ROSH HASHANAH MORNING 5773
SEPTEMBER 17, 2012
The Business of Busyness
Jonathan E. Blake
It’s hard to believe this is now the tenth Rosh Hashanah that I have wished this beloved congregation a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year blessed with renewal, joy, and peace.
Kelly and I think of WRT as home and for all of us this is our annual homecoming, whether you’re coming from Myrtledale Road, Manhattan, or Michigan. It is not lost on me that many of you have made great efforts to be here, summoned to this sanctuary by powerful ties that bind home to home and heart to heart.
Why, just two weeks ago, an 84 year-old man who lives in Hartsdale called his son who lives in Chicago to announce, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce and I want you to be the first to know!”
“Have you lost your mind?” he says. “You and mom have been married for over 60 years!”
“Your mother told me, ‘Enough is enough!’ She’s throwing in the towel. Call your sister in Denver and tell her.”
“Dad, please put Mom on the phone.”
“She’s already told me that if I call you she won’t talk,” and at that the father hangs up!
Twenty minutes later, the phone rings again: “Dad, don’t worry. Sis and I have already booked flights with the grandchildren for the High Holidays. Together, we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Again the father hangs up, but this time he turns to his wife and says, “Okay, Lois, they’re coming for Rosh Ha-Shanah and paying their own airfare. Now what do we tell them for Passover?”
So, welcome home – no matter what it took to get you here.
Because we really are very busy. You had to choose to come here instead of going to work, finishing that homework assignment, putting the house back together after last night’s dinner, or staying on your college campus.
And many of you who could not make this homecoming in person because of disability or distance have nevertheless chosen to join us via our live webcast. So thank you, each of you, for choosing to spend your precious time at WRT this holiday.
“It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing,” observes essayist Tim Kreider: “‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”
“Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups.” (New York Times, June 30, 2012, "The 'Busy' Trap.")
The pace of life, the urgency of the iPhone era, has so tethered us to our work obligations and civic commitments and electronic communications that we now believe that family dinners really are no longer attainable; that e-mails require immediate attention; that to find time to read a novel we have to take a vacation.
At the same time, I’m reminded of today’s Torah reading about the Binding of Isaac, and one midrash in particular that teaches that Isaac was not a helpless victim. He went willingly up that mountain and even fastened the cords himself (Bereshit Rabbah 56:3).
Moreover: picture not a defenseless boy but rather a 37-year old man. The convolutions of interpretation and imagination that led the Rabbis to this improbable conclusion do not matter. The enduring message does: that we have bound ourselves and our children to the altar of our own busyness. Indeed, “[t]he present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life,” writes Kreider; “it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” (Ibid)
I like reading even when I’m not on vacation. At any given time my list includes a recent non-fiction work, a professional development book, a novel, and maybe a collection of poems.
Friends ask me, “How do you find time to read anything let alone four books at the same time?” And I tell them, first of all, I never said that I finish them; and secondly, “Time isn’t lost and you don’t find it,” as my friend Rabbi Les Gutterman likes to say. “You take time for those things that you really care about, that you really value, that you understand are precious and holy and life-enhancing.”
Speaking of books: Do you know the two most important Jewish books in your home? They are your checkbook and your datebook. Each one is a statement of values, of spiritual priorities--of what really matters to you.
A dollar donated to tzedakah is a dollar that cannot go toward a child’s college fund or a vacation. An hour spent reading is an hour I won’t spend at the gym or writing my Yom Kippur sermon. An hour spent at Confirmation Class is an hour that a student cannot spend on homework or sports practice. An hour spent in a deep conversation with a friend on a park bench over iced coffee on a gorgeous day like today is an hour that cannot be spent returning e-mails or meeting with a client or buying groceries.
I am not ranking the intrinsic value of any of these pursuits. I am saying only, we don’t find time; we take time; and we make choices about the time we take.
But given our over-programmed lives I worry about us making choices that lead to fulfillment and joy, choices that affirm something sacred and meaningful in our lives. So today I propose a three-stage antidote to the soul-draining business of our own busyness. The first is Slow Down. The second is Stop. And the third is Stay There. Slow Down. Stop. And Stay There.
I know that most of us believe that we are much too busy to study the Babylonian Talmud, but how about just the very first line?
The Talmud opens with a question about time. Me’imatai korin shema b’arvin, “How long does one have to recite the Shema in the evening?” Because the Torah instructs reciting the Shema “when you lie down and when you rise up,” the Rabbis wondered: how much time, exactly, does that give us? In Talmudic fashion, a debate ensues. Rabbi Eliezer says, from dinnertime until the end of the first watch, about 9:00 PM; the other Sages say, “until midnight”; but Rabban Gamliel proposes, “Until the first light of dawn" (Bavli Berakhot 2a).
Better, Gamliel believes, to perform a paramount religious act slowly, intentionally, than to dash through it; even worse, to use today’s word, to “multitask,” mumbling the Shema while brushing teeth or putting on PJs. You gotta slow down, give your bedtime prayers their proper place and pace.
The Talmudic Rabbis elsewhere stipulate that we should not eat while standing (Derekh Eretz Zuta, Ch. 5).
No more multitasking when it comes to mealtime because in Judaism there is no more sacred, life-affirming act, than to eat. So slow down, give your meals their proper place and pace. (You know, like they do in Europe.)
No one knows more about multitasking than moms. For the first time in history, IQ tests now show women surpassing men and the jump in women’s intelligence is attributed to the multitasking that women do, balancing childrearing, careers, and civic commitments. Any exhausted parent knows that multitasking can make life stressful and deprive special moments of their special meaning. Even short car rides have become a cacophony of: a conference call over Bluetooth, Bar Mitzvah practice in the back seat, and a DVD playing on the overhead minivan screen.
And what does multitasking teach our children about how to manage their time? One friend of mine, a working mother of four, says, “Let them play in the dirt, enjoy lazy summer days, and be sure to tell them they can do and be whatever they imagine. And then leave them be! They’ll find their way to greatness.”
Sometimes we don’t get the choice to slow down before life chooses it for us--in the form of a broken bone, a broken heart, a heart attack, a lost job, the death of a loved one. Have you ever been forced to slow down? What did you learn? How did your setback change you?
I recently started a great new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. (Notice I didn’t say I’ve finished it.) Taking my sweet time actually corroborates the author’s point. Whether one has milliseconds or minutes or months to act, people who take their time and slow things down as much as possible make better decisions... and enjoy a better quality of life, too. “If you watch Albert Pujols hit a baseball in really slow motion,” Partnoy observes, “he looks just like Warren Buffet buying a stock: study the pitcher, watch the ball carefully, and don’t respond to any opportunity until you have taken time to decide if it is a good one. Wait as long as you can so you’ll have a better chance of swinging only at fat pitches" (Kindle Edition, loc. 599).
Taking one’s time produces better bedtime prayers, better meals, better investments and better baseball. It improves quality of life. “People today read less, take fewer museum trips, and attend fewer concerts,” Partnoy notices. “...The decline in the number and quality of our cultural experiences can be traced, at least in part, to unconscious stimuli that make us live faster.” (Ibid)
Albert Einstein theorized that for a particle moving at very high speeds--like the speed of light--time slows down. Carl Sagan elaborated on the strange consequences of this premise. “This is sometimes described as the twin paradox: two identical twins, one of whom goes off on a voyage close to the speed of light, the other one stays home. When the space-traveling twin returns home, time hasn’t dilated for him or her, that is, he or she has aged only a little, while the twin who has remained at home has aged at the regular pace. And here we have two identical twins who may be decades apart in age" (Nova transcript, “Time Travel.” PBS Air date: October 12, 1999).
Applying a scientific theory to a spiritual theme: moving too fast deprives us of the beauty and splendor of a life lived at a sensible speed. Only by slowing down do we ensure that life won’t pass us by.
Okay. A cop pulls a man over for running a stop sign and the subject gives the cop a lot of grief explaining that he did stop. For several minutes, the cop insists that he didn’t stop, he just slowed down through the intersection. The driver says, “Stop, slow down, who cares, what’s the difference?”
So the policeman says, “Sir, step out of the car,” and proceeds to hit the man with his nightstick for about a minute, at which point he says, “Now would you like me to slow down or stop?”
So there is a need to slow down, but there is also a need to stop from time to time.
Jason Fried runs 37Signals, a software company that develops web-based productivity apps for workplace collaboration. To improve his own staff’s productivity, creativity, and collaboration, Mr. Fried made some big changes around the office. Every year from May to October they switch to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32. “We don’t work the same amount of time,” he says. “We work less.” The results? “[B]etter work gets done in in four days than in five. When there’s less time to work… you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time" (“Be More Productive. Take Time Off,” New York Times. August 19, 2012).
Of course the Jewish tradition has known this all along. Before construction begins on the biggest labor project in Israelite memory, the building of the Tabernacle, the Torah announces: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 31:15).
This Shabbat business is serious business.
The Jewish way is: You get six days on, one day off. That’s the pace. It’s not 50 weeks on, two weeks off--the average American vacation time (of which the average American uses only nine days, resulting in 175 million unused days left over for the US workforce, every year). It’s not forty years on, twenty years off. It’s six days on, one day off!
Of all the things we modern-day, non-Orthodox Jews need in our lives--need from our spiritual heritage--the most important is Shabbat. The word Shabbat means STOP and like the red octagon at the end of every street we should be taking it far more seriously than most of us do. When I ask kids--or for that matter, adults--to name the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” often gets forgotten. But we need Shabbat now more than ever!
Taking time on Friday or Saturday for Shabbat dinner and services can really balance out your week. But this is about so much more than candles, Kiddush, and challah. Don’t confuse the ritual with its meaning.
We need a set time at the end of the week to STOP. Take a deep breath. Remember the past week. Let go of the nuisances that drive our stress levels through the roof. Capture a memory of something that made us laugh or fall in love or feel inspired. Contemplate the week ahead and focus our intention on what we’d like it to hold. Honor our loved ones who have died. Pray for those struggling with illness. Learn from the wellspring of Torah and marry the learning to our lives. Sing out loud in a setting where no one will tell you to pipe down. Connect and reconnect with the people in our community. Have an extra mini-éclair where no one will judge you for it. That’s Shabbat at WRT. It’s joyful, spiritual, communal. A Friday night service is about an hour, maybe 75 minutes, of your time. A good, fulfilling--dare I say it, even fun--time.
And Shabbat doesn’t happen just in temple. Shabbat is, Heschel reminded us, “a sanctuary we build, a sanctuary in time” and there are lots of ways to take that time and make Shabbat special, different. Shabbat is more important than even the High Holidays--that’s why the Jewish calendar gives it to us every single week while Rosh Ha-Shanah need take our time only once a year.
Maybe Shabbat will become your day to power down the cell phone, the computer, the television. Sometimes restrictions can liberate us. Or maybe you’ll spend Shabbat in a concert hall, a grassy field, a meditation class, or a living room full of great people. Because the bottom line is not whether you prayed in Hebrew or English or at all. The bottom line is, six days on, one day off.
Slow down. Stop. And stay there.
Each step is harder than the last.
“Staying there” is the hardest of all.
Because even the most uplifting and relaxing Shabbat comes to an end. Because even a four-day workweek means the alarm going off… on Tuesday morning.
The Torah tells us that God summoned Moses up Mount Sinai with an unusual phrase: Alei eilai ha-hara, v’heyeh sham. Come up the mountain to Me, God says, and be there (Ex. 24:12).
The phrase “and be there” puzzled the Rabbis who believed the Torah to be perfect and therefore incapable of carrying extraneous words. I mean, where else would Moses be after coming up the mountain? Would he not already “be there?”
Examining the phrase, the Kotzker Rebbe taught that even if a person strains to reach the summit of a mountaintop, it is nevertheless possible not to be there. “Even standing on the very peak itself, one’s head may be somewhere else.” Scaling the mountain is often the easy part. The hard part is staying there, not being distracted away from that place and that moment.
“In the 60’s, there was a famous slogan, ‘Be Here Now,’” recalls the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “Today, with the cellphones, the fax, the Internet, the whole schmear--the slogan you have today is ‘Be Somewhere Else Now'" (“Questions for Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The Beat Goes On,” New York Times. November 26, 2005).
How many of us can’t even make it through dinner without checking our cell phones, our e-mail, the stock market? Do we realize that by so doing, we are really saying, “something is more important to me right now than you are, than this dinnertime moment together?”
The time has come to ask ourselves: why do we stuff our lives so full of stuff to do? What emotional need, what hole in our lives, does our busyness fill? Why do we sometimes feel self-conscious or even stigmatized when we have leisure time? Tim Kreider nails it: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day" ("The 'Busy' Trap").
So many students setting out from college think the important question is, “What am I going to do?” when in fact it is, “Who am I going to be?” Remember, the goal of life is not to fill a schedule, a résumé, but rather to let these fill you, to choose how we spend our time so as to reflect our innermost priorities. What it comes down to is mastering the art of Staying There.
I know a rabbi who says a little prayer every time he enters a hospital room or a house of shiva. He says, “God, when I get there, let me be there.”
We need this prayer.
God, when I get home at the end of the day, let me be there for my wife, my husband, my children. God, when I get on the phone with my parents, let me be there… no matter what meshugas they decide we need to talk about. God, when I get to temple, let me be there and not feel the need to leave immediately after the rabbi’s sermon... and miss the sound of the shofar… the sound that summons us to slow down, stop, and stay there.
Ultimately, these holidays, are about being rather than doing, about working to live rather than living to work, about transforming who we are from the inside and not just behavior modification. These holidays are all about mastering the art of staying there, of being fully present in every moment of life.
Our precious little time on earth flies away so fast.
My God, I don’t know where it goes!
How will you spend yours?