Selected Sermon/Article
2009-09-29 Rosh Hashana by Rabbi Zeev Smason
Rosh Hashana Sermon: "Excusiologists"

          Rosh Hashana Sermon:        "Excusiologists"



      You've heard of a 'Cosmetologist.'   A cosmetologist is someone who studies and applies various beauty treatments.  And you've heard of a 'Psychologist.'  A psychologist is someone who studies the human mind and human behavior.   A 'Zoologist' is a biological scientist who studies animals


     Have you ever heard of an 'Excusiologist'?


     An Excusiologist is someone who is proficient at shifting the blame to anyone or anything other than himself.  Young or old, all of us are born with tremendous potential to be an Excusiologist.  An expert Excusiologist, despite the weight of obvious evidence, will still be able to say those four little words:   It's not my fault.


     The story is told about a mother who heard the family cat yowl in pain.   Mom knew where to look: her young son Moishe.   "Moishe," she called out,  "stop pulling the cat's tail!"


     Little Moishe replied, "Mom, I'm not pulling his tail.  I'm just standing on it.  He's doing the pulling."


     Remember comedian Flip Wilson?  One of my favorite Flip Wilson characters was Geraldine.  Geraldine never did anything wrong.  Her signature line was  'The devil made me do it!'    Many politicians, athletes, actors, coworkers, family members -- even, perhaps, the person reading this -- are expert Excusiologists.



    While you might acknowledge that this is human nature, you may be asking yourselves:  "What does this have to do with Rosh Hashana I thought that Rosh Hashana  is Yom HaDin -- the Day of Judgement -- when G-d opens His books and does some accounting? "   Rosh Hashana is also a day -- you might say to yourself -- that we coronate G-d as King and declare our loyalty to Him.


.  But often overlooked is that Rosh Hashana is the first of the Aseres Y'mai Tshuva -- The Ten Days of Repentance.  It begins the period of time we're supposed to focus on changing our ways, expressing regret for the mistakes we've made throughout the year, and to beg G-d for forgiveness and atonement.  Tshuva  (returning to G-d) should, in theory  be so easy!  All we have to do is admit our mistakes, feel regret, and resolve not to repeat them again.


    Ah,  but therein lies the challenge;   admitting our mistakes.  It might sound easy to fess up to our transgressions.   But that's where the Excusiologist in all of us rises to the occasion to blame our problems on something or someone else.  One of the greatest living Excusiologists is a  former college and pro football star who you may have heard of: O.J. Simpson.   Simpson  once said,  'The day you stop making excuses, is the day you start to the top.'  Yes, Simpson actually said that.  And today, of course, O.J. is on the bottom -- in a Nevada prison serving at least nine years for robbing, kidnapping and a number of other felonies.



    Excusiology -- the inability to admit our guilt -- has been around for a long time, and things haven't changed very much over the past 5,770 years.


    We usually say that the sin of Adam and Eve was because they disobeyed G-d's instructions not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But on closer analysis, they weren't punished immediately after their colossal mistake.  G-d engaged Adam in conversation, giving him the opportunity to admit what he did.  Adam didn't accept this opportunity.   Instead he said, "the woman who you gave to me - she gave me of the tree and I ate."   Adam avoided responsibility for his sin, shifting it onto Eve.  


  Then G-d turned to Eve, also giving her a chance to repent - she too declined the offer, saying, “the serpent deceived me and I ate.” Only then did G-d punish them for the sin. It is clear that had they taken responsibility for their actions when G-d confronted them, then surely the punishment would have been far lighter. Who knows how different the course of history might have been? 


      And incredibly, Adam even blamed G-d for his mistake.   He said, 'The woman you gave me caused me to eat.  Talk about being an Excusiologist!


    It reminds me of the story of the man who was on a strict weight loss program.  One morning he unfortunately gave into temptation and bought donuts at the bakery.  When asked why he cheated on his diet, he said it was G-d's fault for opening up a parking space right in front of the bakery as he drove by.


    When all else fails, the Excusiologist blames G-d.


     You're familiar with the Biblical story of  Cain and Abel.  After Cain killed his brother G-d didn't punish him instantly, but engaged him in conversation asking, 'where is Abel your brother?' 


   Cain's famous answer was, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'   The Midrash further elaborates upon this reply.  Cain said,  “G-d, You are the protector of all life, and You are asking me?!  I killed him but You gave me the evil inclination to do so.  You are supposed to protect everyone and You let me kill him, You are the one that killed him.  Had You accepted my offering like his, I would not have been jealous of him.”


    There are many factors to which we can dismiss our flaws and mistakes;  whether it be the way we were raised,  our natural inclinations,  society, or even G-d Himself.  The fact is,  most of us find it extremely hard to accept ultimate responsibility for our failings.



     Will Rogers once said that the history of North America would be written in three stages: The passing of the Indian, the passing of the buffalo, and the passing of the buck.


     Passing the buck makes it almost impossible to do tshuva.


   We live in a society that shuns the concept of responsibility.  Many highly educated people claim that no one can be held accountable for his behavior. Their argument posits that the person we become is predestined based upon background, upbringing, genetics and society.  In effect, they argue, man does not have free will.  The extension of this idea is that criminals can be excused of their crimes upon the basis that they have no choice in the matter, and that failings in character are unavoidable.  The Torah outlook strongly rejects this view.  Judaism teaches that if a person is brave enough to admit that he can do better, then G-d will surely help him to do so.


      Our patriarch Jacob had twelve sons, each of which were supremely great men. However it was Judah who was chosen to be the one from whom the kings of Israel would come, and from whom, ultimately, the messiah would emerge.  What was special about Judah above and beyond his eleven illustrious brothers?


     The Talmud states that Judah's selection for greatness was because he admitted to his actions in an incident with Tamar, his daughter-in-law.  Tamar was about to be killed for her alleged act of adultery.  However, Tamar gave Judah a chance to admit his part in the incident.  He could have easily remained silent, thereby sentencing three souls to death -- Tamar and the twins she was carrying inside her.  However, in a defining moment in history, Judah bravely accepted accountability, saying, "she is right, it is from me."


   It's not coincidental that this was the key moment in producing the seed of the messiah and the messianic era we hope for.  The messiah will bring humanity to it's pure state, correcting the sin of Adam and Eve.  As we saw, the main flaw present in Adam's sin was an inability to accept responsibility for mistakes.  Therefore Judah's success in taking responsibility for his actions when he said "I did it" was an ideal rectification.



       There's a story told about two men who worked together in a warehouse.  Every noon they sat on the dock and ate their lunches. Joe would always open his lunch box, remove a sandwich and look at it to see what kind it was.  If it was peanut butter he threw it away.  Any other kind he always ate.  One day his friend Ed asked, "Joe, how long have you been married?"


"Twelve Years"  


"You've been married twelve years and your wife still doesn't know you don't like peanut butter?"  


Joe snapped back, "Ed, you leave my wife out of this.  I make my own sandwiches!"


    We have to take responsibility for our own happiness.  And if we want to do tshuva between now and Yom Kippur, we have to take responsibility for our actions.  Let's abandon the 'dog ate my homework' excuses this year.  Let's leave aside the tired old rationalizations of " I can't lose weight.  I just can't get myself to exercise.  I was too tired to get up for minyan.  I don't have time to study Torah, or attend synagogue."  Let's stop playing the blame game, passing the buck, and saying that the things we need and want to accomplish are too hard. 


     This Rosh Hashana let's retire our titles as Excusiologists ....and begin to imagine what a productive, enjoyable and meaningful year we're going to have.


Rabbi Ze'ev Smason

Rosh Hashana 5770/ 2009


With thanks to Rabbi Yehonason Gefen for many of the Torah insights contained in this essay