Sermon delivered on Rosh Hashanah Day 5771 – September 9, 2009
by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
I love New Orleans. When I was a child, we visited family and friends there regularly. I was particularly privileged to get to know the city in the late 1980s, when I spent a year as a rabbinic intern at Touro Synagogue. New Orleans offers unique charm and warmth, not just heat and humidity; and I enjoy returning there whenever practical.
But I don’t think I could live in New Orleans. Serving in a rabbinical capacity there, I was periodically perplexed by the residents’ attitude. In New Orleans, parties seem to be the priority. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like a party as much as the next guy. Celebrating a happy occasion with friends is one of life’s richest rewards. Only in New Orleans, though, have people told me that they couldn’t attend their own child’s presentation because they just had to go to a party.
Priorities are, well, our priority on Rosh Hashanah. Today, we examine who we are and how we have spent our days over the last year. If we are wise, the passing of the years reminds us that our time here on Earth is limited; we would do well to make meaningful use of the years we are given. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that the righteous person is one “who does not make what is of secondary importance the main thing, nor the main thing secondary.” In other words, we need to keep our priorities straight. We know that parties are not the priority. But what is?
Let this holy day be a turning point: Instead of letting our lives live us, let us live our lives. We ask ourselves: What really matters? Am I using my limited time in ways that are truly important?
Late last fall, Rabbi Berlin and I were privileged to hear a discussion of this subject by one of America’s foremost business leaders, Harry Kraemer. Kraemer suggests that we examine our lives in manageable bites. Specifically, he wrote a number on the board: 168. In a room filled with more than 70 Rabbis and synagogue executives, almost nobody knew the significance of that number. 168 is the number of hours in a week. Can we apportion the hours offered to us each week in ways that will truly make a difference, for our work and for our families, for our bodies and for our souls, for ourselves and for our God?
I was intrigued that Kraemer suggests the week as the place to start; not a day or a month or a year. A day is a revolution of the Earth; a month, a rotation of the moon; a year, the cycle of seasons as the Earth circles the sun. The seven-day week, though, is not determined by any natural phenomenon. An invention of the Jews and of our God, the week is now a world-wide standard. The story of creation, not to be taken literally as an historical or scientific account, nonetheless teaches that much can be accomplished in seven days.
Rabbis will frequently ask our students, “What is the most important holiday in the Jewish year.” In Jewish tradition, one day stands out: Shabbat, week in and week out, the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments. What matters most is the day we observe regularly and repeatedly.
We might ask how something that happens so often can really be the most important day of the year, 52 times each year. We live in a society that celebrates the rarities: The world we live in exalts countless annual occasions, from Christmas to the Oscars to the Texas-OU football game. No doubt, those events are important to people, and we cherish memories made in life’s fleeting moments. And yet, the retailer will tell you: Sales in the final months of the calendar are critical, but they cannot be achieved without significant effort, week in and week out, all year long. Our character is established not in the way that we succeed splendidly in some peak moment, but in the way we behave under ordinary circumstances, in what we do constantly.
Harry Kraemer suggests that we start our self-examination “with a lot of questions,” tough questions about who we are and how we spend our time. Kraemer challenges us to ask: “What’s important? . . . And if I say certain things are important, is that reflected in my actions? If people observe me, would they agree those are clearly important . . . to me?”
Most of us spend many of our 168 hours each week at work or as students. Some of us are blessed with work that is truly important to us. I count myself particularly fortunate. You, the members of Temple Beth-El, make it possible for me to study and teach our Jewish tradition, week after week. Many of you come to this place quite frequently, in large numbers every Friday night, and we celebrate the vibrant life of our tradition together. You invite me into your lives at your times of greatest celebration and at your hours of deepest need, and I have the privilege of sharing your joy, of seeing you through your sorrow.
Others enjoy equally meaningful, if entirely different, work. You teach and nurture the next generation. You help people solve complicated problems. You heal the sick. No doubt, some would say that they enjoy their work, but they wonder if their labors really matter. Would the world be less well off, they ask, if people bought less of what I am selling? Does humanity really need to know about the arcane field of study I pursue? Though the questions are understandable, the answers are equally clear. Work itself is important. I am reminded of the Zionists who built the State of Israel through their labors. They taught, in the words of Ben-Gurion, that “the right to a nation, as to anything else, springs not from political or judicial authority, but from work.” What Ben-Gurion said about Israel applies to this country, too. We build our nation, our state, our community through our labors, whatever they be. Our work, day in and day out, makes a difference. America was established through hard work, and will continue to be a great nation only if individuals in every kind of economic endeavor devote themselves to our chosen tasks, and even to the work that has chosen us, with earnest commitment.
Whatever our work, we can do it well or we can “phone it in.” Whatever our field of endeavor, we can be honest or we can cheat and steal. Whatever our position in the economy, we can be a pleasant coworker or we can make others miserable.
The same goes for students: Your work is important. You are building your future and America’s tomorrow. For some, achievement comes easily; for others, extra effort brings only mediocre grades. Even for those who do well without breaking a sweat, dedication is required. Our city and our nation need future leaders who will put in the effort to build a better tomorrow. You, too, can do your own work or you can cheat. You can contribute to a positive school environment or you can be a bully or a sourpuss. You, too, will come to be known by what you do, every day, and your actions will show the world what’s important to you.
And what of those who are retired? In this economy, we are also mindful of people who are unemployed, and of folks who cannot find work at their full potential. None of these conditions exempts us from spending our time doing what is important. Perhaps the greatest column William Safire ever wrote was his last regular op-ed in the New York Times. His words remind us that every single one of us has important work. Safire wrote, “When you’re through changing, learning, working to stay involved – only then are you through.” Whatever our circumstances, we have the ability to demonstrate what is important to us in living our lives with meaning.
But even for those who work more than full time, our 168 hours cannot be apportioned entirely to economic or creative endeavors. Harry Kraemer preaches the gospel of a balanced life. At the height of his career, with the tremendous demands of a corporate CEO, Kraemer continued to volunteer actively at his church. He never stopped exercising regularly. Kraemer told us about leaving a room filled with millionaire, high-power executives to be with a group of little girls, as he never stopped coaching his daughter’s soccer team. We may rightly wonder how he could do it all. We all have to find our own way; Kraemer’s includes not even owning a television.
The ancient Jewish wisdom of Ben Sira taught, “There is no wealth like health.” Assuring our own physical well-being is surely important enough to set aside hours in every week – for adequate sleep, every day; and also time to exercise, to eat right, to take in the fresh air of God’s creation.
On Kol Nidre night, when I step onto the bimah to lead you in worship, I will go directly to the Ark to utter a prayer called the Hineni. In those words, I will proclaim myself to be a sinner, utterly unqualified to facilitate a congregation in seeking forgiveness. To be very specific, my family would tell you that I am in absolutely no position to give a sermon to anybody about how to apportion the hours in the week. Toni, Robert, and Daniel would all say that I do a lousy job of it myself. None of them thinks that I come home from work soon enough in the afternoon, and all of them believe that I’m out too many evenings and too much of the weekend. Daniel goes to as many Majik Theatre camps as he can, and he’s often in shows that take place on Saturday mornings, which is not a convenient time for a Rabbi. Understandably, he is angry when his dad misses his play.
I would like to think that Toni and the boys complain simply because they know that keeping the pressure on will help me to secure more time for them. What I do know, and what I can say to you, is that absolutely nothing can match sheer hours spent with one’s children while they are growing up. More congregants and friends than I can count have told me that the years go swiftly; before I know it, the boys will be men. No quality time, no magic words, nothing will say “you are important” to my spouse or to my children like spending time with them. No words of wisdom, no “laying down the law” will help to raise happy, successful, productive children like the presence of their parents. Whatever our stage of life, but especially when children are in the house, family must stake a priority claim to those 168 hours.
Judaism, for its part, is rather demanding of our time. Most of us ignore our tradition’s requisition, but Jewish teaching would have us set aside time for prayer every day and to reserve Shabbat as a day of rest and holiness, worship and study. Indeed, Judaism asks for 168 of our 168 hours, requiring that we act in accordance with God’s teaching every hour of every day. We are not permitted an hour to mistreat our employees, and we are not allotted ten minutes for malicious gossip. To be sure, none of us is without sin; nobody is perfect. Setting aside moments for prayer and reflection affords us the opportunity to redirect ourselves to more praiseworthy behavior, to seek forgiveness and to enliven our better selves. A good start is the Shema before bed, a simple but powerful reminder of what matters most.
Our ancient Rabbis taught, aveirah goreret aveirah; “One sin leads to another.” If we become accustomed to poor behavior, we will repeat it. If we establish the wrong priorities, we will pursue them. If we do not think about how we allot the 168 hours we are given each week, we will spend our time foolishly; we will waste our lives.
But our Rabbis also taught, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah; “One mitzvah leads to many.” Observing the mitzvot of this Rosh Hashanah, we will reflect upon our lives today. If we are wise, our meditations will lead us to examine our lives more regularly, even daily. If we make that time for regular reflection, we will set our priorities straight. If we know what’s really important, and we work toward that goal, we will utilize the life we’re given to do what matters most. In our work and for our health, in our homes and for our families, in our synagogue and for our God – and yes, even for ourselves – let the New Year be a good year, 168 hours every week.