For the Sin of Writing People Off

Rosh Hashanah, Day Two, 5779
September 11, 2018 — 2 Tishri 5779

Once an elderly woman walked into a shul.  The friendly usher greeted her at the door, smiled, said welcome to our Temple, can I take you to your seat?  Of course, she said.

Where would you like to sit?

The front row, please.

The front row?  Why so close?

Oh, I really want to be able to hear the rabbi’s sermon.

You don’t want to do that, the usher said.

I don’t?  Why not?

The rabbi is so boring.

Really, she said.  Do you know who I am?

No, he said.

I am the rabbi’s mother.  I think his sermons are fabulous.

Do you know who I am, the usher asked?

No, she said.

Good, he answered. Let’s keep it that way.

This joke has a serious underside.  The usher does not know the mother and misjudges her.  It goes without saying that the usher does not know the rabbi and misjudges him—terribly and very unfairly, I might add.  The mother does not know the usher.  They inhabit the same space without knowing each other. What’s more, the negative energy in their encounter precludes them from ever getting to know each other.   Their relationship is dead on arrival.   You can just imagine them at Kiddush.  He avoids her. She avoids him.  Their relationship is broken by a snap judgment they make about each other without really knowing each other.

This joke is on us because this joke is our country right now.  In this age of uber partisanship, we all do some version of this.  We make snap judgments about somebody. We get filled with negative energy about somebody. We discount somebody. We dismiss somebody. Without ever really knowing their full story, their full humanity, all their decency.

There is a new sin of our times that we need to add to the confessional: for the sin of writing people off.  This year I committed this sin.  I wrote somebody off.

For many years I avidly read the New York Times columnist David Brooks.  I read and quoted his weekly columns.  I read and taught every book he ever wrote.  And then one day, December 4, 2017, it stopped.  His column that day made me so angry that I decided to go cold turkey on David Brooks.  The column was entitled How Not to Advance Gay Marriage.

Gay happens to be my issue.  Since both of our sons are gay, I take the issue of LGBTQ rights very seriously and very personally.  In this column Brooks discussed the case of the gay couple in Colorado who went to a bakery and wanted to order a cake for their wedding.  The baker, for reasons of his own religious principle, did not want to bake them a cake for their wedding because he believed a wedding was between a man and a woman.

The gay couple sued and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  As you know, the Supreme Court decided this past term in favor of the baker.

Brooks himself was an early and persuasive advocate for gay rights and for gay marriage.  But in this column, he argued that suing the baker was a mistake.   He said, and I quote, “it’s just a cake.”

Just a cake?

It was not “just a cake.”   It was about human dignity.  It was about the pain of being discriminated against because of who you are.  If he did not get that, what else did he not get? If he did not get the human dignity that was at the heart of this case, how could I trust anything he would ever write?  With that column, I wrote off David Brooks. That is the last column of his that I will ever read.

Many months later I was having a conversation with a very wise friend, and I told him that I no longer read David Brooks, and told him why.  He furrowed his brow.  He looked at me incredulously. And then he asked me a question.

How many years have you been at Temple Emanuel?


Have you ever given a bad sermon?

Have I ever given a bad sermon? It depends who you ask.  If you ask my mother, no, I never gave a bad sermon. But if you ask anyone else, yes, I have given bad sermons.

Would you want your congregants to judge you on the basis of your worst sermon?  Would you want somebody to write you off because you had a really bad day?

He was right of course. I realized that I had committed three sins.

The sin of coming to a boil too quickly.  I went from zero to crazy in a nano second because I care so much about this issue.

The sin of judging somebody for their worst moment.  All the years of columns and books that I had read and loved went out the window when I read the words “it’s just a cake.”

The sin of reducing somebody to a single issue, not seeing the rest of their humanity.

These three ingredients—coming to a boil too quickly, judging somebody on the basis of their worst moment, and single issuing somebody, not seeing the fullness of their humanity—all lead us to commit the sin of writing somebody off.   We are like the usher and the mother in the joke. We write somebody off, which means that they may well have a beautiful humanity we can no longer see.

In our machzor we ask God to forgive us for the sins we committed b’timon leivav, with a confused heart.

We had a confused heart when, because we are human, and imperfect, we had not our proudest moment. The columnist who writes a lousy column. The rabbi who gives a lousy sermon. The athlete who has a lousy game. The parent who does not hear. The spouse who does not see. The friend who ran out of patience.

In all these cases, we say to God: Please do not judge us on the basis of our worst moment.  Please judge us on the basis of the fullness of our humanity.

If we ask God to judge us that way, can we judge one another that way?

Which brings me back to David Brooks.   What are we supposed to do when we wrong somebody?  We are supposed to reach out, apologize, and make amends.  I had written off David Brooks.  So I needed to reach out to him personally, apologize, and make amends.

Of course that is easier to do if you actually know the person.  If they are a member of Temple Emanuel, I know how to do that. And I have done it.  If they are a member of my family, I know how to do that. And I have done it.  But when the person you wronged is a public figure who does not know you from Adam, whom you have never met, you don’t even have their email address, it’s a little bit harder.  So here is what I did.

I wrote an email to David Brooks with the re: line “An Elul Apology From a Rabbi You have Never Met.”

Dear Mr. Brooks:

You don’t know me, we have never met, but I owe you an apology.

I had always loved your columns and books.  I am a rabbi in Newton, Massachusetts and had been sharing your Torah with Temple Emanuel for many years.  But your column about how not to advance gay marriage so ticked me off that I decided to never read you again.  I wrote you off.

Then came along Elul, which makes us pause and reconsider.  I realized I had committed a sin, the sin of writing somebody off, which happens a lot in our time.  I am giving a sermon on Rosh Hashanah about this sin, a copy of which is attached.

But I also felt it was the right thing to do to apologize to you directly.  I am sorry that I wrote you off.  I still hate the column about the cake. But I should not have written you off.  Please accept my apology.

Please keep on writing.  I will keep on reading and bringing your insights to our community.

May you and your loved ones be inscribed for a year of life and health and strength.

Shana tova,
Wes Gardenswartz

I sent this email to several email addresses I had rounded up.   I sent this email to a friend of a friend who knows him.  He has not yet responded.  No matter.  We cannot control what the other person does.  We can only control what we do.  We can only control that we try our best to do the right thing.  And the right thing, in this age of division, is to try our hardest, to be intentional about, not writing people off.

Lord in this coming year, help us not commit the sin of writing people off.  Help us not come to a boil so quickly. Help us not judge somebody on the basis of their worst moment.

Help us not reduce anybody to a single issue.  Instead, help us invite the learning and growing that make possible the best version of other people and the best version of ourselves. Shanah tovah.