The Goat Does Not Go it Alone

Parshat Terumah
February 9, 2019 — 4 Adar 1 5779

It is not every day that a member of our shul sends me a prophecy from the Book of Daniel.  In fact, it has happened only once, this week.  But the prophecy is a doozy.  Written more than two thousand years ago, this prophecy speaks to our reality today.  Daniel, chapter 8:

In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar, a vision appeared to me, to me, Daniel… I looked and saw a ram standing between me and the river; he had two horns; the horns were high, with one higher than the other, and the higher sprouting last.  I saw the ram butting westward, northward, and southward.  No beast could withstand him, and there was none to deliver from his power.  He did as he pleased and grew great.  As I looked on, a goat came from the west, passing over the entire earth …The goat…came up to the two-horned ram that I had seen standing between me and the river and charged at him with furious force.  I saw him reach the ram and rage at him; he struck the ram and broke its two horns, and the ram was powerless to withstand him…There was none to deliver the ram from the goat’s power. Daniel 8: 1-7.

You cannot make this stuff up.  That is what Daniel really says.  There is a ram that is invincible—it had the second most potent offense in the entire NFL—until the goat who passes over the entire earth—that would be Tom Brady, goat, greatest of all time, who indeed does a lot of passing, meets the ram and beats the ram.

It is possible, I acknowledge, that Daniel was not thinking about Super Bowl 53.  Perhaps Daniel was thinking more along the lines of an animal that goes baa.  But what are we to make of this prophetic imagery of the goat beating the ram?  The key word here is goat.  Whether you are a football fan, or not a football fan, the very concept of goat—the greatest of all time—raises an important question that applies to each of us.

Namely:  How should we think about the aspiration to be the greatest, the best?  Is thinking this way, is dreaming this way, is acting this way, I want to be the best, healthy?  What happens to our heart when we are focused on becoming the goat? I remember as a teen being drawn to the climactic line in the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  “To strive to seek to find and not to yield.”  Is this a good thing?

This week I read a book on point. A writer named Jonathan Rauch shares many stories of people in the middle of their lives.  They come from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Business, non-profit, government, university, doctors, lawyers, different kinds of service providers.  Each had some version of the following arc.  In their 20s and 30s, they were striving, seeking, finding and not yielding.  They wanted to be the Goat.  And many became very accomplished.  A common refrain was that the 40-something year old version of themselves had accomplished everything that the 20-something year old version of themselves had dreamed of—and more.   Many of those interviewed also had fulfilling personal lives. They found their life partner. They got married. They had children. They bought a house. They made a home. They had what should have been all the building blocks of a happy life.  But to a person, all those interviewed by Jonathan Rauch were grappling in their 40s with a problem.  They were not happy. They were not at peace.   They should have been, they felt. But they were not.  Instead, dark clouds gathered in their internal landscape.  Spouses, adult children, work colleagues did not understand their dark shadows: what’s wrong with you?

And then, in their 50s and beyond, something happened.  The dark clouds dissipated.  They felt happier.  They felt lighter. They felt better. They felt more at peace.  What happened?

To answer just that question, Jonathan Rauch writes this book he calls The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.  His thesis, based on interviewing lots of people in mid-life, and extensive research in the field of happiness—he speaks to many scholars who have published important pieces about happiness—is this:  In our 50s, we are hard wired to make three pivots that bring us greater peace and happiness.

We pivot from competition to collaboration.  In our 20s, 30s and 40s, we look around and ask: how can I climb to the top of my field?  I want to make partner.  I want to get published.  I want to become tenured.  I want to create my business.  I want to make a name for myself in my field. We are on the make, striving, seeking, not yielding. There is nothing wrong with this.  Rauch is not judging this.  Indeed he readily acknowledges that he did it himself. He was that striver and seeker in his field of journalism.  He observes that such striving and seeking and competing is part of a natural and normal life journey. But here is the thing.  It has a cost. Even if we are successful, there is a cost.  We are not at peace.  And then, also part of a natural and normal life journey, according to Rauch, in our 50s we look around and ask not how can I compete, but how can I collaborate?  What can I build with you?  That pivot, from competition to collaboration, allows for more peace.  To quote the MVP of Super Bowl 53, Julian Edelman: “Why you gotta hate? Collaborate”

Here is the second pivot, from comparison to compassion.  In those striving decades, I look around and I want to be better than.  Look to your left.  Who has more than me?  Look to your right.  Who is doing better than me?  All of this gives us no peace.  As Andy Stanley, the pastor of North Point Church in Atlanta, puts it, there is no win in comparison.  But in our 50s we look around and ask a different question: not how can I be better than you, but how can I be helpful to you?  How can I make your life better?  That pivot, from comparison to compassion, allows for more peace.

And the third pivot is from striving and seeking to gratitude.  In our 20s, 30s and 40s, in those decades when we are on the make, our focus is on the next.  What is my next job?  What is my next chapter?  What is my next house?  What is my next shiny new accomplishment, thing, resume builder? Next!  But in our 50s, we ask a different question. Not what is next, but what is good and right about our life right now.  What a beautiful question.  What is good and right about our life right now.  Let’s count our blessings, now.  This pivot from striving for next to grateful for now allows for more peace.

From competition to collaboration. From comparison to compassion. From striving to gratitude.   If we have not yet made these pivots, let’s not wait for the happiness curve in our 50s to save us.  It is not written in the Torah that in the decades of our 20s, 30s and 40s we need to be over-stressed and over-stretched seekers and strivers.  We can save ourselves a lot of angst if we make these pivots right now.   In Daniel’s prophecy the goat goes it alone.  But in real life if we want to be truly happy, we never do. We are happier when we build something beautiful with people we love.

Which brings us back to last Sunday night in Atlanta.

In last year’s Super Bowl against the Eagles, Tom Brady had a historic day, throwing for 505 yards, the most ever by a quarterback in a Super Bowl.  The Patriots lost.

In this year’s Super Bowl,  Brady played fine, but it was not his best game by any stretch.  But he was part of a team that was playing on all cylinders.  The defense completely shut down the Rams’ super potent offense.  The offensive line blocked and protected.  Brady famously sent an Instagram of his white jersey, unsoiled, to his offensive line thanking them for protecting him so well. His running backs ran well.  Gronk and Edelman caught his passes.  When the game was over, we all saw the hug Brady gave Edelman, and Brady was so happy to call his receiver MVP.

How does the goat beat the ram?  With a lot of help from our friends. That is true for Tom Brady.  That is true for all of us.  Shabbat shalom.