October 11, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El
Tucson, Arizona

Last week on Rosh HaShanah I spoke about flat tires, and particularly, bicycle flat tires, of which I have had a plethora of late.  Thank you for your kind comments about that sermon, and those who shared their own cycling stories with me, including suggestions on how to avoid flats.  One of you even suggested we start a new program at Temple, in which we bike 25 miles and then stop and have coffee and argue about the Torah portion.  We would call it “The Weekly Torah Cycle”, or maybe, more appropriately, “Ride and Rant”.

In any case, a week ago, on the morning of 2nd Day of Rosh HaShanah, before I helped lead our Northwest 2nd Day Rosh haShanah service with Rabbi Appel, I decided to go out for a quick ride—20 miles on a cool morning, perfect way to start the second day of the new year.  I ended up riding at the same speed as another guy, and we struck up a conversation about biking.  And then—you probably guessed it—I got a flat tire. 

My new friend stopped and helped change the tire, and as we were finishing I said, “I really hate getting flat tires.  But I’m a rabbi, and at least I got a sermon out of it this week.”

He looked at me strangely, and said, “Did you just say you are a rabbi?  Then I have something to tell you.  You now have a story about a rabbi and a priest.  Because my name is Jim, and I am a Jesuit priest…”

So now I’m trying to come up with the ultimate flat tire story.  I’m not sure of the punch line, but it starts, “A rabbi, a priest, and an imam get a flat tire… going to a bar… on Yom Kippur.”  If you can help me figure out the rest, we’ll really have something.

In any case, that generous assistance from the Jesuit priest got me thinking.  He certainly helped me, and made it possible to drive my daughter to school on time and continue my responsibilities that morning.  But his own bike ride was delayed, and somewhat spoiled, by helping me out.  Yet that act of generosity is a very typical one, and not just for bicycle riders and Jesuit priests; which, come to think of it, sounds like the beginning of another joke…

Anyway, all of this raises the question of why we do things that help others when these actions don’t seem to benefit us.  Why give of ourselves to others at all?  Why do most of us help other people when it costs us time, money, and energy that we could devote to our own needs? 

This is called altruism, giving to others without any obvious advantage to ourselves.  Altruism underlies most of religious morality.  The quotations are famous, and we will chant some of them tomorrow: leave the corners of your fields for the poor and the stranger (Leviticus 19, etc.); give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted (Isaiah 58); do for others as you would have them do for you; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19); if a poor man lives within your city, you shall surely open your hand to him and give him whatever he asks for (Deuteronomy 15:8); divide your bread with the hungry/bring the homeless poor into the house/When you see the naked cover him (Isaiah 58:7); and so on.

In Judaism, the need to help others is central.  The concept of tzedakah is integral to everything we are, and we sing about it again and again over these High Holy Days: u’tshuvah, u’tfilah, utzedakah, repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.  Tzedakah, working for justice in our society through charitable acts, is at the heart of everything we seek to accomplish over this season of return. 

In fact, every religion believes that we have a primary moral obligation to help others.  But why did that understanding develop?  It’s a very real question, because it contradicts what biology has taught us about our own nature for 150 years.

The theory of evolution revolutionized thought when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species in 1859.  It delineated the crucial process of natural selection that is central to understanding why we are the way we are.  Natural selection says that the qualities that lead to the perpetuation of our genetic makeup always win out; those elements that make it most likely our descendants will flourish are the ones that are naturally selected.  This core principle of evolution underlies our understanding of how life has developed on earth, and why human beings are the way they are now. 

In a fascinating new book called Feeling Smart our Sefer Book Club read last month, Israeli economist Eyal Winter notes that the central concept of the theory of evolution is that species, and individuals, are in constant competition for resources, and evolve in ways that favor the perpetuation of their own genetic make-up. Every creature on earth, to one degree or another, seeks both its own survival and the continuity and success of its own kind.  Biologically, we want our genes to go on into the next generations.

So, Winter asks, why does altruism exist at all?  Why do people help others in ways that seem to go completely against their own self-interest?  You may have seen the cover article in Time Magazine this past week on the volunteers of the White Helmet brigade, the incredible civilians who are saving lives every day in Aleppo and other parts of Syria, risking their own lives to save children and adults who would die otherwise.  They have saved an estimated 62,000 lives—and 141 of them have died doing so.

Why are there individuals like this who assist people, strangers they don’t even know and with whom they share no genetic heritage, and do so for moral reasons that supersede their own interests?  In biological terms, why help other people when there is no apparent benefit to the ultimate survival of your own kind?  Evolutionary theory requires that there must be some advantage to individuals in helping others.  What is it?

According to researchers, the psychological reward from the satisfaction of helping others doesn’t really explain altruism.  In contradiction to the platitude that no good deed goes unpunished, we do feel good about doing good for others, most of the time.  But that must be just a symptom of the fact that giving contributes to individual survival. 

In other words, it’s not that we do good because it makes us feel good; according to evolutionary theory, it makes us feel good because it aids our chances of species survival.  Doing selfless things, altruism, must be a human quality that assists our whole species to survive and thrive or it wouldn’t survive itself.

Darwin himself suggested what seems to be the correct answer. He was puzzled by this phenomenon that contradicted his basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who sacrifice their own good and even risk their lives for others, should be expected to die before passing on their genes to the next generation. They are too selfless to make it in this heartless, red-in-tooth-and-claw world we live in.

But in spite of this seemingly self-evident fact, all human societies value altruism, even the most bloodthirsty.  And, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, something similar can be found among social non-human animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.  Where does this motivation come from?

At the heart of the desire to selflessly help others is the emotional state of empathy, the ability to feel what others feel.  If we see a homeless person on the street and feel his need for shelter, or watch a video of children fleeing bombs in Aleppo and feel some of their fear, or view starving immigrants and share the pain of their hunger, we are taking the first large step towards acting altruistically.  Empathy leads to altruism.

Neuroscientists may have discovered how this works. We have cells in our brains called mirror neurons that researchers believe are responsible for the emotional response of empathy.  That is, when we see other people experience certain emotions, these mirror neurons fire, and we experience a similar emotional state to the person or people we are observing.  This can lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering, or joy when others are celebrating.  The research on mirror neurons implies that we are hard-wired for empathy.  

The first step towards altruistic behavior is to understand not only that “There but for the grace of God go I”, but more directly, “I feel pain because that person is suffering.”  Quite literally, if our mirror neurons fire we actually do feel pain when another person is being injured.

Mirror neurons were discovered about 25 years ago, and have fascinated researchers ever since.  They have been labeled “The most hyped concept in neuroscience”, which is like being called, “The most famous Jewish radio show host in America.”  To the general public like us they may be obscure, but just the same they have been over-promoted. 

Over-promoted or not, mirror neurons teach us that biologically we are hard-wired for empathy, which means altruism may also be part of our fundamental make-up.  And since our intrinsic nature has been shaped by the process of evolution and natural selection, there must be a positive benefit to being altruistic. 

That is, giving to others selflessly actually must promote the well-being of the whole society, and contributes to its ultimate survival.  Altruism turns out to be is something that has kept us around and helped make us the dominant species on the planet.  Our capacity to assist other human beings, even if they are not blood relatives and don’t share our same genetic code, must have contributed to the flourishing of our species. 

But how?  According to Winter, it’s true that our genes survive by being passed on individually.  But humanity survives in groups.  And successful groups exist only when individuals act not for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.  Our human advantage over other species is that we are able to form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form. And these larger groups—synagogues, communities, religions, nations—allow us to do truly great things for the benefit of all.

Altruism is thus essentially human, and essential to our survival.  Tzedakah is truly in our DNA.

But rabbi, you say, what about the fact that we live in a society in which competition is at the heart of our capitalist economic structure?  This is America.  We have a continually dynamic, creative country in large part because competition is so deeply rooted in our society.  And after the collapse of communism, don’t we all know that capitalism is by far the most successful form of socio-economic organization?

“Greed is good,” Gordon Gecko intoned in the movie “Wall Street” nearly thirty years ago.  When actor Michael Douglas delivered that line he was oversimplifying a central principle of economic theory advanced by Adam Smith: when people act in ways that benefit themselves, they provide healthy competition, drive society forward, and create patterns of economic activity that help everyone.  Of course, there is more to it than that, and it turns out that pure, unadulterated capitalism, while dynamic, benefits the very rich far more than the ordinary person, and leads to serious abuses.  But with humane modification and regulation, economic competition has contributed tremendously to the material success of human civilization and culture, and is a core aspect of our society, and every successful society and economy on earth.   

Yet even Adam Smith, the founder of modern economic theory and the patron saint of capitalism, saw that altruism was part of even the highly competitive nature of human beings.  He wrote, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

That is, even the most competitive of us have altruistic needs and do altruistic things.  That is because we all exist in community, and the survival and success of our community is at the heart of what is best for us.  Doing for others is actually doing what turns out to be best for ourselves. 

In our society, the lesson that we must give of ourselves freely to others is taught primarily by religious organizations, like this one.  You will not find it taught much in other public settings.  For example, do not look to the current presidential campaign to find meaningful words about sacrifice, dedication, commitment, and altruism.  Politics is mostly about words of empty promise, hollow slogan, and personal preening.  You will wait a long time before you hear a candidate say, “You need to pay more taxes to help others in our society who have less than you.”  You will wait an even longer time before you hear one say ever again, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It is here, in the synagogue, that you will hear the foundational truth taught, and, we hope and pray, lived: that we are all responsible for one another—kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh.  That we have a duty to assist other people who are in need, by visiting the sick, preparing meals of condolence, washing the dead, supplying funds to the needy, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, comforting the troubled.  That we must cooperate so that each of us, all of us, can live a good life in this world.

[As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good... There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighborliness.”  Rabbi Sacks may not have attended some of our more contentious temple meetings over the years, but the essence of what he says remains true.  Religion—Judaism—our Temple—teaches that tzedakah is a core value that must be lived every day, in community.

For example, we are currently short of men who are willing to participate in washing the bodies of men who have died in our congregation, chevrah kadishah.  This sacred work is powerful, and not easy, but extremely important, a truly great mitzvah.  While we are blessed with many women who are willing and able to do chevrah kadishah, we do not have enough men who are willing to be trained to do so.  This is a public request for anyone who is willing to learn to do this, and able to fulfill this central commandment, to come forward after services and speak to me.  It is one way in which we offer truly generous action to those who cannot possibly benefit us.]

I have a challenging question for you.  It comes from the understanding that altruism is in your inherent nature, and that religion has the responsibility to encourage you to live to that aspect of your nature.  So here it is: what percentage of your income do you choose to donate to charity?

As Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

We Jews invented the concept of the tithe, giving a tenth of our pre-tax income to charity, tzedakah.  It was called by various names, including the trumat hama’aser, but it added up to giving at least tenth of what you earned to charity each year.  That was what sustained the Temple in Jerusalem, and the priesthood, but it was also what fed the poor, housed the homeless, assisted the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. 

Of course, we Jews have long abandoned a serious effort to encourage our people to give a tenth of their income to charity.  There are still religious organizations that tithe: the LDS church, our Mormon friends; Baptists; Sikhs.  But for most liberal Jews, the concept of giving charity at a pre-set, structured amount is alien.  In truth, it should be natural for us.  It was our idea in the first place.  And it’s still a great one.

So, with full chutzpah, I ask you again: what percentage of your income do you give to charity each year?

The reality is that most of us give far less than 10%. 

There is an excellent blogger named Sierra Black who writes about this quite eloquently.  She notes that,

“As an adult I adopted the position most of my educated, liberal peers seemed to hold toward charity: give a little, when you can, and feel guilty about not doing it most of the year.

“For most of my 20s, I was living beyond my means. With every dollar having been spent before it was earned, giving even a few dollars felt like a huge pinch in my messy budget. I was haphazard and frankly not very generous with my giving.

“Overall, liberals tend to give less to charity than conservatives. Religious people like the ones I grew up with give more than my secular humanist friends. The working poor are, as a class, the most generous group in America, reliably giving away 4.5% of their income. The middle class are the least generous, giving just 2.5% on average.

“In addition to making me and my friends look bad… statistics like that are, as George Will put it, ‘hostile witnesses’ to the idea that “bleeding-heart liberals” actually care more about the poor and disadvantaged than our conservative counterparts.

“The single biggest predictor of a person’s charitable giving is religion. People who go to temple or church every week give more money, more consistently.

“I think it’s time to make tithing a middle-class trend. Those of us who don’t go to temple or church every week may not have the easy, deeply ingrained tradition of giving my great-grandmother had... That’s no excuse for not giving our share. It’s not right for the affluent and secure to let responsibility for maintaining the social safety net rest on the backs of those most likely to need it.”

Great words.  I don’t know about you, but I am personally going to commit to giving more than I have been giving this year.  After examining our own family’s tzedakah, it turns out that we give about 5% of our income to charitable causes.  More than some, less than others.  But it impresses me that it isn’t good enough.  I’m not sure we will achieve tithing this year.  But I am sure we can do more, and we will.

My friends, I am not telling you to tithe to Temple Emanu-El’s Chai Campaign—although of course we could use it.  I am telling you that whatever you do now, whatever you give now, is very likely not the best you can do.  And that the very world rests on your ability to give—both financially, by whatever form of tithe you can give, and by your own efforts to help, to the best of your abilities.  According to both our own religious tradition, and evolutionary biology, it is your altruism that sustains your values and our species.  It is this act, as much as any, that demonstrates giving to others in ways that help them.  It is this act, as much as any, this form of tzedakah, that allows us to heal this damaged world. 

A story: the great Rabbi Naftali of Ropchitz once prayed in the synagogue an entire morning, urging God to convince the rich to give more of their money to the poor.

When he returned home, his wife asked him, "Were you successful with your prayers? Will the rich give more of their money to the poor?"

Rabbi Naftali answered, "I am half-way there!"

His wife looked puzzled.  “Half-way there?” she asked.

"God has heard at least half my prayer," he assured her. "The poor have agreed to accept!"

I know that, tonight, on this Kol Nidre Eve, I may similarly be halfway there.  But I also pray that on this holiest day of the year, you will find it in your nature to give of yourself: in time, in caring, and materially in tzedakah, to make this truly a gmar chatimah tovah—a year sealed for good.

L’Shana Tovah—an easy fast, and a gmar tov.


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