Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5777
Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik
Temple Ahavat Shalom – Northridge, California
What if you could arrange the events of your life in another way? Perhaps you wonder how different your teenage years might have been if only you had the knowledge you have now… or maybe some of us wish we still possessed the optimism and energy of our youth. We might imagine reordering entire days or years of our life.
Author David Eagleman imagines a different way to organize the events of your life. In his vision of the afterlife you relive all of your experiences, but similar activities are grouped together. He writes:
You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Once you make it through, it's agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn't mean it's always pleasant. Eighteen months waiting in line. You can't take a shower until it's your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.
At this time of year, we envision a metaphorical Book of Life — a clean slate where our names might be written for another year of life and blessing. Now try to imagine another book… another type of ledger… where how we spend every second of our time is written down and calculated.
Eagleman’s numbers are based on averages — so you might spend less time sleeping, or more time doing laundry, but as estimates go they’re not too far off. That said, he leaves out an important category I know many of you are wondering about: how much time have you spent in High Holy Day services? According to my calculations, the average Reform Jew will spend about 33 days over the course of a lifetime, more if you stay for the whole day on Yom Kippur. I hope you've got a comfortable seat.
It’s surprising to realize how much time we spend on all of these activities. Organizing every second into categories, the way Eagleman does, certainly gives us a different way to look at how we spend our time. Which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing here tonight, and over the course of the next ten days. Thinking back over the year that just ended, reviewing our choices... reviewing how we spent our time. Were we engaged in the things we wanted to be? The things that matter to you? Or were you wasting time? Rosh Hashanah is an annual reminder that life is short, and so much of our time is taken up by such little moments: laundry and showers and waiting in lines. It seems impossible in one lifetime to fit in everything we want to do. We have limited time; how will you use it?
The Psalmist was acutely aware of how finite our time is when he wrote, “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but even the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness… Teach us to count our days, that we may obtain a wise heart.”
The Psalmist knew that wisdom comes from knowing that our time is limited; it is precisely because we have only so many days that we are forced to examine them.
If you had an infinite lifespan, there would be no urgency to focus on important tasks, or to fix your mistakes —you could waste time on unimportant things until you were ready to live a life of meaning, and still have an infinite stretch of years ahead of you. The Psalmist is not telling us to count our days, but telling us to make our days count. It is up to us to find something meaningful in every day. Life will be difficult, there will be trouble and sorrow; it is how we respond to difficulty that matters.
Our patriarch Isaac knew better than anyone how short our time is. Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches that Isaac had a near-death experience when he went under the knife, about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham on Mount Moriah, and from that experience he gained clarity about what is truly important in life. Like many who have faced their mortality when staring death in the face, Isaac’s new understanding of life’s brevity leads him to reorient his life, to focus on what writer David Brooks calls “Eulogy Values.”
In his book The Road to Character, Brooks posits that there are two types of values: Resume Values and Eulogy Values. He explains that Resume Values are the skills and talents you have that you bring to the marketplace. Eulogy Values are just what they sound like: what people will talk about at your funeral — things like “whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.”
Isaac is frequently thought of as the least of the patriarchs. He is not the communal leader that his father Abraham and his son Jacob are recorded as being; he is often viewed as a mere link in the chain between generations. He is not a warrior or public figure; he does not have a huge family; he is not known for his wealth or his skill in negotiating with others. Isaac, perhaps because his own life flashed before his eyes as he thought he was dying, goes on to lead a very different life from the other patriarchs. His priorities are different. He spends more time focused on Eulogy Values than on Resume Values.
Isaac has a deep sense of empathy. He is the only one of the patriarchs to plead to God on behalf of his wife when she is unable to get pregnant. He dedicated his life to Rebecca, and never takes another wife or concubine to prove his virility or to ensure that he will have heirs. Isaac is also the only patriarch to be described as loving his wife — and he remains in love with her throughout their lives. Isaac at one point tells King Abimelech that Rebecca is his sister, thinking that his wife is so attractive that someone would want to kill him in order to have her for themselves.
This is decades after they have met — they have adult sons! —but he still finds her irresistibly attractive and assumes everyone else does too. They don’t. Nobody else is interested in Rebecca; it is only Isaac that continues to see her as beautiful as the day they met. And in that same story we also see their playful intimacy with each other; it’s abundantly clear that they have a deep and lasting relationship. Isaac’s focus is on love, connection and partnership.
Isaac is more concerned about peace than material wealth. When he is challenged about the wells he has dug, he willingly hands them over to the Philistines instead of going to battle. Isaac does not put others’ lives on the line to gain or preserve his wealth; he is aware that accumulating a larger fortune is not worth risking the safety of his family or others who depend on him. Isaac is a peacemaker; he knows that not every battle is worth fighting and his restraint results in a harmony between him and the surrounding people.
Isaac stays in the land of Israel all of his life; unlike Abraham and Jacob he never sets foot in Egypt, and is the first Jew to practice farming — planting and staying in one place until the harvest; showing his dedication and patience.
Isaac is shocked at the point of a knife into an awareness that his life is fleeting and he learns not to take life for granted.
Isaac is the often-overlooked patriarch because he does not have the prestigious resume and outward success that Abraham and Jacob do, but his life is an example of what it means to cultivate Eulogy Values — to live a life of meaning, loyalty, devotion and peace, focused on relationships and faith.
The ram caught in the thicket granted Isaac another chance at life. We have such a moment as well in these Days of Awe. As the ram was Isaac’s salvation, the call of the shofar is our wake-up call — a reminder for us not to take life for granted either. It is in this moment that we let our own lives flash in front of our eyes. All of the good and all of our sins.
David Brooks suggests that the theologian Augustine offers a good working definition of sin — that when you sin it is because you have your loves out of order. “We all love a lot of things. We love family, we love money, we love a little affection, status, truth,” Brooks says. “And we all know that some loves are higher. We know that our love of family is higher than our love of money. However, when those ranks begin to shift, that’s when sin comes in. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money. [But] if we’re lying to get money, we’re putting our loves out of order.” If a friend tells you a secret and you share it at a dinner party, you are putting a love of popularity over your love of friendship.
This definition of sin is also a way to organize a cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our soul; how we spend our time is an indicator of what we love and what we value the most.
On Rosh Hashanah we ask ourselves, “how did we spend the past year?” If you were to reshuffle the events of this past year, does the way you spend your time reflect your values and what’s most important to you?
The reality is that we can’t spend every moment doing something that we love, or only the things that bring us joy — we need our sleep and it is impossible to avoid pain. But there are many, many hours that we do have control of — and on Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that it is up to us to determine how we will spend those hours.
When we try to imagine our lives reshuffled into orderly categories, all of our pain and heartache all at once, it seems unbearable. Eagleman points out that it is because we experience all of these things in small amounts that they are manageable.
In reflecting on the past year, when we think about our moments of pain, we also remember the moments of comfort — the kind word... the friend that reached out… the hug when we needed it. How often in the past year were we that source of comfort? How often did we make someone else smile?
We have choices in how we respond to the world around us, how we respond to the inevitable heartbreak that none of us can avoid, how we respond to the challenges that test our abilities. The average person spends five months of their life complaining. We can choose not to spend our hours that way. We can stand up for others. We can take responsibility and make amends. We can nurture our friendships and love deeply. We can help bring peace to our homes, our community and our world.
As we begin the New Year, we take stock of our lives. Are you living the way you want to be remembered? Are you living a life that reflects your values?
If not enough of your hours are spent doing things that are meaningful to you, if your time does not reflect your values, you can start by changing just one hour: spending one more hour a week doing something that matters to you — something important that reflects who you really are and what you value. Just one more hour a week. Only eight and half minutes a day. And it adds up — by next Rosh Hashanah that’s 52 more hours working on your eulogy values, two more days spent doing the things that matter. Let the call of the shofar wake you up and remind you to make your days count.
Our lives are made up of so many little moments.
May your moments be filled with joy,
May your hours be filled with contentment,
May your days be filled with meaning and
May your years be filled with purpose
And may you find blessing in this new year.