December 1, 2022 -
This sermon was shared by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum during the Erev Rosh Hashanah Sanctuary Service, Sep. 25, 2022.
“Living Our Weeks”
This summer, we traveled to one of, if not the top seven, at least the top ten wonders of the world: Niagara Falls. We stayed in a home about a mile from the falls, conveniently located a block from a park with walking paths that ran parallel to the rushing waters of the Niagara River as they approach the 160-foot drop into the Niagara Gorge. Some 5.9 million cubic feet of water go over the crest of the falls every minute, and the sound of the water is at once mesmerizing and humbling. I loved walking along the riverside pathway; the closer we got to the falls, the more the water raced and churned. Standing on the enormously tall observation deck, tourists from near and far gather to behold the rushing river and breathtaking falls. The observation deck itself is an awe-inspiring place: at once, onlookers marvel at the wonders of creation and power of nature all while experiencing the wonders of human engineering. The infinite waters crushing over the edge of the earth are truly something to behold.
Niagara Falls is more than just the falls, of course. As is the case with so many treasures of the natural world, the stateside town of Niagara Falls has been commodified into a tourist attraction. Casinos, souvenir t-shirt shops, and novelty trinkets are abundant throughout town. Over the summer, there is even a nightly firework show at 10p.m. that takes place over the falls. Viewers on the American and Canadian sides alike flock to the falls at night, and instead of taking in the natural wonder of the rushing waters, turn their eyes to the skies for a mediocre 5-minute light show. Really, they turn their eyes to their phones, trying to capture fireworks at night as their devices are coated in a sheen of mist from the falls, giving themselves a further barrier between themselves and the miracle before them.
Like many of the town’s visitors, we went to see the show, and it struck me as bizarre. Fireworks are at once special and mundane: they can be seen at sporting events, on special American holidays, and at amusement parks. They’re breathtaking in their own way. But they aren’t an epic and giant waterfall. So, as we gathered among the other tourists, I found myself watching not the fireworks, but the people. Folks from around the world, standing in one very special place, completely ignoring the wonder of the water rushing over the edge of the earth. The booming blasts of the fireworks reverberated along the cliffs’ edges, whipping around the basin and echoing in every direction. And the falls, silenced by the booms, kept flowing, even though nobody noticed.
It occurred to me, standing there, that I didn’t particularly care about the fireworks, but they were difficult to ignore. They were insistent, sparkly, and loud. They were, in a word, distracting. It seems odd to say, but if something flashy and loud can distract thousands of people each night from the awe-inspiring beauty of truly magnificent waterfalls, it’s no wonder we find ourselves more distracted than ever in our daily lives.
Like a visitor to the falls distracted by fireworks, I often experience distraction. I have so many wonderful people and causes and ideas that I would love to be present with and focus on. But I find myself looking at time as a commodity, and struggling to invest that commodity on the things that really matter to me, opting instead, semi-consciously, to give into distractions and excuses. Even in preparation for this High Holy Day season, I’ve felt adrift, wanting to get my heart and mind and being ready for these days of awe, but finding all manner of easier, more comfortable mental pursuits instead. Cheshbon hanefesh is great, but so are audiobooks. Asking loved ones for forgiveness is a worthy pursuit, but maybe so is picking up my phone for the hundredth meaningless time of the day. As is so often the case for each one of us, I am often my own best distractor, and rather than focus on the lessons of the sacred scrolls behind me, I give into the ease and mindless escapism of scrolling through my phone. And companies are clever! In 2020, social media ad spending stood at approximately 132 billion U.S. dollars, with spending expected to surpass the 200-billion-dollar mark by 2024. The worst part is that as much as we ingest those advertisements, it is in fact our attention that is the commodity. The so-called attention economy is much more than hours wasted scrolling; in fact, what we take in during those mindless hours sticks with us and shapes the reality around us, influencing how we engage with the world, how we perceive ourselves and others, and distorts our judgment even when we’re not engaging in thoughtless consumption and distraction-seeking.
We humans are uncomfortable recognizing the fullness of being. Our nature seems to be to procrastinate; to hold off living fully until we get a promotion, lose weight, find a partner, relocate, or whatever other obstacle we’ve put before ourselves. We put off making big decisions or finishing dreaded tasks, we procrastinate or avoid difficult or even boring conversations, seeking distractions and losing ourselves in mundane meaningless business as a way to forget or obscure our reality.
That’s one of the reasons why we have a time management industry, full of people who suggest setting up our desks a certain way, or blocking certain applications on our devices, or having an email inbox with zero unread messages. So many suggested habits and “life hacks,” and yet…we still find ourselves unable to be present in the moment, whether we’re at work or home or Niagara Falls or, really, anywhere else. As a culture we seem obsessed with how to make the most of our time, to the extent that we spend precious hours squandering time under the guise of learning how to make the most of it. It’s a uniquely human paradox.
In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, British writer Oliver Burkeman explores the fallacy of the concept of “time management.” Burkeman posits that, if we live to eighty, we are gifted with approximately four thousand weeks to live, and that making the most of those weeks, our lives, requires vulnerable acceptance of our limitations and our own mortality. He writes, “why assume that an infinite supply of time is the default, and mortality the outrageous violation?…[when we consider death,] maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all” (66). “It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, and what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives” (63).
It happens that this is actually quite a Jewish idea, but I doubt Oliver Burkeman realizes it. Though tonight we celebrate our arrival at the new Jewish year, this season of the days of awe is a bittersweet one. Our tradition holds that Yom Kippur is a kind of dress rehearsal for our death; we refrain from eating and drinking, washing and anything that brings us pleasure, and many of us wear white, evoking the image of a burial shroud, and avoid wearing leather, a symbol of our unwillingness to benefit from the death of any creature on a day when we bare our souls to God’s judgment.
Yom Kippur, then, is not just meant to be a day of repentance; it is a day of humbly acknowledging our mortality. When we confront the certainty of death, which may seem a morose topic for this new year celebration, we actually liberate ourselves and empower ourselves to do the work of living our four thousand, or however many, weeks. Burkeman teaches, “if you can…hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time” (65).
There’s no better moment to hold that gift, the astonishingness of being, in our minds than at this high holy day season. Erev Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time to consider the sacredness of time. It is a holiday whose multisensory rituals seem, by design, created to wake us up and call us to make the most of the weeks we are given. The sweetness of apples and honey on our tongues call to mind the glory of having arrived to this moment. The visual symbol of the round challah reminds us of the passing of seasons and the cycle of life’s journey. And, of course, there’s the sacred alarm clock, blasting and reminding us to wake up and get living.
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of many names, and one of the most poignant is Yom Teruah, or the day of the t’ruah, the call of the Shofar. The shofar is a powerful instrument, crafted from a naturally hollow horn, with no mouthpiece or other obstruction to the flow of breath from lungs to shofar to sound. Traditionally, a shofar is meant to be naturally bent or bowed, and as my teacher Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg notes, “[a shofar] cannot be linear. The process of returning to our soul is certainly not a straight line. The process of waking up in this life is certainly not easily mapped. We bend and bow to that truth…a mind that bows knows we are not separate from the eternal breath. We are indeed a temporary affair. An arising from the dust of the universe. This attitude of humility brings compassion for the challenges and pains in a human life and in the life of this earth we inhabit” (8).
The sound of the shofar, a sound we are commanded to hear on Rosh Hashanah, is by its very nature a reminder of our mortality, our connection to the earth, to God, to time.
Our sages suggest that even the blasts of the shofar come with special meaning. In the Babylonian Talmud (RH 16b), we read that the sounder of the shofar was to sound a long, continuous blast, a tekiah, followed by the series of staccato blasts, a teruah, twice during the amidah section of the prayer service, k’dei l’arbev hasatan, in order to confuse the adversarial angel, meaning that hasatan would be confused when bringing accusations before the heavenly court so that the Jewish people receive a favorable judgment.
Adina Roth, a scholar affiliated with Yeshivat Maharat, teaches, “A Hasidic reading of the root of the word “satan” turns the image of the accusing angel into something us moderns might relate to. The word for distraction in Hebrew is “listot”, which seems to share the same root as hasatan. From a modern point of view, hasatan could be regarded as the angel of distraction, who pulls us away from the present moment. Hasatan diverts our focus…If hasatan distracts, the simple, atonal and melodious sound of the shofar is without distraction…In its bareness, its sense of nothing, we are neither in the past nor in the future. If we can truly connect to the emptiness of its sound, anything becomes possible. The sound of the shofar never says, “There is no future.” Rather, it says, “Hayom harat olam” (Today, the world is conceived).”
Following Roth’s teaching, it is through the sound of the shofar, that blasting expression of human breath, that the forces of distraction from our angelic adversary are held at bay. If we view Rosh Hashanah as the day the world is conceived, then it is the sound of the shofar that awakens us to the potential and also the reality of life now, in all of its brokenness, and hardship, and joy, and connection. The shofar tells us not to wait until our plans have been perfectly accomplished, not to hold off living until some future time when we think we have time under our control. Because the truth is, no matter how much we try to extract the best life out of our weeks, our lives are nothing but “a succession of present moments” (Burkeman 135). The shofar calls us not to lose sight of the present by obscuring ourselves with distractions.
I’m thinking of one of our tradition’s famous families: Sarah, Abraham, and their handmaid Hagar. In Genesis 21, we read as Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are cast out into the wilderness with meager rations to sustain them. Once their water is gone, sure her child is about to die, Hagar places Ishmael under the bushes, and averts her eyes so she doesn’t have to watch him die. Vatisa’ et kolah vateivk (21:16), she raises her voice and cries out, at which point an angel of God calls out to Hagar, capturing her attention. God opens her eyes, and she is able to see a miraculous well before her. I think, perhaps, the well was there all along, but so distracted was Hagar by her fear and desperation, she wasn’t able to see the water before her. Our tradition holds that Hagar’s sobs are echoed in the call of the shofar, the broken cries of t’ruah. The sound that characterizes this sacred day, then, is a weeping acknowledgement of mortality.
Though Hagar’s story ended in blessing, it isn’t the end of the story of Abraham’s family. In Genesis 22, we read as Abraham faces God’s test and prepares to offer his son with Sarah, Isaac, on the altar as an offering to God. Abraham lifts up the sacrificial knife over his head, and the voice of an angel of God cries out to stop him. Abraham looks up, and his eyes fall upon a ram caught in the thicket. That ram is offered instead of Isaac. That ram’s horn is the very instrument we use on this sacred day. The sound of the shofar is blunt, and liberating: it reminds us that there is sadness, and that relationships are difficult, and that the universal certainty of death is real.
So, perhaps Rosh Hashanah, as it prepares us for Yom Kippur, is a way to awaken us to what our lives would be like if we fought distraction and woke up each morning of each of our hopefully many, many weeks and really lived them.
Not by filling them with expensive adventures. Not by “treating our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share” (Burkeman 188). Not by forcing ourselves to meet some aspiration or goal or seeing everything else as less than worthy. As Oliver Burkeman puts it, “Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to ‘do something remarkable’ with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and over demanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is” (213).
If life lasted forever, it wouldn’t have meaning. So how do we make meaning in these weeks we have the blessing of experiencing? If we see this entry into our new year as a chance to reflect on the past and look ahead to the future, but we forget to consider what it is we’re doing today, exactly at this moment, we’ve missed the point. The shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow morning, the same shofar we sounded at the start of tonight’s service, says to us, hey! Wake up! Be here right now. This won’t last forever, but you’re here now, so you might as well live your life.
So when you stand near the rushing waters of Niagara Falls, or you lay on your belly next to a baby learning how to hold her head up, or when you sit down with a good book, or you hold the hand of someone you care for, or you eat something really delicious: live it. Soak it in. Let that moment, however fleeting, be real. Be enough. Be substantial. You’ll get distracted, and that’s okay. When you do, remember the sound of the shofar, and let your attention hold the astonishingness of being when you can.
In the finale of the American version of The Office, Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms, says, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.” This is living time, instead of spending time. As Burkeman writes, “Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it” (24). As we begin these days of awe, and enter into this new year, this set of weeks, we’ll know that we aren’t wasting time; instead, we are living our weeks.
The call of the shofar is our tradition’s way of saying: the days are here, life is now. Each blast of the shofar connects us to Hagar and Abraham and Sarah and Ishamael and Isaac; each tekiah and shvarim and teruah a bittersweet cry to remind us of our mortality. Each breath sounding the shofar is a call to move from distraction to attention, because this is life. However broken our world, however damaged our relationships, however flawed we are as individuals, these are the days we have. However many weeks we are gifted, however many days we get to wake up, let us be in them, and live them.
After all, we can’t take the time with us, so we may as well live our weeks now.
 A 2019 study found that americans pick up their phones an average of 96 times a day, meaning once every 10 minutes https://dailyvoice.com/new-york/orangetown/lifestyle/research-reveals-how-many-times-americans-check-their-smart-phones-each-day/817270/#:~:text=A%202019%20survey%20by%20global,meaning%20once%20every%2010%20minutes.