Wishing you a shana tova u’metukah! A happy and sweet new year! I hope wherever you were it was a peaceful and meaningful holiday! At our Oraynu congregation (www.oraynu.org) service yesterday, I did a commentary on the challenging story of the akedah – the binding of Isaac. I then spoke about the need for presence, balance, mindfulness, and rest. Part of my commentary is here:
In the story, twice when called by God, Abraham answers “hineni,” “Here I am.” This occurs at the beginning of the story as God is about to command him to sacrifice Isaac, and also just before God stays his hand. The repetition signifies the importance of the phrase; the expression of Abraham’s devotion. Presence is a gift we give one another that should not be taken lightly. This story as part of Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us to be present in our own reflections as we take account of our own souls and lives in the pursuit of our own goodness. It reminds us that the gift of presence we offer our loved ones and our community is the most precious gift of all. In times of distress, or loneliness, or pain, what better solace is there than to feel someone is there for us? What more important act, than to say and demonstrate to those in our lives: “I am here.” Most read the Akedah as a call to faith. But I read it as a call to presence: the devotion to self and community that comes out of active, willing, committed, and purposeful presence.
We live in an age where there is a lot of talk of mindfulness, of living in the present moment. And yet we simultaneously live with the expectations of being able to multitask, of being constantly accessible via our various devices, and of being able to manage our many roles seamlessly. I am not saying I’m nostalgic for a time when we were expected to have one role only – men as breadwinners, women as homemakers – but I do think that life used to move at a slower pace, which allowed us to be more mindful, more present, and more available for one another. Think of the times over the past year when someone we knew and care about was sick, was sad, was struggling. Were we able to be fully there for them? Or were we too busy?
If we find we are too busy to fulfill our priorities, we are not alone. We are as a society over-worked, over-committed, and over-whelmed. Those devices that I mentioned that are meant to make our lives easier, often make us feel that we can never take a break. They are there to enable us to be “connected,” and yet I think there has never been a time in history when people feel less connected to their families and communities than we do today.
This year is 5775 – and the palendromic quality of that number suggests to me an opportunity for balance. This year in the Jewish cycle is also the shmita year – the year of the sabbatical when the Torah tells us to let the land lie fallow. The fields which give us food and sustenance, if overworked and overwrought, will stop producing. And we are the same. If we are overworked and overwhelmed then we will be unable to be fully available – fully present – to those we love. We too have a limit. And in this culture that measures goodness by productivity, it is good to remind ourselves that rest breeds productivity. Just like the harvest will be better if we rotate our crops and let the land rest, we will be better if we have a chance to rest and recuperate as well.
The word shmita literally means release. As we take this day for contemplation, a good question to ask is what we can let go of. What if we released ourselves from the feeling that we weren’t doing or being enough? What would it look like to release ourselves from guilt? From fear? What past hurts can we forgive and let go of? What tension do we carry that could be released? The shmita occurs every seven years and provides us the opportunity, as does Rosh Hashanah each year, for renewal. Every shmita year, some believe, all contracts are to be voided and renewed. There was even a small group of early Jews who believed that the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, could only be valid for seven years. My husband and I have agreed to renew our vows every seven years in order to remind us that in order to maintain a strong connection, a marriage requires mindfulness, presence, and renewal.
Many of you know that I am a new mother. I am also your rabbi, a teacher, a wife, daughter and sister, and a friend. Like many of you, I play all of these roles and try to find a balance so that I can be present and available for all those who rely on me – my coworkers, my congregants, my students, and my loved ones. I am gratified that I get to do work I believe in, and that I have a family I adore. But, like many of you, striking the balance is hard, and the cost of having a full life is exhaustion. My goal is that presence of mind so that I can appreciate the small moments. Although I don’t love getting up for 4:00 a.m. feedings there is a beauty in the intimacy that comes when the world is dark and quiet and I’m alone with my daughter. Although I don’t love that my inbox seems perpetually full, it is wonderful when I am able to help someone out, or do work that I find impactful. This year, in our quest for presence and balance, let’s try to focus a little less on the “oy” and a little more on the joy.
This year, let’s let the words “shmita” – for release and “hineni” – for presence, resonate. Let’s offer one another presence – full and complete focus, when we keep company with our family and community. Let’s endeavour to be there for one another fully. And let’s endeavour to rest and to take care of ourselves in order to make that kind of mindful presence possible. Mostly, moving into 5775, I wish you a sense of balance, and a whole lot of joy. May this be a healthy, sweet, and wonderful year, full of abundance and happiness.