The Problem with Expectations Or Presidents and Other False Messiahs

I want to talk today about expectations. You may find that the first part of what I say expresses some things about your life that you do not even admit to yourself. Some of you will find the second part of what I say, about expectations of our country and our leaders, very controversial. But it’s Yom Kippur, and if we’re not honest on Yom Kippur, we never will be.

When the High Holidays come every year, we think about our lives. How often have people said to me, “This is not where I expected to be in my life at 40, or 50, or 60?” Or the painful statement: “This is not my life. I’m living someone else’s life.”
To illustrate this, let me read you the lyrics of a song.

It’s not simple to say
Most days I don’t recognize me

(But) I still remember that girl
She’s imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
She is messy but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine

It’s not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it’s all true

If I’m honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over
And rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew….
She is gone but she used to be mine

These lyrics are from the Broadway musical Waitress. “She Used to Be Mine” is a ballad written and composed by Sara Bareilles. It’s at the end of the show. Jenna, the main character, has gone through a lot and she’s at a very difficult point in her life. The song is about losing one’s sense of self.

I understood this song, the first time my daughter Sarah played it for me. I think most adults can relate. She says she has some faults and she’s made some mistakes but she has a mix of qualities and failings and she is like a beautiful pie that has different ingredients.

Most of us can relate to that loneliness she sings about. And as we get older and people we love are no longer with us, we get lonelier.
Most of us can relate to the feeling that you wind up at a point in life and you’re not sure how you got here and there’s at least some disappointment.
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it’s all true

Somewhere along the way, life no longer lived up to your expectations
Your relationships are not what you thought they would be
You’re not sure where your life went,
You’re not sure how you are so different than you were.

Why doesn’t she say, “That’s what I used to be?

Instead, she says, she, in the third person, she used to be mine.
I don’t belong to me any more.
She used to be mine.
Why are we unhappy and irritated and angry so often? Because things haven’t gone like we expected them to go.
Your expectations shape your reality.
You need to be very aware of the expectations you have.
Unrealistic expectations give us all kinds of trouble.
So let me give you some examples of expectations that mess up our lives.

Expectation #1 – Life should be fair. We’ve all been told a million times that life isn’t fair, but we still expect life to be fair, and we believe that any unfairness that we experience will somehow balance out. WRONG. Get over it. When something “unfair” happens, don’t rely on outside forces to get you back on your feet. There isn’t some consolation prize, and the sooner you stop expecting that there will be, the sooner you can take actions that will make a difference.

Expectation #2 – Everyone likes me. WRONG. “I’m really nice, I’m really good. Why would anybody dislike me?” When you think that everyone will like you, you end up with hurt feelings. You may be nice and you may be good but there will be people who will simply not like you. When you assume that people will like you, you start making requests and demands that will accomplish nothing. Instead of expecting that people will like you, focus on earning their respect.

Expectation #3. “People know what I’m trying to say.” WRONG. People can’t read your mind, and what you’re trying to say is rarely what other people hear. You can’t expect people to understand you just because you’re talking. Your communication won’t be clear until you take the time to understand the other person’s perspective. But since we think we’re always clear, we expect
#4 – People should agree with me. You expect people to agree with you because your ideas are so incredibly sound. WRONG. You need to remember that something that’s obvious to you, might not be obvious to someone with different experiences.
Stop being so offended when people disagree with you, and stop assuming that your answer is the only right answer. Instead, focus on how you can find solutions that will give everyone what we need.
Expectation #5. – Things will make me happy. Wrong. Sure, things can make life more fun and comfortable in the short run, but they can’t make you happy in the long run. “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion.” “I’ll be happy when we move.” Too many of us expect a future event to make us happy, instead of looking into the real causes of our unhappiness. If you don’t fix what’s going on inside, no external event or item is going to make you happy.
Expectation #6. “I can change him or her.” Wrong. There’s only one person in this world you can truly change—yourself—and even that takes a tremendous amount of effort. That’s what these High Holidays are about: changing ourselves, not changing others. Still, it’s tempting to try to change someone, as if your sheer will change them. Some of us actively choose people with problems, thinking that we can “fix” them. Let go of this faulty expectation.
So these are some of the expectations that mess us up.
What we have to do is revise our expectations.
A special word to parents: Don’t raise your kids with unrealistic expectations that they will never fulfill. Don’t tell a child she’s going to Harvard. Don’t tell your kid he’s going to play for the Washington Football Team.
They will always feel like they let you down. Be realistic to begin with.

I want to go back to the song, She Used to be Mine.
At the end of the song, with great empowerment, she sings:
‘Til it finally reminds her
To fight just a little
To bring back the fire in her eyes
That’s been gone
but used to be mine
These words inspire me.
I’m going to get that fire in my eyes back
I’m going to toughen up
I know what others have said and done to me
But I’m worth a lot
And for all the disappointments
And despite how hard my life is right now,
I’m going to get me back.
That me, who used to be mine, will be me again.

Ok, so we have to revise what we expect of ourselves.
But my next question is, what can we expect of our leaders?
Just so you know: I have realistic expectations about how people are going to react to what I say now. It’s ok; I love you anyway.

During this last, terrible year in American history, when over 200,000 people died of a virus that research shows could have at least been partially modified if proper precautions had been made and if our government had responded with the right messaging and the right leadership;
during this last terrible year when it became clear that racism manifests itself on all levels in so many unjust ways,
during this last terrible year as corruption and lies have overflowed daily like a mighty stream from the very top,
I have been filled with many emotions, including rage, frustration and despair.
But on an intellectual level, I have often wondered: how can some of us, good, intelligent people, friends of mine, people I care about, still hope in a leader
Who this week explicitly and publicly refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power,
Who undermines our most precious institutions like elections and the Post Office,
Who clearly does not care about human suffering,
Who mocks our heroes who died for our country,
who thinks he knows more than all the doctors and scientists?
My grandchildren understand more.
My grandson Alexander, our rock-star Bar Mitzvah, talks every day about the catastrophic effects of climate change (he’s a Bar who knows what a Mitzvah is);
My 11-year old grandson Avi talks every day about what we should learn from history and science (he knows that if we do not learn from history we will repeat the mistakes of the past);
Six-year old Leah and five year-old Talia, first cousins who are like sisters, play elaborate games of pretend together, but in a split second, come back to reality. They know the difference between fantasy and reality.
Isabel Juliet Scolnic, 1¾, knows that bleach does not go in your body!
My friends know that climate change is real, that we must respect science, that history has a lot to teach us about how democracies turn into dictatorships, that fantasy is not reality, and that bleach is not medicine.
But I think that in the face of so many problems, my friends are still hoping that someone has the answers to all our questions. WRONG. To think that one person has all the answers is to make a mistake. We’ve made it before.
President Obama is an intelligent, caring person. He drove me crazy when it came to many issues about Israel, and in general I do not think he understood the world and how to respond to it, but I never doubted his good will.
When he was elected, a lot of us felt really good because here was a person described as black,
and after our long American nightmare of slavery and racism, we thought that he represented real change. But it became clear that the change was more symbolic than real. Despite electing a black President, American blacks have continued to endure discrimination and hatred.
One of the most honest remarks I ever heard from a political candidate was when Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana was confronted with his failure to transform the local police force to one that would be more racially inclusive. He said, “Because I couldn’t get it done.”
I’ll take that response. I tried and I did not get it done.
America has not gotten it done. And we should know this.
All I ask of leaders is that they continue to try, that they not call peaceful protesters ‘anarchists’, that they understand that most people want to make this a better country for all of its citizens.
What I don’t ask of any President is that they get it done.
Rabbi Tarfon said: “It is not up to you to finish the task. But you cannot desist from trying and doing your part.”
We should not think of Presidents as Messiahs, whatever their background.
A black President did not erase racism.
Did a businessman help our economy?
The Wizard of Oz was just a little con man behind the curtain that knew about smoke and mirrors.
But the people of Oz believed in all the smoke and mirrors because they wanted to think that there was a power who could take on the Wicked Witches.
Our Presidents are not Messiahs who are going to change the world.
Jewish people know all about Messiahs. For G-d’s sake, we invented the concept! And we have suffered plenty for it.
In the 7th century BCE, King Josiah of Judah did everything right. He restored Judaism to the religion of the Torah. He got rid of all the idols. He was the most righteous, the most religious king in Jewish history.
And then he made a tragic mistake, the kind of mistake people make when their greatness goes to their heads. He decided that since G-d was with him, he should get involved in a war between superpowers. G-d did not tell him to get involved. And the superpowers told him to stay out of their superpower war. But he wouldn’t listen, and went into battle in a place called Megiddo. And guess what? He got himself killed.
Everything was going great, but he believed what other people were saying about him. That’s what happens to people, including people you know. They start believing what others say about them and it goes to their heads. And if you’re the leader of a country, and everything, every person, the stock market, war and peace, everything rises and falls on one word from you, you get a Messiah complex. And it is very, very dangerous for you and everybody else. So Josiah died on a battlefield that he should never have gone near. And to this day, we have a word, Armageddon, which is a translation of Megiddo. It is the final battle. Beware of Armageddon. It may be closer than you think. If you understand what is really going on, you know that it may be very close indeed.
I could speak for hours about the other False Messiahs in Jewish history, Zerubbavvel, Bar Kochba, Shabbatai Tzvi. All disasters for our people.
I worry about America and its Messiah complex, and I worry about Israel and its Messiah complex. Before I came to Hamden, I was an Assistant Rabbi to a famous rabbi named Dr. Arthur Hertzberg. In the 1950s, he wrote a great book called The Zionist Idea. In that book, he asked what would happen to the idea of Zionism. He predicted there would be two groups: Messianic Jews and secular Jews. He was prophetic. 70 years later, Israel has deep divisions between Messianic and secular Jews.
I’m scared of Messianism, of its false hopes, of its unrealistic expectations. It can lead to terrible disasters.
Don’t believe in a human being.
Hope for leaders who are moral and good.
And then know you will disagree with them a lot.
That’s ok.
What is not ok is taking anyone and turning him into a god.
We don’t have any figures on our stained-glass windows.
Moses’s name is not in the Haggadah.
We believe in G-d. And even those of us who do not believe in a Being called G-d believe in G-d-given rights like equality and freedom.
Messianic thinking is simplistic thinking
Messianic thinking says: This guy is going to solve all of our problems.
Vote for him and a chicken in every pot and pot in every chicken!
Judaism says: You shall not worship idols. Not American idols. Not celebrity idols. Not con-man idols.
Messianic thinking is shallow thinking.
But we’re far from the shallow now.
We’re in the deep end.
When you’re in the deep end, you can’t let anyone dive on top of you.
You have to be able to really swim.

Do you want a reason to believe in G-d? We should believe in G-d so that we do not believe that any human being is G-d. (2)

My theme today is “expectations.”
An expectation is a belief that is centered on the future, and it may or may not be realistic.
We have to be realistic about our lives
We shouldn’t expect life to be fair, or for everyone to like us or agree with us or even understand us.
And we have to be realistic about our country
Sometimes I think about America and I say, “She used to be mine.”
She still is, but we should be anxious about where our country is going.
The first step is to return to our basic values, like the law, and truth, and science, and caring about others.
We’re far from the shallow now.
We’re in the deep end
And we have to remember that no one can swim for us.
We’re going have to swim well to change our lives.
I believe in America, but I am scared of the simplistic expectations Americans have of their leaders. Just like we get disappointed with our lives because we had unrealistic expectations to begin with, we ask things of Presidents that turn them into false Messiahs.
But there are things that we should expect of our Presidents.
We should expect a President to care about the lives of all of his people. To use the image of the song, if America is a beautiful pie, it has all sorts of different ingredients. No one should be allowed to slice up and say goodbye to the American pie.
We should expect a President to denounce white supremacists and Nazis.
We should expect that a President would protect us from enemies within and without.
We should expect a President to say that he will commit to the peaceful transition of power if he loses the election.
If you know history, you know what can happen to a country.
If you’re Jewish, you know what can happen to a country.
For the first time in my life, I am terrified that American democracy itself is at stake, right now.
This is not a drill.
Like the song said:
We have to fight
We have to get the fire back in our eyes
She used to be mine

Our lives used to be ours. We have to have realistic expectations about our lives and our kids.
Our country used to be ours.
Beware of false Messiahs.
Beware of greedy leaders who take you where you should not go
We’re in the deep end; we’re far from the shallow now.
We have to get our lives back.
We have to get our country back.
Before it’s too late.