Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Am I Going to Do with My Life? Yom Kippur, Rabbi Shira Stutman

We were sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv, and talking about tattoos. There were about 15 of us, a group from Sixth & I’s annual Israel trip. One of the participants that year, Isaac Colon, owns a tattoo shop in Columbia Heights. We were talking about the business, and about tattoos in general.

“I could never get a tattoo,” said Amy Kurz. “I can’t imagine that when I was old, I’d still want anything that I got when I was young.”

Another, tattooed, participant responded: “A tattoo that you get when you’re 18? No one knows who they are at 18. But by 24, 25? You know exactly who you are.”

That has not been my lived experience. I’m 43 years old, and I’m still figuring it out. Am I spending my time well? Are my priorities in order? There’s a Mary Oliver poem called “The Summer Day,” which Julien Guttman read beautifully at Rosh Hashanah services, and which ends with an exquisite charge:

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
A secret: This poem stresses me out. I know life is precious. And I’m fairly certain that I get only one shot at it.  Unlike Buddhists, Jews have never been big on reincarnation. We are, however, quite expert at second-guessing ourselves.  What if I don’t get it right?   

What is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?
What a Jewish question. We are a people of yearning and growth. The Jewish drive toward success  (“success”) is strong. “The world as it is is not the world as it could be” is perhaps one of our core mottos. We are the people who brought the world the labor movement, the neo-con movement, who stood as strong allies in the civil rights movement. We are not shy about making money (that’s the topic of another sermon), and use it to better the world and also for our own benefit. What does the Jewish mother ask her child at the end of a day of school? Not “did you have fun?” or “did you see your friends” but instead “did you ask a good question?” The most well-known Hebrew phrase in America right now is, arguably, tikkun olam, to heal the world. “Tikkun Olam -- it brings the community together and it helps repair the world.  It bridges differences that once looked unbridgeable.” President Barack Obama. It’s a heavy lift.  

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the quintessential holidays of growth. The goal of these holidays is to look inward, take stock, plan to do differently in the year to come. The shofar is played every morning at services for a full month before the holiday, a way to remind us that the clock is ticking, teshuva is waiting. As we stand and beat our chests last night and today, we acknowledge ancient sins and contemporary ones, as well:

Let us ask ourselves hard questions, For this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste In the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life Or were they dull and empty?  
The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
The unnecessary gibe: did we say it or hold it back?
Did we live by false values?
Did we deceive others?
Did we deceive ourselves?
Did we live right, And if not, Then have we learned, and will we change?
Hayom! We call out, again and again, on Rosh Hashanah. Make that change--Today! We demand it of God, we demand it of ourselves. Change!

This is not only a Jewish challenge, of course. In contemporary, privileged America--the world that most of us in this room inhabit--there’s an incessant drive to “live your best life now!” (TM Pastor Joel Osteen.) Many of us have been raised with the understanding that we can do anything we set our minds to, but at the end of the day that causes more, not less, anxiety about what exactly we should be doing.  

We fill our days with busy-ness, much of which is work-related. In the words of Parker Palmer, quoting Thomas Merton:

There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of its innate violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work. It destroys the fruitfulness of his or her work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.

One would think that Parker, a life-long activist himself, would recognize how much still needs to be accomplished, and understand that we need be full-throttle in our work. But he does not, because after a while, without time for pause or reflection, the work becomes an end unto itself, separate from the people we are trying to help, divorced from new ideas or ways of thinking.

We are driven by our culture--Jewish or east coast upper-middle class--but also by fear. Are we enough without our achievements? I certainly don’t want to find out. We race ahead, trying desperately to leave the questions in the dust, but in the end we risk looking like Wile E. Coyote, running off the cliff but still in the air, feet moving as fast as they can go, nothing underneath him. We know what happens next.

At a certain point, when you realize you spend most of your time running to, you have to start to wonder what you’re running from. When my children were quite small--and even sometimes today--friends and I would guiltily confess that sometimes we were happy to get out of the house and go to work. Inside my house, there were so many feelings--all the feelings--and so many needs. My kids, my husband needed me. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that I need them, as well. When I leave the house, I don’t have to take the time to think about anyone’s needs.  As the activist Courtney Martin said, “emotions aren’t efficient.” At work, I can send an email, check items off my to-do list. If I forget to call someone back one day, I pick up the phone and call them back the next. I didn’t have to reflect on what it means that I forgot to call back. I get stuff done.

A lot has been written about why Americans take so few vacation days compared to the rest of the world--and even compared to the days they are due. One recent study revealed that last year, Americans forfeited 430 million vacations days due to them.

Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for…. overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs.

It’s not just our actual jobs that contribute to “overwork,” of course. There’s a lot of surrounding noise, as well. Technology has made it even harder to pause. We're addicted to the "dopamine hits" we get from our devices; when our phones are taken away, we go through withdrawal. The 24-hour news cycle, even television-on- demand contributes to our ability to stay “on” all the time.

We must remember, however, that the Jews are not only the people who brought the world 20% of its Nobel Laureates--we also brought the sabbatical. For six years, the Torah teaches, we are commanded to sow our land and gather its produce.  But in the seventh year, תִּשְׁמְטֶנָּה , ‘shmittah it’, release it...don’t plant, prune, or reap. Instead, gather everyone together, and study Torah. Six years we work, the seventh we release. We eat from whatever grows naturally from the ground. We take time for renewal.

An entire year in repose. Can you imagine how that would feel, being forced by law to stop? To sit in your thoughts, even the messy ones, to be able to get in tune with your own expectations of yourself, and not just the ones that others have of you? Freeing, perhaps, and terrifying, and boring, and centering. All the emotions, once again.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes beautifully about her own sabbatical year:
…[C]oming into a space like sabbatical was highly anxiety-provoking….It was hard to suddenly be outside of the professional identity and activity that give meaning and focus to my everyday life....I...spen[t] a lot of those initial days and weeks...assuming that whatever I was doing was not enough, not quite the right thing, not sufficient in some way.
I realized that I was simply depleted….
As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I felt both a sense of sadness, but also an amazing sense of relief. I took that realization of depletion...and offered it up as my prayer. This is all I have, I was saying, and this is all I can offer. And from that moment on I knew what my sabbatical was really about—it was about becoming renewed and replenished, on a level I hadn’t even been fully aware I needed.

In what ways are you depleted? Most of us won’t be able to take a year, but a day? Of course. Shabbat: six days a week we work, but on the seventh we cease. Not necessarily rest, by the way, which is the word that so many of us associate with Shabbat. Taking sabbatical/shabbat-type time, whether on Saturday or not, will not be easy. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is incredibly rigorous. Being in authentic conversation with family or loved ones is exhausting. Praying and meditating takes time and practice. It’s a set of muscles that have atrophied. (I use the word “atrophy” purposely, because we are born with these spiritual muscles; we just lose them over time.) But as any farmer can tell you, working the land without ever letting it rest decreases soil fertility, and increases problems with soil disease and insects. We need to re-learn the art of not working the land: growing nothing on purpose, and seeing what comes up anyway.

At the end of the book of Numbers, Moses lists each of the 42 locations the Israelites camped on the way from slavery to the promised land (ch 33). It doesn’t matter how long the Israelites were at each of these places, or whether something important happened there. They’re all included:

The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succot. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham….They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol. They set out from Pene-hahiroth and passed through the sea into the wilderness; and they made a three-days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and encamped at Marah. They set out from Marah and came to Elim.
And so on. Does it bore you, this list? They move, they pause. They move, they pause. Life happens in which part exactly? In the movement or in the encampment? We need them both.

As much as I hate to say it, I now understand why people get tattoos. Because when you put an image on your body, a series of images, they are not meant to be something that you love as much when you’re 45 as you did when you’re 25. They’re meant to represent a moment in time. We get a tattoo (you get a tattoo) not as a way of saying “this is who I am” but instead “this is who I am right now.” It’s a series of images, a series of right places.

But in order for the images to stand out, you need to see the natural skin in between. If we gave ourselves a tattoo to mark every moment, eventually we'd just have skin the color of ink. We’d lose all the meaning. The achievement-oriented moments need to be balanced by the reflective ones.

A midrash teaches that the Torah is “black fire [written] on white fire,”  “eish shahor al gabei eish lavan.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1).
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook elaborates on this idea: “When we think about a Torah scroll, we usually only consider the letters themselves, written in black ink. Yet, the Talmud (Menachot 29a) rules that every letter in a Torah scroll must be completely surrounded by parchment…. In other words, the white parchment around the letters is an integral part of the Torah; without it, the Torah scroll is disqualified. In fact, the white space is a higher form of Torah. It is …a sublime, hidden Torah that cannot be read in the usual manner.”
In our contemporary lives, we understand the importance of the black fire, but have been tricked into believing that the white fire is nothing more than empty space. But the world was not meant to be lived this way, all one element without its balance. When we refuse to get off the achievement treadmill, we miss the “hidden torah.” But that’s precisely the torah that we need, both because it deepens our relationships with ourselves and our loved ones and because it informs our work.

In the year to come, may we all embrace this most Jewish of tensions: On the one hand--grow. Evolve in your profession, whether at this job or the next one. Work for justice. Make money. Strive.

On the other hand, just lie fallow and see what grows. Do it on Shabbat, the built-in pause button in the Jewish calendar. Or do it on vacation--and take your vacation. Or just stay off your phone at meals with others or on the metro. Be with family even when it’s messy. Pray. Meditate.

Mary Oliver’s poem ends with that line about the one wild, precious life, but before it are lines that maybe we need to hear just as much:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
When is the last time we strolled through the fields all day? Be like Mary Oliver, idle and blessed at the same time.
May our lives unfold like the tattoos that too many of you have, a sleeve of black fire on white fire, of setting out and encamping in the wilderness. Of discerning not only where you’re taking your life, but where your life is taking you.
Gmar tov.

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