Kol Nidre 5775
Temple Sinai, Reno, Nevada
As you may have already noticed, this year Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. YK is actually called the Shabbat of all Shabbats, and tonight is the perfect opportunity to explore the fourth commandment: to remember and keep Shabbat. This is a special Yom Kippur. It heralds in the seventh year according to our calendar, the Shmitah year. So the seventh day of the week, on the holiest of Sabbaths of the entire year is made even holier as this is also the beginning of a whole year of rest. Every seventh year, the sabbatical year allows the earth to rest. In ancient Israel, farmers were prohibited from planting crops. There was no regular work for human beings, no expectation for the earth to produce. The year was one long Shabbat, when the earth was not judged for the amount it produced, but rather appreciated intrinsically, simply for being. Hebrew slaves were set free, and all debts between Jews were released at once.
It is tempting in our modern society to measure one’s own value and the value of others based on how much they produce, what they do, or the income they generate. The shmitah year radically asks us to relate to ourselves and others not in terms of benefit, but simply in terms of our intrinsic value as human beings.
The way we act towards others in the shmitah year, like on Shabbat, is practice for the Olam Ha Ba, the repaired world, that future messianic-like time in which people live in harmony with nature and one another. This way of being, this embrace of organic time, as opposed to the commodity time we are expected to build our lives around as functioning members of society, is also good practice for the inevitable transition from mid-life to eldering. As honored elders of our community, those people in the winter of their lives among us have value to the community not because of what they are doing now, but as examples of wisdom, reflection and elevated consciousness.
I recently watched an episode of the Colbert Report (mostly because of a sketch Colbert did about the atone phone, on which Jewish friends would call him asking for his forgiveness). He had Bill Cosby on his show. It’s borderline offensive, but worth watching. As Steven Colbert sought to move quickly from one question and joke to the next, Bill Cosby sat still and full of poise and wisdom, his one bluer eye looking off into a direction that made him look like there was no one he could not see. He took Steven Colbert’s index cards away from him, and he said, “slow down! I’m still enjoying the last joke. Let’s stay with it a while.”
Too much of modern life is marked by the rat race of anxiety. Many of the ways in which we hurt one another come up because we internalize that rat race and deal with others through its rules. In constantly wanting more, we may prioritize material issues over our relationships with family members. We may confuse ourselves into seeing work as an end rather than a means, somehow more important than the life that honest work supports: time with one’s spouse, children, friends, community and neighbors.
Furthermore, isn’t it crazy that productivity and staying active are seen as the twin measures of success in the aging process as well. In Reb Zalman’s book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, a book I recommend everyone read because our society continues to have warped ideas about growing older, he challenges many ideals of our society. He says, it does not make sense that someone at 65 would work as hard as someone at 40. At 65, there is a whole other set of values one takes on that go far beyond productivity and career. While I am not speaking yet, from personal experience, Reb Zalman, zecher Tzadik livracha, may the memory of this Tzadik be for blessing, resolved to age with consciousness. He believed elders can affect the world simply through the awareness and consciousness they bring to every aspect of being. One can find more peace and fulfillment in reflection and simply being rather than constantly doing. Younger folks can come to consult with you, to seek advice and the wisdom of your life experience. In a way, Shabbat prepares us now for later stages of life in which one’s worth is no longer measured by one’s material contribution to society. Rather than fearing becoming a burden on others and society, those in their latest years of life can become sages in their second maturity, esteemed elders of the tribe. Shabbat and this shmitah year remind us now of the life one day to come for each of us, when time itself slows down, and when we attribute more value to lingering with one idea than jumping from thought to thought or screen to screen.
I learned recently from my screen on Facebook, that human beings’ attention span has shrunk to one second less than that of goldfish. [Say slowly:] When we have an entire day without work, without pre-packaged entertainment, without G-d forbid, our smartphones, computers and televisions, do you feel lonely or finally able to sigh a sigh of relief and relaxation? Does a completely unscheduled day make you anxious or at peace? Because, truly, that is the test of whether constant productivity and access to technology are making us more or less content.
Until about eight years ago, I had a very hard time being alone. I used to find my own presence boring. I yearned to be with others instead. Then sometime during my year in Israel, actually, I grew to value time with myself, to think, to be, to recharge my batteries. I would still classify myself very clearly as an extrovert. Yet enjoying being with myself and treasuring my time alone has become more important.
Let’s remember how new the Fourth Commandment, must have seemed to the Israelites who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. That stopping work would be a value was a radical concept for a group of Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt. Constant, frantic productivity drove the entire Egyptian system. The Israelites had no choice about how they spent their time. At Sinai’s foot, the value of committed neighborliness replaced anxious productivity. Of all the commandments, most of which take up a line or two in the book of Exodus, the Commandment to remember and guard Shabbat is by far the longest, taking up four full verses:
Exodus reads: Remember the day of Shabbat. Six days shall you work and on the seventh rest: all of you, adults and children, women and men, humans and beasts, free and slave, home-born and strangers “within your gates.” For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
In our contemporary context, the celebration of Shabbat is an act of resistance and it is an alternative to mainstream culture. It is resistance because it declares that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. …It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising, professional sports and consumerist entertainment that now devour even our “rest time.”
Columbia Professor Jonathan Crary, in his recent book, 24/7, writes that there are now very few significant interludes of human existence (with the colossal exception of sleep) that have not been penetrated and taken over as time for work, consumption or marketing. The borders between private and professional time, between work and consumption, have mostly dissolved.
Religious community is one of the few respites in our society from work, consumption and marketing. Time in community on a day like Shabbat, which is defined by freedom from utilitarian relationships makes a community like Temple Sinai all the more important. In the spirit of strengthening face to face relationships and slowing down on Shabbat in community, we have begun a Chavurah Shabbat initiative that we are continuing to build up in 5775. Every Reno neighborhood has a Chavurah Shabbat facilitator, with Sinai members assigned by neighborhood to a micro-community of Sinai. Every other Shabbat of the month, on the third Friday, the chavurah meets in a different members’ home for Shabbat dinner. Occasionally, for special occasions, we will meet at the Temple as well, as on October 17th! Thank you to everyone who has partaken in this initiative so far. Can I have all the Chavurah Shabbat leaders and facilitators stand up? And if you have participated in a Chavrah Shabbat dinner, please raise your hand. Awesome.
Can you imagine what would happen in our late capitalist society if we honored a true shmitah year? What would happen if we decided to stop our quest continually to get more and shifted our priorities for a year? For most people that would work really well. For the wealthiest 1% that would probably really throw them for a loop. As Walter Brueggemann writes in “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now,” [Say slowly:] “The outcome of endless striving for more is a social arrangement of the safety and happiness of the few at the expense of the many, a replica of the pyramid of ancient Pharaoh.” If we really slowed down and allowed time to be with US rather than allowing time to be our slave-driver, the economy might not know how to react at first, but I doubt that the vast majority of us would suffer. Whatever we have, we would share with others. We would prioritize relationships over peoples’ utility in the constant quest for more. It would be like a year of burning man. (Disclaimer: I’ve not yet been). But in all seriousness, the sharing economy of Burning Man is a very good model for the shmita year.
What would it be like if we interacted with each other as Thous rather than as Its to borrow the language of Martin Buber. In trying to deal with strangers in a Thou sort of way rather than a using It sort of way, we may ask a stranger how they are or how their day is going at the check-out line of a store. But how often do we really make time to hear the answer? Half the time I ask a sales person, I do it more to check the box of being polite than because I really care. And maybe that is a function of our society. People have come to expect that we interact in a utilitarian way, overly respecting divisions based in class, role, income and education.
Shabbat removes all of these distinctions.
On the seventh day, we meditate not on people’s limitations, but on the completeness, the fullness of all life. We simply are, and through being, approach contentment. It is not about what we have or own, but rather about celebrating Creation, life and breath itself.
I am tired of technology and social media and the bright light of my computer screen when the sun’s gone down and outside has become dark. Technology is useful, and yet can be detrimental to in-person relationships by those who think it a substitute for face to face encounter. Jonathan Crary’s thesis that the market has impinged on every aspect of our lives besides sleep is startling, yet true. Electricity itself is only a bit over 100 years old. We used to sleep when the sun went down, and now we take it for granted that we don’t. Even our routines of sleep have been affected by technology and our desire constantly to consume information, entertainment and items on amazon.
Organic time, time in tune with the seasons and celebrating the cycles of the earth, is very Jewish. You have to know what time of year it is to know that sukkot, our harvest holiday, is coming soon. Or after the first thaw, to understand that Purim is around the corner or has already come and that Pesach is on its way.
There is no substitute for face to face meetings and relationships. There is a place for creating your own boundaries around use of technology and participation in the 24/7 marketplace. There is something so vain, and ultimately so unfulfilling about the number of likes a post receives on Facebook, or continuing to measure one’s worth by the income one makes as a sage-ing adult. What is the quality of your beingness, what is the quality of your connections and relationships and community that do not involve business or consumption? Even the language of investing in relationships makes them sound like means to something else rather than ends in themselves. [Say slowly:] How can Shabbat and this year of time in sync with the seasons and the natural cycles of the earth, this year of forgiving debts in ancient times, affect your resolve to cultivate quality in relationships and connections this year, as we strive for depth of experience rather than number of likes? And can you see every Shabbat, from sundown to sundown, as practice for a different stage of life and a future world, where the pace of what we do matters less than how thoroughly we enjoy and savor it?
I invite you on this Yom Kippur, holiest of Shabbaton, to slow down, to stop rushing because only after a day of slowness can you truly reflect on the year that has passed, the person you have been, to cultivate a level of awareness necessary for seeking forgiveness from oneself and others.
Shabbat shalom and G’mar chatimah tova,
May you be sealed in the Book of Life.