Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018 Sermon
(with thanks to my teacher Micah Goodman at the Shalom Hartman Institute for his inspiration!)
A man had been driving all night and by morning was still far from his destination. He decided to stop at the next city he came to and park somewhere quiet so he could get an hour or two of sleep.
As luck would have it, the quiet street he chose happened to be one of the city’s most popular jogging routes. No sooner had he settled back to snooze when there came a knocking on his window. He looked out and saw a jogger running in place.
“Excuse me, sir,” the jogger said, “do you have the time?” The man looked at the car clock and answered, “7:15.”
The jogger said thanks and left. The man settled back again, and was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window and another jogger.
“Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?”
The jogger said thanks and left.
Now the man could see other joggers passing by and he knew it was only a matter of time before another one disturbed him. To avoid the problem, he got out a pen and paper and put a sign in his window saying, “I do not know the time!”
Once again he settled back to sleep. He was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window.
“Sir, sir? It’s 7:45! J
How we measure and think of time is something that human beings have obsessed over since the very beginning of our existence. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argued in his New York Times bestselling book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, for our earliest ancestors, each day was a repeating pattern of eating, working, creating, and struggling to survive while trapped in natural cycles framed by the rising of the sun and its setting. This was our first experience of a cyclical notion of time—everything repeats itself over and over again, and nothing new or unique emerges with the dawn of a new day. Even what we create is just another aspect of the repeating cycle of responding to the challenges with which the natural world confronts us. What happens, has happened before, and will happen again. If we asked someone living 4,000 years ago what life would be like in 100 years, if they even understood the question, they probably would have said, “if I live 100 years from now, it would pretty much be exactly like it is today—I will eat, work, and sleep, in a cycle just like that of the sun and the moon, just like I do today”.
The Biblical inception of the concept of Shabbat in the book of B’reishit/Genesis marks the revolutionary moment in world history when we attempt to declare our independence from those natural cycles. First we start with the expected cyclicality—for the first 6 days of creation the Torah says, “Vayehi erev, vayehi boker, yom rishon, yom sheni, etc.”—there was evening and there was morning, a first day, a second day, a third day… the same pattern over and over again. Until… surprise… on the 7th day God rests and ceases creating—and we are instructed to act like God in similarly ceasing acts of creation—and thus we declare an independence from nature one day a week. The cycles of the natural world can continue, but we get off that survival merry-go-round for one day every seven and instead focus on thriving.
Moreover, just a few chapters later in the book of Genesis, we make another dramatic break from cyclical time. When it came to the nature of the world itself, the early Israelites and their contemporaries in the Ancient Near East had believed in a cycle of creation-destruction-creation. Our Torah essentially describes God as parting a heavenly ocean to create the world, and then in the story of Noah, God effectively destroys the earth in the same way—with water, much like the narrative in the Ancient Near Eastern Gilgamesh Epic; and then God unveils a new world out of that same water, as if it is emerging from a birth canal. But in Genesis chapter 9, after the flood has stopped and receded, God says to Noah with the covenant of the rainbow: “I’m never going to do this again.” There will be no more creation-destruction-creation cycles going forward.
And thus from the establishment of Shabbat and the covenant of the rainbow, the Western concept of linear time and progress is born, breaking free from the natural cycles. Each moment has the potential to be a new moment, a moment of progress that has NOT previously been experienced by any one of us or by humanity. Tomorrow is DIFFERENT than yesterday or today, not necessarily even familiar to us; it is unpredictable and uncertain. If you asked our grandparents or great grandparents back in 1918 what things would look like in 2018, even with their awareness of technological progress, no doubt they would never have been able to imagine smartphones, the internet, or space travel. The idea of things changing fast reminds me of a funny story when a mother noticed her eleven-year-old daughter staring in puzzlement at a poster on the wall of a restaurant, a poster of Superman bursting out of a phone booth. The mother whispered to her husband, “Doesn’t she know who Superman is?” Her husband replied—“It’s worse than that, she doesn’t know what a phone booth is.” J The creation of new technology leaves old technology in the dust and provides us with ever new and improving ways to liberate ourselves from nature, and sometimes even control it. Things can, and do, change. And we can, and do, change.
But in our move from cyclical to linear time we are also faced with a tremendous amount of anxiety, perhaps never in history as much as today. We don’t know what America will look like ten or twenty years from now, let alone one year from now. In a world that feels much smaller and perhaps more claustrophobic than ever before, shrunk by this technology that we embrace, we worry about when, how—or if—we will eliminate dangerous radical threats like Iran, ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah, among others, as well as the rising specter of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Europe and elsewhere. On some level all of this feels like it is happening in our own backyard. And even when it comes to technology itself, things are changing SO FAST that there are times we feel exhausted, like we can’t keep up. I’ll admit I’m still using an iPhone 6s, which officially makes me three iPhones behind the iPhone X. Frankly, I haven’t lost sleep over this, but I can see where others might. While we created technology to help us respond to nature and control it on some level, now, as I’m sure many of us here would agree, it’s not the cycles of nature, but technology that actually controls us. For all of the great benefits of connectivity and access that modern smartphones provide, how many of us find it difficult to even set our smartphone down for 25 minutes, let alone 25 hours for Shabbat? We try to fit more into every day, rushing meals, writing emails and responding to texts at the dinner table and in bed. Perhaps we are afraid we won’t be able to keep up with everyone else or the world as it keeps racing forward. We don’t want to be left behind. And what about social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.? They are both helpful to see and read what other people are thinking and feeling, and yet simultaneously, they are, dare I say it, an incredible time suck. J I was originally well behind on the Facebook bandwagon, but have now been on Facebook for about three years. While I feel it has been a helpful tool to try to keep up with congregants’ and friends’ lives, especially birthdays and anniversaries and other milestones, and a good forum to publicize synagogue events (when I have the time to go to my page and post, that is!), I have to admit, it is pretty daunting even trying to keep up with my feed. On a typical day I scroll down and look at the first ten or so posts that appear and respond to them as appropriate, and never get past those initial handful of posts. I could be scrolling down on my phone or computer screen for multiple hours at a time and would never come close to being able to fully keep up with all the posts, while trying to keep up with all of the other things I need to do each day. The stark reality is that we have not only managed to make the world smaller with technology, we have also managed to make time smaller, shrinking each moment to something we are just trying to get through to react to the next expectation or demand. There are some days when, despite all our technology and progress, we might prefer to be an ancient, simple farmer.
It turns out we are far from the first people to be anxious about progress and linear time. Even by 2,500 years ago some of our ancestors had developed an apprehension about how fleeting time is and how difficult it is to make the most of that time. The Psalmist, in Psalm 90, pleaded with God “Limnot yameinu ken hoda, v’navi l’vav chochma”, “teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart”, suggesting that, even in his day, people had lost their way in making time count. The biblical scroll of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, also grapples with how we look at time in the context of human lifetimes that are short and that end—at some point—with both wise men and fools buried in the same place, with power and wealth left behind. Kohelet talks about the power of nature and says that, despite all of our inventiveness, wind, water, and sun will wipe away all of our progress. Putting it in contemporary terms, we may be proud of having an iPhone X and think it is so important while we have it, but we’ll eventually either drop our phone in the toilet (hey—you knew the risks when you took it in there J) or the bathtub, or if it doesn’t “die” there, it will still eventually end up in a landfill, just as we will end up dying as well. To Kohelet it would seem foolish for people to spend their time trying to keep up with the Joneses, or to attempt to control nature as such, and he seems to have wondered how we manage to make meaning in life when we don’t control life’s beginning or end, or, for that matter, much in between.
In response, Kohelet suggests in chapter 3 that we should reorient our lives as a coping mechanism or a way for us to FEEL in control of a world that’s getting away from us. Kohelet’s words, made famous by the 1960’s song by The Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn”, tell us there is a season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. A time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting, a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace, among several other opposite experiences juxtaposed one with the other in these 7 short verses. Kohelet’s answer to a lack of control is to go back to the cyclical model–when we are down, and it’s a time for crying, let’s remember that there will be an up, and give ourselves permission to grieve fully and healthily. And when we’re up, let’s remember that there will be a down and avoid excessive pride and vanity. Control, then, is the knowledge that the other half of the cycle is coming. Additionally, if we accept Kohelet’s return to the cyclical model, we should also be prepared to accept exactly where we are in the cycle—live intensely in the moment of joy and laughter, and smile until we can smile no longer when we experience that moment, or cry until we can’t cry any more when we are faced with moments that are tearing us apart inside. For many of us, this is a hard model for us to embrace, because we rarely do hold on to the moment in our contemporary society; we always seem to be worried about what’s coming or what we have to accomplish next. The revolution that the Torah set in motion thousands of years ago, one that declared that human beings could rise above natural cycles, has come back to haunt us.
But in our same Jewish tradition we still have the foundation of a response, as suggested by chapter 3 of Kohelet, that we seek refuge from the rat race of progress by slowing down and returning to those cyclical moments we were originally trying to escape. Think about this—why do hundreds of people come here today and sit here for several hours, so 1/3 of those in attendance can say afterwards that it was too hot, 1/3 can say it was too cold, and 1/3 can say it was just right? J Perhaps it is partially attributable to a desire to be inspired and moved by prayers, music, or spoken words, and partially attributable to the desire to connect with other family and friends here at the synagogue, but on its most basic level, it’s also probably due to a desire to reconnect every year with the cycle of time. The striking contrast is that the iPhone model we have in our pockets may be different next year, but the apple on the Rosh Hashanah table will be the same. J And it’s not just about Rosh Hashanah that we’re talking as a cyclical event; consider Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Hanukkah, Pesach, Shavuot, and the rest of our Jewish holidays, and think about the themes each one of them reinforces every year. Not to mention Shabbat, the original break from nature’s cycles that ironically now offers us the potential of serving as the cleanest and most regular break from time and progress, should we only choose to take advantage of the weekly opportunity to slow down time in one way or another. We can escape our smart phones and our emails, we can reconnect with family and friends, enjoy Shabbat meals and the spirit of reflection and contemplation, spend some time in the synagogue for prayer, study, and/or camaraderie, take a walk or a nap—you name it, the possibilities are there. We just need to avail ourselves of one or more of them. As the great 20th century philosopher and theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote in his remarkable book, The Sabbath, “To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”
Likewise brises, baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals mark the cycles, not just of our weeks or our years, but of our lives, with regularity, and offer us precious moments to capture and in which to linger. Personally I can think back as a recent example to our son Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah back in 2016, a day so filled with emotion and joy and pride, and a moment and a weekend in which we would not have changed a thing, it felt so beautiful from start to finish. Being able to sit in the front row for most of the service as a father and not just the rabbi allowed me to enjoy and appreciate the experience so much more. When I listened to Jonah davening Shacharit, giving his D’var Torah, reading his Torah portions and chanting his Haftarah, I tried to listen as if it was moving at ½ speed, knowing that for all of the preparation leading up to that service, the moment would be over before we knew it and thus each word, each musical note, was a moment to hold on to. We are anticipating with equal excitement the celebration of our daughter Elana’s Bat Mitzvah in November.
We don’t know exactly what America—or our world—will look like next year, but we do know that Pesach will be Pesach, and a bat mitzvah will be a bat mitzvah. These are islands of familiarity in a world where so much seems new or unfamiliar. Linear time and progress was once a radical innovation in our Bible. Maybe Judaism’s radical counter-cultural balance to the world today is not in moments of change, but moments that DON’T change, stable islands of time in a world that is nothing but stable. Isn’t it comforting to know that while next year remains a mystery, we will be sitting in the same sukkah and brides and grooms will be standing under huppahs in our community and elsewhere?
So we return to the joke at the beginning of my remarks. How do we—or should we—measure time? And who is going to tell us what time it really is? Some of you who have visited me in my office may have noticed the unusual clock I have that was designed by artist Rabbi Jonathan Kremer. Rather than measuring time with numbers, each slot on the clock is identified by one of the terms from Kohelet chapter 3, and directly across the clock face is its opposite “time”, for example “seek” vs “lose”, “speak” vs “be silent”, “plant” vs “uproot”, “embrace” vs “hold back”, and “laugh” vs “weep”. Not long ago the clock batteries died, and because I did not get around to replacing the batteries quickly, for months my clock was sitting on the same time—it was stuck at 5:03. During those months that the clock was frozen in time, it was certainly the case that while we couldn’t tell what ACTUAL time it was, the words on the clock were still telling us what time it was, and still is. It’s time to slow down and take stock of the cycles of our world and of our lives and embrace every moment fully. Progress and quickly moving on to the next appointment or experience is not always a positive thing. Life rarely freezes around us like the clock did, but maybe, if we will ourselves to, we can better train ourselves to linger in the highs—and lows—of life, appreciating that just as light gives way to darkness, so does the night give way once again to dawn. Coming to understand this cyclical element of our life as a necessary counterbalance to constantly moving forward would hopefully enable us to slow down and live much fuller and richer lives. And that, my friends, would be a good thing.
L’Shana Tova, u’G’mar Hatima Tova—may we each be inscribed for a year of 5779 filled with meaningful 5:03 moments.