Liten_askenasisk_sjofar_5380Here's the draft of a sermon I plan to give tonight at Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio.

Agenda-Free Advice

(A Temple Israel Sermon)

Where were we? What was I saying last time I was up here? 

This is Shabbat Shuvah. Shuvah is about returning, so I'm trying to return to where we were when I was last on the bimah. 

Well, it was last year around this time. It appears that the rabbis are full up writing their High Holy Day sermons. So, if I offer to give a sermon at what might very well be — amid the rush of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the least attended service in the history of Reform Judaism, I might be allowed to do it.

So I offered. And here I am. (I'm glad both of you could be here.)

So, where were we last time I was up here? Oh, I remember: I was boasting about how distracted I get during services. I tried to make the case for how daydreaming might be the most effective form of worship.

And I encouraged you to try to get lost in your worship. Stop stressing about keeping up. Fall behind everyone else. Go wherever the moment takes you.

That was either great advice, deepening the experience of the High Holy Days for you.

Or it was terrible advice, giving me a slight advantage over you in getting my prayers heard — while you were daydreaming.

In either event, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be giving religious advice.

And, that brings us to where I left off last year.

This sermon is about bad advice. And good advice. And what makes one different from the other.


This sermon is about agenda-free advice.

During the past couple months I've been doing a lot of reading about the subject. By "a lot of reading" I mean "I've skimmed the better part of a book."

For me, that's a lot of scholarship.

That's the reason I'm not a rabbi. Because a real rabbi knows that reading half a book is not being a scholar.

Still, now I am an expert in agenda-free advice.

First, I will define it. Then I will tell you where you can find it. Then I will tell you how to give it.

Then I will sit down.


What It Is
Agenda-free advice is advice given by someone — an "advisor" — who has no direct investment in the advice. The advisor won't be helped or hurt substantially by your decision to accept or reject the advice.

The advisor wants to help, so there is that agenda. But the advisor seeks Tikun — your healing, your advancement, your improvement. The agenda driving the advisor is your agenda, not the advisor's agenda.

What's the opposite of agenda-free advice? Let's call it: "agenda-rich advice."

What might be the advisor's agenda?
A mentor of mine says: "After a business meeting I want the other person to think three things: 1. That I'm smart. 2. That he or she likes me. And 3. That he or she feels vaguely uncomfortable because there is work to be done."

I love that description of agenda-rich advice. It's when the advisor wants to do more than help. The advisor wants to move you toward a mutual agenda.

Sometimes the agenda-rich advice is an attempt to make you more like the advisor.

That's not bad. It can be quite good.

But it isn't agenda-free advice.
Agenda-free advice doesn't want to make you into someone else. Agenda-free advice wants you to be more authentic. Like that midrash about Louie arriving in heaven and apologizing for not being more like Moses. The gatekeeper says, "But the goal was not for you to be more like Moses. The goal was for you to be more like Louie."

That's shuvah. Returning. Returning to authenticity. Returning to who you are.

Agenda-free advice is when the advisor has only your agenda in mind — and the advice is pure, purely in service to you. Then the advisor walks away, with no ownership in your next steps.

Where can you find agenda-free advice?
I have found it in only two places.

Here is where I have not found it: from Alisa. She loves me too much. She's smart, but there is an agenda. Nor have I found it from my mother, kids, friends, banker, lawyer, accountant, business partners, employees. They are all smart and mean well. But they all have an agenda.

What is their agenda?
At the very least, they don't want to jeopardize our relationship. So, their advice is constrained by risk aversion.

It might be good advice. It might be very good advice. But it isn't agenda-free advice.

Here's where I have found it:

1. In a peer group. This is a group of other people who, like me, run businesses. We speak frankly, confidentially, and directly. And, if the other person doesn't like, accept, or implement someone else's advice, so be it. Take it or leave it. No sweat. Nobody has a horse in anyone else's race.

2. Here in the Temple. Despite all the conflicting complexities of being a Jew, I find great agenda-free advice in the liturgy, in the atrium and in the rabbi's office. The liturgy has gems. When you return to the Temple on Friday for Kol Nidre, forget about all the liturgy. Read the quotations in the front of the machzor. There are a bunch of quotations from smart people. Here's my copy. #22. Maimonides. He said:

If you see a friend sinning or pursuing an unworthy life, it is a Mitzvah to try to restore that person to the right path. Let your friend know that wrong actions are self-inflicted hurts, but speak softly and gently, making it clear that you speak only because of your concern for your friend's well being.

That's from the 12th Century, but we have 3,000+ years of sage advice. And, frankly, because most of the sages are dead, it's hard to worry that they have an agenda.

Sure, there is an 3,000+ year-old agenda: that we are light unto the nations. That we not do each other wrong. That we don't embarrass ourselves in front of the others. But that hardly seems like a hidden agenda — nor a particularly Jewish agenda.

In The Atrium
The second place I get agenda-free advice at the Temple is in the atrium — from others walking through the atrium. I always say that Finkelman comes to Temple to talk to God. I come to Temple to talk to Finkelman. (Maybe Finkelman might relay my message to God.) In any case, I love to run things past Finkelman, Hecker, Petuchowski — and you, too. Feel free to ask me for my biggest problem next time we're in the atrium. I'll tell you what it is. Then, if you give me some agenda-free advice, I'll thank you.

In The Rabbi's Study
A couple times, I've gone to the rabbi — once to Arthur Nemitoff and once to Misha Zinkow — with zingers I just couldn't figure out. Once it was a Jewish question masquerading as a general question. The other time it was a general question seeking a Jewish answer. In both cases, the response was agenda-free advice.

After all, these rabbis love me — who can blame them? — and they are far too busy, and far too practiced at giving advice, for them to insert their own agenda into my challenge.

They just said: try this and good luck, fella.

How can you give agenda-free advice?

1. Don't give any advice. If someone asks for advice, have them describe their challenge. Then think of a challenge that you have directly experienced. Tell the person what you faced, what you did, and how it turned out. Usually people don't want advice anyway. They want to know what you have seen, what you have faced — and what you did and how that worked out. They don't want your advice. They want you to share your experience.

2. If you have to give advice, still don't. Ask questions. Then, when you get answers, question the answers. Keep asking questions. Let the other person come to their own conclusions. That's better, because the other person will own the answers, rather than thinking that you gave too much direction.

3. In any case, maintain your equanimity. That's a great word. Equanimity. Calm. When the person describes his or her challenge, keep your face placid. Show care by listening. Don't check your cell phone. Be in the moment. Stay engaged. Maintain eye contact. Ask questions. But — above all — stay dispassionate. Calm. As Maimonides said, "Speak softly and gently, making it clear that you speak only because of your concern for your friend's well being.'

We ask our rabbis to do to much.
How can we stop delegating too much to the professional clergy?

Maybe we can give each other advice. But not agenda-rich advice.

Agenda-free advice.

I wish you a sweet year — a year of good health, happiness, true moments of engagement in life, and a frequent sense of shalom, of completeness and contentment.

I wish you the very best in 5772. Shabbat shalom.