The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius once noted that: “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current.”
And as a result, we have willingly affirmed Ben Franklin’s assertion that “time is money.” We have commodified our day, trying to squeeze endless value out of it.
There’s the old joke about the lawyer who died and went to heaven. To his dismay, there were thousands ahead of him at the Pearly Gates. To his surprise, one of the presiding angels came down, and greeted him warmly. Then the angel guided him to the front of the line. The lawyer said, “I don’t mind this attention, but what makes me so special?”
The angel replied, “Well, I’ve added up all the hours you billed your clients, and by my calculation you must be 193 years old!”
We laugh. But there’s truth to the joke and our default setting of ‘how quickly can we move from one obligation to the next so that we can prove how productive we were, or so that we can cram another valuable activity into our kids’ already over-crammed schedules?’
And yet: here we are. On a Tuesday night in the middle of the week. Hundreds of us have decided to pause. We are ready to admit - at least for today - that there is something missing.
Rabbi Neil Gillman describes the arresting power of this Day by writing: “On Yom Kippur,[…] we withdraw from the world of everyday life, and [we seek to] create a world of sacred time, a world in which eternity rules and time stands still. […] We emerge from the day as newly born children, and a lifetime of new opportunities and challenges lies ahead of us.”
We are hungering, Gillman says, for permission to slow down. We have come tonight in search of stillness…where - if only for 24 hours - time will stop, and we can catch our breaths.
Our question this evening: what can we do to create more sacred time in our own individual lives, in the lives of our families, and in the life of our congregation? How can we capture the quietude of Yom Kippur and carry it with us into the rest of the year?
Galileo noted: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
When it comes to the question of how we can create more sacred time in our individual lives, Galileo reminds us that our minds are a rich gift, a blessing of infinite possibility and worth.
And yet, our electronic devices tempt us to waste our minds and time when we are seduced towards a link that says “21 Dogs That Look Like Humans Wearing Dog Suits,” which was an actual article on Buzzfeed.
Our morning service contains a blessing for the study of Torah, which is meant to encompass all our intellectual pursuits.
Our machzor introduces the prayer by quoting a verse from the Joseph story of Genesis: His brothers took Joseph and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Our prayerbook goes on by noting: “Why does the verse tell us that there was no water? […] It means that there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions within. Our sages teach: Water represents Torah, source of our life and sustenance. When the mind is empty of Torah, snakes and scorpions will enter.”
We can create additional sacred time in our lives by making more intentional choices about the online content we consume. To use the rabbis’ imagery: we can choose the intellectual and spiritual stimulation of Torah, or we can choose the scorpion-like distraction of Buzzfeed.
We are trying to do our part here at the synagogue to support the creation of meaningful online content. We are very excited that our clergy team (and even a few brave temple members) will be reaching out with a teaching every single week of this coming school year, in the form of our new Chai Lights email. It’s meant to be accessible: just enough food for thought to engage you at the end of your week.
Of course, sacred learning isn’t just something that happens online. This year’s temple calendar is bursting with learning opportunities for adults of all different backgrounds, from the beginning adult learner who wants to study the Hebrew alphabet, to the advanced learner who wants to grapple with the philosophy of Maimonides, and everyone in between.
And sometimes, a more individualized learning experience is in order. Cantor Becker, Rabbi Glickman, and myself would be delighted to meet with you privately….to reflect on your Jewish learning goals, and to support you as you begin to realize them - whether that means referring you to a world class speaker in the City, making a book recommendation, or making a plan to study with you one on one here in Scarsdale.
But the pathway toward the creation of more sacred time isn’t just an individual pursuit. It’s also a task that is facing our families, particularly during mealtime.
Did you hear the joke about Rabbi Steinawitz? One Yom Kippur, between the Morning and the Afternoon services, the rabbi sees a very worried looking Morry Schwartz walking towards him. Morry stands in front of the Rabbi, sweating and out of breath.
"Please Rabbi," he says, "I must have a drink of water. I'm so thirsty and dry. I can’t stand it any more."
Rabbi Steinawitz is astonished and replies, "Today is Yom Kippur, when we fast and beg for forgiveness, and you come to me for a drink to break your fast? Be strong and do not give in!"
Morry is in tears and begs, "Please Rabbi, just a small drink."
Rabbi Steinawitz is not an unkind man, and is moved by Morry’s suffering. He thinks for a while and says “Alright" and asks a staff member of the synagogue to get Morry a teaspoon of water.
The teaspoon of water is given to Morry who is now crazy with thirst. "Please, please! I've got to have a real drink or I’ll die!" he cries.
Although he doesn’t really want to, Rabbi Steinawitz gives the OK for Morry to have a full drink. Morry drinks the water, puts down the glass, looks the Rabbi in the eye and says, "Thank you Rabbi, I'll never eat a schmaltz herring on Yom Kippur morning again!”
So, we know that one way Jews have created sacred time over the ages has been to delineate when we don’t, and when we do, eat and drink.
But there’s also the question of how we eat during mealtimes.
Secular experts encourage us to eat with our families because of the purported nutritional and emotional benefits.
Jewish wisdom affirmed the practice of eating in groups thousands of years ago. Pirke Avot notes: Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah [or, do not speak meaningfully with one another], it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices. […] But three who eat at one table and do speak meaningfully to one another, it is as if they have eaten at God's own personal Dining Room table.”
Family dinners aren’t just a time to catch up on the news from school, or to check in about the family calendar. They are an opportunity for us to get to know each other better, and to relate more deeply to one another.
Sacred time isn’t just born out of elevated dinner conversation. It can also be created out of silence.
Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hahn teaches: “Food reveals our connection with the earth. […] Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and [communally] eating in [silent] mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.”
The practice of eating silently, which has been a part of Jewish spiritual retreats over the last few decades, has begun to catch on in secular circles as well. Harvard Medical School now advocates for it, and Google organizes monthly silent meals on its campus.
I’m curious about what it would mean for us and our families to incorporate elements of this into our own rhythm of daily eating. If you’re curious too, I hope you’ll join me in the spring for a day trip to the Blue Cliff Buddhist Monastery about an hour and a half upstate, as we are introduced to the concepts of mindfulness, and have the opportunity to share in a communal meal in silence.
But fostering more sacred time in our homes and family lives, and in our individual lives, is not enough. If we are truly committed to slowing down in the year ahead, we should look to our synagogue and the ways it can bring us together to mark the sacred as one extended family, or community.
And there is no better Jewish way to mark sacred time than by receiving the gift of Shabbat.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as “an opportunity to mend our tattered lives; to collect rather than to dissipate time.”
For thousands of years, Shabbat has been our people’s secret to finding respite in a busy world. We Jews conquer time by sanctifying it - by carving out time each week for something beyond us.
I stood before you one year ago, and outlined my vision for a 21st century Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El. And one of the three centerpieces of that vision was my belief that our Reform synagogue should grow into an even more Shabbat-centered community.
I’m very proud of the initial steps we’ve taken towards realizing that vision.
We have completed two years of Sharing Shabbat, creating opportunities for well over 200 congregants to gather together in some 20 homes for Shabbat meals.
We’ve successfully launched Shabbat BaBoker, a clergy-led experience filled with song, study, and a shared meal on Saturday mornings.
In the last year, we’ve begun experimenting with Shabbat hikes into nature.
We’ve launched a new monthly Family Shabbat experience for our youngest members and their families that has proved to be popular, creative, and fun.
But we’ve only begun to experiment with what a Shabbat centered congregation might look like. And to take this initiative further, we are going to need your help.
Later this fall, we’ll be forming a Shabbat Task Force. We’re looking for a group of members - reflecting the diversity of our Mazel Tots and Religious School families, post-Bnai Mitzvah families, singles, empty-nesters, and seniors to join our clergy and staff in brainstorming how we can bring Shabbat to even more members of our community.
We have lots of “outside of the box” ideas, including the possibility of finding new intersections between our vision of a Shabbat-centered community and the approach we bring to Religious School and Adult Education programming.
But it’s time to hear from you: about the needs and the interests of you and your families, and the kind of spiritual nourishment that will feed your souls. We hope you’ll join us in this work by responding to the email invitation that you’ll be receiving from us in the coming weeks.
As we seek to create more pockets of peacefulness into our ever-more-hectic lives, I cannot help but think of another observation that Abraham Joshua Heschel made: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”
This is not a new search, but one that dates to the very beginning of Judaism.
Leviticus 25:2 and following notes: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of God. Six years you may sow your field […] but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest.
Our commentators grapple with the discrepancy in these verses. Which happened first: A year of rest for the land? Or six years of harvest, followed by rest?
Professor Avivah Zornberg suggests both readings are accurate. In the legalistic sense, the land was worked for six years, and not left fallow until the seventh.
But in the “dream” sense, as she puts it, creating sacred time to rest and re-charge always comes first. She writes: ‘Shabbat [and all the sacred time we can create] is primary. […Those pauses] initiate a freedom which, like free verse or free association, make new combinations and new connections possible.’
And so we dream, on this day, for that sense of rest and renewal too.
The ancient Roman poet Ovid reflected on the speeding current of the passage of time, and of our yearning for renewal:
“As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.”
That is what this day of Yom Kippur has become. A passing moment of renewal. A refuge from the barrage of responsibilities that await us “out there.” A gift for us to immerse ourselves in the hours of this day, to return to ourselves, and discover direction for our own journeys into the year ahead.
But this one day is not enough. Our lives would be ever so enriched if we created more oases of sacred time over the course of our parched and hectic years. Let us not let this moment slip between our fingers, as we seek to spend our time ever more meaningfully. Because, as Ben Franklin said, “Lost time is never found again.”