Time Waits for No One
Rosh Hashanah 5762
This past week our world changed forever. Last Tuesday morning, I was traveling with my wife Sharon from New Jersey to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for a meeting and for classes. We crossed the George Washington Bridge in normal time and we fought through the traffic on the span of the bridge, and then proceeded south on Riverside Drive. As we were driving, Sharon looked out the window and said, "Do you see that smoke? Do you think there may be a fire or something?"
I assured her that if there was a fire the smoke would have to be much blacker than that. Suddenly the reports on the radio began to trickle in. First the guys on the talk radio show I was listening to were a bit nonchalant: "We are going to go to our news center at ABC. There is a report that a small plane just hit the top story of the World Trade Center." This would not have been the first time that a plane had accidentally run into one of New York's tallest buildings.
The report switched to a person on the scene who had seen the crash. He was describing the fire in the building, and assuring us that the buildings were being evacuated. And in the middle of a sentence he began to scream: "I do not believe what I just saw. Another plane has just rammed into the other tower!" Suddenly, life in New York had changed forever. The news continued to trickle through and in the next thirty minutes or so we heard - as you all did - of two other hijacked planes crashing.
In one instant, something that had been inconceivable had become a reality. In that instant, everybody's plans for the day changed, and so did our perspective. In one moment, time changed. Everything that I had assumed to be constant in the future became uncertain.
One of my first reactions to this great tragedy was to think of all those unfulfilled dreams that went up in smoke. It made me reflect on the value of time, which moves so quickly. We never know when time will change forever. Beyond the immediate present, our future is filled with uncertainty.
A major theme of Rosh Hashannah combats this feeling of uncertainty. Knowing the fleeting nature of time, on Rosh Hashannah we say hayom, today. In contrast to a natural tendency to put things off, we say hayom, today is the day I will begin to live my life in accordance with the demands of my values and my tradition. I would like to look for a moment at a piyyut, a liturgical poem on the bottom of p. 402, which expresses this idea very clearly. As you can see, each line begins with the word hayom, today (or this day in the archaic English): "Today may you strengthen us, Today may you bless us."
We repeat the word hayom, today, eight times during the course of this piyyut. Now, what we have in our Mahzor is only a small piece of the full poem, the remainder of which is left out of most Mahzors for no clear reason. The full piyyut is a complete alphabetical acrostic, meaning that there are twenty-two different things that we ask for hayom, today.
The message is clear. If we are serious about our commitment to do teshuva, to return to the path of God and Torah and values, then we have to begin today, hayom. Today is the first day of the rest of our lives, and we can't take that time for granted.
In the Jewish folk tradition, there is a fictional town in Poland, the town of Chelm, which is known for its wise men. The wise men of Chelm have as their job to sit in a room and to think; to think about all of the problems that their town faces and to help to solve them. The amazing thing about the wise men of Chelm is that according to legend they never once came up with a solution to a problem that was not wholeheartedly received by the entire town of Chelm.
It is said that one year in Chelm the summer was particularly hot. There were no air conditioners in those days, and in Poland it was frowned upon to wear short clothes. So the people had to live in a deep depression brought upon them by the intense heat. (It was not so different from what I have experienced on occasion here in South Florida). Finally, the townspeople became sick and tired of being so hot, so they turned to the wise men of Chelm to solve their problem.
The wise men went into their deliberation room and they thought; they thought and they thought - because that is what the wise men of Chelm were paid to do - but they could not find a solution to the problem of the hot summer in Chelm.
Finally, after about a week of thinking, one scholar came forward with a solution to the problem of the heat. “You know,” he said, “We in Chelm are faced with a big problem, a big problem indeed, because the summer has become too hot.” The townspeople began to nod in agreement. “It seems to me that we also have another problem because in the winter it is always too cold.” The people began to get excited. "Wow, this guy really understands our problem," they exclaimed. “If my calculations are correct," the wise man continued, "These problems are actually connected."
“In the winter, when it is cold, we turn our furnaces and ovens on overtime. As the heat from the furnaces collects, we get a surplus of heat, which gets to be so bad that every summer we experience high temperatures. And then in the summer we turn on all our fans, which cools the air so much that we end up with a terrible winter!” By this point the people were truly amazed.
The scholar continued, “We need to end this vicious cycle. I propose that we all turn off our fans and turn on our ovens so that when winter comes it will be warm in Chelm. Then we can turn the fans back on in the winter. We may be a bit uncomfortable now, but I promise, in the near future, we will be glad we suffered!” With that, the people became so excited because another one of their problems had been solved.
Now, this story may seem childish or even silly. But, I would like to submit to you this morning that we all are guilty of the same type of logic that plagued the Chelmites. We are often quick to put off our needs in the present in order that we might achieve a fantasy in the future.
We all do this because we become victims to the disease of time. I'm not going to eat dinner with my family tonight because I need to stay late at a business meeting; but in the end, my family will enjoy the wealth that I will amass. I don't have time to enjoy this beautiful day because I have a lot of work to get done. I don't have time for an adult-education class because I have too many other things going on.
We seem to put the important things off all the time until a later date, TBA. But time cannot be stored in an account. We cannot afford to destroy our present in hopes of a better future. When we put off the important things today, we do not guarantee a better tomorrow.
On Rosh Hashannah, we say hayom. Today is the day that I will take teshuva, my return to my tradition seriously. Today is the day that I will begin to make a difference.
My personal experience teaches that one of the reasons we put things off is that we have a natural desire for everything to be perfect. When I am writing a paper or a sermon, the first thing I do when the process gets difficult is get up from my desk and begin to procrastinate. Trying to hard to get things "just right" can delay the project. Or we put off the important things until we are "established" or "settled" or "happy."
My rabbi from Atlanta tells a story of a couple who came to him and asked to be married. During their meeting it surfaced that the couple had been living together for nine years. This fact prompted my rabbi to ask them, “You’ve been living together for nine years. You obviously love each other very much. But what made you decide now that you want to get married?”
“It’s interesting,” one of them replied. “We always knew that we wanted to get married. But when we first thought about moving in, my father was sick, so we decided to wait until things settled down and the time was right. And then a little later, there were a lot of family celebrations, and we didn’t want to steal the thunder, so we waited until the time was right. And over and over again we got ready to make plans, but the time never seemed right. Finally we decided that we were waiting for the wrong thing. There was never going to be a ‘right time.’ We’ve decided to take the next step and to experience all of the other challenges together.”
There are always a lot of things going on in our lives. There is no such thing as “the right time” or “the perfect time.” All time is sacred. And this is true with our spiritual lives as well. If we are serious about teshuva, about changing our ways, then we must make the commitment today, hayom, and stick to it.
Judaism recognizes that we are not going to be perfect. Our Rabbis teach, “lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, It is not your responsibility to complete the task; v’lo ata ben horin lehibatel mimenah, but neither are you free to ignore it.” Even though we may never be perfect, we cannot wait to begin to resolve the relationships that have gone sour, to forge a connection with God by expressing thanks for the beautiful world around us, to begin studying a Jewish subject that has peaked our interest.
Hayom, today is the day we must make new commitments. There will be no better time.
The rabbis had a phrase that cautioned against putting the important things off until a later date. Avar zemano batel korbano, which means, “When the time for presenting a sacrifice has passed, regardless of one’s good intentions, the offering is void.” It is the equivalent of the saying in English, “Too little, too late.”
I can give an example, which you may have experienced as well. There was a member of my congregation in New Jersey, his name was Jeremy, who learned, about a year and a half ago, that a brain tumor he had battled as a child had begun to grow at a rapid rate, and that he would only have about a year to live. Jeremy was a very active member of our congregation; he volunteered in the office and in the religious school, and he was a regular at Shabbat morning services. As you might imagine, everyone in the congregation was very eager to wish Jeremy well, to visit him, and to lend strength to his family who was bearing the brunt of the care that was required during this crucial time.
With all of this outpouring of support, I did not feel that my own visits were necessary. I had my own problems in dealing with Jeremy because he was only about a month younger than me-- I think that our bar mitzvah’s were on the same day, although at that time I had no idea that Jeremy existed. Because I felt so close to Jeremy, and because I had a feeling of why him and not me, I never went to visit him. Regardless of how justified I may have been in my feelings, I kept on saying—I’ll call some time later this week, and I missed the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick.. Eventually Jeremy passed away before I had a chance to visit. I did help out during the shiva period, but that did not change the fact that time had passed on before I got to do what I knew I should do, which was to visit Jeremy when he might have needed me, while he was alive.
There are a lot of things that we are meaning to do, and if we do not do them now, we may miss the opportunity. Rosh Hashannah reminds us that hayom, today is the day that we have to resolve to do all of those things. We cannot afford to wait.
Maimonides, living in the twelfth century, wrote a long treatise on the importance of repentance, teshuva. He says that even the most wicked among us always have the opportunity to change our ways, to do teshuva. Even a person who was wicked for his entire life, but who did teshuva on his deathbed, is granted atonement for his sins. But the problem is that time is fleeting, as we learned again this past Tuesday. We never know when that final day will come. Therefore, Maimonides writes, “Leolam yireh adam atzmo keilu hu noteh lamut, a person should always see himself as if he were about to die.” Because of the very real possibility that we could pass on without having changed our ways, we must begin the process of teshuva right away. Hayom, Today is the day that we ask God for the strength and determination that we need to become better people.
Today is the day that we will think about taking on a new observance. Today is the day we will pick up a book on an interesting topic, which we've been meaning to read. Today is the day that we will make good on our commitments to attach ourselves to God and to our traditions and to our people. The loud sound of the shofar calls upon us to awaken ourselves to our sacred mission. hayom, today.
Yehuda Amichai, who was the poet laureate of Israel until he passed away a little over a year ago, wrote a poem in which he alluded to the problem of the fleeting nature of time. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes proclaims, “Lakol zeman, To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the heaven.” Amichai took issue with this proclamation.
He wrote, “A man doesn’t have time / to have time for everything./ He doesn’t have seasons enough to have a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes was wrong about that.”
There is not enough time to do everything we want to do. We cannot wait to be "happy" before we begin our sacred journey. If we want to do all the things we know we should do, we cannot wait until later. The time to act is today, hayom.
This year I received an e-mail, which many of you may have received as well.
Imagine there is a bank which credits your account with $86,400 each day, carries over no balance from day to day, allows you to keep no cash balance, and every evening cancels whatever part of the amount you had failed to use during the day.
What would you do if you had such an account? You would do you best to use up every cent, of course - before it disappeared.
Well everyone has such a bank. It’s called TIME. Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft.
Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the records of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no going back.
Treasure every moment that you have! Time waits for no one. You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness and success. The clock is running! Make the most of today.
The late Professor Israel Davidson of the Jewish Theological Seminary had a similar message inscribed on his watch. Every time he would check the time, he would read the message, "It is later than you think."
This morning, a week after the most serious tragedy ever perpetrated on American soil, our prayers are with the families of the victims of these attacks, and with the rescue workers, and with all of our leaders who are trying to help us to return our lives back to normal.
As our nation slowly returns to normal, I pray. May we remember the instant when our world changed. May we remember how quickly we realized that our routine was vulnerable and that our future was uncertain. On this Rosh Hashannah, we all ask God, hayom teamtzenu, Today may you give us the strength that we need to make a difference in our lives. Today give us the strength to insure that the new year 5762 will be for a blessing. Shannah Tovah.