The Trouble With Pirates - Rosh Hashana 5777
It took me a long time to get into reality TV, but now I like the shows where an expert comes in as a consultant and tries to fix what’s wrong with a business. I find that these shows usually are not about business, but people. The businesses are usually good ones but there are personality conflicts or people who don’t know their own strengths and weaknesses. Since I never drink and never go to bars, I thought it would be different to try a show called Bar Rescue. I saw a blurb for an episode about a bar in Silver Spring, Maryland, near where I grew up. The episode was called “Yo-ho-ho and a Bottle of Dumb.” That sounded like just about my speed.
So there was a bar in Silver Spring, Maryland called Piratz Tavern. It was a dive; a lousy-looking storefront that stuck out like a sore thumb in a neighborhood with executive office buildings. The owner, Tracy Rebelo, had a vision of a tavern where the horrible, tacky décor was all about pirates; the staff was dressed as pirates, including a waiter with a black eye-patch who had actually lost an eye in a sword duel. She said that, quote, “being a pirate is the ultimate Peter Pan syndrome, to live like a child yet be an adult.” The problem was that they were losing so much money that they were close to closing. Tracy Rebelo and her husband Juciano and 17-year-old-daughter had lost their home, were deep in debt, and were all sleeping in her parents’ basement. So Tracy was desperate and called the host of Bar Rescue, Jon Taffer, who had renovated and saved bars all over the country. Taffer quickly evaluated the situation. Juciano was the cook; there was an 18-page menu with 146 choices but he couldn’t cook and gave you half-baked frozen fish no matter what you ordered. When he was forced to try his own sample dish, he couldn’t even swallow it. No matter what drink you ordered, you got the same drink that the expert who evaluated it, described as “diabetic shock and cheap booze.”
And beyond this, the whole concept didn’t work in this location: This wasn’t Disney World or Key West; the pirate bar just didn’t make any sense in the middle of the Silver Spring business district where there were 15,000 office workers within a few blocks. Taffer asked Tracy Rebelo, “Do you want to be a pirate or do you want to send your daughter to college?”
Taffer quickly dispensed with the pirate theme and completely renovated the place, renaming it “Corporate Bar and Grill” because of its location near office buildings. He did a beautiful job. He brought in a real chef and a two-page menu from which you ordered a dinner that was actually cooked. On the first night, the guests poured in the door, delighted with the new beautiful décor and thrilled that there were no longer any signs of pirates. Everybody was happy. People called it the coolest bar in Silver Spring. The money poured in. It was the right bar for that neighborhood. The makeover to a corporate-themed bar seemed perfect.
But the owner, Tracy Rebelo was miserable. And so were Juciano and the rest of the staff. They didn’t want their bar rescued.
So they mutinied.
The makeover lasted for all of 24 hours. The Piratz workers made over the makeover after one night of business. They went back to being a pirate bar. The business struggled, and eventually closed.
You call up an expert, the expert saves your business, re-makes your tavern into a success at his own expense, assures your family of a wonderful income, and you destroy it after one night?
Taffer said that their decision defied logic. After the tv show was aired, hundreds of people called them to tell them they were crazy not to go with the changes.
They didn’t care. They were going to go down with the pirate ship. To paraphrase “Puff the Magic Dragon,” this pirate ship wouldn’t lower its flag even when Reality roared out its name.
I saw this show and then watched it a second time. I was puzzled, and fascinated. So I checked in with a couple of friends who are psychologists. One said that the owner was what she called a “Help-rejecting complainer.” This is a person who will complain all the time but doesn’t really want to change.
This is the type of person exemplified by one of the great Yiddish jokes. It’s #38.
An old Jewish man is sitting on a train and he keeps saying. “I’m so thoisty. I’m so thoisty.”
A non-Jewish man who is sitting near him is getting more and more irritated because the old Jewish man keeps repeating, “I’m so thoisty, I’m so thoisty.” Finally, he can’t stand it any more. He goes to the snack bar and buys a cold bottle of water for the Jewish man. The Jewish man drinks the whole bottle in a single gulp.
Just when the non-Jewish man thinks he will have peace and quiet, the Jewish man starts complaining again, saying,
“I was so thoisty, I was so thoisty.”
The parallel is that the bar owner wanted to complain but didn’t really want to be helped.
My other psychologist friend said that the owner had an Anxiety disorder. Rebelo had gathered a staff that was deeply and emotionally committed to the pirate theme. Her husband was just playing the cook. The bartenders were pretending that they knew how to make a drink. It was all a game; they were Peter Pans who would not grow up.
They didn’t want to change; change would mean making adult decisions.
They were, indeed, pirates in the middle of an ocean of corporate executive adults.
And they had so much anxiety about being adults that they refused to change their childlike behavior.
The owner said, in effect: ‘My idea is my idea and I will go down with the pirate ship.’
I told this tale to my young friend Jared Schulefand (to a young friend) who owns a restaurant that feels like home, and he had the interesting theory that the owner had called Jon Taffer so that she could blame her failure on him. This is also a very human maneuver, blaming others for our own failures.
So maybe the would-be pirates are help-rejecting complainers, and maybe they all have an Anxiety disorder about growing up, and maybe they want to blame others for their own failures. Maybe it’s all of the above.
But for me, the message is that there are times in our lives when we have to realize that our ideas are not working and we need to change our minds.
After all, even G-d changes His mind, so why can’t we?
You may be surprised to hear this, but according to important parts of the Bible, G-D CHANGES HIS MIND.
G-d warns Adam that if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden in Eden, on that day, he will surely die. But when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, G-d does not kill them. In fact, when they hide from G-d because they now know that they’re naked, G-d makes them clothes, demonstrating that He is --- their Lord and Tailor.
Some time later, when G-d sees that humankind is corrupt, G-d regrets that He ever created humans. But then, after He destroys humankind by sending the Flood, G-d regrets that He has done so and says that He will never do such a thing again. He hangs up his bow, the rainbow, in the sky, to symbolize that He will never send another Flood. G-d keeps changing His mind about how to think about His creations.
On Mt. Sinai, G-d tells the people to come up on the mountain when they hear Him blow the mighty Shofar. But when they’re afraid to do so, G-d says that He did not want them to come up in the first place. G-d understands that the people are afraid and graciously pretends that He had never commanded them to ascend the mountain. He changes His mind out of sensitivity to the people’s fears.
So if G-d can change His mind to do what is best for everyone, our pirate friends should have accepted the new Corporate Bar and Grill.
I keep coming back to my question: Why wouldn’t they change?
Why did these people want to stay pirates?
Of course, my subject today is not a group of misfits in Silver Spring, I am thinking about all of us, for like them, but unlike G-d, we often are not willing to change our minds. Sometimes, we are just/ plain/ stubborn. We say things like, “I am who I am and that’s it.” “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
More often, we are not aware that we are being inflexible. We are committed to a course of action and we’re sure that it’s working, even when we should see that we are making bad things worse.
Let me give you an example that has consumed our country’s energies and affected all of our lives. In the last couple of decades, the United States has been fighting wars based on a fantasy and we’ve been failing. America goes to war, loses thousands of lives and zillions of dollars, spending precious resources in a vain attempt to help people who don’t really want to be helped, or at least don’t want to be helped in the way we hoped. And after all our sacrifices and efforts, we are like Jon Taffer of Bar Rescue, incredulous: Why don’t they want democracy and equality and prosperity? Why do they want to fail? Why do they want to be pirates?
A Johns Hopkins professor named Michael Mandelbaum wrote an interesting book called Mission Failure about recent American foreign policy. Mandelbaum really gets what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been so unsuccessful. He says that our foreign policy has been based on the fantasy that we can change the world.
In my terms, we think we can change a pirate tavern into an executive bar and grill. We want to change countries by freeing them from oppression and tyranny. We no longer just want to stop the bad guys from spreading their bad ways; now we want, to quote Santana, to change their evil ways.
So we went to Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. And we got rid of some terrible tyrants.
The military missions that we conducted were very successful.
But the political missions, the missions that tried to convert entire countries, all failed. It was usually done with the best of intentions, and in some cases saved many lives. But none of the efforts achieved the kind of self-sustaining democracies we wanted.
Why? Because political success was never within our control. This kind of transformation can only come from within, from the will of local actors to change their bad habits and to overcome longstanding hatreds with each other. In all these countries, Mandlebaum says, political transformation “was up to them — and they were not up to it.”
In an ideal world, we’d be right: Every country should have a democratic government and social contracts among equal citizens.
But Mandlebaum asks the right question: What if it’s up to them and they’re not up to it? Where are we now? What are the results of all our efforts?
ISIS, growing disorder and more and more people from these countries fleeing to the world of order in Europe and North America. And now the world of order is trying to figure out how to respond. A lot of what you see going on every day is based on these facts. If they want to be pirates, if they cannot overcome their hatreds and barbarism, there is nothing we can do.
We have to get over our fantasy that we can change every business and every country, we have to get over our fantasy that everyone is ready to hear basic ideas like freedom and equality.
Unlike the pirate bar staff but like G-d, we have to be able to change our minds about who we are in the world and what we can do. Some are so discouraged that they say we should pull back from involvement in the world. These people are living hopelessly in the past. The world is now a very small place and we are all interconnected, whether we want to be or not. Beware of simplistic doctrines that can be expressed in slogans of two or three words; such slogans are dangerous, because we have new kinds of enemies and we need complex new strategies.
You should understand this from your own life. We know that there are stages of life, and sometimes we can plan, step by step, and gradually move into the next stage, according to our plan.
But many of us have faced sudden disruptions that have thrown us into the new stage before we’re ready. People often ask me,
“What do I do now?
How should I feel?
What should I do next?”
And I say, “Let’s take this slowly.
You don’t need a makeover.
You’re not a pirate who needs to grow up.
You’re a good person who’s going through a rough time. And it’s going to take a while to figure out who you are now. Please don’t rush into any big decisions.” America has to carefully think about how to use its power in this new world.
But I’m not finished thinking about pirates.
What is a pirate? A pirate is defined as someone who steals from others.
Why would you want to be a pirate, raiding others of what they’ve earned?
Why would you want to live off the efforts of others?
Every time I pay my taxes, I find it really difficult, but then I thank G-d that I make a living and now I need to pay my fair share. A lot of people try to cheat on their taxes, but why would you want to cheat the government that gives you freedom and safety?
Are you going to be a pirate?
A taker and not a giver?
I’m talking more about the pirate mentality:
What island can I rob today?
How can I get what I want without paying for it?
Who can I steal from?
Isn’t this what’s happened in the financial world, where our economy has been wrecked by pirates? Let me quote their theme song:
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We extort, we pilfer, we filch, and sack,
Maraud and embezzle, and even high-jack,
A pirate’s life for me.
We need to do more in our country to protect our people from pirates. Pirates wrecked our economy several years ago, but as far as I can tell, little has been done to stop them from doing it again. And it feels like they keep discovering new ways to steal from us, like creating credit cards in our names.
To give a different illustration that is a sore subject for some of us who are active in the synagogue, don’t be a Jewish pirate. In my mind, a Jewish pirate is one who steals from the Jewish community. A Jewish pirate games a synagogue to get what they want without giving anything.
I was once asked to officiate at a funeral for a Jewish man, someone whom I had never met and who had never belonged to any synagogue. He lived nearby in a spacious and beautiful home here in Hamden. I called his wife, expressed my condolences and asked if I could come to her home and talk about her husband. She was very grateful and we made a time that would be convenient for her children and grandchildren to be there to talk with me, too. When I got there and we started talking, I saw them give each other looks. Being me, I thought I had said something wrong. Finally, I asked what was going on. The woman said, “We’re looking at each other because we’re so happy that you’re the rabbi doing the funeral. You’re the rabbi at the synagogue that we sneak into every Yom Kippur morning.”
They then proceeded to recite stories from a few of my sermons. I guess I should have been complimented, but I felt hollow. Believe me, if you would have seen their home, they could afford anything they wanted. They were Jewish pirates.
In my dumbness, I wondered: Why wouldn’t they want to help the community?
It has something to do with how we think about money. You grab every bargain, every loophole.
But don’t game a charitable institution.
Don’t game an organization that perpetuates a religion and values that you identify with and respect.
That family did have a measure of Jewish identity; they went to Yom Kippur services, they wanted a rabbi for the funeral. They should have wanted to help.
They’re Jewish pirates.
Are you going to steal from the community or are you going to give?
A pirate doesn’t give.
Of course the Piratz Bar failed. A Pirate Bar, by definition, could not survive. It isn’t a real community; it’s just a temporary collection of misfits and takers. It deserved to fail because it celebrated something that should never be celebrated.
The people at the pirate bar did not understand that it’s okay to change your mind; that’s how we grow.
They might have been self-rejecting complainers and they may have had an anxiety disorder and they might have wanted to blame someone else.
They might have been adults that were still kids because they never grew up.
But the worst thing is, they celebrated something terrible, a culture that takes. And they represent something in our culture that takes and does not give.
Don’t be a taker. Don’t be a pirate.
A pirate’s life is not for us.
We’re Jewish. We look for ways to give.