11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Spreading Positive Social Epidemics

Chances are if I say the word 'yawn' to you now, many of you will yawn, including me. Yawn. Now, yawning is not exactly the best way to start a Yom Kippur sermon, but this little experiment is only one of the many examples given by Malcolm Gladwell, the brilliant thinker and author of The Tipping Point, one of his best selling books. In it, Gladwell chronicles events, episodes and trends that he describes as contagious or viral or in the most extreme language, epidemics. In writing about yawning, he says:

"Yawning is incredibly contagious. I made some of you reading this yawn simply by writing the word 'yawn.' The people who yawned when they saw you yawn, meanwhile, were infected by the sight of you yawning-which is a second kind of contagion...And finally, if you yawned as you read this, did the thought cross your mind, however unconsciously and fleetingly, that you might be tired? Simply by writing or saying a word, I can plant a feeling in your head. Contagiousness, in other words, is an unexpected property in all kinds of things, and we have to remember that, if we are to recognize and diagnose epidemic change." (Tipping Point, p. 10)

When we think about epidemics, we often think of something negative, for that is actually what the word means. However the power of word, with its definition of "sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular phenomenon," is inspiring me. You don't often hear of an epidemic of happiness, or an epidemic of love going around. However, and this is Gladwell's genius, the very same way that viruses and flues spread, and can turn quickly and massively into epidemics, so too can positive change in our society spread. I would like to posit this morning that we need some of these epidemics right now in our great nation, and there are three I am focusing on: an epidemic of compassion and gratitude, and epidemic of healthy food and an epidemic of civility. We are partners with God to create our world. God is waiting for us to act and so we must. Spiritual growth, working on our souls, should lead us to changed behavior in the world.

More than any other idea in the Torah, we read about treating the stranger with compassion and kindness, for we know what it was like to be strangers in the land of Egypt. Thirty-nine times we read about this idea. Compassion and gratitude are cornerstones of our people and are the guiding principles that God gave us to set up our societies here on earth. So, in seeking an epidemic of compassion and gratitude, I am thinking about the birth of my children, born 8 weeks early and in the NICU for most of that time. Thank God we had health insurance because it cost over $300,000. What if we hadn't? What if we were like the 40+ million Americans who live daily without access to healthcare? Is that compassionate? Does that exemplify a society of gratitude? This is clearly the American issue of our time, and this morning, while not wanting to wade into the details of policy, I want to say clearly that reforming our powerful but broken healthcare system in America is a moral issue and a very Jewish one at that. In a recent cover story in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, my teacher and friend, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, makes a cogent argument, based on Jewish legal sources, for why universal healthcare needs to be supported. He says:

The Jewish demand that everyone have access to health care does not necessarily mandate a particular form of delivery, such as socialized medicine or government-sponsored health insurance for those who cannot afford private plans. Any delivery system that provides basic needs will meet these Jewish standards." Maimonides, the 12th century physician and greatest legal mind in all Jewish history, lists healthcare first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city has to offer its residents. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 4:23)

Is it compassionate that we allow so many of our fellow citizens, including, I imagine, some sitting in this congregation, to live in fear of getting sick because they have no coverage? And to be clear, we had health insurance for our birth, but we struggled mightily to pay the $800 a month premium. Many people are not so fortunate. Are we a grateful nation when we permit children to die of curable illness because their parents are out of work, or have been told they have been dropped from coverage? Are we compassionate when the number one cause of bankruptcy in America is health-related costs? Rabbi Dorff reminds us of some of the facts that we know, but for some reasons choose to ignore: "We Americans spend about 15 percent of the gross national product on health care; our Canadian, Western European and Israeli friends spend about half that -- 8 percent. Yet their morbidity and mortality rates are much lower than ours. Yes, they give up some of their autonomy in their health care, but the vast majority of Americans have very little choice now. We get what our employer provides -- no more, no less." There is an epidemic of fear that is spreading around the country, fear that we will somehow ruin our nation's health care if we finally figure out how to join every single other wealthy and industrialized nation and insure all of our citizens. Health care is a right, not a privilege and that is what the Torah is here to remind us. Almost all self-governing Jewish communities throughout history set up systems to ensure all their citizens had access to health care. Rabbi Dorff sums it up when he says:

The fact, however, that more than 40 million Americans have no health insurance is, from a Jewish point of view, an intolerable dereliction of society's moral duty." I urge us all to let our representatives know if we support reforming our healthcare system to provide affordable coverage for all, and I invite all of us to an interfaith vigil I am spearheading on Oct. 19 here in Pasadena. We have been praying these holy days, "who shall live and who shall die?

It is high time, after decades of blockade, for reasons of fear and sadly, greed, that we answer this call and not let our citizens, especially our children, suffer or die unnecessarily.

So, if talking about health care didn't agitate you, I might imagine that talking about food, healthy or not, on Yom Kippur will! We hear a great deal about epidemics of hunger, often taking place in Africa, but also closer to home, and we collect food, volunteer at soup kitchens and give tzedakkah to organizations like MAZON, American Jewish World Service and ONE. But, in this country, we have a pandemic of unhealthy, processed and deadly food production that we have come to accept as normal, and are spreading around the globe. My kids came home from a friend's house recently and they had a gleam in their eyes. I asked what was so exciting. "Daddy," they said, "we just had the most incredible thing and we want it at home." "What is it?" I asked. "White bread!" they exclaimed. "Can we get that? It was delicious. Why is our bread always brown? We want white!" It is an uphill battle, to be sure. And I am not only talking about McDonalds and all of the fast food chains that are making too many of our children, especially the poorer ones, obese, as chronicled in books like Fast Food Nation, but also about the very way all of our food is produced. And not coincidentally, this is directly related to our health care issue. Our system is broken, in part, because we are not a healthy nation. And we are not a healthy nation, in part, because we have allowed our food to become a multi-billion dollar industry and we just eat whatever is in the store. On this holy day, when we refrain from eating, we need to not only think about the over one billion people who are hungry each day in the world, but we should be thinking about the kinds of food we put into our bodies on a daily basis. I have been reading a great deal about food production and it has really made me think. We need an epidemic of concerned citizens regarding what we eat, how it is produced and what it is doing to our health.

From grocery stores to school cafeterias to fast food to 7-11 to everywhere we get our food, our disconnect from the land itself, from how and where the food comes from, is evident. And in all fairness, I grew up on Apple Jacks, Ding Dongs, Tang and Carls Jr., so I am no purist! And yet, thankfully, after years of people in the so-called "food movement," there is now a small but advancing group bringing better food to the table. Farmers markets are exploding all over the nation, home gardening is on the rise, including at the White House, and people like Michael Pollan, author of most recently, In Defense of Food, are getting attention. We have a small garden in our home, and I can't tell you the joy on our kids faces when a tomato ripens and they can pick it. Almost as big a smile as eating white bread! In a recent article I read, Pollan taught me about the works of authors Wendell Berry and Frances Moore Lappe, who since the late sixties and early seventies, have been writing and teaching about food sustainability and heath. These thinkers, says Pollan, are serious "dot connectors." It was Lappe, in 1971, who published Diet for a Small Planet, which "linked modern meat production (and in particular the feeding of grain to cattle) to the problems of world hunger and the environment." (The Nation, Sept. 21, 2009, p. 29) And clearly we didn't listen! What would it take to have an epidemic of healthy food sweep our country? What would it take for us to care about and be informed about what we are eating? This is kashrut at the highest level! We must not only be concerned with separating milk and meat, buying food that is kosher, but we must go further, to what Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been calling "eco-kashrut," for decades. It is why Jewish groups like Hazon, run by my friend Nigel Savage, have embarked on teaching food sustainability from a Torah perspective, holding their second annual food conference this winter in the Bay Area. Its why Sinai Temple in LA and other synagogues now run a CSA. Pollan taught me Wendell Berry's famous formulation, "eating is an agricultural act." From our perspective, eating is a holy act, one preceded and followed by blessing God for the gift of the food. Today, it is not enough to bless whatever it is we are eating. Since Genesis, where we are commanded to be guardians and keepers of the earth, we have been getting further and further away from that link. This morning, I invite us to think about how we can return. And listen, I am no food expert, no super-organic, food growing farmer either, so I am speaking as much to myself as to all of you. It is an uphill battle, but one we must win. Awareness is key to progress.

And finally, I believe we need an epidemic of civility and respect in our country. Pirke Avot, The Ethics of Our Ancestors teaches, "Who is wise? The one who learns from all people." Our tradition has a long history of debate, disagreement. We are allowed to disagree -- just ask anyone whose matzoh balls are better, my grandma's or yours? However, recently in our nation, we have seen an outbreak of nastiness and ugliness that, sadly, is what makes for news these days. Why have we allowed rudeness and extreme behavior to not only be tolerated, but spread like a disease? From our athletes to our performers to our elected officials, at town halls and rallies, Americans are spouting hate and derision in the name of disagreement. We have witnessed temper tantrums at a national level. And that is what they are, be it Serena Williams, Kanye West or Congressman Wilson -- they are temper tantrums, and these folks should be sent to their rooms! They should not get book deals, be stars on cable and talk radio shows, and certainly not be lauded as any sort of heroes. We can disagree, we can get upset, we can feel mad, but as I am trying to teach my own children, how we feel doesn't permit us to act in any manner we choose. Remember the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarden? These national and international figures need a few minutes with Mrs. Dinerman, my kids' kindergarten teacher at WDS, to remind them how to behave!

And so, we need an epidemic of civility, we need to redouble our efforts to teach our children respect, honor, kindness and goodness; we need to redouble our efforts to stand up for civil disagreement, without diminishing the other to being a racist, a moron or worse, a Nazi. Be it on health care, Israel, climate change or any other major issue. Our nation has given carte blanche to the bombastic voices of our media to dominate what we hear as news -- we need to take that back, shut them off until we can return to an era of serious reporting. Do you think Walter Cronkite, of blessed memory, would even get a job today? Who is wise? The one who learns from all people. Let us reclaim the wisdom of our ancestors, who understood that to disagree is also to learn. And an opportunity for holiness.

And to those who ask, "how is this possible? how can we recapture a sense of compassion, kindness, health and civil discourse?" I close with the following proposal, thanks to my creative and dear friend Craig Taubman. On a walk we took a few weeks ago, he said something interesting. We were discussing the fact that Lance Armstrong, the famous cyclist, could send a message on Twitter and have 1,000 people show up the next morning to ride a few laps around Griffith Park with him. Craig proposed that we create something called Twittzes, which is a combination of Twitter, the social networking site, where people sign up and follow other people's lives if they choose, and the tzizit, the holy fringes on our prayer shawl. Normal people have their friends and a few others follow them on Twitter, mostly about nonsense, but some of the famous folks, like Armstrong and Oprah and Shaq and Al Gore, have over one million followers. So, Craig asked, what if those people decided to Tweet (that is verb for Twitter, as well as the sound a bird makes), that they were engaging in some serious tikkun olam, or following one of the many mitzvot to better our society? If they tweeted, "I am doing something kind for my neighbor today, and you should do the same." "I am eating locally and you should do the same." If one million people were doing that, some energy would be shifted in our cosmos. An epidemic of love might just spread, as quickly and hopefully as strongly, as H1N1. But not only that. We need a culture shift, and change in behavior, a tipping point. Will you join me in a commitment to talk in the carpool line about healthcare and what we can do? Will join me in a commitment to talk at the dinner table, starting tonight, about how we might eat in a more healthy and sustainable way? Will you join me in planting bigger gardens, at your house, in your neighborhood, maybe even here at the synagogue? Will you join me in saying blessings before and after we eat? Will you join me in not supporting news and media that is poisoning our culture and distracting our children from the values we cherish and believe in? As a community, we need to organize for the betterment of our future. Only twenty years ago, barely anyone used the internet and nobody had a cell phone. We can change. I hope twenty years from now, if not sooner, everyone in America has healthcare coverage, everyone in America is eating locally grown, healthy and sustainable food, and Americans are talking with civility and respect to one another. We can spread these epidemics of hope! God is waiting for us to act, and so we must. And please wait till after break-the-fast to Tweet that! May we all be sealed for life and health.

(This is an abridged form of my Yom Kippur Sermon. You can see the full text at