Decisions

(This is a sermon I gave recently at the Bat Mitzvah ceremony of Janessa White)

I’ve talked with Janessa about history and how we both are interested in going back to historical situations where leaders had to make decisions like whether to go to war. Were they right or wrong? Did they make the right decision? Should they be blamed if they made the wrong decision based on the facts as they understood them? For example, Janessa has talked about what American military leaders and political figures might have known about what turned out to be the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to American involvement in World War II. To this day, historians blame different people and there are even conspiracy theories that some in the government wanted it to happen. Some historians claim that we could have been better prepared for that disaster, that we should have been prepared for that attack. Whatever the case, when we make mistakes, we have to learn from what has happened. We were not prepared for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Have we learned from our mistakes?

I want to tell you a quick story about a young manager who was very ambitious and was doing very well and who was selected to replace an executive who was retiring. The young woman approaches the older, very respected leader and asks, “Sir, you’re a legend. You’ve done such great things as a leader of this company. Could you give me some advice as I try to fill your shoes?”

The older man ponders the question and responds: “Three words: Make good decisions!” “That’s good advice,” the young woman replies as she writes this down on her phone. “And what’s the key to making good decisions?”

“One word,” the veteran executive replies, “Experience.”

“And how do I get experience?” the eager young woman asks as she writes “experience” on her phone.

“Two words,” the retiring man answers. “Bad decisions.”

In a way, that older man was talking to all young people. You are going to make mistakes. The question is: Will you learn from them? Or will you blame someone else?

When we make mistakes, we have to learn from them. If America has been unprepared for some of the terrible things that have happened, we have to learn and try to be as prepared as we can be to protect our country.

I read the work of a psychologist who studied decisions and estimated that each of us is faced with hundreds of decisions each day. These decisions range from trivial (should I have tuna fish for lunch?) to priority (what is the most important thing that I have to do and what should I do first?) to moral (I must do the good thing and
I must not do the bad thing). It is extremely important that we make good choices.

Why? Because we are the sum total of our decisions. We make our decisions, and our decisions make us. Be careful of the choices you make today. They will become your lifestyle tomorrow.

We live at a time when information, and misinformation bombard us at every turn. It feels like my phone sends me alerts every few minutes about car accidents and
school evacuations and political maneuvers.

It’s hard not to come to quick conclusions about the things that are happening. It’s hard to suspend our judgment, to wait until we are sure of the facts.

As a rabbi, people come up to me all the time and ask me why I haven’t spoken about something that has happened. And when I say, “I’m not sure why that happened. I’m not sure who’s responsible. I need to understand the facts before I can formulate an opinion that I might want to share with others.” I’m thinking about something that
happened in January in Chicago and everybody thought that they knew what had happened, and everybody made quick decisions, and made public statements about it.
People asked me: “Why haven’t you given a sermon about this?” And I said: “I’m just not sure I know what happened.” It turned out that the whole thing was staged, and the supposed victim was really the one who committed a crime.

My point is that in this time of rapidly transmitted information, we have to wait before making decisions about the facts and even longer to formulate how we feel about
those facts.

We make hundreds of decisions every day. But there are decisions that we make about our lives that affect every day.

What are my priorities?
What really matters to me?
Who really matters to me?

These decisions are the building blocks of our lives. No one knows what is going to happen. But you can listen to what others say and at least consider that they may have
something to tell you.

So here’s another quick story. A TV news camera crew was on assignment in south Florida filming the widespread destruction of a hurricane. In one scene, amid the devastation and debris, stood one house on its foundation. The reporter asked the owner, “Sir, why is your house the only one in the entire neighborhood that is still standing? How did you manage to escape the severe damage of the hurricane?”

“I built this house myself,” the man replied. “I also built it according to the Florida state building code. When the code called for 2x6 roof trusses, I used 2x6 roof trusses. I
was told that a house built according to code could withstand a hurricane. I did and it did. I suppose no one else around here followed the code.”

This is a very valuable story, and I hope that our young people will hear it. We don’t have to figure out life by ourselves. There are others who have things to tell us and to help us. Sometimes young people think that they have to figure out life all by themselves, and it’s overwhelming, and anxiety provoking, and downright scary. We’re scared that we won’t know what to decide.

But just like there is a building code for houses threatened by hurricanes, there is a moral code, based in the Bible, for human beings who want to be good.

That moral code is based on the bad decisions that led to experience that led to good decisions that became our way of life. That’s what religion has to give us, so that we can make the best decisions we can based on the best information we have and try to live life in a meaningful and productive way. We don’t have to make decisions that
will change history. We have to make decisions that will change our lives and the lives of the people around us.

Rabbi Scolnic