This was originally delivered as a sermon Rosh HaShanah Night, September 16, 2012.
“Car Talk,” has been one of the most popular radio shows for a generation. This fall, its hosts are retiring. Yes, Ray and Tom Magliazzi, also known as Click and Clack, are “pulling into the garage,” so to speak. For 35 years, Ray and Tom have entertained listeners with their thick Boston accents, self-deprecating humor and occasional advice about cars. I know next to nothing about cars–most things mechanical, for that matter. What attracts me to listen to Car Talk is not Ray and Tom’s advice about cars, but their advice about life and relationships, couched in their advice about cars.
A few months ago, they produced a list, somewhat tongue-in cheek, of the top ten new features that they would like to see in all new cars. Their top potential innovation is the ‘Sorry!’ Button. We know all cars have horns. As things stand now the only way drivers have to communicate with each other is with their horns—or their fingers. This state of affairs makes it difficult to create a friendly atmosphere on the roads. So, in the words of Ray and Tom: “Is there anything that we need more on the roads today than a ‘Sorry!’ button? We often do bad or dumb things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just lead to a little more civility.
“As it stands now, when you tick off another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you’re a moron [HONK!]. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a moron, too! [HONK!]’ Say you’re sorry, though, and you break the cycle. A ‘Sorry!’ button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.”
Imagine occasions for using the “Sorry” button. Say, I cut you off because I didn’t see you. Or, you’re stopped at a green light and your honking at the car in front of you to move already. Then you realize there’s a poor lady with a car full of kids she’s taking care of. Or, perhaps I got too close behind you, and it wasn’t my intention. Right now, the only mode of communication is a loud HONK! It’s shocking, aggressive, sometimes even abusive. The Car Talk brothers say let’s try something different. Let’s push a button that says “I’m sorry.” This would expand our repertory of communication. I cut you off, and I didn’t see you–I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had kids in the car–I’m sorry. I know I got too close and wasn’t paying attention–I’m sorry.
Why is it that in so much of our travels, our only mode of communication is the testosterone-fueled aggressive horn? HONK! You’re in my way, GOSHDOGGIT! (or fill in blank). Get out of my way! What if Ray and Tom’s idea came to be and instead of strictly aggressive behavior, we could just say, “Hey, I’m sorry.”
Now, imagine if we had an “I’m Sorry” button for life. “You know, I just said something I shouldn’t have said–I’m sorry. I was wrong; I offended you; I’m sorry.
In the pressures of life, we often fall into easy but harmful habits of communication. We are conditioned to make ourselves understood before we seek to understand. We may know intellectually that the opposite is the best practice: first seek to understand, then to be understood. Cultivating that habit requires effort, and many of us fall short, even in our closest relationships.
Imagine if every married couple took a course titled, “How to lose a fight.” Picture some typical marital bikkering. Those of us who are married have probably experienced this at some point. But there’s a twist. All of a sudden, let’s say the husband says mid-fight: “Time out. I’m going to shut up. Tell me again what you just said.” The wife says her piece, and then the husband reflects back: “You’re telling me that when I come home from work and I’m grouchy and hungry and had a hard day that you’ve had a hard day too and that I’m not sympathetic enough to you? Boy, you’re probably right.” Imagine this type of conversation taking place not only with married couples but between siblings, children and parents, co-workers, business associates and synagogue members. That’s an example of bringing the I’m Sorry Button into life.
Well, I have good news, everybody. We do have an “I’m Sorry” button for life. We Jews call it Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of returning that we begin tonight. This is our reset button. While ideally we should be in a constant state of teshuvah every day, during this season teshuvah is especially prevalent on our minds. Our tradition allows us the time and space to think, “What can I do differently to make myself or the world better?” In teshuvah, we dare to think about ways in which we can change our habits, getting rid of harmful habits and embracing nourishing ones.
There is an emerging science of habits. This year a fascinating book came out titled: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. The author unpacks the neuroanatomy of habits. He breaks down the formation of habits of individuals. Then he studies habits of companies and organizations. Finally, he demonstrates how entire societies can be conditioned by habits for better and for worse.
Duhigg posits that habits–even once they are rooted in our minds–aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.
Over the course of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I plan to explore in greater depth the role of habits in our lives. They have enormous effect on our personal lives, on our community life including here at Temple Torah, and on society as a whole. I invite you to join me on a journey over the next ten days to explore how we can embrace new, wholesome habits for ourselves and our community.
I don’t know if engineers in Detroit will ever equip cars with “I’m Sorry” buttons; however, if we cultivate the right habits perhaps we’ll never need them. May we be so blessed in this New Year.
Inspired by and largely derived from D’var Torah by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles, before the Chicago Board of Rabbis, August 22, 2012.