Sign In Forgot Password

Video Available Here

“The Way We Drive”
Yom Kippur 5779
Rabbi Joshua Hillel Strom

When my brother and I were little, my parents had a bunch of old cartoons crammed onto a few VHS tapes. One of our all-time favorites was a 1950 short called Goofy Motor Mania. It began with a narrator:               

“The motor car in the hands of the average man is rapidly facing extinction. Truly the average man is a creature of strange and unorthodox habits. Take the case of Mr. Walker. Mr. Walker lives in a quiet, respectable neighborhood. He is a typical, average man. Considered a good citizen and of average intelligence. He is a kindly man, courteous, punctual, and honest.” He tips his hat to his neighbor, wishes him a good morning, and the narrator continues, “Mr. Walker wouldn’t hurt a fly nor step on an ant. He believes in “live and let live.” Mr. Walker owns a motorcar and considers himself a good driver” we hear, as Mr. Walker situates himself behind the wheel. Suddenly Mr. Walker starts revving the engine, and the narrator changes tone. “But, once behind the wheel, a strange phenomenon takes place. Mr. Walker is charged with an overwhelming sense of power, his whole personality changes, abruptly he becomes an uncontrollable monster, a demon driver: Mr. Walker is now Mr. Wheeler, a motorist!” He peels out of his driveway, sending the neighbor he’d just greeted spinning, now sticking his head out the window to  yell back at him, “Hey Geef! Watch where you’re going, stupid!,” and crashes into another driver, whose entire front grill falls off. “Hey!” he yells back at Mr. Wheeler, “do ya think you own the whole road?” “Of course I own the road,” Mr. Wheeler replies to no one in particular.               

Believe it or not, my high school phys. Ed teacher showed us this in Driver’s Ed. It remains alive and well in the Strom family “shticklach,” hilarious in its seeming hyperbole, but perhaps it’s not so absurd in the end. After all, if this was a satirical attempt at social commentary in 1950, what would the narrator say about us now? More significantly, what does the way we drive say about ourselves? What does it say about the way we relate to the world and other people in it? The way we carry ourselves over the roads and off-roads of life?

Interestingly, there is a linguistic connection between driving a car and human behavior. In

English we call the operator of a vehicle a conductor, we’re asked to sign or abide by codes of conduct, just as we speak of how we conduct ourselves in daily life. In Hebrew the connection is even clearer, where the shared root of nun-hay-gimmel is used in the plain sense, linhog, to refer to driving, and the reflexive, l’hitnaheg, refers to our everyday behavior, how we figuratively drive through our lives. Clearly, then, at least according to my two favorite languages, the way we drive and the way we act are not separate entities at all; rather they are extensions of each other, part and parcel of the overall human experience of living in this world.  

And we, in this part of the world, we love to drive. We love to drive, and we love our cars, don’t we? The thrill of the speed, the power and control at our fingertips. Fortunate as so many of us are to enjoy luxury cars, unlocking them with our key fob is opening the doorway to a separate universe, a capsule that is ours and only ours. All elements within it – from the turbo-charged acceleration and anti-lock brakes, to the climate control, the sun- and moon-roof, the tushy-warmers, and the music from our phones or preset satellite radio stations  – all are subject to our control, a source of comfort and refuge in an increasingly crazy and unpredictable world.

And then, as the key turns the ignition, or the start button is pushed, what happens? What happens to us? Perhaps once the door closes a false sense of anonymity engenders a false sense of security and power, and we think no one can see us. Perhaps an exaggerated sense of entitlement or self-importance kicks in. If we didn’t feel it before, we are now suddenly the most important person in the world. Or at least in Westchester. And if we felt it before, all the more so now, sitting behind the wheel. For we have become Mr. Wheeler.

First things first: we drive *too* *damn* *fast.* I know, believe me I get it. I certainly have pulled in my share of speeding tickets in my college years and shortly thereafter. (Please – whatever you do, do not raise the topic with my mother when you see her!) Because, especially on this day of honesty, let’s be honest: driving fast is fun. Luxury car or no, there is something primal, something universal and pure, both physical and mental, in the thrill of driving fast, awakening the wannabe NASCAR driver within us all.

But driving fast is also unbelievably dangerous. And we know this. We know the data, the statistics from the billboards and sides of buildings, how driving even 10 miles an hour faster than we should, just a short pump of our foot on the gas pedal, is the difference between scrapes and bruises and a trip to the ICU; between a concussion and permanent brain damage; the difference, even, between life and death. And I actually don’t think most of us are driving fast for the thrill of it. I think we’re driving fast because we’re in a hurry. Every hour is rush hour, because it feels like all of us are in a rush, all the time, doesn’t it? I know how many of you remember and love the poem by Michael Quoist we have prayed together for years in this very room…

“I went out, Lord. Men were coming and going, walking and running.
Everything was rushing; cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
Men were rushing not to waste time.
To catch up with time, to gain time.
Good bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.
I must end this letter – I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept, having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time…

And so all men run after time, Lord.
They pass through life running – hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic,
and they never get there. They haven’t time.
In spite of all their efforts they’re still short of time.
Of a great deal of time.”

 And so then it’s okay to go 70 on the way to North White Plains, or squeeze that horrible turn from Cox onto 22 in between barreling SUV’s : “Hey, I can’t miss my train.” “Sorry, not sorry, I’m late for pickup.” Maybe it’s okay to completely disregard that stop sign on School Street, to run the red light on Bedford Road, to lazily park one car across two, or more, spots at DeCicco’s because “Hey, I’m behind schedule here.”

So too is it in our personal lives. In such a hurry to attain, acquire, to reach the next level, never resting on our laurels, we speed through the intersections of our lives with friends, not enough time to be there for them in a moment of challenge, crisis, or vulnerability. We are in such a rush to accomplish our next task, cross the next item off our own to-do list, that we simply run over the feelings of our partners and children, not allowing them the access lanes they need. We are so focused on being efficient that we have failed to yield to the needs of others, needs much more pressing and urgent than our own – in our families, our places of business, our community at large.    

What else do we do? We drive distracted. We are on our phones, talking, texting, holding our phones with buds filling both ears, both of which are actually illegal in New York State. We are listening to music, trying to clean the passenger seat, or we are just completely zoned out. We are lost in our minds, planning for, thinking about, worrying about the past or the future; not here, not present, anywhere else but behind the wheel. And when that central task is just a slight distraction, one quick flicker of the eyes or push of the send button away from causing serious injury or worse, from disrupting or even ending the road of life for ourselves and each other, how is it that we are doing anything else at allwhen we drive?     

But is it any wonder that we drive distractedly, our attention constantly split, when the truth is that we live distracted lives? We all know how difficult, how fleeting and nearly impossible it is for us to be wholly and completely present in any given moment, to be focused on the mission or project at hand. We multi-task, even though studies show us that when we think we’re doing that, we dilute and diminish all that we’re trying so hard, so efficiently, to accomplish, most especially the central task at hand. And while we know that our phones and devices allow us, in theory, to spend more time with our family and friends, all too often we are physically present, but mentally, we are vacant, we are absent. We are back at the office in the thick of emails, planning our next vacation, or scrolling through our friends’ pics on Facebook and Instagram. Some of you may have seen the piece in the Times in August about what author Casey Schwartz refers to as “the attention economy,” the exploration of how these devices impact our health and well-being, how they’re designed and programmed precisely to compete for, capture, and hold our attention. He cites the work of Sherry Turkle, sociologist and psychologist at MIT, who argues that the devices that come with us everywhere we go introduce a brand new family dynamic. Now, “rather than compete with their siblings [emphasis mine] for their parents’ attention, children are up against iPhones and iPads, Siri and Alexa, Apple watches and computer screens.” So it seems that our inability to be present, without our devices, has created a new sibling rivalry for the digital age – one that our children and our spouses are in danger of losing.

What else do we do? Well, I’ll tell you what we don’t do, and that’s use our turn signals. It is merely, literally, a flick of the wrist that communicates our immediate intentions to other drivers, both for their safety and our own. To let someone behind us at the light know they can pull around us, to let someone out of a parking lot as we’re turning into it, to let drivers on the Saw Mill Parkway know, more than just a few seconds before doing so, that we’re slowing down soon to turn off at the tiny, construction-squeezed exit for Chappaqua. But we don’t do it, do we? Either we’re too wrapped up in our own worlds, we think they’re a waste of time and energy, or we assume that somehow the cars behind us, next to us, coming from the opposite direction – should know what we’re thinking anyway. And while we are loath to use our turn signals, some of us – perhaps myself included – use our horns a little too liberally, to berate our fellow driver for a violation rather than assertively nudging or alerting them to a concern.  

As on the road, so too on the road of life. We struggle deeply to communicate. And when we do, it seems like we rarely do it well, effectively, healthily. We expect our spouses, our children, our colleagues and co-workers to know what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling. We expect our needs and wants to be met by our friends and family without ever articulating them, fearful of confrontation or rejection, of being misinterpreted, of having challenging conversations that could help us work through our crises and challenging moments, allowing us to move forward positively, constructively. Instead, we’re either silent or yelling, either neglecting our inner turn signals or leaning hard on our horns, airing out our deepest frustrations – and rarely anything in between.      

And that is where the rage comes in. In the spirit of this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, I confess to you this day that I, too, suffer from road rage. My frustrations behind the wheel are different from most; they are precisely because of these things that we do, rather than rationalizations for doing them. The man zooming down Roaring Brook, going 50 in a 25 and half into my lane is putting my life and the lives of my wife and children, completely and totally at risk, all for the sake of joy-riding, of self-importance, or just plain old thoughtlessness. And, honestly, as you can see, that’s incredibly difficult for me to handle. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to change my approach to navigating the roads of Westchester, and the roads of life, trying to better myself through action and deepening my understanding and acceptance. 

You see, the way we drive says everything about us. We think it’s two separate types of people, these Misters Walker and Wheeler, but what is ultimately true is that we are the same: how we drive is exactly who we are as people, how we feel about and interact with the world; it’s precisely about finding our place within it. The truth is that when we drive and live like this – hurriedly, distractedly, and without communication, what we do is prioritize ourselves over others, declaring consciously or unconsciously that our own need to get to our destination, our own wants and desires, are more important than anyone else’s. What we are saying to each other when we drive distracted, focused only on ourselves, is my life, my work, my time, my children, my family, are more valuable, more precious, than yours. I love the signs that say “Drive like your kids live here,” because I totally appreciate the sentiment. But when we have to be reminded of children other than our own, of people’s very lives beyond our own, there’s something really wrong. Yes, we are all special and individual, but your time doesn’t take precedence over mine, and the rules apply to everyone just the same.

My friends, the Talmud tells us we’re supposed to spend the first half of a public fast day dedicated to an inspection of the community’s behavior. And that is what we do here today, on Yom Kippur: a cheshbon hanefesh, a searching of our souls, a poring over our literal and metaphorical driving record to see where we did good, where we did well, and where we crossed the double lines that guide us along the right path. Because when we do the hard, but ultimately necessary and fulfilling work of this cheshbon hanefesh, it is then that we find t’shuvah – repentance, meaningful change. It is then that a rightful return to the path of goodness and righteousness is suddenly gloriously achievable. That path is something our sages called derekh eretz.               

See, derekh eretz translates in English to something like “the way of the land,” with an extra layer here as derekh can also mean path or lane. The concept of derekh eretz is living an ethical, moral, considerate, and thoughtful co-existence with all human beings. It is in essence what we know as the Golden Rule, expressed in our tradition through Hillel’s brilliant summation of all of Jewish teaching: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Our tradition says that there is a way to live the lives of our choosing, to follow our dreams of success, without losing sight of or disregarding everyone else sharing the roadway of life with us. Rather than a highway to the danger zone, you might think of this derekh eretz as a series of speed bumps, saving us from what imperils our lives and endangers their meaning, causing us to slow down, to be present, to communicate more effectively with those closest to us, for the sake of everyone we know. Perhaps this derekh eretz is the GPS of our conscience, the proverbial angel on our shoulder or British lady on our Bluetooth, telling us to turn right in 500 feet, rather than turn wrong. Because Mr. Wheeler doesn’t own the road, nor does Mr. Walker. We all do. It is, after all, the way of the land.  

So maybe it’s time we acted like it. Maybe it’s time we cracked the code of our conduct, the way we drive ourselves through life and this world. Maybe today is the day we hear the final blast of the shofar like a car horn from the heavens, alerting us with the urgency of now to the other drivers on the road, inspiring us to strive for our best, or at least better, selves. Maybe today – this Yom Kippur, this day of reflection and judgment, of soul-searching and self-improvement – is the day we are awakened to find ourselves having drifted onto life’s shoulder, away from the path of t’shuvah. Because then, we can restart the engine, turn the wheel, and get right back on it again.

May this be God’s will.

May this be our doing.

AMEN.

Fri, May 7 2021 25 Iyar 5781