Kol Nidre Sermon 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Kol Nidre Sermon 5777

Good Evening,
There’s a story from Eastern Europe. It’s about a coachman driving a rebbe somewhere. They are driving down a long road between two towns and alongside the road is an orchard. The coachman sees luscious fruits hanging from the trees, and so he stops the carriage. He gets out and starts picking fruit. The rebbe yells out: He’s looking!!! And when he hears that, the coachman quickly climbs back onto the carriage and drives away. Later he asks the rebbe: was there really someone looking while I was stealing those fruits?
And the rebbe sits silently…simply points up.

This is an important night. This is a night when we look and we consider what is seen.

There was a day recently when I went to my mailbox and found a letter, an official letter from France. Not being a French speaker, I wasn’t sure what it said, but I could make out enough to tell that I owed someone, some official body in France. Soon I realized it was a traffic ticket. We were in France this summer for my niece’s wedding. Weeks later I learned that as I was driving around the beautiful countryside, I was caught speeding. But I wasn’t stopped on the roads. No, I was caught by surveillance cameras. Of course I paid the ticket, not wanting to get arrested the next time I entered the country, and wanting to be sure I could rent a car next time! And I realized the brilliance of that surveillance system. It’s very different then a speed trap.

Because you never know when someone is watching.
I imagine, the next time I am in France, I will consistently watch my speed.

Surveillance is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Because of security and the technology that has developed all of us our consistently being watched. You know, when you walk into this synagogue you are appearing on a video surveillance camera. When you drive to an intersection, you are being watched and filmed. The drive-in at the bank, as well as Starbucks has your face. Whether you are at a restaurant, the mall or your health club or even parking at the beach, someone is watching you. Being watched can make us more secure. But being watched can also change our behavior.

My very first time in Eastern Europe I remember entering the hotel room and looking to see if it was bugged…and I felt very constrained. I was glad that I would return to America where I felt confident that would never happen.

There’s a story about two neighbors in Washington DC. John works at the IRS and Bill works at the NSA (National Security Agency). Before work they would often go for coffee together. One morning John, from the IRS says to Bill, “Hey, my cousin just emailed me the funniest joke, wanna hear it?” Bill said, “don’t bother I read it this morning”

I’m sure I’m not the only person wondering if anyone reads my emails. I do know they are all recorded.

Our lives are literally an open book. And this is true, not just regarding what we say to one another or write to one another. This is true about who we are, where we spend our time, what we shop for, and what are our interests.

You know that advertisements on the web and even on cable television shows are now geared specifically for you. It’s brilliant, but it raises some concerns.

There is now facial recognition technology. And that is a very important technology for security. The Tzarnev Brothers who terrorized the Boston Marathon a few years ago, were actually identified through that technology.

But now, coming to shopping areas soon, is an electronic billboard that you read, and that’s no big deal…but what is a big deal is that it’ll read you. So, if it detects a young woman in your early twenties, the next advertisement might be for jeans which happen to be on sale in the store just up ahead. A middle age guy walks by, and then the billboard will show the latest golf clubs on the market.

You get it. Big brother is watching. It’s being used by government and plays an important role in our security and its being used by big business.

There is a need for security, no one doubts that…but there are also broader implications. And it is a little disturbing.
Because as human beings we want privacy. We know that privacy is defended by the fourth amendment of our constitution. We don’t want our identification to be commercialized and monetized. We don’t want to become subjects to predatory forces. And in the wrong hands, all the surveillance can literally rip away our freedom.

I’ve thought about a few important Jewish concepts in this. One is the concept of not placing a stumbling block before the blind (michshol lifnei iveir)…When you are being sized up by a digital recognition system and then confronted with tailor made advertisement, you are being used…

Another is the idea of “tzniut”. We don’t always want to be, nor should we always be watched. We need privacy, don’t we?

Have you ever noticed people walking by cameras or mirrors in the public and the adjustments they make when they know they are watched.

Many synagogues have video cameras operating to record B’nai Mitzvah. We don’t now…but I know that in addition to halachic considerations, which could be overcome, there is also the realization that people portend themselves differently when they know they are being watched. Cameras can ruin spontaneity.

Our tradition actually defines public and private spaces. That is actually the origin of the eruv. It’s a line that demarcates public from private space. And our behaviors are adjusted in the public as opposed to the private…for good or bad. We speak differently in the public…at least we should. But when we’re always watched, there is a shift, sometimes subtle…sometimes not subtle at all.

You know at casinos there are lots of cameras. I learned recently that they are present first and foremost so the house doesn’t get robbed…but there’s another reason and that is that everyone there feels safer and when you feel safer you are likely to gamble more.

Do you want to be watched all the time?…You might say, well Steinhardt, you chose the wrong profession. But I yearn for the freedom of expression that comes when I am with those closest to me…Don’t you have moments of silliness or the expression of wonder or song or anger that if you knew you were being watched, you would repress…
The freedom we yearn for is not just political, but it’s also deeply personal and it’s emotional and it’s necessary. Privacy is a fundamental right…

And yet, let me tell you about an interesting study from the journal, Scientific American. Researchers found that when posters were hung in college cafeterias, posters that just had two big eye, eyes staring, students were much more likely to dispose of their trays properly. The researchers referred to this as “gaze detection.” When we sense that we are being watched we are more likely to do the right thing.

Tobi and I have the MOST adorable grandson in the world. He’s 14 months old now and he’s walking around and getting his hands into everything and on everything and exploring everything. And when he goes to something he should not touch, he will look back at his grandma Tobi and, hesitate to see if he’s being watched…and give the cutest smile in the world… “oh no Miles!” And he will move away. He knows when he is being watched!

And so I ask the question: not about little children but adults like you and me, how does “gaze detection” affect your behavior? Are you as likely to do the right thing, to good things, if you are not being watched? Or…are you apt to do what you may know is not the right thing, if you are NOT being watched…It could be a small thing…or it could have much greater implications…Do you you speak to a family member in private the way you do in public?
Or on a much grander scale, if you knew you wouldn’t get caught, what would you be willing to do?

How many people risk fortunes and marriages and jobs and families because they think they won’t get caught…

Obviously politicians go through this is a rather intense way. And, so often, when we learn of discrepancies between private public behaviors, we are disturbed. Where is it that we learn of your true character?

Did you read about the web site for extra marital affairs, Ashleigh Madison? There was a time when people believed they could connect on line and no one would know. But it was hacked and because of either Snowden or Assange now everyone can know who visited the site…you can imagine what happened to that business. The business declined immensely and quickly.

I have an all-time favorite movie. It is Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors”; a commercial failure but a critical success. It’s a story about a successful ophthalmologist who is seen in the beginning being of the film being honored by the UJA. His public life is exemplary. But we learn that his private life is coming apart. He is in a long term affair with a woman who becomes impatient with his promise that he will be leave his wife. And so she tries to expose him. He intercepts a letter written to his wife, and then he is threatened with blackmail, and from there things really disintegrate. He ultimately successfully arranges to have her killed. And through the rest of the movie you see a compromised, anxious character, and you’re not sure if it is out of guilt or a fear of being found out. And what you learn is that he believes that if he gets away with it, then he is clean.

And you see that all the time; in businesses, from the largest banks and pharmaceutical companies to mom and pop stores, and you know with taxes, and in personal relationships and other places of obligation…If it’s not seen, if it’s not reported and you get away with it…is it wrong?

Do we need constant oversight and surveillance to do what is right?
I would hope not…but I’m not sure.

Back to Crimes and Misdemeanors…There’s a rabbi in the film who is a patient of the opthamologist to whom he confesses…The rabbi has an eye disease and eventually goes blind. He serves as a metaphor for conscience, but it is a failed conscience because he lacks the courage to act out.

And there is a parallel story. It’s the story of a tortured film maker who is searching for greater meaning and morality. He is making a film about a philosopher, Louis Levy.

Levy is filmed saying the following:

We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.

Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly. Human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

Levy sees the universe as indifferent.
That’s where the builders of our tradition place a value system. Because we are required to see a world where what we do is noticeable and makes a difference.

We have inherited a tradition that believes that although there is so much misfortune and chaos and evil in the world, we cannot be indifferent. We create order through morality.

In the Book of Deuteronomy we will read:
Secret matters are known by God…

In the machzor we will read:
You probe our innermost thoughts and feelings.
Nothing escapes you.
Nothing is secret from you.
Therefore…oh God, forgive us our sins.

You see, the act matters, the implications are profound…The tradition we hold is saying that. And it seems to be saying that: you are seen, even when you are not caught.

The machzor is not saying that because everything you do is ultimately known, you will not sin, commit errors, makes mistakes…but rather, you will…and with honesty and a return you can find a place of forgiveness…

The doctor in Crimes and Misdemeanors said that his father taught him, “The eyes of God watch everyone”. It’s a reference to a quote in the Bible “The eyes of God are on everyone, keeping note of evil and good.

But what if one does not feel it, cannot perceive it?

And that is why, we must not fear to speak a language of conscience and morality…develop a consciousness of right and wrong. And if you can’t perceive of eyes from above…then know there are eyes within… Perhaps a realization that every act and every word creates a ripple in the universe. We learn that no act goes unnoticed, every act has consequences, each behavior is written in our Book of Life.…

What you do matters. It matters whether or not you are known or watched or found out.

We’re here to be with and take responsibility for, ourselves and others. Our way of life, the Jewish way of life, sees you and me living in community. We are not here to get the most for ourselves. We are here to build a better family, community and family of humankind.

Early on in the Torah, Cain murders his brother. The second question of the Torah is asked: God asks him, where is your brother? And his response is “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And neither God nor the Torah answers the question.
I assume it presumes an essential morality, a commandment of God, or a response from deep inside the self. The answer is “yes.” Cain’s act was witnessed. It was known, even before technological surveillance. The eyes of God were upon him. And he didn’t care. That was the second question in the Torah.

And the first question…this was asked after Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve hid in the garden.
“Where are you?” asked God.
They thought they could hide.
They thought they could hide their shame.
They thought they could hide from their guilt.
They thought they could hide from God.
But the Torah is telling us…you cannot hide.

And that is the question of tonight. My friends, where are you?
Who is watching you?
And if you think no one…let your conscience grow to a place of holiness.

Without surveillance from outside, we need to answer that question. And, with our imperfections, we can answer…this is where I have been, this is where I am…and, this is where I want to go…That’s the consciousness we need. According to the machzor…“The secret things are known.” We affect not only ourselves, but everyone around us…And if we make a mistake, and if we fail…we can admit it, come clean and be forgiven. We have an opportunity tonight to begin anew. This is the message of tonight.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah…

May you write a book of life that has meaning, and is filled with kindness and responsibility…may you know that your book is going to be read…May you be sealed for a life of health, goodness, understanding and prosperity.

Good Yom Tov…G’mar Chatimah Tovah.