Billy was a student at the Beverly Hills High School, 90210. He started doing drugs. He failed English and physical education. He did whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it. He stole money from his parents. He broke into his parents’ tenants’ house and stole from them.
But what was strange to Billy was that, after a while, his father started to punish him for things he hadn’t done yet or for things his father couldn’t have known. Billy planned a big drug-filled weekend only to be grounded by his father before the weekend began. On another occasion, his father told Billy that narcotics agents, posing as students at his school, were about to run a sweep and bust everyone. His father named names of all the people involved, names he couldn’t have known.
One day Billy and a friend of his were sitting in his backyard smoking marijuana. There had been a windstorm and they saw that a panel on the side of the house had come down.
“Dude, what is this?” asked his friend, getting up to inspect the damage. “Come here dude, look at this!” His friend pointed to machinery inside the wall. They stared at the machine and at first couldn’t figure out what it was. And then the friend realized, ”Dude, your parents are taping your calls!”
Now it all made sense. Billy saw that it was a tape recorder. He was in disbelief, in pure shock.
Billy’s father had always been proud of him. His son was a very good student. All of a sudden, his grades and his attitude collapsed. He was in danger of ruining his chances of going to college. His father noticed that he spent a lot of time on the phone when he got home every day. So the father bought a voice-activated tape recorder. He took an outside wall of the basement and made it removable so that he could have constant access to it. He wired things so that he could listen to Billy’s conversations.
And if he heard that Billy was planning on, say, using cocaine the next day, he’d ask Billy to come to work with him that day. He’d listen to the tapes to re-direct what Billy was going to do.
When Billy discovered what was going on, he felt that his father had violated his privacy. He didn’t understand that his father felt violated by the fact that he had given his son everything and all that meant nothing to him.
So without confronting his father, Billy simply decided to do counter-espionage. He cleaned up his act on the phone. He claimed he was quitting drugs.
Then he realized that he wanted to fix his relationship with his father, that it was very important to him. So he confronted his father and told him that he knew he was taping his calls. He also admitted that he had stolen money and used his father to support his drug habit.
They had a mature conversation, and his father came up with a wise and brilliant solution. He said, “I’m not going to tape the calls any more. I’ve made my life. You have to make your life. This chapter is over. But here’s the deal: I have about forty 90-minute tapes. All I ask is that you listen to the tapes. I want you to listen to them. If you do that, we’re square.”
That was more than fair, so Billy listened to his drugged voice on the tapes. And he says, “I was embarrassed to hear myself. I had a hard time listening to the tapes. I sounded unkind, self-serving, totally uncaring, self-centered. It was all about me. I was the star on my own stage. I had never realized how mean I had gotten. I was a monster. I’m not that kind of person. It took me five or six weeks to listen to those tapes. My course of life changed dramatically because of that event. I hadn’t had the opportunity to hear myself, my tone of voice, the pain in my friends’ voices because I had ignored them. To this day I’m intensely aware of my effect on other people.”
Billy’s life changed not when he discovered that his father knew what he was doing but when he heard himself.
Do you remember the first time you ever heard your voice on a tape recorder? It was very strange, wasn’t it? To this day, my voice as others hear it is not the voice that I hear in my head.
What Billy heard on those tapes was not the voice that he had in his head but the voice of a stranger, and it was excruciating to listen to it.
When we talk to professionals, to psychiatrists or psychologists or social workers or rabbis, we ask them for insight, for evaluation, for guidance. But the most therapeutic part is not what they say but what we hear ourselves say. It is valuable to listen to yourself.
You have two voices
There’s the voice other people hear, the voice you hear on the tape recorder,
and then there’s the voice you hear in your head.
If someone made tapes of your voice on a daily basis, would you enjoy listening?
Or would you be embarrassed, like Billy was embarrassed, by the cold, jaded, self-centered, whiny, pathetic voice that you would hear on tapes of your average days?
Listen to yourself and you might be surprised.
Is that how you think of yourself?
Is that the voice that you want to represent yourself to others?
I know two members of a family who fight a lot. I’m sure that they are the only two members of any family who fight a lot, so this may be irrelevant to everyone else here. Just in case there are any people here who fight a lot, I want to mention something that I have suggested to them that has worked pretty well to lessen the fighting between them.
It used to be that when people argued, it was in person or on the phone. Now people can use modern technology to leave angry messages on answering machines and voice mail so that we don’t have to hear a direct or immediate response. It’s a lot easier to leave an angry message when you don’t have to hear what the other person is going to say in return.
I’m sure no one here has ever used this strategy, but just in case, I want to tell you about these friends of mine who would leave horrible messages for each other on voice mail. My suggestion, based on what I learned from the story of Billy and his father, was that instead of deleting the messages, which they would do without even listening, they would save them and at an appropriate time force the other to listen to the sound of his or her own voice.
One of them said: “I don’t like the ‘me’ I heard. I am so appalled at what I heard in my own voice that I’m going to try to stop leaving such messages.”
Billy’s father had given him something painful but valuable.
It is a rare gift to be able to hear yourself as others do.
The High Holidays are when, like the wall of Billy’s house, the wall comes tumbling, tumbling down, when we are forced to listen to the tapes of the days of the last year. It’s not easy to listen.
What the High Holidays should do for you is to make the wall come down so that you can hear your voice as it is and compare it to the voice that you have inside you, your better voice.
G-d is like Billy’s father, who makes us sit and listen to our own voices. We sit here like Billy and listen to the tapes of the last year and they can be embarrassing.
To hear the voice of boredom
To hear the voice of irritation and frustration
To hear the voice of someone who is so lost in the moment that one does not cherish life
To hear the voice of someone who doesn’t really care about anything or anyone
It’s so painful to hear that voice.
But that’s why we’re here, so that the wall will come down and we can hear ourselves and change our way of being, to rediscover our better voice.
There isn’t a person here who doesn’t have that better voice.
This winter, ten women who came on last year’s Israel trips will have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony. To put it mildly, most of them approached the process of becoming a Bat Mitzvah with nervousness. Okay, I’ll call it fear and trembling. Most of them were mostly concerned with what they saw as their lack of singing ability.
At our first meeting, one of them said: “I only sing in the shower and when I do, the water flies back up into the showerhead.”
When they sing, they hear the voice that others have told them they have, the one that some insensitive teacher heard when they were in third grade and told them that they were to be listeners, not singers.
But they don’t hear what I hear.
I hear the other voice
the voice of the real person
And each of those voices is beautiful because it comes from their effort and their concentration and their sincerity.
They looked at me and asked, “Can’t we just read the Haftorah? Why do we have to sing it?”
Prayer is about hearing your better voice and maybe, that’s why we sing,
Prayer is sung, not just read, so that we can hear that voice that only we can hear.
But someone else is listening: G-d hears your real voice.
My prayer for those Bat Mitzvah students, and for all of us, is that we appreciate who we are and hear the beauty of our own voices.
A country, like a person, has to listen to its better voice.
Despite its many problems, Israel keeps trying to listen to its better voice.
It’s hard, when so many are against you, to listen to anything. But Israel keeps trying for peace, despite the odds.
Israel takes actions that no other country would.
When, a few months ago, Israel released proven murdering terrorists in order to retrieve the dead bodies of two of its soldiers, I was horrified. On July 16, Israel released the Lebanese militant Samir Kuntar and four other Hezbollah terrorists, who had done unspeakable things, in exchange for the bodies of two kidnapped soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
How, many of us asked, could Israel release those murderers of innocent people? Where is the justice in letting them go? They made very clear they were going to come back and do it all again. I never disagree when Israel does what it needs to do to protect its citizens. That is what every government must do. So how could they release those who will kill innocent Israelis?
But then I read about the families of those two soldiers, and the closure they would have because they could bury their boys, and I thought: What a country, that would put such high principles, the grief of its citizens and the honor due those bodies, over everything else. Did I think the Israeli government didn’t know exactly what it was doing?
I realized: Israel’s better voice is better than my better voice. And I was humbled by the magnificence of what Israel did.
Over and over, Israel will make humiliating moves, unilateral withdrawals and concessions for nothing.
Humiliating moves, which are, in a sense, brilliant.
Because a big part of this whole story is about humiliation.
Arabs have felt humiliated for centuries and Israel is a symbol to them of their defeats and so their long pent-up anger spills violently on Israeli children.
That’s a historical explanation; it’s not an excuse.
But if others are acting badly and you can understand their motivation
And you’re willing not to stand on pride
Maybe you can do something
And Israel is trying, understanding that many Arabs live by the poles of pride and humiliation.
The radical Islamic world thinks in symbols like the World Trade Center, a center of capitalism, or the Pentagon, symbol of American military might.
That’s why 9/11 happened.
And so if Israel, despite everything, can swallow pride
Perhaps there will be hope
I don’t like thinking this or saying this because it goes against my grain
But maybe as my father always says, the best way to get dignity is to give it away.
Here’s what I believe,
Ki MeZion Taytzay Torah udevar Adonai Meerushalayim
“Because the Torah will come out of Zion
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
I believe that somehow, and I trust Israel’s enemies as far as I can throw them, that somehow Israel is in the middle of the vortex of the biggest issue that is going on in this world
That if the Western nations are going to figure out what to do about the spread of Islam and Islamic radicalism and how we can relate to each other in peace
It’s going to be in Israel that it gets figured out.
I believe that from the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, somehow, some version of peace and security will come.
And I know that, as a supporter of Israel, I often do not speak with my better voice because I get so angry, so shaken, so distraught at what Israel’s enemies do to her children.
I don’t know what Israel should do; I’m not like a whole lot of other rabbis who are smart enough to tell Israel how it should act in every situation, who, despite living here in America, have the audacity to lecture Israel on the morality of violence.
I just want the children of Israel to live in peace
And I pray that Israel can continue to listen to its better voice.
In the same way, I pray that America can listen to its better voice. Every day of my life, I ask G-d to bless America.
I don’t damn America for mistakes it made in the past.
I bless America for trying to be a great and free country.
I believe that America is the great hope of this world.
On this sacred night, I ask G-d to bless America by helping our country to listen to its better voice.
What does that mean? It means that this country very often does not listen to its better voice. Again, the better voice is an expression of intelligence, perspective, and imagination.
The better voice knows what evil can do and states that we must be proactive and strong to counteract evil before it attempts to destroy us.
The better voice says that America must look at long term needs and not just short term desires.
Instead, Americans are so wrapped up in today that they have no perspective. It has to do with the voices we listen to.
We listen to the drugged, slurred voice of complacency, “Oh, it’s not going to be so bad.”
We listen to the powder-like voices of procrastination: “Look, we have immediate needs; we can’t afford to think long-range right now.”
And we listen to the needle-like voices of opposition from the powers that benefit from the status quo. We listen to the voices of power that seduce us into keeping things as they are because they make more money this way.
We need to listen to our better voice.
You’ve heard of Voice of America. Since 1942, Voice of America has been a multimedia international broadcasting service. It broadcasts 1,000 hours of news and programming every week to a worldwide audience of more than 115 million people.
That’s a great thing. Let the world hear the voice of freedom and democracy. Let it counteract all the anti-American propaganda that flows through this world.
But there really is only one voice of America, and that’s the voice of the President of the United States.
I let the wall come tumbling down, and I listened to the tapes of America in recent years, and I don’t like what I hear. Is that who we are?
I’m hoping for a President who will express America’s better voice. He can’t listen to the voices of complacency, procrastination and opposition. He can’t just listen to the polls or powerful interest groups.
I know that some of you who are partisans will snicker, but we have two exceptional candidates for President this year.
Both of them are imperfect vessels, as all human beings are imperfect.
But both of them are capable of greatness.
I’m hoping that whoever wins will be a great leader, someone who breaks free of politics, looks at the long view and not just re-election and says to his country: Here’s what we need to do; here’s not a two-year plan but a twenty-year plan to move towards better security, universal health care, job growth, alternative energies to oil, reversing global warming, and so on.
Unlike most Americans, I’m not a liberal or a conservative. I think for myself about every issue. I don’t know from party lines or knee-jerk reactions. I can usually see both sides; if intelligent people didn’t disagree for well-thought out reasons, these matters wouldn’t be issues in the first place.
So if you’re like me, it’s tough, because one candidate is closer to my beliefs on this issue and the other is closer on that one. And I see them both pandering and catering, one to the left and the other to the right, but I’m willing to see past that, because I know that every party needs a caterer.
And I don’t like some of the voices that each of them listens to, but I’m hoping that they’re dismissing what they’re hearing.
And I’ve studied and lived through enough American history to know that when you vote, you’re just guessing about what kind of President you’re going to get, because presidents change in office. After carefully following this endless election season, I still don’t know what to do, whom to vote for.
So I’ve decided that when I go to the voting booth, I will vote for the one who I think can be the voice that I want my children and grandchildren to hear, the voice that I want the world to hear. That voice has to be the voice of sanity in an insane world, of strength in a mean world, of clarity in a confusing world. I’ll vote for the Voice of America.
And in our lives, we need to work on hearing our true voices. What does that voice sound like? Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and saw a Burning Bush, a bush that burned and was not consumed. Moses returned to Mt. Sinai with the Israelites and climbed the mountain again and received the Ten Commandments. The people saw lightning and thunder and the mountain was shaking and the people were shaking and as Jerry Lee Lewis would say there was a whole lot of shaking going on.
Very few people know that only one other person in the Bible ever went to Mt. Sinai, and that was Elijah, Eliyahu ha-Navi. When Elijah was on Mt. Sinai, he thought that he’d hear the voice of G-d in the storm or the earthquake or the wind. Instead, G-d spoke to Elijah in a still small voice.
That’s the voice of G-d coming through, the still small voice in your own head. Don’t expect to hear G-d’s voice out of a bush that’s burning without burning up or a shaking mountain. You’ll hear it as your own voice.
If you use Yom Kippur correctly, you will hear the tapes of your own voice in the last year.
Listen carefully, like Billy listened.
Picture Billy, listening to the tapes of his own voice, saying, “Oh my G-d, is that what I sound like? Is that me? That’s not me.”
On this Kol Nidre night, we must pray that the nations of America and Israel, at this crucial moment in history, will listen to their better voices and act accordingly.
And on this Kol Nidre night, let the wall come tumbling down. Remember Billy, who changed his life because he listened to himself. Sit here on Yom Kippur and participate in the service. But also listen to the tapes of the last year; there’s a lot you can learn. Your better voice is your G-d voice. Listen to that voice, and you’ll know what to do.