Kol Nidre Sermon: The Butterfly Effect

We all know that 10 years ago, on September 11th, 2001, the world stood in horror as the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda.  What you might now know is that our emotions on that dark day and the days that followed were picked up by scientists who were monitoring “random number generators” that usually produce completely unpredictable sequences of zeroes and ones.

These scientists were part of The Global Consciousness Project, an international collaboration of experts who collect data from a worldwide network of 70 random number generators and look for patterns that should not be present in random number sequences.  When patterns are discovered, the scientists associated with the project assert that they reflect the presence and activity of a global consciousness – a collective, unified emotional force that has the ability to create change in this world.

On September 11th and in the days that followed, the random number generators across the globe began to significantly deviate from normal random number sequences and generate numerical patterns.  While many other significant events have caused the random number generators to spit out patterns, the patterns of September 11th were particularly extraordinary.  Scientists report that the probability is less than one in a billion that the patterns were due to chance and, thus, the scientists argue that their data proves the palpable power of our emotions – especially when these emotions are unified by a common event.

But, what happens when our emotions are simply our own?  When we feel something because of a mood or event that we think only affects us?  The Global Consciousness Project documents many major events, showing how the random number generators registered the world’s emotional response to these events.  But, our own private meltdowns, depressions, grumpy episodes and bad hair days are not documented by the Global Consciousness Project.  Does this mean that when we experience emotions apart from others, our emotions, while powerful to us as individuals, have no real power?  Are our emotions simply feelings we experience, feelings that have no effect on the people we share our lives with?

________

Tonight, we are taught that G-d is working diligently on the dreaded list – the list of those who will be inscribed in the Book of Life.  This list will be completed and sealed, we are taught, as the sun sets tomorrow evening and, at that moment, our fate, too, will be sealed.

Unetaneh Tokef, the haunting prayer that mentions all the horrific things that might happen to us if we are not sealed in the Book of Life, stresses that while preparing the list of names for the Book of Life, G-d takes into consideration every single detail of our lives – every one of our actions, every one our words, every one of our gestures, every aspect of our behavior from the past year.  God remembers everything – even the stuff we have forgotten.  It all defines who we are and determines if we make it onto the list.

Perhaps some of us have worked hard since Rosh HaShanah and sought forgiveness from others directly, worked to repair relationships that have gone awry this past year and fulfill commitments we have let slide.  This type of work, we are taught, helps to insure that we get inscribed in the Book of Life.

But, Unetaneh Tokef tells us that God remembers the bad stuff we forgot about.  What do we do about this stuff – or worse, what about the bad stuff we did this past year that we were totally oblivious to!?    How do we fix this stuff?

And, while we are asking questions, why not ask why we don’t we get a “pass” on some things?  I mean, no one is perfect – that is a fundamental principal of Judaism. How can we be expected to behave perfectly for an entire year!?  And how can we be expected to repent successfully if we can’t even remember some of the bad things we have done!?

And why does G-d care about every single thing we do?  Isn’t this overkill?

It is if you think the stuff we don’t remember or are unaware of is trivial.

On Yom Kippur, we are forced to acknowledge that every single one of our actions (even those we forget about or are oblivious to) define who we are.  They are all very important.  Nothing is trivial.  On the contrary, every one of our actions affects the world we live in.

______

Tom Shadyac is an award-winning Hollywood writer/director of popular movies such as Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor, Liar, Liar, and Bruce Almighty. Following a bicycle accident in 2007, he suffered from post-concussion syndrome, a condition said to be untreatable and incurable. After months of isolation and virtually no communication from the outside world, his symptoms began to recede and he decided to use his filmmaking skills in a different way – in a serious, insightful way – to share with the world his thoughts on the meaning and the power of life.  The result: his documentary film entitled, I Am, which was released earlier this year.

In the film, Shadyac takes part in “The Yogurt Experiment” under the direction of Dr. Rollin McCraty, an expert on how our emotional wellbeing affects our lives.  Yogurt is a living system and, as such, will register a baseline reading when hooked up to a magnetometer. In the experiment, Shadyac is seated in front of a Petri dish of yogurt that is hooked up to a magnetometer and asked to recall various emotional experiences pertaining to his lawyer, his agent, his ex-wife.  As Shadyac’s emotions change, the magnetometer, which is connected only to the yogurt, changes – suggesting that Shadyac sends out emotional energy that affects the yogurt causing the needle on the magnetometer to move.

Shadyac’s interaction with the yogurt suggests that something as simple as a bad thought can affect those we share our lives with.   Now, you know this to be true!  You have been around someone who is in a bad place and they sap you of your good energy.  They drag you down and you, in turn, wind up dragging others down as a result…and a chain reaction of negativity takes place….Our negative thoughts and emotions have the potential to do the opposite of tikun olam – healing the world.  Our negative thoughts and emotions can hurt the world, by hurting one person at a time.

I hear some of you, “Oh come on, you are going to tell me that you are going to use some ex-Hollywood guy’s crazy experiment with yogurt to prove your point this Yom Kippur….”

Okay, I hear you…

So, let’s turn our attention to quantum physics – a topic that I am far from an expert on.  But, I have done some research on the “Entanglement Theory” – which, in a nutshell, teaches us that when two electrons are created together – and one is moved to the other side of the world – when something affects one electron causing it to react – the other one reacts as well.  Space, according to the “Entanglement Theory”, is an illusion.  The electrons are still very much connected.  Given that according to both religion and science we all come from the same source and, thus, so do the particles that define us, many suggest that the “Entanglement Theory” applies to us.  When we feel something, it affects others.  We are all entangled.  No event in our life only affects us.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, is a leading scholar within social psychology, affective science, and positive psychology. Her research centers on positive emotions and human flourishing and is supported by grants from the National Institute of Health.

Dr. Fredrickson has discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine. Fredrickson’s research shows us that surrounding ourselves with positive emotions, and, thus, people who exude positive emotions, affects us!  These positive emotions enable us to see new possibilities, bounce back from setbacks, connect with others, and become the best version of ourselves.  Negative emotions do just the opposite.

So low and behold, quantum physics and the research of Dr. Fredrickson and many other experts only support the basic premise of Tom Shadyac’s interaction with yogurt.  Our emotions not only affect us, but the people around us.  Scientifically proven.  But, really, we all know this to be true from our own personal interactions.

Our negative behavior does not just belong to us.  When we are in a bad mood for whatever reason, we share it, like a bad cold, with the people in our life who, in turn, pick up on it and wind up sharing it with people in their life who share it with other.  Our bad mood in the morning can affect how our kids act at school, affect how we drive and, thus, affect other drivers on the road, affect our co-workers, affect how we treat our waitress at lunch, the cashier at Publix on the way home….and all those people we affected, they will pick up some of our negativity – grumbling about us or something we did, in turn, transferring our bad mood to somebody else.  Our bad mood has the power to affect a whole heck of a lot of people.  And, in the same way, our good mood has the power to affect a whole heck of a lot of people – in positive ways.

Hard to believe that we have so much power?

Well, let’s turn to science again:

In 1961, Edward Lorenz, a scientist, was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario.

In a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences, Lorenz discusses this fascinating discovery.  He states that: “one meteorologist remarked that the findings suggest that one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” Later speeches and papers by Lorenz used the more poetic “flap of a butterfly’s wings”.   And the “butterfly effect” was born.

The butterfly effect refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in another location.

Our moods, the emotions associated with them and the way these emotions determine our actions, words, and behavior – have the potential to be just like a butterfly’s wings – affecting the person next to us, who, in turn, interacts with others and affects them.  Thus, our individual emotions have the potential to change an entire community of people for better or for worse.

Unfortunately, most of us are oblivious to the incredible power that our emotions have – particularly our negative emotions.  Do you remember every bad mood you were in last year?  Were you even aware how your bad moods affected the people around you?  Could you list every single person you treated poorly the last time you were in a bad mood, including the guy you unknowingly cut off on Broward Blvd. as you screamed into your cell phone at the person who got you into such a bad mood in the first place?  We foolishly think that our negative emotions are ours and ours alone.  But, we are wrong.  Our emotions, as private and personal as we might think they are, can transform others.  And this is what Tom Shadyac was trying to teach his audience with the yogurt experiment.  And this is what Unetaneh Tokef is trying to teach us by stating that G-d pays attention to everything – even the stuff we forget.

We are a lot more important, a lot more powerful, a lot more influential than we have been told we are.  One negative word from our mouth, one disdainful glance, one bad hair day can be the flap of a butterfly’s wings, quietly reeking havoc by hurting one person ever so slightly and causing them to behave in a way that hurts someone else and a chain reaction begins that causes our negative action to affect who knows how many people.

__________

I admit that I wrestle with the idea that G-d is up there evaluating us and writing a list tonight.  I am more comfortable believing that when we lead a life based upon God’s teachings and values – we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life.  This being said, the fear and dread associated with believing that G-d is up there writing a list is an extremely important part of this awesome day.  It is this fear and dread that forces us to recognize that everything we do affects the world around us.  Our emotional outbursts, our quiet rage, our unspoken jealousy, our disdain towards others, our pessimism, our negativity affect us and the people around us.  Our individual emotions and actions might not affect the random number generators scattered across the globe….but they will affect our family, friends, co-workers and just about anybody else we come in contact with.  The lesson of this Day of Judgment is that just one negative action on our part can and will hurt the world because others will be hurt by our action.

As we stand in judgment tonight and strive to become better people, I want you to imagine yourself in the year ahead living a life in which you are in control of your emotions, you watch your words and you act always out of love and compassion.  It is something to aspire to.  Not easy – but unquestionably something we can each do.  It is not impossible.  And, I believe, if each of us in this room tonight were able to live a life like this – all 700 plus of us…we would get the attention of the random number generators; they would respond, picking up on a change in positive energy in Plantation…and this energy would, like the scientific research shows us, affect others in our lives…and it would spread, slowly, one person at a time – bringing positive change to the world.

I know it is hard to imagine this – a life where the glass is always half full, a life where negative thoughts and deeds are pushed aside, a life filled with a powerful, contagious positive energy….but I do believe this life is possible.  And the prayers of Yom Kippur teach us that G-d expects us to strive for such a life and embrace this positive energy.  It is why we are told that every single one of our actions is judged tonight.  G-d expects a lot from us.  G-d knows we can be better than we are now.  G-d knows that the negativity that fills so many of our lives doesn’t have to be.  This is why we have this day – this day where we are forced to look inwards and grow and change.  Now, we simply have to believe that we can do better – that we have the ability to do better for ourselves and the people who fill our lives.

No, our individual emotions, behavior, thoughts, words and deeds won’t affect the random number generators.  But, our emotions, behavior, thoughts, words and deeds will affect each other.  They are right now.  Tonight, we have the opportunity to discover that we have the power to lift each other up and positively change each other’s lives.  I say we go for it – one set of butterfly wings at a time.  I hope that you agree.

One thought on “Kol Nidre Sermon: The Butterfly Effect

  1. Does anyone know where I can get a magnetometer or any type of inexpensive device for my son’s Science Fair project? I’d love for him to be able to show how negative emotions affect the universe. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s