The Life That We Would Like to be Living: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5773

The Architect Frank Lloyd Wright tells about a memory. He was nine years old, and he was walking across a snowy field with his no-nonsense uncle. The boy wandered this way and that, collecting reeds and taking in the scenery, while his uncle walked straight across the field. Upon reaching the top of the hill, to two looked back. Uncle John pointed to his straight line of footprints, and then to Frank’s meandering path and he said sternly, “There’s a lesson in that, you know.”

Frank Lloyd Wright later said that that moment had shaped his philosophy. While Uncle John had intended to teach about the virtues of avoiding distraction, “I determined right then not to miss [out on] life, as [he] had.”

Life is too precious to miss.
Life is too precious to be spent looking down rather than around, to be spent working rather than playing.

But it seems today our world is constantly throwing at us new ways to miss out on life. New devices that teach us to look down rather than out. New excuses to bury ourselves in our work and our daily tasks and forget about what really matters.

On the High Holy Days, we take time to reflect on our lives and our choices. We ask ourselves: Do my daily actions reflect my values? Am I living the life I would like to be living?

Today, it seems that the boundaries between our work lives and our real lives are being constantly eroded. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the day, because balance is the thing that we are all missing. It used to be that our parents and grandparents would get in the car in the morning and drive to the office. Today, we carry our offices with us. Today, we can edit digital documents at the dinner table, answer emails from our beds, and text our colleagues from red lights (though it’s illegal, thankfully). With our smartphones in our pockets and our Bluetooth devices on our ears, we are accessible 24/7/365. We spend more time looking down than out; we spend more time working than living.

According to a government survey,  “one in four Canadians works 50 hours per week or more.” Ten years ago it was one in ten.[1] And those of us with smartphones – forget about it! – they put in an extra 365 hours a year.[2] That’s 15 days a year that we spend answering emails on our tiny little screens when we’re supposed to be paying attention to our families and ourselves.

In the 21st century, our technological advances and our lifestyle changes have blurred the line between our work lives and our real lives. And it’s our real lives that are suffering.

This may seem like a uniquely modern problem, but our texts tell us that even our earliest ancestors struggled to balance their obligations with their private lives – some with more success than others. In fact, the Torah gives one example of a Jewish figure who became so completely all consumed by his work that his family fell apart. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name is Moses.

We know Moses as the great prophet and leader of our people. But it’s easy to forget that he was also a human being with a family. And we forget with good reason, because according to Torah, for much of his life, Moses’ attention was focused anywhere but on his family. Here is a man who was so important, who had so many responsibilities, that they consumed his entire being.

According to Exodus 18, Jethro had to teach Moses how to delegate so that he wouldn’t try to do everybody’s jobs for them. According to the previous chapter, Moses sent his family away for extended periods of time. According to Exodus 4, he forgot to circumcise his own sons. The Torah doesn’t even mention the birth of his second son Eliezer; it’s not clear that he was even there.

In fact, the text calls Moses’ family not by their names but as “Ishtecha Ushnei Vaneiha – your wife and her two sons.” Her two sons, taught Rabi Hiyya, because she, and not Moses, had raised them.

In that sense, Moses is a tragic figure: one who achieves extraordinary things, but does so at the expense of his private life. Moses is undoubtedly the greatest teacher, prophet, rabbi, judge, and leader in the history of our people. But as a husband and father… he was kind of lousy!  In fact, the Torah is full of prominent people who mismanaged their personal lives because they were too busy doing great things. There’s Abraham, whose dedication to his mission manages to estrange both his wife and his son. There’s Joseph, who gives up his Jewish identity in Pharaoh’s court. There’s Isaac, who sows seeds of discord between his children that last for generations.

And although these stories are extreme, we may be able to see glimpses of ourselves – of our bad habits, of the choices that we wish we were making differently. And if we look closely, perhaps we can find solutions as well.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes about a friend of his, an Episcopal minister, who – like many of us – had a desk full of papers. Once a month, the minister would take every piece of paper, and throw it away! So Rabbi Kushner once asked his friend, “What if there’s something important on your desk?” The minister explained, “If it’s important, it’ll come back.”[3]

The problem with our lifestyle today is not that we have too much to do. The problem is that that it’s hard to remember what matters most, when you are constantly inundated by all the details.

Before going any further, it needs to be said: From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing wrong with working hard.  Hard work and a fulfilling career are great virtues. Why else would the Torah tell us that David was a shepherd and Adam was a gardener? And many any of the earliest Rabbis were known by names like “Rabbi Yochanan the Sandle-maker” and “Rabbi Hillel the wood-cutter.” (By the way, I’ve always wanted to be known as “Rabbi Micah the Rock-Star,” but it hasn’t taken off yet.)

So our earliest rabbinic role models also defined themselves around their careers. But the reason they were great rabbis is that they found time for personal study, for teaching, and self-betterment. That’s not easy to do.

Rabbi Meyer Twersky wrote:

The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works hard to keep us too busy. That way we have no energy left to think, to reflect, to better ourselves.

Fortunately for us, there is an institution in Judaism that was created precisely for the purposes of thinking, reflecting, and bettering ourselves… and it occurs every single week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.

It is said that very Friday night 2 angels follow us to our doors. If they find a home prepared for Shabbat, a meal ready to be enjoyed, a family spending time together, then they bless us, saying, “May it always be so.”

Shabbat is Judaism’s answer to the challenge of finding balance in life. Once a week, we Jews are commanded to withdraw from the working world – to go 25 hours traditionally without cooking, mending, lighting fires, working at our professions, or in any way trying to control or own the world around us.  It is through Shabbat that Judaism attempts to give us freedom from our enslavement to our everday obligations. In fact, you might say that the Jews invented the weekend.

But there’s more than that.  Shabbat is, at its core, a matter of human dignity. It is a concrete manifestation of the idea that every person deserves to rest. It’s a reflection of the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, since God also rested on the seventh day. Most importantly, it is the way that we as Jews are meant to care for ourselves, so that we can better care for the world around us.

The story is told of a woman who would walk back and forth each day between her home and the well of water outside the town. She always carried two buckets – and one them had a hole in it. And while many people believed it was just broken, it most definitely was not. Each bucket had its own job, the woman would explain: with one bucket she cared for own needs – she carried water to her home. And with the other bucket, the one with the tiny hole in the bottom, she shared her water… with the earth, the animals, with the plants that needed it. And if either of the buckets had ever been lost, the whole task would have been rendered useless.

We cannot care for our world unless we care for ourselves. We cannot be at our best in our jobs and our schools and our communities unless we have taken the time to rejuvenate our bodies and our souls. Shabbat is a gift to help us find rest and strength and balance in our lives.

“Big surprise!” you’re thinking. “The Rabbi is giving a sermon on Shabbat.” But before your eyes start to glaze over, let me just say that I’m not giving the sermon you think I’m giving. This is not part of the sermon where I’m going to tell you to come to shul more often, or to read more Torah, or to start saying more blessings.

No, this is a different sermon. Because I believe that a new century calls for a new approach. That instead of the same old same old, it is time to find fresh ways to celebrate Shabbat – ways that make sense in our world. That is the Jewish way.

There’s an old joke that tells about Moses standing on top of Mt. Sinai, and God enumerating the commandments:

 God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any dairy with milk?

God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses: “So, we should have separate dishes for milk and meat meals, and then another two sets for Passover?”
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “Got it — we should have two separate dishwashers. And we should wait eight hours after eating brisket before having any cheesecake.”

God: Fine, have it your way.

As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish practice has changed through the ages. And that means that it must continue to change, continue to evolve, in order to meet our needs. All joking aside, our movement has put a lot of thought into redefining some of the important institutions of Jewish life. Our belief in egalitarianism led us to redefine what it means to be a rabbi. The environmental crisis led us to redefine what it means to keep kosher. And in the information age – in a time of unprecedented access to technology and unprecedented demands on our time – we will need to redefine and reclaim Shabbat as our own. We need it too much to let it go.

A few years ago the Union for Reform Judaism released a set of Shabbat cards with ideas for ways to make Shabbat meaningful. Not the traditional ways, but new ways. I’ll read a few:

  • On Shabbat, I have something special for lunch. Our favourite is falafel with salsa.
  • Whenever possible, we spend Shabbat outdoors: hiking, gardening, or skateboarding.
  • Unlike the rest of the week, our children aren’t allowed to wake us up on Shabbat morning.
  • I do not run errands on Shabbat.
  • I don’t open mail on Shabbat.
  • I turn off my Blackberry on Shabbat.

All of these are things that ordinary Reform Jews around North America are doing because they recognize just how powerful that Day of Rest can be. And what makes these ideas so powerful is that they address real needs in our lives. The Talmud doesn’t know about smartphones, but they are certainly the greatest intrusion on our time. The sages would have told us that gardening wasn’t approproate on Shabbat, but in a world where we are so disconnected from the earth, what better way to get back to nature.  As Reform Jews, it is our right and our mandate to find modern and meaningful ways to live our Jewish values.

If Judaism says to eat your favourite food on Shabbat, and you like sushi better than chicken soup, then have sushi for Shabbat dinner. (And then invite me!) If Judaism tells us to appreciate nature, then for God’s sake go tobogganing on Shabbat afternoon. Our Shabbat may look completely different than our great-grandparents’ Shabbat. It may even look completely different from our own preconceptions, But it will be just as authentic, just as real, just as meaningful, because it addresses the real lives we are living.

I’m proud to announce that this year, Temple Kol Ami will be launching an initiative called “Reclaiming Shabbat.” It is a challenge to ourselves to find meaning in Judaism’s oldest and most important holy day. I’m challenging each member of our congregation to celebrate 2 Shabbats a month – on in sul and one at home, and to find creative ways to do so, beyond coming to services and Religious School.

So starting this morning, I want you to start brainstorming, about how you can Shomer Shabbat – how you can observe Shabbat in a way that will work for you and your family, and we’ll share those ideas with each other – through the Voice, through the Kol Ami blog, and on the bulletin board outside this door. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to a favourite restaurant. Maybe it means DVRing your favourite TV show and saving it for Saturday afternoon, or writing haiku on Friday afternoon about the events of the week, or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking a meandering walk through a snowy field – not to get from one place to the next, but simply to enjoy being where you are.

Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat, he said, is the institution that has kept us Jewish. It has set us apart, it has sustained us, it has made us holy. It’s time we return the favour.

Let us resolve in the coming year, not to miss out on our lives – not to spend our precious minutes looking at screens and focusing on things that, in the end, do not matter. Let us resolve to spend one day a week, or one hour of one day, building relationships, rejuvenating ourselves, living the life that we would like to be living.


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