What do you want to be?

Posted on October 10, 2023

What do you want to be?

Some of us never get asked that question any more, while for the younger members of our community it’s a question that they are probably asked with quite some frequency.

Had you asked me that question when I was a child then I would have answered with certainty that I wanted to be a professional footballer and play for Liverpool. When I would wear my Liverpool jersey I used to dream of stepping out onto the hallowed Anfield turf, standing side by side with the players I idolized, and representing the club that I loved.

Unfortunately, when you’re a relatively short kid, with limited sporting ability, at some point you have to realize that you’re never going to achieve the dream of being a professional footballer. For me that moment came a couple of years ago when I realized that I was older than the players who were retiring from the game. But, I still hold a flicker of hope that one day Liverpool will be advertising for a team Rabbi…

The problem with the question of “What do you want to be?” is that we don’t really mean it. What we’re really asking is “What do you want to do?” – the answers we’re looking for are about the careers and professions that our children will pursue. We’re not asking the all-important question about being. “What do you want to be?” – should be a question about the type of person we aspire to be, the values we hope will guide our lives, and the feelings that will define us. It’s also a question that shouldn’t be reserved for the young, because our sense of being is a lifelong pursuit.

So today, I want everyone regardless of age, to consider the question: “What do you want to be?” And you’re not allowed to answer with a job or profession.

In a quote attributed to John Lennon, which he probably never said, we read: “When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy.” They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”[1]

Now I would argue that John, or whomever this happened to, did in fact understand the assignment, but I would dig deeper. In their book “The Good Life” Robert Waldinger and Marc Shultz caution that people often approach happiness as though it “is something to achieve,” a destination you will reach “after overcoming all of the obstacles in your way.”[2] But of course it doesn’t work that way. Aristotle gave us the term eudaimonia which “refers to a state of deep well-being in which a person feels that their life has meaning and purpose.”[3]

Psychologists like to use terms such as “well-being,” “wellness,” “thriving,” and “flourishing” to describe this type of happiness. This is what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,”[4] And in Judaism we have it as well: Eitz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar – It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy.[5] Ashrei ha’am shAdonai Elohav – Happy are those whose God is Adonai.[6] Our connection to Torah and God give us the tools to live a good life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life in which we can thrive and flourish.

It might surprise you, but according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, Yom Kippur is supposed to be the happiest day in our calendar. This might not be the way that you are feeling as you sit through my sermon. But on this day when we come closer to God than at any other time in the year, when our sins are forgiven, and when we have the opportunity for a new beginning – this is a day of ultimate meaning and purpose. The mood of Neilah, the service which concludes the day, is intended to be upbeat and, dare I say it, jolly.

Today provides us with an opportunity to reconsider the question of what we want to be, with the gift of a new year, filled with opportunity and potential, stretching before us.

Judaism offers many pathways to living a life of meaning, and I want to focus on three of them that we can all engage with immediately: Presence, Gratitude, and Kindness.

Hineini – I am here!

Whenever we read this word in the Torah we know that an important moment is beginning. God calls to Abraham, he responds “Hineini!”[7] God calls to Moses,[8] “Hineini” again. The word simply means “I am here” – but it’s meaning is so much more. Hineini denotes being truly present in the moment – you’re not thinking about what’s coming next, you’re not scanning the room for the next person, you’re not glancing at your phone screen. When we say “Hineini” it is statement that we are truly present in the moment in which we are currently living. It’s an easy word to say, it’s a much harder word to live – to truly be present.

Technology prevents us from living a life in which we are truly present – I walk around with my phone in my hand, frequently distracted from conversations, parenting, or a variety of other tasks by the buzzing and beeping. But rarely do these interruptions bring me any happiness.

And even without technology we’re also not truly present because we are so focused on the future. Dr. Tal Ben Shahar is credited with coining the term, “the arrival fallacy” – this is the “illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.”[9] We aspire to more and look forward to what’s next – but this rarely brings real joy or satisfaction and it prevents us from appreciating the here and now – the joy of this current moment.

The story is told of a businessman who saw a fisherman rowing a small boat to shore having caught a number of big fish. The businessman was impressed and asked him how long he had been out for, to which the fisherman replied ‘Just a short while’.

He continued ‘So why don’t you stay out longer to catch more?’

To which the fisherman said: ‘This is enough to feed my family. I will now go home, to play with my kids, have dinner with my wife, and then see friends in my village.

The businessman growing excited said: ‘I could help you become so much more successful, with my business knowledge we could grow your yield so that you could make more money and eventually have a fleet of boats. We could grow this into a huge business.’

‘And what would happen then?’ asked the fisherman.

‘Then you could live like a king, and eventually when the company was big enough you could sell it for millions.’

‘And what then?’ asked the fisherman.

‘Then’ the businessman said ‘you could retire live in a nice coastal fishing village spend time with your children, have dinner with your wife, and enjoy evenings with your friends.’[10]

Judaism is a religion that is concerned with the here and now – we don’t forget where we’ve been, and we are aware of where we are going. But we are called to be “Hineini” to be present in this moment, grateful for whom we are with and what we have right now. In Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of our Ancestors, we read: “Who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion.”[11] It’s not about a specific amount, it’s about gratitude for what we have, which leads us to another Jewish ingredient for a good life – “Hakarat HaTov” appreciating the good or gratitude.

I could stand up here and complain about things in my life – the mess that still has to be cleaned up in our playroom, the mountain of laundry that we still need to fold, or the piles of stuff that keep accumulating on counters in the kitchen. But with a slight shift in focus these annoyances are actually reminders of the family that I love, the beautiful home we are building together, and the fact that we are in the privileged position to have sufficient toys, clothes, and all of the stuff that fills our lives.

Judaism challenges us to make that shift in focus through brachot – blessings. As part of the morning liturgy we recite a series of blessings for the most mundane of things – putting on clothes, washing our faces, leaving the house – these are elements of our daily routine that we could easily take for granted.[12] But Judaism challenges us to see each moment as an opportunity for gratitude and praise. The section of the liturgy is actually called the Nissim bechol yom – the blessings for life’s daily miracles. We shift focus and see the mundane as miraculous, as something for which we should be grateful. And it doesn’t end in the morning as we’re required to recite 100 blessings every single day.[13] Judaism commands us to find 100 moments for gratitude and blessing.

Further, it is suggested that we should not stop at feeling gratitude, but that we should also share our gratitude with others. In his world-renowned Ted Talk,[14] leadership speaker Drew Dudley, shares the story of his final day at university. On that day, a girl he didn’t recognize came up to him and said: “I remember the first time I met you,” and she went on to describe the encounter. It was her first day of school and she was petrified and ready to leave. After much deliberation her parents had convinced her to at least go for the first day and see how it felt, and they told her they would take her home if it didn’t feel right. The minute she got there she made her decision. She wanted to leave. This wasn’t for her.  As she was standing in line building up the courage to tell her parents she wanted to quit, a fellow student, Drew emerged from the student union building wearing a ridiculous hat and holding a bucketful of lollipops. He stopped beside her, gave her a long, and what she would later describe as, creepy look, and then gave a lollipop to the guy next to her and said: “You need to give a lollipop to this beautiful woman next to you.” So embarrassed that he couldn’t make eye contact, the student extended his hand to give her the lollipop. And Drew immediately said to her parents: “First day away from home, and already she’s taking candy from a stranger!” This silly moment broke the tension and everyone around them laughed; it was in that moment she knew that she was in the place she was meant to be. Drew had no idea of the impact he had on her life, he couldn’t even remember that specific encounter, but she told him that he was the reason she stayed at college. And more than that, the guy who gave her the lollipop is now her husband (and Drew was invited to the wedding).

Drew calls these lollipop moments. In his Ted Talk, Drew asks the audience two questions that I’d like to ask you now. With a show of hands, how many of you have experienced a lollipop moment: a moment where someone said or did something that fundamentally made your life better? You can put your hands down. Now, how many of you have told that person about the impact they had? Why not? As Drew says: “we let people who have made our lives better walk away without knowing it.” We rarely or at least insufficiently say thank you for the difference they made in our lives. As significant as the lollipop moment was, and it was, even more extraordinary was the impact that hearing about it had on Drew. Discovering the extent to which his seemingly small act had changed this woman’s life had in turn, changed his own. The lollipop moment on its own was transformative; but sharing it with Drew changed the very trajectory of his life. This moment shaped his view of leadership which he has gone on to share with hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.

So now I want to challenge you to tell someone that they’ve made a positive difference in your life. Go and visit the person, pick up the phone, write them a letter. For those of you that want to write a letter, we have stamped envelopes available as you exit the sanctuary. Please use them. Don’t let the people who have made our lives better walk away without knowing it.

We also live happier more meaningful lives in relationship with others – that is the major finding of the 84-year long Harvard Study of Adult Development.[15] And our relationships strengthen, develop, and grow when we approach each other with an attitude of kindness. According to the Prophet Hosea, God would rather that we live lives of Chesed – kindness, than bring sacrifices.[16] And our brains are wired for this; the warm feeling of wellbeing we get from an act of kindness comes from the neural circuits that are activated in the brain.[17] Kindness is good for the giver, receiver, and also those who witness it.

A few months ago we were out for dinner with friends. Our daughter Gabby had finished eating and decided to wander off. We were not impressed. When we found her, she was sitting in the restaurant foyer with a toddler and his mother. We insisted she returned to the table, which she did, for about three minutes before she disappeared back to the baby. As we picked her up on the way out, she waved at the baby who was clearly enamored with her, and we thought nothing more of it.

Later that evening, Micol’s phone buzzed with a Facebook notification from the local mom’s group. Now if you’re in one of those groups, you know that’s not always a good thing. But as she read the message, a smile spread across her face. A woman was looking to thank the mom of a girl called Gabby who had entertained and occupied her fussy and over-tired toddler – the intervention had allowed them to eventually get him into a highchair so that they could enjoy their dinner. Our earlier annoyance shifted to pride. Gabby hadn’t been seeking out an act of kindness; she was looking for something more interesting than her parents, and she loves playing with babies – but her actions rippled to that family, then to us, and then to hundreds of moms in a Facebook group. The group which, like so much of social media, can so often turn into a place of negativity, became a light of positivity for people. Yes, it was kind of Gabby to play with the baby; but it was equally, if not even more kind to share that gratitude publicly as that mom did. Acts of kindness include naming it and sharing it with others.

Kindness doesn’t require big elaborate gestures; it can be the smallest of acts that improves someone’s day and makes a difference – and you never know how far that impact will spread. And as an aside, Gabby is available for all of your baby and puppy-entertaining needs and will be handing out her business cards at the door.

Hineini – Presence, Hakarat HaTov – Gratitude, Chesed – Kindness. All of these can help us to live more meaningful and fulfilled lives. It’s not a complicated recipe; in many ways it’s the simplest of things that contribute to our sense of well-being. We just don’t spend enough time prioritizing them and focusing on them. When we are present in the moment with each other, when we are grateful for each other, and when we are kind to each other it grows.

As we prepare to emerge from this High Holy Day season – what do we want to be? What do you want to be?

If the phone rang tomorrow from Liverpool Football Club, I would be eager to fulfill my boyhood dream and represent the team that I love. And if any of my British friends are watching the live stream, I can all but guarantee a few prank calls in the coming week. But in truth, the phone is not going to ring, and that’s alright because playing soccer was really, like any other job and so many things we do in life, a means to an end. I don’t need to be a professional footballer to be happy. Being your Rabbi, being a member of this TST team, being Micol’s husband, being Gabby and Bennys’ father — all of these roles bring me meaning, fulfillment, and joy.

So today, as I wish you a Shana Tova – a good year, I hope that it will be a year of happiness and joy, meaning and purpose, a year in which to thrive and flourish. A year of lollipop moments. A year of giving and receiving gratitude. A year of kindness.




[1] https://www.radiox.co.uk/artists/john-lennon/truth-behind-john-lennon-happy-quote/

[2] Robert Waldinger & Marc Schulz, “The Good Life” p.18

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

[5] Proverbs 3:18 (translation from Mishkan T’filah).

[6] Psalms 144:15

[7] Genesis 22:1

[8] Exodus 3:4

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/28/smarter-living/you-accomplished-something-great-so-now-what.html

[10] I don’t remember where I originally found this story, a version is found in Bits & Pieces, October 2002, p8-9.

[11] Pirkei Avot 4:1

[12] One list of these morning blessings is found in Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 46.

[13] Talmud Menachot 43b

[14] https://www.ted.com/talks/drew_dudley_everyday_leadership

[15] This finding is shared by Robert Waldinger and Marc Shulz, The Good Life, p.10

[16] Hosea 6:6

[17] David R. Hamilton, Why Kindness is Good for You, p.4c