I stood against a wall, crowded by 12 other people in a room the size of a walk-in closet. Whatever empty space existed between us was taken up by the nervous energy we were emitting, as we knew that, in just a couple of minutes, we would be introduced, one-by-one, onto a stage in front of dozens of strangers. And then, over the next hour, we would be asked to perform skits completely without any scripts or prior planning.
This was the scene just prior to my first public performance as an improviser. This past spring, I began taking night classes in improvisational theater at Theatre 99. Many of you have attended shows there, and I’m sure some of you know people who have also taken classes like the ones I’ve taken. I’d always been a fan of improv troupes, and amazed at the quick wit and lightning-fast reflexes of the performers. Never did I think I would have the guts to be a performer myself.
But there I was, a couple of minutes before showtime, looking around the green room, and wondering whether it was too late to sneak out the back door and never come back. Perhaps I shouldn’t have panicked; after all, speaking in front of people is a prominent part of my job. But in most cases, when I speak publicly, I have a script in front of me, or at least, I’ve taken some time to consider what I want to say. By comparison, performing in an improv show felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.
It’s hard to explain what got me through that performance. A fair amount of credit goes to the camaraderie I shared with the wonderful men and women in my class, who are some of the most open-minded, supportive and creative people I’ve ever met. We also were lucky to have an excellent and forgiving instructor. But at least some credit should go to what is probably the key concept of improv, the principle known as “Yes, And”.
The idea of “Yes, And” sounds incredibly simple but it’s surprisingly difficult to uphold. Here’s how it’s supposed to work; in a typical scene, two people are asked to perform a skit based on one piece of information that we’re given about 10 seconds before the lights go up. Let’s say that information is “hot-air balloon”. After a couple of seconds to think, one of the performers begins to do something, anything that inspired him/her based on the idea of a hot-air balloon. So that person might pretend that he’s floating, or perhaps he starts fiddling with imaginary sandbags. The other performer joins him, and they begin to interact. The scene can go in countless directions, but the key idea to remember is “Yes, And”. If the first performer decides, for whatever reason, that he is an ostrich riding in a hot-air balloon, the worst thing his scene partner can do is deny that he is an ostrich. Instead, she should take that information and build off of it, and try to respond to what an ostrich might be doing in a hot-air balloon. For another example, let’s say the second person were to pretend that the balloon is about to crash on the side of a mountain. Her partner shouldn’t say, “hey, that’s not a mountain,” because that would just lead her to say, “Yes, it is,” and then he’d say, “No, it isn’t,” and then the scene heads for disaster, much like that imaginary hot-air balloon.
You see, the key to a good improv performance is to say “Yes, And.” Acknowledge what your partner tells you and shows you, and then add something to it. In other words, accept what your partner is communicating, and build from there. It’s not that you can’t disagree with one another in a scene — plenty of scenes are built around conflict — but if you do, you must at least consider where the other person is coming from.
As I began preparing for Rosh Hashanah this year, I was struck by the immense power of the concept of “Yes, And.” How much better off would we be if we applied this idea to everyday moments in our lives? How many relationships have deteriorated, how many great ideas have faded into obscurity, because we feel we have this impulse to say no, rather than saying “Yes, And”?
On Rosh Hashanah, we read the two climactic chapters of the story of Abraham. We read of the man who is considered to be the very first Jew, the first person who established a true relationship with God. As with any pioneer, it’s tempting to remember Abraham only for his merits, rather than his flaws, because we like to think that someone who creates something good is also good him- or herself.
But we know, deep-down, that this isn’t always the case, and part of the beauty of Genesis 21 and 22 is that the text makes no effort to hide Abraham’s flaws. Instead, they are front and center. Abraham appears, at various times, lacking in generosity, unable to communicate, and bewildered at the myriad of emotions experienced by the people around him. And yet, God’s commitment to Abraham and the covenant between them is only strengthened after the events in these chapters. Why?
I wonder if it’s because of Abraham’s ability to say “Yes, And.” When you think about it, Abraham’s entire life, from the time God first called on him to move to the Promised Land, is one improvisation after another. He makes his home in a strange place, runs away due to famine, changes the boundaries of his home because of his incompatibility with his nephew’s household, gets caught up in a war between nine kingdoms, pleas to save his nephew’s life, has sons with two different women, and negotiates in order to escape the wrath of foreign kings. These adventures culminate in our readings today and tomorrow, when he faces up to the reality of losing both of his sons and one of their mothers. All the while, God continually challenges him, testing his faith, changing his name, asking him to prove his loyalty by marking it on his body, and promising him prosperity and a great legacy as a reward. When you consider that all of this starts only after Abraham turns 75, you wouldn’t blame him if he were to have a moment to look up into the sky, and say to God, “thank you for looking after me, but this was not in the brochure.”
But even if he had done that, even if he had felt that way, Abraham continues on his adventures with God because he can say “Yes, And.” He acknowledges the new circumstances in his life, as unlikely and as bizarre as they are at times, and continues to build a life that is rich materially and in achievement, and establishes a legacy which makes him the father of the three great faiths of the Western World. The legendary commentator Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, says in his commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers that Abraham succeeds because he possesses, most importantly, a good eye, a sufficiently small appetite, and a humble spirit. These traits probably help Abraham to say “Yes, And” even in the most unexpected of moments. With his keen eye, he can look at someone else and try to understand their perspective, and with his modest goals and humility, he can be generous enough to work with someone else to ensure that both of them succeed. The great takeaway from Rambam’s comments on Abraham is that you don’t necessarily have to be as legendary as Abraham in order to say “Yes, And.” All it takes is a willingness to relate to others and to create something new given life’s new realities.
I don’t mean to claim that Abraham was the world’s first improviser. Rather, I wish to claim that, when it comes down to it, we’re all improvisers. We were not given a script when we were born, and we certainly don’t have one now. True, we are enriched by the lessons of history and the wisdom of our traditions, but there’s no way to know what our next steps will be, no matter how much we’ve thought about it, and no matter how much we’ve planned for it. The times in which we live are more unpredictable than ever, and anyone who could have predicted our current climate and condition at this time last year is kidding themselves. We improvise because we have to; it’s part of what makes us human, it’s part of how we survive. We can either fear what it’s like to create as we go along, in the same way that I was scared out of my wits that night in the green room last May. Or we can follow the advice of the great improvisers of the past, and instead of automatically saying “no” to new realities, we can say “Yes, And.”
This approach will enrich us, and it will enrich our Jewish experience. This is one of the reasons why we will start a new initiative at Synagogue Emanu-El next month. We are partnering with a national program known as “Chai Mitzvah.” There are Chai Mitzvah groups all over North America, and we are starting one here. A Chai Mitzvah group meets once a month between October and June. Over the course of those nine months, the group engages in the three activities that, according to the Ethics of the Fathers, the world stands on: Torah (Learning), Avodah (Ritual service) and G’milut Hasidim (Acts of Lovingkindness). The group will study a different Jewish topic at each meeting. Sometime that year, the group will choose to do a public-service project together. And, each member of the group will choose one Jewish ritual that they will learn to do for the first time.
It’s all too easy to feel that we cannot grow our Jewish knowledge and involvement because the task seems too daunting, and we’re always short on time. Chai Mitzvah addresses these concerns by creating modest, measurable goals that a person and group can fulfill in less than one year. What’s more, think about the last time that many a Jew takes a concentrated part of each week to connect with tradition; in some cases, it is the time in which that Jew studies for his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah. And it makes sense that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has this place in Jewish life, because it provides a program of study, ritual, and public service, with a culminating ceremony at the conclusion. So my hope is that, at this time next year, our first Chai Mitzvah class will be recognized on this bimah on Rosh Hashanah for completing the program. I hope you’ll be part of that class. On the third page of our Rosh Hashanah handouts, you will find a section that lists the dates and times of the group meetings, and there are more flyers in the lobby as well. And please come to me with questions and, hopefully, to sign up.
As I say that, I realize that it might be difficult to imagine being a part of something like this, of yet another commitment in our already over-scheduled lives. But that’s why “Yes, And” can be such a wonderful way to approach life. It means instead of rejecting an idea or a person out of hand, instead of automatically coming up with reasons why we can’t participate in other peoples’ lives or why we can’t try something new, we might try instinctively saying yes, and then figuring out the details as we go along. It doesn’t mean it will be smooth. It doesn’t mean it always will be successful. Abraham doesn’t succeed in all of his endeavors, as our Torah reading today shows. He sends away his son Yishmael and his mother Hagar from his household with hardly anything in their possession, putting their lives at risk. He, like all the great characters of the Hebrew Bible, are flawed. But it doesn’t stop him from continuing on his journey, and living a life that is a blessing to his descendants.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with trying to plan, to avoid needing to improvise at every moment. I’m well aware of the irony of speaking today about improvisation while reading every word of this speech from a piece of paper. We don’t need to make up everything as we go along. But neither do we need to fear when we have to. Immediately after my first improv show at Theatre 99, my class and I headed back to the green room to celebrate getting through it. And we realized that we not only survived the performance, but we also liked and cared about the people we got to perform with. In the weeks that followed, many of us have gotten together, gone out to eat, gone to parties at each others’ homes, and become good friends. I think it’s because the experience of improvising together, of working together on the fly, on stage, spontaneously, created a bond that’s not easy to reproduce. For when we improvise, we create and entertain possibilities that we might have otherwise dismissed out of hand, and therefore welcome people into our lives we may never have welcomed otherwise.
So for this new year, for 5778, I wish for a year of improvisation. I wish for a year in which we don’t necessarily say no to a new idea, no matter how absurd. I wish for a year in which we don’t necessarily say no to welcoming a new person into our lives, no matter how unlikely that person’s presence might seem to us. I wish for a year in which we don’t necessarily say no to trying a new activity, no matter how daunting the activity might seem. I wish for a year in which we, as a congregation, will continue to try new things to expand our Jewish connection, whether you sign up for Chai Mitzvah or choose to be a part of the many wonderful services, classes, and activities our synagogue has to offer. I wish for a year in which we don’t automatically say no, but instead, we say, “Yes, And.”