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Kol Nidre 5784     September 24, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Our Greeting Tonight is Tzom Kal; May you have an easy fast.

How long did you prepare to be here this evening? You had to prepare the pre-fast dinner of course, although it should have been a simple healthy meal, not too spicy or elaborate. After all, we will not be eating again for 25 hours so dinner had to be nutritious and filling. But besides that, how long ago did you plan on what you wanted to wear for tonight? How long ago did you put this service into your calendar so you would not forget it? How long ago did you remind friends and family that you were going to be at services tonight so they wouldn’t call or text you with the latest news or gossip?

What are your plans for tomorrow night? Where will you be for the BreakFast? How long ago did you plan the menu or what you would bring to the home where you were invited?

We can take this out even further. What are your plans for the new year? Are you considering big changes like a new job or a new home? Will this be the year for a major remodeling project or major repairs on your home? Are you planning for a wedding in the new year, or expecting a baby, your own or a grandchild? Maybe the new year will not be pleasant at all. Perhaps we already know someone who is dying or divorcing or facing serious surgery. The future is not aways so pretty.

There are people who convince themselves that they can live in the future. In the book, “Back to Sanity” the author psychologist Steve Taylor noticed that when the Rosetta Stone was on exhibit in the British Museum, the visitors were not really looking at this important part of Egyptian Archeology, they were taking pictures and video of the stone to look at later. Instead of experiencing being in the presence of an important discovery, they were recording it to view it later, sometime in the future. Let me ask everyone here, how often do we go back and view those photographs later on?

Oliver Burkeman wrote a book called “4000 Weeks, Time Management for Mortals.” In his book he writes, “to focus exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are – with the result that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the “real” value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached, and never will. … This future focused attitude often takes the form of what I once heard described as the “when-I-finally” mind, as in: When I finally get my workload under control/get my candidate elected/find the right romantic partner/sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.”

In the musical “Annie” the orphan girl can sing about tomorrow, that the sun will come out and you can bet your bottom dollar there will be sun, that things will always be better tomorrow. I guess that works when one has hit the bottom of life, but tomorrow is not a place where we need to live.

Burkeman writes: “it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you long to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.” … But ultimately it backfires, it wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives. And it makes it all but impossible to experience “deep time,” that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead.”

We see the future as the place where everything will someday be wonderful. But why is it that countries that are not anywhere as successful as the United States often outrank our country in the indicators of happiness. There is an old parable about a vacationing businessman who takes a vacation in Mexico, and he strikes up a conversation with a Mexican fisherman who tells the businessman that he works only a few hours per day, and he spends the rest of his time drinking with his friends, playing music, and enjoying the sun. Appalled by the fisherman’s approach to time management, the businessman offers him some unsolicited advice. He explains that if the fisherman worked harder, he could turn a profit in his work and invest those profits in a bigger fleet of boats. He could then pay other people to do the fishing, he could make millions and then retire early. The fisherman asks, “Then what would I do?” The businessman replies, “Then you could spend your days drinking with friends, playing music and enjoying the sun.”

It kind of stretches the proverb, “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can get done today” into a very different configuration. Why put off enjoying life when you can enjoy today?”

It is very easy to get entangled in time, to treat life as if we have all the time in the world, because we have clocks to measure for us how much time is passing. Science fiction writers are always talking about going forward or backwards in time. But there is no such thing as time. (I know that this sounds odd, but it’s true!) A foot or a meter is just a made-up unit of measure. We need to measure things accurately, so we standardize our units of measure. But the measure itself is just a creation of human ingenuity. It is how we can build things that come out level and the corners straight.

Time is a similar made-up measure. A Day is the time it takes for this one planet to turn on its axis a full rotation. A year is the time it takes for this one planet to go around the sun. There are billions of suns in our galaxy, and some have planets around them, but it will be only a very spectacular coincidence if that planet goes around it’s sun in 365.25 days. The minutes and hours we created are exceptionally good at coordinating train schedules and identifying a location on our planet. Time could only exist with the invention of clocks to “measure time;” a clock is only a yardstick of time.

Clocks are a rather modern invention. Jewish law has certain prayers that must be said at certain times of the day. Since they did not have clocks, the sages divided the hours of daylight into 12 equal parts and then did the same to the night. There were always 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. Thus, an hour in the summer would be quite a bit longer than an hour in the winter. In ancient times, most people got up with the sun and achieved all that they could do until the sun went down and the darkness settled in. There were no train or plane schedules; there were no clocks to punch in and out. People in the ancient world worked a bit, played a bit, made some money, and spent some money. They could never understand a word like “productivity.” Of course, they believed in an Afterlife where all their mistakes could be corrected with all the time in the world.

Mr. Burkeman, in his book, explains how we in the modern age relate to time. He writes, “We choose to treat time in this self-defeatingly instrumental way, and we do so because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives. As long a as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future – that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems – you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading toward some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived. Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now – that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future and throw yourself into life now.”

This evening begins a 25-hour day that is most unusual. Tonight, we take our seats with the knowledge that we have nothing better to do for the day. Today we will not worry about the week ahead, the month ahead, or the year ahead. All of that will mean nothing if we can’t find forgiveness on this Yom Kippur. If we are serious when we say that on “Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die” then we know that our future will depend on what will happen while we are here. Can we sit here and say the words of the prayers, “Ashamnu - We have Sinned” and “Al Het – for the sins we have committed before you” and can we say them as if we mean them? How can we not mean them if our very lives depend on how serious we are when we pray? Talk about motivation!!

But does Yom Kippur really motivate us to make changes in our life? When we think about it, how can it not help us grow and be better, kinder, more compassionate human beings?

 One of the problems that derail our good intentions is the constant distractions that try to draw our attention away. Mary Oliver, the writer and poet, notes that distraction is not always something outside of ourselves. Sometimes we create our own distractions. She writes, “This is the ultimate interrupter – the self within the self that whistles and pounds upon the door panels, promising an easier life if only you’d redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever’s unfolding one browser tab away.” The author Gregg Krech sees the same challenge when he writes, “One of the puzzling lessons I have learned is that, more often than not, I do not feel like doing most of the things that need doing. I’m not just speaking about cleaning the toilet bowl or doing my tax returns. I’m referring to those things I genuinely desire to accomplish.”

Oliver Burkeman notes the reason this kind of distraction works is because we are uncomfortable with the task we are trying to perform. We try to focus on something we think is important, but that task brings into focus our very human limits. We want to do that task because of its value, but we let ourselves get distracted because we are afraid that completing the task may be beyond our capacity. We are so afraid to begin, because we are facing the very terrifying idea that we may not be able to complete it.

Another reason we often don’t remain focused on the important things in life is because staying focused and completing tasks forces us to make choices. For some reason making choices is one of the hardest things we do today. For many of us here this evening, we chose to be here but right about now we are thinking of all the other places we could have chosen to be. Places that could be fun. Places with music and dancing. Places with alcoholic beverages. Or we could have chosen to stay home and go to bed early. Those choices sound better and better even as this sermon reminds us that there is important, life-changing work to do. Mr. Burkeman, in his book cuts right to heart about why choosing is so hard. He writes, “Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default – or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all. … And it means standing firm in the face of FOMO the ‘fear of missing out’ because you come to realize that missing out on something – indeed, on almost everything – is basically guaranteed. Which isn’t actually a problem anyway, it turns out, because ‘missing out’ is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place. Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t – and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.”

Sacrifice, now we are using religious terminology. Giving up something to get a greater reward. We are here to find our way back to a good and proper path in life. A path where what we accomplish makes ourselves better. We may be finite creatures, but the good that we do can live long after we are gone. The choices we make can determine, if we don’t let ourselves get distracted, how the world can be better. But how can we, one small human being in a vast universe, make a difference in this world? It is all in our choices, according to Burkeman; is not in what we choose to do with our time, but who we choose to help us. Mr. Burkeman writes, “Moreover, most of us seek a specifically individualistic kind of mastery over time – our culture’s ideal is that you alone should control your schedule, doing whatever you prefer, whenever you want – because it’s scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting, to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships.

There is a story of spouses who had a running quarrel in their house. The husband almost always forgot to put the cover back on the tube of toothpaste and this annoyed his wife to no end. I know, it is not the biggest argument a couple can have and it certainly did not do any damage to their marriage, it was just something annoying between the two of them. One day the husband decided to change his stance it is really a small thing to do and it would make his wife happy, so he started remembering to put the cap back on the toothpaste. He did it one day, and the wife did not notice. He did it for a second day, no response. On the third day his wife finally came up to him and asked, “Honey, why have you stopped brushing your teeth?”

Sacrifice does not mean pointing out to everyone what you are giving up. Sacrifice means doing something that will help everyone, and that often means we can’t make secret choices. Our choices change our relationships with others. We do not exist in a vacuum. Lee Hendler, in her book, “The Day Mom Got Religion” chronicles her journey, over a couple of years, to connect more deeply to prayer. She began to attend Shabbat Services more and more often. Her husband and children had other places to be, but she informed them that Saturday would now be Shabbat for her, and she would be in synagogue. Everyone was okay with the decision until, one Shabbat, she decided that the time had come to pray with her head covered. She chose a very appropriate hat to wear to Shul. Suddenly everyone in the house noticed. For her family, this was now not just a choice of what to do on a Saturday morning. They saw that hat as a symbol of her commitment to her Judaism. This was a choice that would soon affect them. Was she thinking about making the house Kosher? Was she thinking about changing the way the entire family would spend Saturday afternoons? Going to synagogue was one thing, but the hat symbolized a whole new level of observance, and the family suddenly took notice. How many of us here have announced to our family that we will be spending all of Yom Kippur in shul? How many of us will sacrifice one day to focus on improving our life? How many of us will choose Yom Kippur over the many other choices and distractions that are pulling at us right at this moment?

The decisions we make do have an effect on the future. What we do in the present does have consequences that we need to be aware of. Somethings we do in the present are done exactly for reasons that we hope will affect our future. We save money for retirement. We buy groceries so we will be able to prepare future meals. There are times we must plane for our future. But for all too many of us, we over plan for a future that is not always a sure bet.

We need to set goals for each day and for our lives if we are to get anything meaningfully done. That all to often,  turns out to be a trap and not an advantage. Oliver Burkeman takes explains this “planning trap”, He writes:  “The trouble with being so emotionally invested in planning for the future, though, is that while it may occasionally prevent a catastrophe, the rest of the time it tends to exacerbate the very anxiety it was supposed to allay. … Really, no matter how far ahead you plan, you never get to relax in the certainty that everything’s going to go the way you’d like. Instead, the frontier of your uncertainty just gets pushed further and further toward the horizon. And here he cuts to the very heart of Jewish life, “Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, and then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine … But the struggle for control over the future is a stark example of our refusal to acknowledge our built-in limitation when it comes to time, because it’s a fight the worrier obviously won’t win. You can never be truly certain about the future. And so, your reach will always exceed your grasp.”

A Jewish double play: I get to make everyone feel guilty about worrying!

It is dark enough outside right now that I don’t want everyone to leave feeling darker about their lives. It has been really hard to dispel myths about a future that does not exist without leaving us feeling depressed and hopeless. And maybe, giving up on hope is the point of our prayers today. This day is not about hope that we will have a good year. It is not about hope that God will forgive us. Kol Nidre is not about hope for a better life, one where we all lose weight, gain friends, and make lots of money. That kind of hope we do need to give up. But that may not be a bad thing at all. Burkeman concludes his book saying, “to give up hope, by contrast, is to reinhabit the power that you actually have. At that point … we no longer have hope at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. …  When we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free – truly free – to honestly start working to resolve it.”

I am not certain the sun will come out tomorrow. As I plan this sermon in August, there is a hurricane battering Florida and they have no idea what tomorrow will bring. I have no idea as I write this what will be happening in Manchester, in Connecticut, or even in the world on Kol Nidre night. Although if something REALLY important would have happened between when I wrote this sermon and Kol Nidre, you will not be hearing this sermon; I will have to write something entirely different.

What I do know is we have this 25-hour day in front of us. How we will use it is for us to decide. What choices will we make? What sacrifices will we make? What are we prepared to do now that will change the future for the better? Kol Nidre is about the vows we are prepared to make but oddly, it informs us that we are released from those vows even before we make them. This night is not about any vow we might make, this night is about not vowing that we will change tomorrow. It is about what we are prepared to do right now, in this moment, to help shape the future we want.

Will we create that future? Who knows? There are thousands of things that could happen that could change everything. All I know is that if we have learned anything in our lives so far, we know that whatever the future may bring, our past experiences have prepared us to face it so we are sure we can handle whatever may come. We may not know everything, but if we have learned the lessons of our past, those lessons will serve us well when we encounter whatever the future will bring.

May God give us the wisdom today to face our future with faith, as we say …. Amen and Gemar Tov.


Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784