Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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Listen: Slow Down

Rosh HaShana 5760 - September 1999

“When I speak, you will listen!”

That was your sixth-grade teacher.

“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

That was an advertisement for a financial services company that went belly-up many years ago. But their ad agency is doing very well, thank you.

In contrast, hear the words of our Torah, which we recite this afternoon: “Ha’azina ha-shamayim ve-adabera, ve-tishma ha-aretz imrei fi — Listen O Heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deut 32:1).

Listen first, and then I will speak. We must prepare our hearts, open our minds, and listen, before the words of Torah can be spoken. We must open our ears, our hearts, our minds first in order to hear everything. “Eits hayim hi — It is a tree of life to those who grasp it,” but otherwise it’s just a stick, a roll of parchment, background music. Do we listen to the Torah reading, or did we just hear it? Are we waiting for God to speak to us, or are we listening?

“Ha’azina ha-shamayim — Listen, O Heavens.”

Recently we saw the film Contact about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life. The film was fiction, but there really are scientists listening to the skies, in the SETI program, the name SETI being an acronym for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.” They are aiming gigantic telescopes at the stars and listening.

They have also been broadcasting a coded message to nearby stars with the thought that if someone out there is listening to us, we might hear from them in as little as 30,000 years. What if they hear us but don’t think we’re intelligent? After all, we apparently evolved from multicellular worms that were the highest form of life on earth 500 million years ago. In another 500 million years, if our descendents continue evolving at this rate, they may look at us as no more than worms.

Rabbi Levitas of Yavne says, “Be very very humble for a human’s future is to be a worm” (Avot 4:4). Maybe our future is to be seen as being as significant as worms.

Torah is trying to tell you something. The Almighty is trying to tell you something. You don’t need a PhD or expertise in literary analysis or Rabbinic semikha or an IQ of 200 to understand. It is all spelled out: “I set before you the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life.” It is all layed out in a simple 613-step connect the dots procedure. Well, at least some of it is. As Scripture says, “The secrets belong to God, but everything that is knowable belongs to us and our children.”

So what is Torah trying to tell us? Here’s one message that I would like to reflect on, in honor of this Shabbat Rosh HaShana.

People work hard today, even in America. Work work work. It used to be, in the Good Old Days, that most people had Sunday off in America. We work longer hours today than people did 20 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in two-adult households, both adults work outside and inside the home. To pay your mortgage. And tuition. And phonebills. And cable. And credit card bills.

Many stores are open 24/7. And now the stock markets are expanding their hours — used to be stockbrokers in California had to be their desks by 6:00a for the opening bell in New York. Now they are moving toward 24-hour trading worldwide. So much for “bankers’ hours.”

It used to be that people slept a full eight hours a night during the week. Now the average is 6 hours 57 minutes — more than an hour less. Sleep deprivation is a leading cause of auto accidents, second only to drunkeness. And lack of sleep is the leading cause of irritability in men, and the second leading cause in women.

Remember “Wonder Bread – baked while you sleep”? They can’t do that anymore, because people don’t sleep long enough for them to bake the bread. They have to bake it while we’re awake. I lived in New York City for seven years. They say “The City Never Sleeps,” and it’s true! The City never sleeps! You people in New York City: Go to Sleep Already!

Medical students and residents sometimes work for 24 hours or longer, straight. Do you want your next brain surgery to be performed by someone who learned the procedure after having been awake for 20 hours?

We work so much we don’t sleep enough. And we don’t spend enough time with our family, friends, ourselves, or God.

And you are putting 100,000 miles on your car in five years, and you’re driving at 75 mph in the highway and 40 in the city. Transportation is faster.

And communication is faster and comes in growing volume. Getting a letter in the mail used to be a special occasion. If you’re like me you receive over 4,000 pieces a year at home and 2,000 a year at work. And 2,500 phone calls at home, and 3,600 phone calls at work. And 4,200 email messages. And people coming to the door. And 135 TV stations. And the daily paper.

Let’s take a survey. Please raise your hand for one of these two choices: A. I would like to spend less time at my job and more time relaxing, playing, being with family and friends? Or, B. I would like to spend more time at my job?

[We note many hands going up, including those of retired people.]

If you are working too much, I want to suggest something to you: Shabbat. The Day of Rest. It’s one of the Ten Commandments, you know. You need it. There is a voice somewhere telling you that.

At a recent “BEKI Renaissance” parlor meeting — and if you don’t know what “BEKI Renaissance” is yet, believe me, you will find out soon enough — at a recent “BEKI Renaissance” parlor meeting, people were talking about why this Congregation is so important to them. One very busy and successful person — a parent, spouse, professional, civic leader, Synagogue Officer, said: “I come to shul at BEKI on Shabbat and I love it. I need it. I come instead of getting psychotherapy.” One of this person’s close friends retorted, “You should do both!” And indeed, we all should do both.

Don’t worry: This is not a pitch to get you to come to Shabbat services. …Well, yes it is. But not primarily. This is about you, and rest, and Shabbat.

This is a pitch to create for yourself some sacred time and space. It means: Turn off the telephone. Your patients and clients and customers and students can survive one day without you. If it is important they can call back. Give yourself some space.

And turn off the TV. And the computer. Put away the credit cards and the checkbook. So don’t go to shul. Sleep late. Read a book. Talk with someone – even your spouse. Or your child. Or parent. Or a neighbor; you know, there are people who live in those houses next to yours, and some of them might be interesting to get to know.

This is not to add to your burdens and responsibilities, to give you one more thing you have to do. To the contrary; set yourself free, for at least a little while. Create space for yourself, and perhaps even sacred space.

Now some of you do not work too hard at this point, and are not overwhelmed by communications. And some are. Sometimes we keep busy so we won’t realize how lonely we really are. If your life is not accelerated and overloaded, but rather, you feel an emptiness, then do come to shul. Come Friday night with an intimate group of very friendly people. Or Saturday morning, or Saturday afternoon. On a typical Saturday morning you might be lost in the crowd, but not on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

The Friday Night Qiddush tells us what Shabbat is about: “zikaron le-ma`ase vereshit – a memorial to the creation of the world,” and “zekher li-tsiat mitsrayim – in memory of our exodus from Egypt.” The Rosh HaShana Qiddush also says “zekher li-tsiat mitsrayim – in memory of our exodus from Egypt”! Of all the two episodes in world history or pre-history, what do the Creation of the World and the Exodus from Egypt have to do with one another?

Creation as told by the Torah: God made the world in six days and on the seventh day, God rested. Why does God need six days to make the world? Our pre-scientific ancestors were very smart people. And they wondered, Why would God need six days to make the world? Why not in an instant?

Listen: The Torah is telling you something.

In ancient Greek culture — Plato and Socrates and those guys — work, especially manual labor, was considered degrading. Here is how Aristotle put it:

There is the rule of a master, which is concerned with menial offices: the master need not know how to perform these, but may employ others in the execution of them. The alternative would be degrading; and by the alternative I mean the power actually to do menial duties, which vary much in character and are executed by various classes of slaves, such as handicraftsmen, who live by the labor of their hands…. Certainly the good man and the statesman and the good citizen ought not to learn the crafts of inferiors except for their own occasional use; if they habitually practice them, there will cease to be a distinction between master and slave (Aristotle Politics 3:4).

The Torah is telling us something very different. Labor is good and uplifting. So much so that God, too, works. And, at the same time, the Torah establishes a God-given right of every human being and animal to rest. And you can use that rest to explore your intellectual or spiritual or aesthetic self – you can stay home and read Greek philosophy if you wish.

This claim of right was — and still is — a radically democratic notion. We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and our God brought us out “with a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm.” God said, “My people are not supposed to be slaves to Pharoah. They are supposed to do my work in the world.” That’s what the Exodus is all about. “Let my people go” is a misquote. The whole statement is, “Let my people go so that they may work for me.” And not for Pharoah. Our work is not degrading. It has meaning.

Our religious ancestors were sometimes martyred for the right to observe Shabbat. And our socialist and communist ancestors struggled and were martyred for the right of workers to a 60-hour work week, then a 48-hour week, then a 40-hour week, and against child labor. The right to a day off. It is a great irony that their secular descendants in Israel are struggling bitterly for the right to work on Shabbat. Marx and Maimonides should turn over in their graves.

Several studies in the past few years have purported to show that people who come to synagogue regularly live longer. At least it seems longer.

There may be something to it. It turns out that people who are going too fast benefit from slowing down. And those who are somewhat isolated benefit from being with people. Even the food served here is proven good — herring and red wine are now believed to lower your bad cholesterol or something like that. And all of that standing and sitting, sitting and standing, bowing and rising up on your toes, serves to reduce the likelihood of vascular emboli. You get a little work out. And how much more so if you can walk to shul.

Some people do all of this already. Great! Do more. Share your joy with others.

There is a voice calling to you. A divine voice. A still small voice. A voice within. A voice from the ark. A voice from the burning bush.

“Listen O Heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth.”

Listen, and then the voice will speak. Give yourself the time and place to listen. Listen.

© Jon-Jay Tilsen September 1999

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