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Yom Kippur  2011 / 5772

09/11/2011 09:35:15 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

In an e-mail that I sent out to the congregation just before Rosh Hashanah, I quoted Thomas Cahill's book, The Gifts of the Jews, but did not specify the particular gift he identified in Shabbat, the radical, revolutionary notion that human beings, especially free human beings, created in God's image, should not be working, productive, creative every waking hour.  The idea of Shabbat was that we take a break every now and then, without which we are scarcely different than animals, and without which, we are slaves to the tyranny of productivity and busyness that fill our days.  That idea was embraced by and continues to be foundational to Western civilization, at least in principle.  Human beings need time for other pursuits, we need not to be working and producing all the time, and the idea spread.  Our very notion of civilization is rooted in the principle that our work life and productivity should be only part of how we spend our days.  We are, or at least ought to be, as one wag put it, "human beings, not human doings". 

That idea seems to have faded in recent years, especially as technological advances lead to further blurring of the lines between our work lives and our personal lives.  One study says that these days, the average American, including those whose work cannot be done from home, the average American, works an additional four and half hours a week at home.  As I look into this room, I suspect that for many that number sounds closer to what you might do every day.  Is this what modern technology has done to us?  Made it possible for us to do so much wherever we are that we have obliterated the boundaries that previously defined how we live?

If only we can go back to a simpler, less demanding time, say, oh, the 1850s. 

To quote Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun."

 In his book, Hamlet' s BlackBerry, William Powers quotes an 1852 New York Times editorial: which reflected on the wonder and worry of a new technology known as the telegraph and the perils it wrought:

“Messages follow each other in quick succession. Joy spreads on the track of sorrow....…An innumerable host of social, political and commercial details all chase each other over the slender and unconscious wires.”  In reflecting on that new technology, New York businessman W.E. Dodge wrote of how hard it is to come home and relax after a hard day of work when as soon as you sit down to dinner, a telegram arrives from London directing the purchase of 20,000 barrels of flour from San Francisco. “The poor man,” he wrote, “must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off his message to California. The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump.” 

Ecclesiastes was right.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Only now it as much as businessmen and women.  It is almost all of us.

Barely a day goes by that I do not complain, or hear complaints from someone else, about the mixed blessings of modern technology.  The issue, I would submit, is not technology itself, but how we choose to use it. 

Technology is, of course, morally neutral, but its promise of providing us with even greater leisure time has been perverted, as we have instead, paradoxically, used the advances of technology to fill our lives more and more, and make ourselves busier and busier.  In fact, I would like to nominate one particular technological invention as the symbol of our age, one that has in fact been part of our lives longer than the smart phone, the Internet, or the personal computer.  I nominate the radar detector, created for the sole purpose of facilitating circumvention of other technology that our society embraced for public safety and the common good, so that we can get to where ever we are going even faster, and presumably do even more, and be even busier.

In his book, Powers tells of a friend of his, an immigrant to America, whose native language is not English.  Whenever he saw her, and asked how she was, she broke into a broad smile, and said "Busy, very busy!"  It took him a while to understand what was happening: as she was absorbing colloquial responses to common questions, she heard the response " Busy, very busy!"  so often that she thought it was the polite response to the question, "How are you?"  And you know what?  When I read those words, I had to stop and acknowledge that more often than I would care to admit, that is my response to the question, "How are you?"  And do you know what I realized?  When I answer it that way, I am so preoccupied with thinking about how busy I am that I am not even responding to the question!  "Busy" is a description of my external condition, and a meaningless response to the question "How are you?". 

We are all busy.  Maybe too busy.  No, definitely too busy.  As a society, we seem to have decided that busyness is a badge of honor, and we employ every new technology available to us to help us earn that badge.

We all know, intellectually, the cost of being too busy.  We know that, paradoxically, busyness actually hinders productivity.  We all know how lives that are too busy leave precious little opportunity for spontaneity.  We even recognize, at least intellectually, how our busyness impedes our relationships.

Worst of all, though, our busyness is eroding our humanity.

 At the most basic level, our busyness leaves little time for contemplation little time to tend to our inner lives.  Most of us set aside today and perhaps Rosh Hashanah as the two days of the year when we actually take a meaningful chunk of time to think about who we are and what matters to us.  Most of the time, we do so, as we do so many of the things in our lives, on-the-fly and on the run, engaged in who knows how many other activities at once.  I tried to research the history of the word "multitasking" without success, but I am reasonably certain that I never heard it until it was already in use to describe the workings of a computer processor.

Enough said. 

How can we ever hope to be more than we are if we do not take the time to consider who we have been and who we want to be?

And yes, busyness prevents us from simply appreciating the world in which we live and the many blessings that abound.  We all know the expression, “Stop and smell the roses”  but I wonder how many of us know that the Talmud teaches how important this is, how smell is actually the most spiritual of the senses  - it says, "Smell is that from which the soul benefits, and the body does not."  Think about it: to really appreciate a scent, an aroma, a smell, you have to stop.  You have to close your eyes.  You have to block out as much of the world as you can, and focus only on that smell.  Did you know that there is a specific  blessing for enjoying the aroma of trees and flowers?  Did you know that our tradition so much wants us to experience so fully the beauty of a flower's fragrance that it teaches us to stop and thank God for it, just as our tradition provides us with words of blessing to say at the sight of a rainbow or a bolt of lightning, as well as before eating any kind of food, and for an array of human experiences that we so easily, often, and regularly take for granted?  And friends, the busier we are, the less time we have to stop and take note, the more we need the discipline of doing so.  If your experience is anything like mine, you will have no difficulty thinking about the number of meals you have scarfed down so quickly that you have no idea what you ate, how many sunsets you have not even noticed because you were too busy driving to your next appointment, or how many times you have not stopped to smell a beautiful flower.  If the rabbis of the Talmud are right, that in the World to Come we will be called to account for every legitimate pleasure in this world that we failed to enjoy, we will have a lot of explaining to do.

On Rosh Hashanah, our president, Lynn Asinof commented on the story of Moses and the burning bush, and how he could not have noticed that the bush was unconsumed if he had not stopped and really paid attention to it.  We have to ask: would he have taken the time to notice it today?  Or would he be too busy looking at his smart phone?  And he was not operating a motor vehicle!  A University of Utah study found that drivers talking on mobile phones are as impaired as drivers at .08 blood alcohol concentration, the legal limit in the United States.  Did you know that in 2010, distracted driving was the number one killer of American teens?  Ironically, while alcohol-related accidents among teens have dropped, teenage traffic fatalities have remained unchanged, because distracted driving is on the rise.  But it is not just teenagers, and not just our use of technology that endangers us: A survey by a major national insurance company revealed that more than 80% of drivers admit to blatantly hazardous behavior: changing clothes, steering with a foot, painting nails and shaving.  

Are we really that busy? 

No, not really.  Not that busy.  And besides, we have our priorities in order.

A familiar with the story of the man who asks his adult daughter to come and visit with him?  She told him she could not, she was too busy, but she would try to do so soon.  A few weeks later, he called her again, and again, she told him that she was just too busy.  This went on several more times, until one day, he said to her, "I need to ask you something.  Are you going to come to my funeral?"  Aghast, she responded "Of course!  How could you even ask me that?" - To which he responded: "Okay, do me a favor.  Skip my funeral, and come see me now."

Julie really have our priorities in order?  Do we?

Yet, friends, I would submit that there is an even more disturbing consequence of our busyness.  

Social psychologists Daniel Batson and Jon Darley conducted a now famous experiment whose subjects were students at the Princeton Theological Seminary.  They wanted to see what variables would influence a person to act compassionately towards another in need. They had the students begin in one building, broke them up into three groups, and told them that this was a study about how quickly they could think on their feet, evidenced by sharing an extemporaneous talk on one of two different topics  - one about post-seminary employment, and the other about the story of the Good Samaritan in another building on campus, a few minutes walk away.  On the way, all of the students unknowingly encountered a confederate of the researchers, a man sitting slumped in a doorway, who moaned and coughed twice as each one walked by.  One group was told to hurry as over because they were late, one group was told that they were on time, but should head directly there, and the third group was told that there was a delay and so they had extra time, but should proceed to the other building anyway.  Remember, these were not random undergraduate students, they were theology students, studying to become ministers.

The experimenters found that only one factor influenced whether or not the students would stop to help. It was not personality type, it was not career goals in the ministry, it was not even, ironically, whether or not they were on their way to speak about the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan on which this very  experiment was based.  The only factor that determined whether or not the students would stop was whether or not they were in a hurry.  The good news is that many subjects who did not stop appeared to be aroused and anxious when they arrived at the second site.  Apparently, they found themselves conflicted between helping the victim and meeting the needs of the experimenter, so it was not pure callousness that led to their failure to stop.  They were not totally indifferent.  They were just too busy.  And by the way, there is no reason to imagine that the results would have been any different , or certainly any better, had the subjects been rabbinical students.  Darley and Batson concluded, “Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”  

“Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.” 

And if you are inclined to attribute that kind of distraction to our increased use of technology, I would point out that this experiment was conducted in 1970, long before most of the technology to which we are tethered even existed.

Technology has surely enabled us to be even busier, and we may be even more likely to pass by that person in the doorway, but technology cannot be blamed for the speed at which we choose to live.

The story that is the antidote to that experiment happened just last week at the Stock Car Nationals in Ada, Oklahoma.  But better metaphor for speeding through life is there than a stock car race?  Perhaps you read about it.  A $10,000 first prize was on the line.  A terrible accident happened during the race, and one car burst into flames.  Kip Hughes, the defending champion, stopped his car, jumped out, tore away the protective window net, and pulled the other driver out of the flaming wreck, leaving the driver with nothing more than a burned hand and some back pain. Hughes was quite candid about what led to his quick response: 20 years earlier, as a young boy watching his father driving in a similar race, he watched in horror as his father's car caught fire, resulting in his father's horrific disfigurement.  Last weekend, when he was interviewed, he said "I always just kind of told myself if something like that happens again, I don't think. I just go and do whatever I can."  He had already decided that no matter how fast he was going, no matter what it cost him, he was going to stop, and not let ethics become a luxury. 

Do we need something that traumatic to get us to slow down?  Perhaps, my friends, there is hope for us all.  Even if we are not able to slow down right away, for starters, can we at least decide in advance that no matter what, we, too, will stop, we will not let ethics become a complete luxury?

By the way, Kip Hughes came in 14th out of 20. 

And truth be told, while it might have made a wonderful children's story for him still to have come in first, this ending is actually a better one for us, to reinforce that the reward is not extrinsic, and that there often is a real cost.  It is good for us to remember that there is often a price to be paid to slowing down or to stopping, and that the ultimate consequence, and the ultimate reward, is far more significant and meaningful.

So how do we find our way from here?  Let us return to the idea of Shabbat.  It is worth noting that the Talmud teaches if you are in the wilderness, and have lost track of time, you are to count six days, and then observe the seventh one as Shabbat.  Whether or not you are observing the right day is irrelevant; that you are doing it is what matters.  Even if we feel like we have lost our way, we can reclaim our path, and with it, our freedom.  We do not have to worry about the right way or the right time, or even doing it right away - remember, the rabbis did not say, "think back to last day you can identify", but start counting now.  Go forwards, not backwards.  Give yourself the rest of the week, prepare for it, think about it, and then do it.  And as I would tell anyone who is interested in embracing a more regular Shabbat observance, start slowly.    Schedule in some time on our calendars, yes, even our electronic calendars, for our life partners and our families and our friends and yes, for ourselves.  I knew a rabbi used to carry around one of those small paper calendars, and I believe it was his secretary who finally asked him one day, what is this recurring appointment you have with someone named  Freeman?  He told her she was reading it wrong.  It was not Freeman.  It was Free Man.  Himself.  We can do it, too.  We can free ourselves.  Try it.  Take a moment before you put something into your mouth to think about what it is and from whence it came, even if you are not completely comfortable saying a blessing over it.  Spend a few minutes looking out at the ocean, even if you are not completely saying a blessing over.  Stop and smell a flower, even if you are not completely comfortable saying a blessing over it.  And the next time you see someone sitting slumped in a doorway, coughing and moaning, stop and see if you can help, even if it is not an experiment.  Especially if it is not an experiment.  Even if you are running late.  Especially if you are running late.

It really is not as hard as it sounds.  We were just reminded of that a little while ago in the words of Torah that we shared:

"It is not in the heavens, that him you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and in part it to us that we may observe it?'  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, that we may observe it?'  No, the thing is very close to you, your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."

"See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.……  I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life - that you and your offspring would live."

Hashiveinu Adonai v'nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k'kedem

Restore us, O God, and we will be restored; renew our days, as of old.


Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782