, ease and compassion for others. We are – most of us are – basically good people. We care about our kids more than our paychecks. We believe that love trumps material goods. What disturbs our sense of this goodness, are distractions that take over our mind and body. They create impulsive reactions – NEED born of uncontrolled passions and lusts – and all of a sudden, we lose our sense of perspective. WANT becomes NEED, and what we WANT becomes our primary focus.
The Guy who Had It All
Years ago, we knew a man named Michael who got lost in the complex dynamic between NEED and WANT. All Michael wanted was to be on top of the world, to control it all. He acquired the most elegant house, the most expensive suits and cars, the most beautiful wife. He had all the money he NEEDED to buy whatever he WANTED. Michael had pursued the American dream and he had won. Only he was rarely around, and his kids got lost along the way.
Jimmy, one of Michael’s children, used the fancy car he got on his 16th birthday to drive out of the gated community, which was supposed to keep him safe, to arrive at a place his parents never dreamt he would go. In all of those unsupervised hours of free time that Jimmy had, this teenager used his dad’s hard-earned cash to feed a habit he developed for addicting drugs. So this nice Jewish boy, with such a promising life ahead, with no discernable NEEDS in the world and every WANT indulged, never learned to differentiate between NEED and WANT. Dad’s actions taught Jimmy that the pursuit of power and money, and the things that the powerful could acquire, were ends in themselves. The son learned those lessons well. And his parents never saw it coming.
Living in the second century, a student of Torah named Simon ben Zoma saw it all differently (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Ben Zoma recognized that there is a vast difference between what some people value and what truly has value, between what we think we need and what we truly NEED.
Who is Powerful?
Ben Zoma asked, V’eizeh hu gibor – who is truly powerful? His answer? Ha-kovesh et yitzro – the one who controls his passions. What are these passions? Power intoxicates, but it can lead us to take that which is not ours for the taking. Sex excites, but the uncontrolled desire for it can lead to ignoring the emotional needs of our partners, and sometimes leads people to break the bonds of marriage. Food nourishes, but sometimes it so controls us that we fail to accept that we are stuffing ourselves in ways that are detrimental to our health. These passions push us to forget the distinction between NEED and WANT.
What is true strength? True strength is the ability to control your passions in a mindful way so that you can live a life in the space occupied by what you NEED, without losing yourself to what you think you WANT. Jimmy never learned to control his desires, because no one ever showed him how desires could be controlled.
Sometimes the struggle with sin is located in the conflicting messages we receive about what we should NEED to feel happy and fulfilled in life. We live in a world that bombards everyone with unrealistic definitions of beauty and attractiveness. It has crept into our political debate. Unless we opt to sequester our children and divert our collective gaze from magazine covers, movie billboards, and social media, it is too easy for us to slip into believing that the image of a slim, sculpted fashion model or the buff celebrity athlete is the ultimate goal. While children and teens—boys and girls alike—are particularly vulnerable, many intelligent, grounded adults also wonder: Perhaps if I wore my hair like hers, or if my muscles were toned like his, I would be happier, more lovable, have more friends, be invited to more parties. Is that what we want to emulate?
My Mom is Fat, Ugly and Horrible
Kasey Edwards, author of 30 Something and Over It, remembers the moment she discovered her beautiful mother’s truth. Her words illuminate the precarious influence we have on a child’s ability to distinguish between NEED and WANT, between the blessings of who we are and the unquenchable desire to be something else. Ms. Edwards writes,
I was 7 when I discovered that you were fat, ugly, and horrible. Up until that point I had believed that you were beautiful—in every sense of the word.
I remember flicking through old photo albums and staring at pictures of you standing on the deck of a boat. Your white strapless bathing suit looked so glamorous, just like a movie star. Whenever I had the chance I’d pull out that wondrous white bathing suit hidden in your bottom drawer and imagine a time when I’d be big enough to wear it; when I’d be like you.
But all of that changed when, one night, we were dressed up for a party and you said to me,
“Look at you, so thin, beautiful, and lovely. And look at me, fat, ugly, and horrible.”
At first I didn’t understand what you meant. “You’re not fat,” I said earnestly and innocently, and you replied, “Yes I am, darling. I’ve always been fat; even as a child.”
In the days that followed I had some painful revelations that have shaped my whole life.
I learned that:
1. You must be fat because mothers don’t lie.
2. Fat is ugly and horrible.
3. When I grow up I’ll look like you and therefore I will be fat, ugly and horrible too. (“When Your Mother Says She’s Fat,” courtesy of Kasey Edwards, www.kaseyedwards.com.)
Children are impressionable and easily influenced by our foibles and folly. They learn whom they think they NEED to be when they watch us look unfavorably in the mirror or hear our self-critique. My heart breaks each time I hear young teens struggling with their self-image. Too many of them turn to dangerous behaviors because they think they NEED to be someone other than who they are. It takes years under therapeutic care to finally get out from under the terrifying grip of anorexia, cutting, substance abuse, or promiscuity.
What Really Matters?
Most of the time we have an awareness of what really matters. We can remind ourselves of this in those moments of quiet when we pause to look inward. Sometimes we are jarred into regaining perspective, like when the doctor tells you that you have cancer, or the boss tells you that you are out of a job, or when your life changes dramatically because of family misfortune, or when earthquakes shake the very ground on which we walk. During times like these – times of tragedy – it can become crystal clear that all the rest is the stuff of WANT. Not crucial to living, not critical to our daily routines, not definitional to whom we really are.
Ultimately, the challenge is to finding contentment with who we already are. Kasey Edwards grappled with the interplay between self-image and beauty. But her story is easily transferable. She could just as easily have learned that money cannot buy happiness, that sex does not equal love, or that no matter how stylish are the clothes, cars or homes we have, ultimately they cannot and will not make us content. Pursuit of things becomes an end in itself, since the Jones who live next door, or the Steins, or down the street will always have more.
When we so WANT to attain unrealistic standards of perfection, we lose sight of our most basic NEED: the ability to see that we are already beautiful, valued, and worthy, inside and out.
How many times has your child – or have you – insisted that you need something? In response to these insistent entreaties, Michelle and I started asking our children a simple question – and thinking about it ourselves – “Do you need it or want it?” Although we still might want something very much, when we can categorize it as a “want” and not a “need,” we can reframe our request. We might develop a sense of humor about the way we ask for things. Over time, we might even learn to moderate our cravings. (See D’var Acher|Reframing, in Jewish Spiritual Parenting, Jewish Lights Publishing 2015).
At Congregation Or Ami we are pursuing two important projects to help prevent our youth from getting lost in the space between NEED and WANT. Thanks to the Michael Oschin Endowment for the Education and Prevention of Substance Abuse, we are creating programs – Talking Openly about Drugs – to help our young people and our community address the seemingly unending social pressures that often result in dangerous experimentation. And thanks to the Rabbis’ Discretionary Funds, we are introducing a pre-adolescent program called Moving Traditions into our 6th grades, which, in separate learning groups for girls and for boys, we address significant pre-teen issues, including creating a healthy body image. Through both of these endeavors, we hope to introduce important Jewish values to help us gain perspective on the space between need and want, and to combat the societal imbalance between the two.
Tuning our Hearts to What’s Really Important
So how else can we find that mindfulness which helps us differentiate between what we truly NEED and what we merely WANT? How can we attune our hearts and souls to focus on that which is truly nourishing and important?
When my wife Michelle and I wrote our recently published book, titled Jewish Spiritual Parenting, we revisited cherished letters we wrote to our children as they went off to college. (See Emet|Truth in Jewish Spiritual Parenting.) We noticed that we kept returning to another piece of wisdom from Ben Zoma’s (Pirkei Avot 4:1). We asked our children to consider V’eizeh hu asher – who is rich? Ben Zoma’s answer? HaSamayach b’chelko – the one who is content with his or her portion. Ben Zoma was inviting us to find contentment in who we are and what we have.
Ask my 82-year-old father in law, Murray November, about what he NEEDS, and he’ll tell you that he wakes up each morning blessing the fact that he can breathe, that he has love, and that he can do meaningful things during the day. Or ask my mother in law Teri November, who, though confined to a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, responds at every holiday that she is thankful for her family and her health. Or ask congregant Gertie Sanders, and she’ll tell you that she doesn’t need jewelry; her grandchildren are her jewels. These three people each are living the same lessons so many had to relearn during the devastating recession of 2008. What do we really need? What do we simply want?
How can bridge the gap between NEED and WANT? We can stay focused on what really matters, so that our unfettered desires do not lead us to sin.
Tonight is Kol Nidre, the holiest night of the year. Tonight we look inward, evaluate ourselves and our sins.
Forgiveness can come only after we identify those we have harmed by our misdeeds, and work to repair those relationships. Forgiveness can only come after we trace sin to its source – the space between NEED and WANT – and work to differentiate one from the other.
This Yom Kippur, may we find the courage to look inward and the strength to transform our lives to focus on what really matters, so that when we stand before the Holy One, we are wholly at one with ourselves.
Each sermon is shaped through a collaboration with talented individuals who help edit the words into the sermon I deliver. I thank my wife Michelle November (my co-author for Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness, Jewish Lights Publishing) for the intense process of guiding my ideas to life. Rabbis Ronald Stern and Julia Weisz, and Rabbinic Intern Dusty Klass, repeatedly offered in depth insights and edits to shape and improve this sermon. This sermon was delivered as a conversation between Rabbi Julia Weisz and me, during Kol Nidre services at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA).