I am standing in the middle of Cherry Creek State Park on a beautiful morning. I look west toward the mountains which sit enveloped in a summer haze. The green trees in the distance rustle in the wind. I pick up a shell from my pocket and drop it in the lower barrel of the shotgun, which is much heavier than I anticipated. I lock the gun closed, put my hand on the beautifully carved wooden handle, put my chin up to the warm wood, and yell pull! I trace the clay pigeon through its arc, my finger on the trigger.
I Pretend to put the gun down.
What am I doing? Why am I holding a gun, something I never thought that I would do? I’m caught between two values. I’m standing next to a friend, a member of our community who I like and respect. He invited me to the range many times and I wanted to both connect with him as a gun owner. On the other hand, I don’t value gun ownership. With these conflicting values I struggled about whether I would go up until the moment I stepped out of my car.
[BAM gun shot noise] the clay pigeon, unfazed, slowly falls to the ground and shatters. The smell of gunpowder wafts into my nostrils. After playing a few rounds and actually shooting some of the targets, I put the gun in its case, say goodbye to my friend and get in my car. I woke up the next morning with a sore bicep and still wondered if I made the right choice.
We try our best to make decisions that fit our values; values are the lens through which we act. Every day we make thousands of decisions. Some loom over us for days or weeks, and other decisions we make have little consequence to us. Big or small, ideally values inform our decisions. Some choices seem clear, such as donating to charity, helping our children study for a test, and saying please and thank you. We also know when not to act: we don’t steal, we don’t drink and drive, and we don’t gossip. Yet for some decisions we feel caught between two competing values: joining a friend at a shooting range, taking a call from our parents when we desperately need some quiet time, or donating to our alma matter with a large student loan debt. Even the simplest of decisions are complicated.
Imagine standing in front of the eggs at the grocery store. So many choices: white eggs, brown eggs, free range, pasture raised, cage free, vegetarian fed, omega three infused eggs, eggs in a variety of sizes: medium, large and extra-large, organic eggs, and something that resembles “ordinary” eggs. We used to be able to run into the store and pick up a carton of eggs in four minutes. Now we stand facing a wall of options. The marketers of eggs are manipulating us knowing that we will consult our values in this decision. We want to feel good about which eggs we purchase.
We want to feel good about all of our decisions, and when our actions reflect our values we do feel good. Our quest for a values-driven life begins in the home. I love to ask people what makes their home holy. Our homes are Jewish and sacred when they reflect our values. The words we speak, the food we choose to eat, who we invite into our homes, and when we gather with others, the sacred objects we display proudly, the books we read, the shows we watch, these are the elements that truly make our home Jewish and fill it with values. How does your home reflect your values, and how do you carry them through life?
Here we sit this morning, as a sacred community, reflecting upon our actions from the past year and our values. Think about some of your actions from the past year. Do they reflect our values? When we must choose between two values, how do we decide what is most important? Can we even articulate our values?
Each year in confirmation I ask the students to articulate their values. Often I’m met with deep silence – they know their values, but they cannot express their values. The first time I asked this question, someone raised their hand and asked for some examples, and I realized that I needed to study values myself. Sometimes we focus our efforts exclusively on teaching our youth, and through the process we discover what we need to learn as adults.
Throughout our lives we create a list of our most important values in a values-manual. We should refer to this “black book” in our minds anytime we act. We should know each and every page. Yet while we make moral decisions, we do not always consider the source of that morality. Fortunately, we can open the Torah, the original guidebook, of values to help us articulate our values. Often we translate the word Torah as law; however as modern Jews a more appropriate translation would be “Guide to our Values.” Through stories and commandments, the Torah teaches us how to live our lives, and when we distill these messages into one or two word phrases, we discover values.
Every year on Rosh Hashanah we read one of the most difficult passages in the Torah, the binding of Isaac. My heart breaks every time I hear Isaac question his father: “Father!” “Here I am, my son,” Abraham replies. “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?”
How could Abraham do this to his beloved son? How could God ask Abraham to do such an awful, almost impossible task?
God challenges Abraham to choose between two values: to love and trust God and to love and protect his son. At face value, this “test” is unfair, troubling, and makes us feel uncomfortable. For generations, Jews have struggled with this passage, questioning whether or not Abraham knew that God would stop him from killing his son. We don’t know what Abraham knew just as we do not always know the outcomes of our difficult decisions. Therefore we must always try our best to live by our values in these moments.
Our values also connect us with others. Think about the people with whom you choose to spend most of your time. Do they share your core values? Values of family, Judaism and spirituality brought us all together this morning. Values strengthen and create community.
Values can also help us find common ground among people with whom we disagree. In addition to joining my friend at the shooting range earlier in the summer, I also went to learn more about gun ownership and gun safety. HESED, Temple’s community organizing effort, is working to reduce gun violence in our community. Similar to our successful mental health campaign, gun violence is another issue keeping people awake at night. We know that a sustainable and winnable action will not seek to remove guns from people, but will instead seek to increase gun safety; whether through education, hastening the adoption of smart guns, or by reducing the number of suicides by guns. As we began this campaign, we knew that we must ask gun owners what they suggest to reduce violence. Through our shared value of saving a human life, we were able to listen to each other in spite of our opposing ideas. Truly listening to people with whom we disagree is possible through the framework of a values-based conversation.
At the gun range I also had the opportunity to talk with the owner and understand gun owners differently. He and I disagree about most issues, yet we found common ground in our values. Neither of us wants to see another gun used to harm another. Rather than argue second amendment rights, or talk at each other, we actually listened to one another.
Values can guide us through difficult decisions, help us listen to others, and can also cause us to question our current activities. This is a Broncos town, especially with the recent successes and a future super bowl win this year. However lately it’s been hard to pay attention to the game with controversy after controversy among the players. I’ve found it difficult to set my weekly lineup in my three fantasy football leagues, because in addition to the injury report we also must read the stories of who the NFL suspended for their poor to atrocious judgment. As we hear about various alleged scandals: drunk driving, drug abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse, racism, and concussions, we find ourselves wondering how this sacred Sunday ritual fits with our values. This makes me nervous – I love football – but if we wouldn’t play or let our kids play because of long term damage caused by head injuries, why are we willing to support someone risking their future?
I’m not suggesting that you give up your Bronco’s season tickets, unless you want to give them to me. Football has many benefits that reflect our values: it creates and strengthens community, provides entertainment, and teaches strategic thinking. I am suggesting that we continue to discuss these issues as they arise and evaluate them based upon our Jewish values.
We turn to Judaism our values and to help us make meaning out of life’s experiences. Yet as we stand in front of an ever growing selection of eggs, we might again ask, which came first? We should answer that our values come first. When we consult our values manual we find direction as we navigate life’s easy and complex situations, and ultimately we live more meaningful lives.
Shana Tova u’mituka, may we all have a sweet and happy new year.