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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2012/5773

Controlling Time, Stopping Time

I will confess, to my younger sister’s dismay, that I have not reread one of her favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth, in years.  Nonetheless, there is one scene that has stuck with me for the about 20 years since I read it.  Shortly after going through the tollbooth that just appeared in his room one day, the main character Milo, a schoolchild who is almost always bored, is trying to figure out what this magical world he found is all about.

“People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums” [said one of the Lethargarians]. . .  “In the Doldrums, laughter is frowned upon and smiling is permitted only on alternate Thursdays.”  “Well if you can’t laugh or think, what can you do?” asked Milo.  “Anything as long as it’s nothing, and everything as long as it isn’t anything,” explained another.  “There’s lots to do; we have a very busy schedule—
“At 8 o’clock we get up and then we spend from 8 to 9 daydreaming;
“From 9 to 9:30 we take our early midmorning nap.
“From 9:30 to 10:30 we dawdle and delay.
“From 10:30 to 11:30 we take our late early morning nap.
“From 11 to 12 we bide our time and then eat lunch.
“From 1 to 2 we linger and loiter.
“From 2 to 2:30 we take our early afternoon nap.
“From 2:30 to 3:30 we put off for tomorrow what we could have done today.
“From 3:30 to 4 we take our early late afternoon nap.
“From 4 to 5 we loaf and lounge until dinner.
“From 6 to 7 we dillydally.
“From 7 to 8 we take our early evening nap, and then for an hour before we go to bed at 9 we waste time.” . . .
“Tell me,” [Milo] yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?” “Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of [the Lethargarians], shuddering in chorus.  “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time.”  “The watchdog?” said Milo quizzically.  “THE WATCHDOG,” shouted another, fainting from fright, for racing down the road barking furiously…was the very dog of whom they had been speaking. . . .  “What are you doing here?” growled the watchdog.  “Just killing time,” replied Milo apologetically. “You see—”  “KILLING TIME!!” roared the dog, “It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it.”  And he shuddered at the thought.  (Phantom Tollbooth, end Chapter 2, “Beyond Expectations”)

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase “killing time” without picturing the shuddering watchdog. 

Like the watchdog, the High Holy Days force us to think about time in another way entirely.  Not one of us knows how much time we have in our lives, and while we don’t like to think about it, the High Holy Days force us to confront that reality. Throughout the Bible, God controls time.  For example, yesterday, we read about Abraham and Isaac, climbing that mountain together.  We know that they got up early in the morning to set out on the journey to Moriah, but we also know how slowly time seemed to move: their long walk to the mountain took three days. Later on in the story, Abraham’s servant Eliezer went to find a wife for Isaac, and God made the road rise, helping Eliezer so that he could make an otherwise long journey in only hours.  Fast forward to the book of Numbers, and we read about God sending an angel to block Balaam’s donkey, delaying an otherwise quick ride.  God didn’t do that for Abraham and Isaac.  They walked directly, without interruptions, but it took three long days. 

Today, we read about different increments of time, the first days of the world.  Regardless of how we think events really unfolded all those centuries in the past, the Bible is clear: there were seven distinct periods, here called days, and God did a specific task or tasks on each one of those days—even though, no doubt, God could have created the whole world with the snap of some divine fingers, without exertion requiring a full day of rest.  Reading the story of creation on Rosh Hashanah reminds us that it is our duty to use our days to our greatest ability, filling them with meaning and busyness, but it also reminds us to slow down and enjoy the ride, and to find the balance between filling our time and slowing time down by stopping entirely every now and then.

Bachya Ibn Pakuda, an 11th century Spanish scholar, teaches us that we are to be busy in our lives, filling our time with meaning: “Days are scrolls.  Write on them only what you want remembered.”   But how many of us, if we opened the scrolls of our days, would be proud of what is written there?  How many of us could say that we used our time well this past year, making the world a better place, spending as much time as we would like with our loved ones, doing the things that make us happy?  How many of us would be able to look the watchdog in the eye and say that this year, we have not wasted or even killed time? 

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Eliezer teaches us to repent one day before death (Pirke Avot 2:10).  The obvious lesson here is that we don’t know what day that will be, so we should spend all of our days repenting.  The more secular version of this quote is to live each day as if it were our last, doing the things we find personally important, every single day.  We learn from these ideas to fill our days, yes, but not to fill them with unimportant activities, with things that do not really matter.  Instead, our tradition teaches us to be busy—to be busy making the world a better place, to be busy strengthening our relationships, to be busy asking the questions that need to be asked.  And yet, it is easy to be “too busy.”  We can be too busy with a different television show every night of the week to make plans and meet up with friends.  It’s easy to be too busy with a project at work to spend the evening playing with our kids, or talking with far away family members on the phone, or reminding ourselves why we fell in love with a spouse in the first place.  It’s easy to be so busy with our own lives that we can’t find time to help a neighbor or a community member or an organization that could use some extra hands.  But on this holiday, we turn, we return, to the original use of time: filling our days with meaning.

Repentance in Judaism is not passive.  It involves prayer, but even more so, it involves action, it demands change.  The 8th-9th century work Avot d’Rabbi Natan teaches us that now that we live in a time without ritual sacrifice, “we gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving kindness.”  It is the deeds that help us repent when we return to the world, not the words we speak together in this room.  Similarly, the Talmud teaches that one who is truly repentant is one who stares at an opportunity for wrongdoing—and chooses not to do wrong.  Repentance in Judaism—that which we are to do every single day—is about trying to add meaning to our lives, living for others, for relationships, to add loving-kindness to the world—every single day.

In timing that I choose to believe was intentional, Mitch Albom, who previously wrote Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, among other reflective stories, less than two weeks ago released a new novel: The Time Keeper.  Throughout the novel, Albom explores the nature of time, how we use it, how we waste it, how we try to control it.  In perhaps the most poignant reminder of living our days to the fullest since The Phantom Tollbooth, he weaves together the story of Father Time—a prehistoric man who was the first to try to measure time, and was then imprisoned by it—and two modern-day characters who want to in one case gain immortality, conquering time, or in the other case, end life, the most extreme example of killing time.  Through the story, Albom reminds us that it is the way we use our time, not how much of it we have, that makes up the quality of our lives.  A fourth character, the old man in the story who is never named but seemingly divine, scolds Father Time: “You marked the minutes.  But did you use them wisely?  To be still?  To cherish?  To be grateful?  To lift and be lifted?” (p. 79).  Knowing that he had not, Father Time continues to be imprisoned by time until he learns the meaning of truly using the time that we have and filling it with meaning. 

We also know that while we’re busy filling our days, just as God was busy creating the sun, the moon, and the stars, that we have to slow down.  God didn’t try to create the flowers on the same day as the oceans, nor the animals and humans on the same day as the grass.  God stepped back, almost every day of creation, and God saw that it was good.  When we jump from one item on our to-do lists to the next, that’s what we miss: the work we are doing is good; the world we live in is beautiful.

How many of us are somewhat compulsive to-do list makers?  We spend our days writing down tasks and crossing them out, pausing only to assess how many items on today’s list still remain, to calculate how to get through it all.  How many of us are multitaskers?  It seems very efficient to do two things at once, but all too often, multitasking makes everything worse.  Sometimes doing two or three things at once means that we’re not really present for any of them.  Even science shows that sometimes it doesn’t work.  Numerous studies report that eating while watching television causes us to eat more calories than simply sitting down and eating—and we don’t enjoy the food as much.  It does not take a scientific study to know that reading, whether a book, a magazine, or anything on the internet while simultaneously having a conversation probably means that we’re not comprehending either one to the degree we would like.  How many of us are guilty of pretending to listen to a friend, a relative, a coworker, while we’re really focused on reading an article or packing up to leave?  How many of us have risked the safety of ourselves and others by driving while we talk on the phone, eat lunch on-the-go, put on makeup or play with the radio?

Multitasking is kind of the enemy of slowing down and appreciating the task at hand, but changing the multitasking habit is hard!  I automatically reach for something to do with my hands, so if I’m having a phone conversation, I can be tempted to read emails—bad for both the emails and the conversation—or I can take out paper and take notes on the call itself, forcing me to focus and, in fact, raising my comprehension and recall of the call later, although admittedly cutting down the amount that gets done while I’m on the call. Having to do things once rather than twice, though, is generally worth it.  I have been trying to multitask only when one of the tasks is truly mindless: straightening my desk while on the phone; testing markers while in a staff meeting; washing dishes while on the phone with my sister.  The first time I notice that I’m zoning out on something important because my attention has shifted to something else, I do my best to single-task myself, turning my focus back to the original task at hand.  I might use more time, but I feel as if I own my time, as if I’m slowing down, finding quality time where there was previously only a list of things to zoom through.

            Returning to Albom’s story, the narrator reports that the main character, Dor, who became Father Time, was intent on measuring time, trying to control time by knowing exactly what time there was.  He began to miss out on some of the moments of life that he would previously have enjoyed, because he was too busy measuring, or, in our terms, watching the clock, counting down days, or wishing time away to arrive at another event.  “Had he been wiser, he might have marveled at the beauty of the sunrise and given thanks for being able to witness it.  But Dor was not focusing on the miracle of the day, only on measuring its length” (p. 25).   

The thing is, filling our time and taking our time are things that seem like they should be obvious and intuitive, but when it comes down to it—they’re HARD!  That’s one reason we need these High Holy Days every single year.   The story of creation, of course, gives us one method for recharging our time.  Just like God, every week, whether or not we think we need it, we have Shabbat, and we live on God’s time.  I find it unlikely that God, to whom we ascribe every lofty attribute there is, just needed a day-long nap to recharge after the work of creation.  After all, for God, even creating the universe couldn’t have been physically exhausting.  Our psalms (121:4) tell us that God neither slumbers nor sleeps.  So, why the rest?  On Shabbat, the seventh and final day of creation, God created rest; God created a kind of a break in time.  Shabbat reminds us that our to-do lists, as important as they may be, can wait another day.  Shabbat reminds us that even when we spend six days a week forgetting the importance of filling our days with items of consequence, on the seventh day, that’s all that matters.  On Shabbat, we take the time to care for ourselves, perhaps getting a little extra sleep, since we are only human and we do require slumber; perhaps we indulge in a special meal.  On Shabbat, though, we also take the time to think of others: those in our lives for whom we don’t make enough time the rest of the week we spend the day together; for God, even, maybe we say a prayer or attend a service.  We remember that Shabbat is not about rest only, for on the first Shabbat, God “shavat va-yina-fash,” God rested and was refreshed.  We must not be fooled into thinking that Shabbat is about doing nothing—to the contrary, God’s “rest” on Shabbat was the opposite; it was a chance to appreciate the brand new world and all of its newly created beings.

We take Shabbat, a pause in time, to ensure that unlike Albom’s character Dor, we use our time deliberately and do not become imprisoned by it.   

Stopping time is not easy.  Stopping time—fully resting on Shabbat—can feel like work in itself, the precise thing we are meant to avoid.  But stopping time for Shabbat does not have to mean following a proscribed list of rules, but rather, perhaps, guidelines in the same spirit.  I had a neighbor growing up who was what we referred to as “conservadox.”  They belonged to the nearby Orthodox synagogue, but they also helped run the neighborhood egalitarian minyan.  They did not use the phone on Shabbat.  They had never considered it, as far as I know, until one of their children went off to college and found that Saturday afternoons, she had lots of time, and she wasn’t sure how to fill it without the family and community with which she grew up.  And so, her family began to use the phone on Shabbat—but only to keep in touch with family.  They found that they could bend what they always saw as “the rules,” in order to follow the spirit of the rules.  They understood that stopping time, resting on Shabbat, feeling refreshed, could sometimes happen even better if they could pick up the phone and talk to their far away sister, daughter, or friend. 

In another way to stop time in a creative way, I went to a modern Orthodox tot Shabbat service a couple of months ago when I was in New York City.  What I found there was that it seemed they bent “the rules” too.  Adults were not sitting in the regular service, because instead they could spend Shabbat with their young children.  They skipped over some prayers in the service when it meant the children would focus on some of the others, when it meant that they could sing along with the prayers they knew, jumping and dancing while they attempted the Hebrew words.  They weren’t following the letter of the law (although I have no doubt that many of them had prayed on their own before arriving), but they were following the spirit, stopping time, so to speak, to be with their families, to pass along traditions, to give thanks to God for everything they had.

Sometimes it can feel like the entire overnight camp experience is a stoppage of time.  However, anyone who has been to Jewish overnight camp will tell you that Shabbat is one of the most amazing parts of the experience.  I was at OSRUI for two weeks over the summer, and and on camp Shabbats, there aren’t a lot of special rules or laws we follow, but there are enough traditions that they could fill a book.  From Shabbas chicken and all-camp song session to making leftovers feel special at lunchtime, having free time at the lake and the pool, to a story with evening services, counselors and older campers reading Torah and, of course, extra sleep.  Shabbat at camp is a stopping of time, because it is so apart from the rest of time.

And so it should be for all of us, all year long.  Family traditions, holiday traditions, become what they are because we do them over and over again.  So this year, pause time, extend time, stop time, by finding a new Shabbat tradition.  Maybe dinner as a family, maybe brunch, maybe a special afternoon treat.  Maybe volunteering together, or giving tzedakah every Friday afternoon before Shabbat begins, or coming to services together with friends.  Maybe something so silly and unique to your family or your friends that it would sound absurd if I suggested it.  Those are some of the best traditions there are.  They are what makes time stop for a day, for an hour, for a moment of Shabbat.  They are what make time worth extending, controlling, slowing, living.

Sometimes it is difficult to fill the time, each moment of each day, with things that are important to us personally, important to our values, important to the way we see ourselves, the way we want our children to see us.  Sometimes it is difficult to slow down time, to remember to pause between checking off items that must get done to appreciate things that have been done, to appreciate things that are, the world as it is and the people in it who make our lives better.  As today’s Rosh Hashanah Torah portion teaches us, Shabbat reminds us that one day each week, we get to pause time.  We get to step away from the world in order to appreciate the world and all of its blessings.  As we step into the new year of 5773, may we try to control time in the best way possible.  May we try to use as much time as we can, filling our moments with meaning and filling our days in ways that make us proud and make our children understand.  May we try to slow time down, pausing every day to give thanks, to look around, to remember that we are each a part of something much, much bigger than ourselves.  And may we try, once each week, for at least a few hours if not for a whole day, to stop time entirely.  May we spend our time of rest reconnecting to all the time that otherwise seems to slip away.  Only then, when we control time by using it as it was meant to be used, will time cease to control us.  May it be so, may it be God’s will.  Shanah Tova.

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784