The Quantified Life – Yom Kippur 5775


Little Emily waits at the bus stop for her first day of 3rd Grade. She’s excited – to reunite with her friends, share some summer stories, and get to know her new teachers – but there is little unfamiliar about the experience: the bus stop, the school, and her friends are all virtually the same as in past years.

As soon as the bus arrives, Emily begins to notice some differences: As she boards, she swipes an ID card that contains a Radio Frequency Identification Chip, which lets the school know when she gets on and off the bus. Her parents get an alert on their smartphones, letting them know Emily arrived safely to school. Once at school, teachers and administration continue to record and store data about Emily: When she arrives in class, how she behaves, how she does on tests, what she ate for lunch. The school collects this data because it wants to know, precisely, what it needs to do its best.

Welcome to the Data Revolution. Led, in large part, by the unparalleled success of Google, and made known to many of us through the revelations of Edward Snowden, the collection, storage, and application of data now drives so many aspects of our lives, in ways we know and in ways we do not. Assuming you use the Internet, have a cell phone, or purchase with a credit card, companies large and small are, even as we speak, collecting massive amounts of information about your behavior and habits, which they then utilize in any number of different ways.

The Data Revolution is more than just a clever way to get us to buy more Frappuccinos. It has heralded a shift in the way we think about and relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. For many, we are no longer individual people, but rather a large collection of data points. The most relevant and interesting information about us and others is that which can be observed and quantified. To paraphrase Madonna, we are living in a Quantified World, and we have become Quantified Girls and Boys.

Several multibillion dollar industries have emerged to capitalize on this growing trend: Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane transformed baseball with his Moneyball method, which utilizes data to predict performance and to efficiently and cheaply build championship teams. Nate Silver, founder of the FiveThirtyEight blog, has revolutionized journalism with his focus on statistical analysis. And the newest must-have devices are those like FitBit, Google Gear, and the newly announced Apple Watch, which can track things like the quality of your sleep, how many calories you’re burning, and how many steps you take throughout the day.

There is, of course, much to be gained from a Quantified Life. The more information companies have about us, the better able they are to help us find the things that we need, potentially enabling us to save time and money. Businesses that operate based on data tend to be lean, efficient, and profitable. And knowing and analyzing data about ourselves can be extremely helpful, enabling us to be more conscious of what we’re doing well and where we could improve, empowering us to better our lives.

A Quantified Life can also pay spiritual dividends. Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar teaches in the Mishnah that God’s “judgment will be based on an exact accounting of a person’s deeds” (Mishnah Avot 4:29). How different would your life look if you were fully aware, at all times, that every action you take, large or small, is seen, recorded, remembered, and, ultimately, used by God in judgment? That’s why, during this season, we are supposed to meticulously chronicle our deeds, a practice known as heshbon ha-nefesh – literally, an accounting of the soul. Armed with unimpeachable data about what we have done, how we have spent our time, and where we have directed our energies, we can objectively know where we have yet to grow.

And yet, within the Quantified Life also lurks spiritual danger. It can rob us of our fundamental, infinite, and irreducible dignity as human beings. Our ancient Sages asserted that each individual human life is an entire world. Like the world, we are complex entities, made up of component parts but yet greater than their sum. None of us can be fully described, predicted, or understood by studying the atoms that make up the cells that make up our bodies. Similarly, we are not our bank accounts. We are not our jobs, our titles, or our salaries. We are not our Amazon wish-lists, our smartphones, our cars, or our houses. Your value is measured not in the size of your waist, your Body Mass Index, or how many likes your selfie got on Facebook. Your value is measured in your being a child of God, a reflection of the Divine image, and, as such, your worth is infinite, your holiness incalculable.

The Quantified Life can also distract us from those aspects of our reality that can neither be seen nor measured. Love. Compassion. Kindness. Justice. Wisdom. Peace. None of these concepts can be objectively observed and quantified. Yet the fact that we cannot track these values on a smartphone app does not mean that they are not real, that they do not exist, or that they are unimportant. Quite the contrary, I think many of us would argue that these values are infinitely more precious than anything we can measure and analyze. As the sociologist William Bruce Cameron famously said, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Our tradition has its own version of this value. When God removes the first King of Israel, Saul, from office, God sends the prophet Samuel on a quest to find a suitable replacement. God directs Samuel to the gentle hills of Bethlehem, where a man named Jesse has a son destined to become king. Jesse parades seven sons in front of Samuel, each of them taller, more handsome, and more regal than the last. But to each one, God says, “No, he’s not the one.”

An exasperated Samuel says to Jesse, “Have I met all your sons?” Jesse replies, “There’s just our youngest, but he’s nothing special, just a redheaded little runt, who mainly tends to the sheep.” Samuel tells Jesse to send for the boy anyway, just to make sure all his bases are covered. As soon as the boy walks into the room, God says, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one!”

Incredulous, Samuel says to God, “Really, God? You rejected all these strapping, princely young men, and you want to make this little runt, this little shepherd, king?!” God replies, “Pay no attention to appearance or stature…For the Holy One does not see as man sees. A man sees only what is visible, but the Holy One sees into the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). The name of that little shepherd, Jesse’s youngest son, was David, and he would in time become the greatest of all the ancient kings of Israel.

In choosing David, God teaches that there are critical things, perhaps even the most important things, that can be overlooked by the Moneyball approach. From the standpoint of statistical analysis, from the standpoint of the available data, any one of David’s brothers should have been chosen king over him. And yet, God here is a little bit like Han Solo. Remember what happened as Han prepared to fly through an asteroid field? C3PO says to him, “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!” And Han shouts back, “Never tell me the odds!”

Like Han Solo, God says to Samuel, “I’m not interested in what can be known by an analysis of the data. I’m interested in the internal quality of a person. I’m interested in his values. I’m interested in his soul. I’m interested in his heart.” Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

We who are invited by our tradition to emulate God can call upon our inherent godly capacity to see and value the unseen, and not be led astray by what our eyes can see, by what our calculators can count, and by what our computers can process. Of course, these tools can provide us with useful information, but often, the most essential parts of us and others is that which cannot be measured.

The truth of this idea hit home for me this year, when I learned that my dear high school friend, Jake, passed away after a brief but horrific battle with colorectal cancer. He was 31 years old. He left behind a loving wife, Erika, and a beautiful five year-old son, Aiden.

By Moneyball standards, by data-driven, quantified standards, Jake’s life probably didn’t look so impressive. He was in the process of building a career as a salesman, first of cars and trucks, then of construction equipment, and finally of medical equipment. Sure, he had his successes, but he was not a champion of industry, or at the top of his field, or particularly wealthy. He had a smaller-than-average size family. And, at the age of 31, his statistical sample was pretty small.

But then, there were the aspects of Jake’s life that are impossible to quantify. How do you measure the quantity of love a dying father gives his son in the earliest years of the boy’s life? How do you accurately and meaningfully measure a person’s humility and strength? How do you measure the quality of a man’s quiet resolve to persevere through the pain and suffering of cancer with humor, with no complaints, and with a passion to bestow kindness and love on others? To have laughter when the situation looks most bleak, to work hard to support your family even in the midst of unthinkable pain? The truth of the matter, as our mutual friend Victoria wrote after his death, is that “the only thing that matters in the end, the only thing that people remember, is whether you were nice or not.”

Since becoming a rabbi, I’ve learned the truth of Victoria’s words. Having attended and officiated many funerals, I’ve heard and delivered many eulogies. And the thing I’ve discovered about eulogies is that, by and large, they celebrate life very differently from the way we usually do. As Arianna Huffington recently wrote,

You almost never hear things [in eulogies] like: “Of course his crowning achievement was when he made senior vice president.” Or: “She didn’t have any real friends, but she had 600 Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her inbox every night.”…The eulogy is always about the other stuff: what they gave, how they connected, how much they meant to the lives of the real people around them, small kindnesses, lifelong passions and what made them laugh.

The fact that eulogies almost always focus on these intangible qualities is a pretty good indication that, deep down, we intuit that what matters most, what we will be remembered for, will not be the quantifiable aspects of our lives, but rather the intangible and immeasurable qualities of our character: How did you make others feel? Were you kind? How deep was your compassion? How passionately did you love? How committed were you to justice and peace?

What we intuit, our tradition affirms. The talmudic sage Rava once taught (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) that when each of us is led into heaven for judgment before the Holy One, we will be asked the following questions:

Did you do business honestly?

Did you fix regular times for study?

Did you strengthen the next generation?

Did you yearn for redemption?

Did you debate and discuss important ideas?

Did you acquire knowledge?

Did you live with a sense of awe about your place in the universe?

Rava teaches that our entry into heaven depends on affirmative answers to each of these questions. And his assertion of what God values in our lives is also a moral claim. Our tradition contends that the definition of a good life is one that is lived with honesty, integrity, curiosity, hopefulness, and awe, and one in which we pass those values on to the next generation. Note that none of these questions can be answered with quantitative measures. You cannot measure honesty and integrity in facts and figures. Nor can you evaluate a person’s thirst for knowledge, their hope, their wisdom, their wonder, or their reverence through statistical analysis. Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

In a few moments, we will begin our Yizkor service, in which we recall parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends and relatives who have left this world. If you pay attention, the traditional Yizkor liturgy is a little bit shocking. A service called “Yizkor,” remembering, surprisingly spends very little time inviting us to recall the lives of our loved ones. Instead, immediately after we make mention of our loved ones, we pivot to a pledge to give tzedakah, or to perform other acts of kindness and justice as loving testimony to their lives. In this valley of the shadow of death, in this moment in which we once again are forced to confront the loss of those we’ve loved, and, by extension, in precisely the moment in which we are forced to confront our own eventual mortality, we are reminded not to obsess over what can be counted, over living lives that can be added up and measured. Instead, we’re told that the secret of life, and, indeed, the secret of immortality, is to give, to be kind, and to love. As the ethicist Michael Josephson once wrote,

Someday, it will all come to an end…It will not matter what you owned, or what you were owed….The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away…So what will matter?…What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave. What will matter is not your success, but your significance…What will matter is not your competence but your character…What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.

When we focus on what counts rather than on the things that can be counted, we can live to be the kind of parents who are remembered with blessings, the kinds of friends who linger in others’ hearts, the kind of neighbors who leave lasting impacts on our communities, and the kind of world-citizens who help bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. We can live a life that counts.

It won’t happen by accident. It’s something we must perpetually choose to do. And if, this day, and every day hence, we commit to that choice, I know that, however our lives may be quantified, we will be inscribed and sealed for a life that counts.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

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