7701 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012

Seidel Drash RH25766

Rabbi Ethan Seidel - Drash, 2nd Day Rosh Hashanah  5766-2005


[prop necessary: my bowl]

This summer, most of my family travelled to San Francisco for a week, on vacation.  We had an ambitious sight-seeing plan – there is a lot to see in San Francisco - and we set out early in our attempt to accomplish as much as possible in the limited time we had.  Among the first things we saw was the Asian Art Museum, right across from city hall.  It’s a huge collection; it wasn’t clear where to begin, and so we began by following a tour.  Unfortunately, the tour was a bit slow moving and insipid, as such tours sometimes are, and after ½ hour or so, the three of us agreed to bag it.  We split up, each of us investigating the part of the museum we felt like exploring.

I’ve forgotten what I did for the next ½ hour, but I remember my daughter coming to find me and saying that we had to finish up in 15 minutes or so, because we had to move on to the next San Francisco sight we wanted to see.  So I began to move a little faster.  Suddenly, as I wandered through the museum, I found myself in a huge high-ceilinged room in which a number of demonstrations were going on.  There was an artist painting what might have been a mandala of some kind; there were crayons and paper for little kids to do art projects, and there was also a TV, with a good number of couches arranged in front of it.  Showing on the TV was a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony – monks with fancy headgear singing a single low note, while making slow gestures with their hands.  [demonstrate]  It was beautiful in an exotic way; I sat on a couch – there was only one other couple sitting and watching in the vast room.  I spent a few minutes watching and listening.  My eyes gravitated to the architecturally interesting ceiling, and I tried to relax – always hard for me to do on vacations.  Then I noticed that on a little card below the TV it said that we were watching a 72 minute tape loop.  I glanced at my watch, decided that I’d had enough, and I rose to go.  As I passed by the couch containing the now sole remaining person watching the TV, the fellow looked up at me and said: “Not staying for Mussaf??”

I laughed out loud.  I was reminded why I like to wear a kippah in public – all sorts of interesting and unexpected things happen to you.  Whenever I retell this story, I get good laughs.  However, I’ve also come to see something deeper in this incident; I’ve learned something I’d like to share with you.

I began thinking – why is it that I’m always in a hurry?  Why do I have trouble relaxing, even on vacation?  Why am I always pressing on to the next thing; why do I judge the succes of my days by how much I accomplished, instead of, say, what kind of person I was?  I understand that sometimes on a vacation you do have to hurry – you’ve spent money flying to a spot and you want to see as much as possible – but I am always in a hurry.  What kind of life am I living?

We had a wonderful time in San Francisco.  A few weeks later, after we got back to DC, we spent a week with my wife’s sisters and their families at the beach, in Rhode Island.  Again, despite the lovely locale and the good company, I found myself very tense, with the tension stomach-ache I usually only get during a busy time at work.   For reasons I can’t now recall, but perhaps related to the incident in the Art Museum, I decided to try meditating before my davenning each morning.  At the beach, there’s plenty of time for such extravances.  Fifteen minutes of meditating, followed by twenty of davenning – I could get it all done before the rest of the house was even up out of bed.

And so I did.  The results were amazing.  I don’t understand how meditating works – why trying to clear my mind and focus just on my breathing for a short while should have any effect on the rest of  my day.  But I clearly felt much better, much calmer.  I continued meditating before davenning when we got back to Washington, and I continue it now; now I do 20 minutes before davenning.  I get no more done during the day than I used to – actually I suppose I get 20 minutes less done than I used to – but it doesn’t seem to bother me.  For the first time in a long while, I find myself hurrying less.

But enough about me.  Since I’ve confessed to being a recovering hurrier, I feel entitled to share some more general observations about the constant rush we find ourselves in nowadays.  I’ll venture I’m not the only one in the room who has a hurrying problem.  Perhaps I can be of some assistance to you.

I’d like to begin with what you may think is a small point: the word “yes”.  It’s a lovely word, “yes”.  It signals agreement between two people.  What could be nicer than that?  What concerns me is that in our hurried world, we’ve lost this beautiful word.  First, we shortened it to “yeah”.  Not such a big issue, I suppose, but now things have gotten worse.  Nowadays, it’s no longer a generous, calm assent – rather: it feels like a machine gun: nowadays we signal our assent by saying “yeah-yeah-yeah”.  It takes just as long to say as the old “yes” did, so “yeah-yeah-yeah” saves no time.  We’ve adopted it because it reflects our mood, our mood of which we are, in some weird way, proud: we’re hurried – we have no time for a calm, thankful “yes”.

Here’s another instance of hurrying, maybe a little more serious: penmanship.  By penmanship, I don’t mean fancy, flowery lettering with all the flourishes – like the signatures on our Declaration or Independence.  I mean just simple, clear, writing.  This is uncommon, nowadays, I find.  I have friends who have taken the trouble to acquire the most strikingly elegant fountain pens, but whose writing is still completely illegible.    They’ve got the time to earn the money to by the fountain pen; they are unwilling to take the time to use it in the old, slow, careful, elegant way.

You probably don’t know that I actually teach penmanship.  Sort of.  As part of the curriculum for  my 7th grade class in Hebrew school, I teach the kids Hebrew calligraphy.  In past years, I’ve always used brushes and ink – it was messy, but it was fun, and it was even somewhat successful.  There’s something almost hypnotic, the way a calligraphy brush lays down that paint on the paper.  And even a beginner can make a credible resh with only a little practice.  Learning to make a good aleph takes a lot longer.  Anyway, this past year, I decided to enter the 21st century, and I replaced the brushes.  Truth be told, I hadn’t taken the time to treat the brushes carefully, and they had kind of fallen apart after a number of years of use.   Instead of buying new brushes, I bought markers with a flat tip just like the nib of a calligraphy pen.  I tested these markers in the art store, and found I could make perfectly good Hebrew letters with them.  The main difference: they were cheaper and neater than the brushes.

As it turned out, the markers didn’t work out so well in class.  Calligraphy is a slow process, especially for a beginner.  Actually, it’s not fast even for an expert – if you’ve ever seen a sofer at work on a Torah, you know the painstaking care a scribe takes with each stroke of each letter.  I discovered in class this year that it’s a lot easier to hurry with a marker than it is to hurry with brush and ink.  My students, writing with the markers, an implement very like what they were used to, wrote at the speed they were used to.  I couldn’t slow them down.  The results, while not a failure, were not what they could have been.  This year I’m going back to brushes and ink.  The initial investment is higher, to be sure, but over the long term I’ll save money.  What I won’t save is time.  Ideally, the students will spend more time, as they learn to create, slowly, lovingly, the bold strokes upon which our tradition is based.

Good things take time.  We all know that, of course – but our society, moving as it does at warp speed, our society can be a bad influence on us.  Good things take time.  Unlike the bad.  Bad stuff can happen in an instant.   A heart attack, a car crash; a single nasty word, blurted out in a moment of blind anger, can poison a relationship for years.  A rash act, done without thought, can be disastrous.

In this vein, I’m reminded of today’s Torah portion.  Thank God, Abraham had three days to think over his rash act.  Abraham didn’t just up and sacrifice Isaac the minute he thought he heard God’s voice.  Thank God he didn’t have a handgun in his tent.  Abraham took his time.  Between the instruction and the act, Abraham took three days to travel.  Now the traditional explanation (Tanhuma Vayera 22) of why it took Abraham three days to find the mountain for sacrificing Isaac is that this showed the world how devoted Abraham was to God.  The sacrifice of Isaac was not to be a rash act, but rather a carefully premeditated act, done despite three days chance to back out.  Not that Abraham was procrastinating, oh no  – he woke up early in the morning, he got the wood all ready well before he was going to need it – Abraham was energetic about his preparation.  He just wasn’t in a hurry.  An essential  part of preparation is leaving time to think.  The three days journey provided Abraham time to show the world his constancy before God, even in the face of a horrific command.  So the traditional interpretation.

Now we moderns, some of us, anyway, are a little less sure that Abraham should have been so attentive to the voice commanding him to sacrifice his child.  But we could understand the three days journey similarly.  The three days that Abraham took to think about the sacrifice he was planning to do: those three days of contemplation may have been essential for Abraham.  If Abraham had not spent three days thinking, he might not have been open to the voice from heaven, telling him “Spare the child!”   The fact that Abraham took it slow – that may have influenced the outcome for good.  It may have prevented Isaac’s sacrifice.  The time to think may have allowed Abraham the space to confront his doubts, so that when the voice from heaven finally came and confirmed those doubts, ordering the child to be spared, Abraham could listen.

For Abraham, there was a lot more at stake than just good penmanship.  For us too, I will argue that there is more at at stake than you may realize.  Our hurried lives limit us in crucial ways.  Our children suffer, we suffer, our elderly suffer, when our lives include no time for contemplation.  When there is no spare time, when so many adults and children are programmed down to the minute, we lose much of the joy of life, and we make rushed decisions.

Among my resolutions for this year, I’ve decided to give myself a little lunch break during the day.  A lunch in a relaxed atmosphere, on real plates, with real silverware.  With whatever good book I’m reading at the moment.  An entire half hour.  It’s crazy self-indulgence, I know.  While we were in San Francisco, in Chinatown, I took my first steps in this direction, and bought myself a nice bowl.  I was sick of eating lunch out of tupperware!  Here’s my new bowl.  [show it]  I love the heft of the pottery, the design in the glaze, the sense that I might eat out of this bowl for years.  This bowl grounds me, it gives me a sense of relative permanence in our throw-away world.

Speaking of throw-away, I’ve noticed a correlation between the amount of lip-service we Americans give to the environmental concerns, on the one hand, and the amount of trash we produce on the other.  Paper plates, plastic silverware, plastic tablecloths induce no more guilt in us than the amount of gasoline we consume driving frenetically hither and yon.  Apparently, the environment is a bigger concern than ever, but we are unwilling to inconvenience ourselves - we are unwilling even to take the time to wash a few dishes, if that cuts into the limited time of our busy lives.  Hurried people have no time to live in synch with nature.

But there is other, even more serious fallout from our modern tendency to save time and get things done.  When we have scheduled every spare moment of our lives, what happens when our loved ones need us?  What happens during a crisis, or even during a long period of illness?  Who will have the vast amounts of time needed to care?

Now, maybe you think that you can pay for good care – be it nursing care, or hospital care, or child care.  And you may well be able to.  However, when it comes to caring for someone housed in an institution – nursing home, assisted living facilitly, rehab center, hospital - increasingly, those housed in institutions are not being cared for well.  They need at the very least, an advocate.

In TI’s eldercare support group, we’ve been bemoaning this issue.  Patients in a hospital increasingly feel that no-one is really in charge of their care – some doctors rarely visit or return phone calls, nurses are also wildly overworked.  If the patient doesn’t have an advocate camped out in their hospital room much of the time, the care may be at best uncoordinated, and at worst, dangerous.

But who is going to be that advocate?  It used to be that our lives were more flexible.  Women especially worked not outside the home, but rather for their families – they were busy, but they had some choice in exactly how they spent their time.  They could spend months, even years focussing their time on helping a sick relative.  Nowadays, we have much less flexibility – we value work that is paid, and we have more money to spend, but we don’t have the time to do the human work of caring for our family.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not asking women to back out of the paid work force. I’m only describing modern life.  I have no solution to the societal problem I’m outlining here.  Given the price of housing in this neighborhood, and most neighborhoods around here, the vast majority of families are going to be forced into working too many hours at their jobs.  And yet, even so, maybe it is just possible that both men and women could be working at least a little less, leaving more time for caring for others.

Let’s be reasonable: Do you think you can pay a stranger to take care of your loved one with the same care that you would lavish on your loved one?   Sometimes you can: there are caregivers out there with a huge ability to love.  More likely, though, you’ll have to settle for someone who does a decent job.  And increasingly, even a decent job isn’t so easy to find.

Let me take an extreme case – schizophrenia.  I was surprised to learn from an article in the Washington Post Magazine section this year, that the poor country of India does a better job treating schizophrenia than the United States.  If you measure outcomes over time - what percentage of  schizophrenics are able to function in society with some degree of independence – India does way better than us.

Now this article was not simplistic.  It showed that the way India did better was because its women stayed at home and cared for the sick.  A large part of the article was devoted to a woman forced into an arranged marriage with a schizophrenic.  As I recall, this woman was then later forced to house her husband’s brother as well, also a schizophrenic.  These men did well in her care, but this poor woman who spent her life helping them is now an activist against the kind of life she was forced to lead.  She doesn’t think women should be forced into arranged marriages with schizophrenics.

Another difference between the US and India is that employment in India, especially in rural areas, is a more informal kind of thing than it is here in America.  Make-work jobs are routinely found for the mentally ill among relatives and neighbors.  In short, schizophrenics are incorporated in the daily life of their family and their small community, despite the fact that they are often largely, or completely incapacitated.

I don’t see how India’s model could serve as any kind of simple blueprint for changes in our culture.  But I do think it important to note that, with all our technological advances, and with all the options we can provide for career satisfaction – we have lost important things.  The very choices we have to opt for individual satisfaction affect those who cannot live independently, who cannot take advantage of all the options out there.  Yes, we have gained much that is good in our society – I don’t for a second belittle the importance of individual satisfaction.  But the price we’ve had to pay, the guilt we feel when we try to fit in caring for our families into our busy lives – it’s a very high price.  And it’s not clear to me how we can make things better.

Part of the problem today is that, in our hurried, capitalist society,  we don’t value “non-productive”, i.e. non-paying work.  We’ve adopted a short-sighted business model, and applied it in areas of life in which increasing productivity is inappropriate.  I’m not, of course, the first person to notice and comment on this trend.  But I have some observations from my own work and experience that may be new to you. 

I’m thinking about study.   Learning new things.  Learning, in our world, isn’t happening as much as it should.  But then why should it – study is not immediately productive.

Here’s an unusual, but I think instructive example.  In my line of work, I get to watch more brides walking down the aisle than most people.  Usually, the bride picks the music to which she’d like to walk down the aisle.  Unfortunately, her special music is usually a piece with which the band is not familiar.  The band knows the music it knows – often quite well.  Always, quite loud.  But the quiet bride-walking-down-the-aisle music, they often have to learn.  Here’s the bad news:  the band will not learn this music.  If you’re lucky, they may glance at the music during the ketubah signing, as they’re setting up.  But they won’t learn it.  The bride will be beautiful, and fortunately for the band, all attention will be on her, but the lovely moment – her walk down the aisle – will be blemished by the band’s stumbling and hitting one wrong note after another.

Admittedly, it’s not a huge deal.  Maybe it’s just me that notices – my conservatory trained ear, combined with the fact that, unlike the invited guests, I’m often not so overwhelmed at the appearance of the bride.  But there are other issues about which learning is crucial.

Take the medical profession.  We train our doctors well, here in America.  In fact, people come from all over the world to train in our medical schools.  But once doctors graduate from school, how many of them keep on studying?  Here’s a quote from the website of the Cancer Research and Prevention foundation:

A recent survey showed that most doctors think it's effective for healthy people to have annual physical examinations. Most of the doctors surveyed were unaware that current federal government guidelines do not recommend annual exams for healthy adults with no symptoms. The report published in the Archives of Internal Medicine says that according to the guidelines, blanket testing is not recommended because it does not identify the things that doctors want to identify, and some results could trigger a chain reaction of more unnecessary testing. Still, 65 percent of doctors surveyed maintained that annual physicals are necessary. (Source cited as The New York Times.)

Over the last year, I’ve read similar stories about a number of controversies in the medical world.  Not that I’m qualified to weigh in on the controversies themselves – the efficacy of back surgery for instance, or the usefulness of the PSA test, or the advisablity of taking cholesterol-lowering drugs – I’ll leave those discussions to the experts.  What strikes me is the fact that many doctors seem unaware of the controversies.  Aren’t they learning, studying?  You only have to pick up the Washington Posts’s Health section to know about these controversies.

But there’s no reason to pick on doctors.  Clergy don’t study either.  And when we don’t study, we have nothing new to say.  The percentage of clergy who get their sermons off the internet is, I’m quite sure, much higher than the percentage of doctor’s who don’t study.  Like almost everyone else in our society, we clergy see ourselves as too busy for non-productive work like learning.

There is something positively meditative about learning, it seems to me.  As with meditation, you never know what you’re going to come away with, or when it will help you.  Often it’s only days, or years later that something you’ve read pops into your mind, sometimes with surprising force.  Ah, study.  You sit down, you open you mind, you concentrate on the moment at hand, you put the rest of your life on hold for awhile – you see what comes up.  Learning is a deepening, a process of discovery that cannot be hurried.  I don’t think real repentance is possible without learning, without an openness to something new.

The list of important, non-productive, and thus neglected work is lengthy.  Here’s an example close to home.  Every two years here at TI, we work very hard to find a new President of the congregation.  There is one crucial qualification we look for: someone with the time to do the job.  I mean no offense to our current president, who in fact has many qualifications for the role, and in fact is doing an excellent job as President.  I just note that finding someone with a job flexible enough to allow them to take the time to help lead our community has become almost impossible.  Everyone is overscheduled nowadays.  It’s not that TI’ers don’t care about TI – in fact I find just the opposite to be true, we take a lot of well-deserved pride in our community.  It’s just that we don’t always have the time in our lives to put that care into action.

Don’t we get furious at corporations for doing the same thing to their workers, forcing their workforce to an impossible schedule to increase productivity.  We’re justifiably angry at companies who have no loyalty to longtime workers, and will at the drop of a hat move the whole operation to another state or another country if productivity can be increased.  But we do just the same things to ourselves!  We insist that we be constantly productive, and everything that stands in the way – rest, reflection, study, care – all that is expendable.  We say to ourselves: “Let’s see – I’ve got five minutes – what errand can I squeeze in here?”  - instead of what a good boss would say to a productive worker finished with a task: “Hey Joe, take five.”

How do we combat these societal trends?  How do we avoid being distracted from important, human, holy work?  We have to pick and choose – we may even have to stop doing what everybody else expects us to do, and concentrate our powers more carefully.  This was a good part of the secret of Lance Armstrong’s success as a bicycle racer.  Lance realized that he didn’t have to race all the races everyone else did.  He focused on one race only, the big one, the only one that ultimately mattered to him: the Tour De France.  Other racers were outraged, as were some of their fans – the other pros were all exhausting themselves during a long season of many races, and Lance was remaining fresh for the Tour.  How was that fair?

In retrospect, Lance’s plan seems obvious.  But in the closed, conservative world of bike racing, change is rarely welcomed.  But then again, change comes easy for noone.  Society has certain expectations, and we’re afraid, or we don’t even think to challenge them.  We do what everyone else is doing.  And we exhaust ourselves in the process.

I had a lovely vacation in San Francisco.  And even if I hadn’t been in a hurry to “finish” the Asian Art Museum and get on to the next sight, I wouldn’t have spent much time watching the Tibetan Monks worship.  But the idea of those monks meditating for hours on end – that has stayed with me.  I’m no JUBU, but the idea of clearing out blocks of time where I can remain open to the mitzvah, or to the text that calls me – that sounds like a good plan or the coming year.

What I don’t want for the coming year – the superficiality that comes with relentless, busyness.  I don’t want the harried rush from one task to another, the multitasking, the feeling that I’ve done nothing well, that I haven’t lived deeply, that I haven’t learned, or thought, or felt.  I pray that I will have the strength and courage to buck the societal trends,  that I will be able to focus on the non-productive elements of life, that I will indulge in the wasteful caring for myself and others.

And this is my prayer for you, as well.  May yours be a year filled with caring.  May you have the pluck to leave unfinished many productive tasks.  And may you enjoy your life unhurriedly, surrounded by friends and family who care for you.

That would be a  real Shanah Tova!