October 4, 2022 | How Many Weeks Do We Have? A Jewish Guide For Hurtling Through Time (Yom Kippur 5783)
Maurice A. Salth
How Many Weeks Do We Have? A Jewish Guide For Hurtling Through Time
Rabbi Maurice A. Salth, Kol Nidrei 5783
Dedicated to Rabbi Aaron David Panken, Zecher Tzadik Livracha
What a blessing to be here together. A blessing to witness Cantor Pearsall, for the first time as an ordained cantor, sing Kol Nidre.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
Dear God, thank you for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and for the opportunity to be here together at this very special moment in time. Amen.
Two stories for us this Yom Kippur. The first comes from New Jersey and a social science experiment that featured students from the Princeton Theological Seminary. Rabbis love psychological studies on seminarians!
The students thought they were attending a regular seminar. Their professor tasked them to prepare and deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan parable. In this story, two so-called holy individuals ignore a man badly injured, lying on the side of a road. Surprisingly, an unlikely stranger eventually comes to his aid.
Here's where the trickery ensued. The students were told they were running late to give their talks in another building. An actor, feigning to be sick and asking for assistance was lying directly in their path. What do you think the students did when they saw this man? How many students stopped to help him?
Ten percent paused to help. The rest ignored him as they rushed to deliver their sermon on this very topic! Ten percent1! Some literally stepped over the victim on their way2 - oy vei!
The second story takes place years ago in the European shtel of Nemirov. There, the local Rebbe, disappears every Friday morning in the month leading up to the high holy days. His community gossips about his absence. Some guess the Rebbe traveled to heaven to plead with God on their behalf.
A highly skeptical citizen decides to follow the Rebbe. He watches the Rebbe wake early in the morning. The Rebbe shakes off his aches and pains, dresses in humble peasant clothing. Then the Rebbe chops wood and delivers it to an impoverished, homebound woman. He never reveals to her that he is the community Rebbe. When the skeptic returns to town, he hears again of the rumors of the Rebbe ascending into heaven and responds, “Heaven? If not higher .”3
While I aspire to use my life’s time like the Rebbe of Nemirov, I am much more like the seminarians from Princeton, who rushed by the injured man.
Here we are at the start of Yom Kippur. A day when our tradition is saying to us, “stop, we have to talk about the future.” If only we would listen. Heading into this new year, I’m trying to listen. I want to use my life’s time better. Perhaps you do too?
The journalist Oliver Burkeman asked his friends a question. How many weeks does a person live in a lifetime? He received a wide range of answers – 150,000 weeks, 70,000, another said 300,000. What would you say is the answer?
It became clear his friends weren’t doing an intellectual calculation. They were answering emotionally, psychically – after all a week goes by so quickly. They expected to live many of them!
The actual answer, for most people, is that we have 4,000 weeks4. On Yom Kippur we are asked to contemplate what are we going to do with the weeks we have remaining. Our tradition does more than ask, it provides a lens and direction by which to make decisions about how to use our time wisely and tools on how to maximize our time and treasure it.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” We Must Prioritize Ourselves
Two thousand years ago the beloved sage Rabbi Hillel provided us with a Jewish framework a lens for how to use our time. Remarkably it still applies today.
Hillel started with the question: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
First and foremost, we are to be accountable to ourselves.
We, as Jews, need to take responsibility for our physical and mental health, for our financial and professional welfare.
Our tradition understands when we prioritize caring for ourselves, we are creating a healthy foundation upon which we can go forward into the world.
“If I am just for myself, what am I” We Must Prioritize Others
Rabbi Hillel quickly followed with a second question: If I am just for myself, what am I?”
If tending to myself is all I am doing, what do I amount to?
The Mishnah, teaches5: “these are the obligations” that we can never stop doing, they include:
Honoring our parents; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; attending weddings and funerals and making peace among people.
The Rebbe of Nemirov, who helped the homebound woman, could have legitimately spent the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah focusing on himself, preparing for the holy days. No one would have judged him. But, there is a line between taking care of oneself and investing too much in self-care.
The Rebbe was ready for the holy days. With his own personal and professional affairs in order, he ventured forth to help his homebound neighbor.
The Princeton seminary students were not bad people. They ignored the suffering person on the street because there was a faceoff between the values Hillel taught: of using time to care for themselves as students and the value of using their time to tend to someone in need. In an unexpected moment of stress, when time seemed limited, they took care only of themselves.
Rabbi Hillel identified a timeless dynamic: the values of prioritizing ourselves and prioritizing others are regularly in tension. He purposely asked these questions one after the other, to teach us to embrace the friction that inevitably comes between the two. Being aware of this dynamic can help us make more thoughtful decisions about how we spend our time.
If only the seminarians would have paused for five seconds, to contemplate Hillel’s calculus, I think they would have stopped to help the person lying in their path.
So it can be with us.
Keep in mind, there are other forces competing for our 4,000 weeks.
We are bombarded with messages to be more effective and efficient, multi-task. Add to this that all of us have a phone that provides us access to our work and entertainment and apps designed to vie for our precious waking hours. It is easy to see why we are spending more time on ourselves and by ourselves and much less time with others.
It doesn’t even seem like a fair fight. But we Jews are a strong bunch – and in truth this is a battle many of us are losing because we don’t even realize these forces are at work.
Friends, I’m here to tell you, these forces are at work.
We can consciously take control of our time and live in ways that balance the mutual priorities of ourselves and others6. Judaism has cornerstone rituals and practices, what Rabbi Buchdahl calls spiritual technologies, to help us do just this. Among these are Shabbat and holidays, mitzvot, blessings such as the Shehecheyanu and the imperative to be present.
Shabbat and Holy Days Are Key to Jewish Time
The preeminent Jewish time ritual is Shabbat.
Shabbat is revolutionary. It was long ago and it is today.
Our ancestors spent even more time than we do focusing on themselves, but for a different reason. They were reliant on the crops they tilled and the animals they raised for their livelihood. Based on scholarly research, there were no Whole Food supermarkets in ancient Israel. If they wanted to survive, they had to grow their own whole food. Therefore, they worked all the time. And yet, these agriculturally dependent relatives of ours established the tradition of Shabbat. It radically improved their lives. Shabbat can change our lives as well.
Let me be clear that we do not have to engage in Shabbat for a full 24 hours – Shabbat is not all or nothing. What is key, and this is critical, is to be constant in selecting and doing a Shabbat activity each week. So many of us have experienced the weekly wonder of Shabbat with a consistent ritual – Shabbat services, a Shabbes meal, a shluf, that’s Yiddish for taking a nap, a few hours with no screens, or a walk with a friend. Some of us make sure we light candles and bless wine and challah. We bless our children and each other every Shabbat – these are available to each of us.
Doing something weekly give us access to the power of Shabbat and helps us leave the cycle of daily life and enter the sacred space of Shabbat; what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel called a: “Palace in time7”. This year Central Synagogue will be focusing on Shabbat. Beginning in November we will be inviting congregants to participate in a wide range of Shabbat activities that will provide each of us additional ways to enter the palace that is Shabbat.
Relatedly, Jewish holidays are a source for additional meaning, connection, grounding and energy. When we come together each Kol Nidre evening, when we light the Chanukah menorah, when we gather at Passover for seder, we are giving ourselves a priceless gift.
Just before the start of each Yom Kippur, I could always count on my father Irving to say to me: “You know, I started fasting on Yom Kippur just after I became a bar mitzvah and I haven’t missed a fast. This year will be 71 years. How about that!”
No doubt my father took pride and satisfaction in this accomplishment but more than anything his ritual of updating me on the latest year of fasting was a significant meaning marker along his 4,000 weeks. He was reflecting on his life’s journey, using the time stamp of the Yom Kippur fast.
I’m embarrassed to say that I used to get annoyed by his annual report but overtime I began to look forward to it. Now it is I who says to Caleb each year: “You know son, I started fasting on Yom Kippur just after I became a bar mitzvah and I haven’t missed a fast. This year will be 42 years. How about that!”
Mitzvot Transform Time
Mitzvot can also transform time as we hurtle through our 4,000 weeks. Celebrating with the bride and groom, attending a funeral or a bris, helping someone across the street, calling a friend who is going through a rough time and taking part in additional deeds of loving kindness are core to the ethical and moral framework of Jewish time. They play a critical role in keeping the balance that Hillel advised of caring for ourselves and others. Mitzvot also can help transform regular days into extraordinary ones.
Let me just name that doing mitzvahs are also incredibly inconvenient. Just as stopping to help the person on the street would have thrown off the Princeton seminarians’ day, engaging in these mitzvot are guaranteed to conflict with some other previously scheduled plan for our life.
Yet, we are directed to be on alert for when we can do them again and again. If it was our natural inclination to do these mitzvahs we wouldn’t need these commandments.
We are reminded each time we witness a wedding couple under the chuppah, hear our friend eulogizing their parent or connect with a friend who is struggling that there is no other place we’d rather to be. Being present at these moments nurtures our souls and connects us to our humanity unlike anything else. As we head into this new year and our remaining 4,000 weeks let us dive into doing as many mitzvot as possible.
Being Present Transforms Time – Shehecheyanu Moments
Our tradition is also ultra-aware of the world’s wonder. If we are not paying attention, if we are distracted, if we are thinking about the next thing or the last thing or always looking at our devices, we can easily miss out on the marvels before us. Our tradition urges us to be present in time.
After his beautiful domed synagogue in San Francisco was renovated, Rabbi Larry Raphael, of blessed memory, noticed something. Many of his congregants were not reveling in the magnificent restoration. Instead, they were distracted by a few prominent burnt-out lightbulbs that needed replacing. He urged them to appreciate the larger wonder right before them.
Pausing to be present in time and count our blessings, perhaps even to say aloud a version of a Shehecheyanu, our thanksgiving blessing, like we did a few minutes ago after Kol Nidre, is a profoundly Jewish. Like the renovated synagogue, remarkable experiences are literally right before our eyes.
When we live in the present, when we appreciate what we have and what we are doing, we transform a normal moment in time to a special experience in our life.
Let’s take this very instant for example. I know some of us came to services disappointed because we are not in our sanctuary. I want to honor our feelings about this. But we will always remember this night because we were here together with our new Cantor for her first Kol Nidre. No one will ever be able to take this from us.
We do not have to be in Radio City Music Hall or with Cantor Jenna Pearsall to be present, grateful or to recite a Shehecheyanu. We can be at dinner with a friend. We can say it when see a beautiful sunset. We can be watching the Mets in a playoff game, yes, playoffs. We can wake up in the morning and be happy to be alive. Going forward, as much as is possible, join me in embracing this Jewish practice of being present and blessing these regular and awesome moments in time.
By now you may have noticed something, something the seminarians did not, something critical about Jewish time, the directive to slow down. All these rituals of ours, these spiritual technologies, Hillel’s questions, Shabbat, holidays, mitzvot and being present and grateful require us to be mindful.
When we decrease our speed, we pay attention and become more attuned to what is around us. Over time, the benefits of these moments accumulate. Day after day, week after week, year after year, slowing our pace can help us live the way we want to live and be the people we want to be.
If Not Now, When?
Rabbi Hillel questioned, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
To these he added one more question “If not now, when?8”
Our tradition has harnessed thousands of years of wisdom to help us best live out our 4,000 weeks. It charges us to use our time thoughtfully, intentionally. No small task for us easily distracted mortals. Nonetheless our tradition believes we can do it. It always has.
Yom Kippur has begun. If not now, when? Let us choose now. Let us choose now. Shanah Tovah.
1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201703/my-favorite-psychology-study 2 https://faculty.babson.edu/krollag/org_site/soc_psych/darley_samarit.html
3 Read the entire If Not Higher story by I.L. Peretz here: https://joewolfson.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/i-l-peretz-if-not-higher.pdf
4 These details are from Four Thousand Weeks - Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
5 Peah 1:1
6 When we do, we will undoubtably connect more with our friends and strangers alike. Not only will this feel good, but it will also be good for our health. National Institute for Health studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks for heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/loneliness-and-social-isolation-tips-staying-connected).
8 Pirke Avot 1.14 is the source for Rabbi Hillel’s three questions