“Good Enough” Is Not Good Enough

Delivered at Yom Kippur Morning Services 5772 • October 8, 2011

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

I’m P.C.  As opposed to Apple.  Yes, just like in the ads.  I’m the nerdy guy with glasses, clinging to uncool technology.  Also like those ads, I have a much cooler partner, and she’s Apple.  Toni has an iPad, an iPhone, and a Mac on each desk.

Be that as it may, I was deeply touched by this week’s tributes to Steve Jobs, now of blessed memory.  Like many of you, I read the commencement address Jobs delivered in 2005 at Stanford University.  As meaningful as those words must have been to graduates, they speak directly to the core concern of Yom Kippur.  Six years ago, reasonably healthy but already living with pancreatic cancer, Jobs proclaimed that death is “life’s greatest invention.”  He elaborated:  “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.  Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

In 1985, Steve Jobs was ousted as Apple’s Chief Executive.  That was 26 years ago.  He was 30 years old.  He had founded one of the world’s most innovative companies and introduced home computing to a mass audience.  Who would have begrudged him a luxurious retirement amid comfort and a feeling of self-satisfied accomplishment?  His obituary this week would still have reminded us of his tremendous contributions to the world.   By any measure, his work would have been “good enough.”

But “good enough” was not sufficient for Steve Jobs.  He persevered, through adversity, through economic downturns, and through devastating illness.  Jobs took note of the brevity of human life, and embraced a mission to do more, and better, than “good enough.”  The world is the beneficiary.  The iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad are only part of his legacy.  So much more, Jobs leaves us with hope:   Faith in American ingenuity, a renewed sense of what one person can accomplish, and a reminder that “good enough” is often not good enough.

As Jews, Yom Kippur is our annual reminder, in Jewish language, of the messages Steve Jobs conveyed in that Stanford commencement address and in his life.  The Yom Kippur liturgy repeatedly reinforces the harsh reality of our mortality:  “Who shall live and who shall die.”  Really, though, it’s not a question of “who;” for we all live, and we all will die.

This white robe I’m wearing may seem to elevate me and my colleagues to a higher status.  But that pride is false.  Instead, the white robe is a symbol of the kittel, the white burial garb for traditional Jews.  In some synagogues, everybody wears white on Yom Kippur, and many don an actual kittel, a stark reminder that our bodies will be dressed in that garment for much longer than we will wear any of our colorful clothes in this world.  In preparation for Yom Kippur, some are said even to go to the cemetery and to lie down on the place where they will be buried.  The point of that ritual is the same as the message Steve Jobs wove in words:  We will all die.  In the scheme of things, we will all die soon.   And Yom Kippur is our opportunity to get it right before we do.

At this point, Lloyd Bentsen, of blessed memory, might have turned to me and said, “Rabbi, I knew Steve Jobs, and you’re no Steve Jobs.”  I am not suggesting that we set unattainable expectations, like the imagined Jewish parent of David Bader’s hilarious haiku, asking:  “Is one Nobel Prize/ so much to ask of a child/ after all that I have done?”

A rabbinic sage, Reb Zusya, made a critical distinction.  The students saw Reb Zusya sobbing on the eve of Yom Kippur, and they were puzzled.  They saw that their Rabbi was distraught because of the errors of his ways.  They tried to comfort him, saying:  “God will not expect you to be as righteous as Isaiah; for you are not Isaiah!”  Reb Zusya agreed: “God may not expect me to be as great as Isaiah.  But God will ask, “Why were you not as righteous as Zusya could have been?”  We are not expected to ask ourselves how we can accomplish as much as Steve Jobs in our own brief lives.  Instead, each of us is commanded:  Be the very best person I can be, in this body, in this limited lifetime.  Even more, just as Steve Jobs preached from a secular platform, we Jews are religiously enjoined to utilize our brief time on Earth to make the world a better place.  God’s creation was good when we got here.  We are responsible for making it better.  Good enough is not good enough for this world.

To be specific:

Good enough is not good enough in our schools.  I am talking to the students, yes, even to young people who are least ready and least eager to embrace their own mortality.  You, too, young students, have a limited number of years, not only of life, may you each live to 120, but only a few short years to absorb all the learning that our schools have to offer before you enter the world as adults.  Take full advantage of these years.  Work hard.  Study hard.  Honor the dedication of your teachers and be a positive influence on your school community.  Learn absolutely everything that you can.   And yes, make good grades, for unfair as it may be, grades are the standard by which you will be measured.  Better grades mean more opportunities, not only for you but for what you can offer to our world.  If your best effort produces a “B,” then celebrate that B.  But if your low “A” is your version of “good enough,” then by all means work harder.  Good enough is not good enough.

Yes, our students have hard work to do.  But they are not alone, they cannot be alone.  I’m not sure that Texas public schools can even be called “good enough” any longer.  Even in the property-rich school district where I live, class sizes are reaching intolerable levels.  The research is compelling:  Students learn more effectively in smaller classes.  And the situation is so much worse, the class sizes that much larger, in the poorer school district where our Temple is located.  The leaders of our State have been content to sacrifice excellent education on the altar of low taxes.  Perhaps they believe that our schools are good enough.  But we know better.  And we know that time is short for the children who are in school today.  “Good enough” is not good enough in Texas public schools.

The same is true when our attention turns to Jewish education.  We at Temple Beth-El have a new Director of Lifelong Jewish Learning, Lisa Goldstein.  She has brought new energy and vision to our Religious School.  She has beamed at the excellence of our teachers and the enthusiasm of our students.  Still, she has identified countless areas in which our Religious School is not, as we might have hoped, good enough.  Lisa is already busy enriching the materials that teachers have available for their students, and she is working on a brand new curriculum, to be unveiled next summer.

Last spring, we took a confidential survey of our Confirmation Class of 5771 or 2011.  Among the findings, we learned that the graduates of our Religious School overwhelmingly believe that they have a good Jewish education for Reform Jews their age.  As their Rabbi, I am pleased that our youngest adults take pride in their Jewish identity and feel good about their Jewish knowledge.  In many ways, I think they are correct.  In comparative terms, the young people who complete our full program, through Confirmation, do have a stronger grounding in Judaism than most of their peers nationwide.  While most American Jewish teens drop out of Religious School after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we retain a large majority through 10th grade.  Studies show that continuing in formal Jewish education into high school correlates with higher levels of Jewish involvement as adults.

That being said, I hope that, a few years down the road, members of our most recent Confirmation Class will decide to supplement the Jewish education that they now see as good enough.  Our Temple students will go off to the working world, many of them via college.  Wherever they go, they will find Hebrew-school drop-outs, peers who are far less comfortable with Judaism.  They will also meet graduates of day schools who know much more.  Some of their peers will denigrate Reform Judaism and will make fun of what our young people do not know.  They will meet strident protestors, many of them intoxicated with self-righteous indignation on behalf of Palestinians, people who see Jews as oppressors and who are blissfully unencumbered with facts.  And they will be proselytized, again, as most of them have been in high school, with the demand that they explain how they can reject a Messiah who is said to fulfill our Bible.  Now more than ever, our young Jewish adults need to know more about Judaism, and more about Israel, more than any part-time Religious School can teach in a few hours a week.  That Jewish education which seems good enough right now may well prove not to be good enough after all.

When they reach that realization, our young adults will find resources available to them.  Today, vast troves of Jewish knowledge are literally at our fingertips on the Internet.  Scores of universities provide significant offerings in Jewish Studies, San Antonio’s own Trinity University now joining the University of Texas at Austin among them.

Here at Temple Beth-El, countless adults are acting on the knowledge that their previously sufficient Jewish education is not good enough.  This fall, our Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah program has so many registrants that we’ve had to open a second class.  Courses that once drew a handful now cannot be contained in the Block Conference Center.  A congregation that once could not imagine anybody other than a Rabbi leading a Temple service is now regularly led by regular Temple members who are fully competent to conduct a service, lead worshipful music, offer a sermon, and even read or chant from the Torah.  In the last decade or so, scores of our members have affirmed that their Jewish education was not good enough.  They sought to improve it, and they succeeded.  And they remain dissatisfied, so they constantly devote themselves to knowing more.

Two thousand years ago, our Rabbis taught:  “You are not required to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it.  The day is short; the task is great; the workers may be lazy; but the Boss is knocking at the door.”  Using the words of their day, our sages offered essentially the same critical message Steve Jobs provided in compelling terms at Stanford in 2005.  Our lives are short.  Yom Kippur is but one day.  We are not required to achieve perfection, but neither may we be satisfied with “good enough.”  On this Yom Kippur, aware of our mortality, let us pledge to make the most of the limited time we do have.  In 5772, let us all do better and let us all be better.   In 5772, let a better world be our shared goal.