The Good Life: Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

The Good Life

Erev Rosh HaShana 5774/4 September 2013

Congregation Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

What is The Good Life? To celebrate her 75th birthday, one of my dearest friends, Tamara Eskenazi, posed this question to a circle of beloveds. Tamara asked us “What have we learned in the last 25 years about the nature of The Good Life?” “Have your ideas of ‘The Good Life’ changed in the last 25 years, if so, how and why?”

We Jews aske ourselves similar questions at least once every year. We may phrase them differently, but tonight, on this Erev Rosh HaShana, let’s explore this terrain together.

What is The Good Life? What is A Good Life? For those of us who can reflect, perhaps on a quarter of century of living, or more, what have we learned about living well? For those of us who may not yet have lived 25 years, what do we think The Good Life may be? These questions lead to others: Why am I here? What is it that I should be doing? What are my responsibilities to myself, and to others? What gives life meaning? How can I understand and deal with the challenges that seem to prevent me from having, or living, or enjoying a good life?

I was enormously fortunate this summer to participate in a rabbinic service learning delegation sent by the American Jewish World Service to Lucknow, India.[i] Lucknow is situated in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state with the largest number of rural residents.  Seventeen rabbis from across the country and from across the denominational spectrum spent ten days working with local men and women in a village school, building a classroom floor, paving a drainage area around the school pump, repaving the floor and food preparation area where village women prepared a government-funded hot meal each day, and creating a patio for the children to play and eat their lunch. I worked primarily on the patio and the drainage area, clearing rubble, carrying bricks, hauling water, and spreading a mixture of mud and clay over the newly bricked area. Our outdoor work in the village was balanced by afternoon studies, meeting with social change activists, and learning about the challenges faced by those who live in the world’s most populous democracy.

Every day, laboring under the very hot sun, working with women and men who live in a village without either electricity or running water, toiling in a 3 room school that that lacked books and desks, and later, bent over texts in an air-conditioned classroom, I asked: what is A Good Life?

Our time in the village, and in India was brief. All of us who have had the privilege to travel beyond our own comfort zones, whether it has been to rural areas in our own country, to urban slums in American cities, or to the wider world where the majority of people lack access to clean water, sanitation, basic nutrition, each of us has returned home to comforts we take for granted. And we’re here tonight in our synagogue home, in a building with comfortable seats, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, a fully equipped kitchen and clean, modern bathrooms. And few of us think about the fact that we are enormously privileged to live as we do, where we do, when we do.

Some of you have studied, or heard, or maybe even collected the statistics I’m about to share. I would like to remind us where we, as Americans, who take so much for granted, sit vis a vis most of the rest of the world.

There are 7 billion people in the world. Most of us can’t deal with numbers that large. (Judith Miller’s book about facing the Holocaust is entitled One, by One, by One to help us think about the fact that statistics and large numbers are always about individual lives and individual stories, one, by one, by one.) If we think of the world as having 100 people, we may be able to create a manageable snapshot of global civilization. I’d like to look at these statistics through the lens of my recent experience in India, juxtaposing the realities of the lives of the residents both of Bikharipurwa, the village in which we spent our days, with the realities of my life.

If we think of the world as 100 people, 60 live in Asia, and 5 live in North America.  In India, we met both Hindus and Muslims. If the population were 100 people, 22 would be Muslim, 14 would be Hindu, and less than a fraction of 1% would be Jewish. 83 are able to read and write, and 17 are not. 87 have access to safe drinking water. In the world, 51 live in cities and 49 in rural areas; in India 70 live in rural areas. While 78 individuals have access to electricity, the residents of Bikaripurwa were among the 22 who do not. In the world of 100 souls, 65 out of 100 have access to improved sanitation. The people of Bikaripurwa were among the 35 who do not. They are also among the 52% of people who live on less than $2 USDollars per day. One out of 2 children in the world live in poverty. The children we met at Bikharipurwa could be considered to be poor because although they had some access to food, shelter, and clothing, we could see that many of them were suffering from inadequate nutrition. Their sanitation needs were unmet, and their access to both education and health care was limited. Another measure of poverty is longevity; if there were 100 people in the world, 8 would be 65 years or older. In India, life expectancy is 65.5 years. In Uttar Pradesh, life expectancy is 62.6. Over a lifetime, poor nutrition and lack of access to healthcare take a toll. So the elders we met in Bikharipurwa were, I believe, younger than I am now.[ii]

What is the Good Life?

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed to the Congress Four Freedoms that the Allies subsequently adopted as their basic aims for going to war: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. In 1948, one year after India gained independence, in the year in which Israel became a sovereign state, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This powerful document articulates principles of dignity, liberty, equality, freedoms in civil, political, spiritual, economic and social matters, and the obligations each individual owes to the community. Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”[iii]

Basic human rights, including but not limited to the rights that are outlined in this now 65 year old Declaration, seem to me to provide the foundation for The Good Life.

Yet even without what we would consider “an adequate standard of living,” I wonder  whether some of the villagers we met would consider that their lives are good. On our last day in the village, we met with villagers in separate gender groups. As we had been throughout our time together, we were accompanied by translators who helped us surmount our lack of Hindi, the language of most of northern India. We gathered on the porch of the home of a young woman who had moved to the village after her marriage and was now pregnant with her second child. She, like every woman there, began her married life by joining a multi-generational household that includes her husband’s parents. Each of the women in this very modest village was dressed in a colorful sari. Many of the women were resplendent in bangles and necklaces, earrings and nose rings. By comparison, we Americans were quite drab in our tshirts, trousers and work boots.

The village women were curious about our families: who choses our husbands? Do we move to our husband’s homes after marriage? Is our marital status indicated by our dress? How many children do we have? When we responded to their questions, they were puzzled: if we move into our own homes after marriage, who takes care of the old people?

The women’s questions reflected their worldview and their own lives. Our conversation focused on the most basic and, indeed, essential questions of life: our intimate circles of support.

When we compared notes with our male colleagues, it turned out that the villagers had first asked them, “how many of you are farmers?” For most of us, outdoor work of any kind was, if not a new experience, then a rare one. We spend our days working at computers, teaching, visiting hospitals, meeting with congregants and community people. Before our trip, one rabbi had emailed the rest of us that he had shared the plans for the trip with the maintenance man at his synagogue, and that man had said, “They should send me, not you!”

The villagers then asked similar questions of the men about marriage and family, and were as puzzled as the women about our lives where we pick up and move away for school and then for work, sometimes leaving our families of origin thousands of miles away. Have we, who live with so many conveniences and comforts, have we forgotten that the good life is about creating and nurturing families and communities, doing the hard, often frustrating work of cooperating with others to achieve a shared goal? This is, of course, what rabbis do: at our best, we build communities of Jews who strengthen one another so that we can be of real service to our communities and to the world. The villagers questions helped remind us of the urgency, and the universality, of our work.

What is the good life?

HaYom Harat Olam: On Rosh HaShana the world begins anew. On Rosh HaShana we can begin again and we can renew: ourselves, our choices, our lives. Today, we can turn and return to a consideration of the good life, for ourselves, for our communities, for the world.

When I began to speak with you tonight, I asked you to think about the good life for you. Then I shared with you some reflections on my travels to India, to the other side of the world, where I met individuals and members of a community, who, despite their geographical distance from our lives, are our neighbors. Our lives are bound up with the lives of our brothers and sisters and cousins around the globe, with friends and neighbors we have not yet met. My sense of “the good life” is challenged by these connections, and by witnessing how very different—and how very similar—our lives and hopes are.

So here’s what I would like to propose, based on what I have shared with you tonight. These are my thoughts, 12 of them, about what constitutes a good life:

  • A good life      is a life of curiousity and wonder. A good life demands that we continue      to ask questions throughout our life, asking both why and why not?
  • A good life      is a life of awareness, attention, and intention.
  • A good life      is a life shared with others: intimates, beloveds, friends, and      community 
  • A good life      is a life of service: of sharing one’s bounty and one’s skills with others
  • A good life      includes discovering physical, psychological and intellectual limits and      surpassing them.
  • A good life      is a life of celebration, appreciation, gratitude.
  • A good life      includes overcoming obstacles, both within and without.
  • A good life      includes the privilege of walking with others in times of joy and pain.
  • A good life      includes the pleasures and challenges of creating and growing through the      arts.
  • A good life      celebrates living on the earth and preserving it for generations to come
  • A good life      is a life of purpose and direction
  • A good life      is a life of response.

What is the Good Life for you?

On Yom Kippur morning, we will read verses from Deuteronomy, which say that such teaching is, and I quote,  

“… not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say: ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).[iv]

Each of us, I believe, can name points along the path to a good life that are achieveable—not too baffling, not in the heavens, and not beyond the sea. As we go forth into this new year, I want to invite each of you into conversation with me and with one another on The Good Life.  Let us begin tonight, at the Oneg Yom Tov, throughout these Awesome Days, these Yamim Noraim, and into this New Year. Our conversation will be rich and varied, whether we exchange our ideas in person, through the written word, in song, drawing, painting, cartoons, film…let’s begin!

Let us continue this conversation, sharing ideas and insights about how we, you and I, can increase goodness both in our lives and in the lives of others. Each of us has the power to increase justice in this challenging world. Each of us can increase the kindness and compassion in our troubled world. We can both live The Good Life and increase the goodness in others’ lives through deliberate action, through purposeful and intentional living, and through realizing that our words and our deeds matter.

In the Birkat haMazon, the blessing after meals, we call God haTov v’haMetiv,  the Essence and the Source of Goodness. In this new year, as individuals created in God’s image, may we also increase goodness in the world. Then we will be living the Good Life. Ken y’hi ratzon.




[iv] In creating the machzor for Reform worshippers in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the editors of The Gates of Repentence: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe (NY: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978) “elected to read [this] passage from Deuteronomy stressing the doctrine of personal responsibility.” See Lawrence A. Hoffman, Gates of Understanding 2: Appreciating the Days of Awe (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984), 129 ff. See also my d’var Torah in The Jewish Exponent, 8/28/13