All We Have is Now
RH PM 5774 2013
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova – again, its wonderful to see all of you as we usher in this New Year together. Tonight, our Jewish tradition asks of us to reflect on our past – a task not easy in today’s world.
Our liturgy, the words in our Machzor, our High Holy Day prayerbook, offer us guidance. They ask:
At what did we aim?
How did we stumble?
What did we take?
What did we give?
To what were we blind?
This year, every one of us has seen both the blessings and the difficulties of our day. We might ask ourselves on this sacred night:
What will be different for us in the New Year – different not because the year will change, but because we will?
That is the question for this holy day. It is perhaps the question for all days.
So often our days are spent waiting. We wait for the right moment to act, to change, to improve ourselves. When we graduate or retire, we say. When we lose some weight or have more money set aside. Perhaps we’re waiting for the right time or a better time, or the perfect time, even. But still, we wait.
Commenting on this all too human behavior,
the great poet and philosopher Dr. Seuss wrote:
The Waiting Place...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go…
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite…
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.
This year has been a year filled with waiting. In the aftermath of Sandy, so many of us were sitting in the dark or cold waiting for the power to return. And then we waited for our beaches and businesses and even homes to be rebuilt. Many are still waiting for that. As we reeled at the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School, we waited to see if Congress would pass gun-safety legislation to protect us. We are still waiting for that. After the bombings in Boston at the Marathon, we waited to learn who had been injured and, with rapt attention to the media, we waited to find out who had committed that atrocity.
There have been hurricanes and other natural disasters that made us wait. And there are military coups and untold instances of political unrest that make so many wait for better days.
And while standing in lines for a train or our food, or waiting on hold on our phones, waiting to hear some good news from a school, an expectant mother or even our doctor, we are aware – even as our minds are focused on the challenges right around us or within our sphere of interest – we are aware, especially on this night of Rosh Hashanah, that life is precious.
And tomorrow is uncertain.
But with all that we need to accomplish in the short time we are given, I would suggest that The Waiting Place is no place to be in this New Year.
Instead of simply waiting, we might be better off getting on with the business of living.
The Latin poet Horace, in the first century before the common era, admonishes us: Carpe Diem, seize the day. Enough with waiting, he says. “…Be wise, be truthful, … and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have already fled. Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”
Horace lived during the same period that the great rabbi Hillel did. Hillel’s words also reflect the urgency of living for today rather than waiting until some better time. “If I am not for myself,” he asked, “who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Hillel also lived in uncertain times. Uncertain about the future not only for himself, but for all of Judaism. His message was one of urgency: Today is the day to act. No more waiting.
“Do not say you will study when you have time,” he cautioned. “Perhaps you will not have that time.” His admonition rings true not only for study, but for any endeavor we might hope one day to achieve.
Some of you might be familiar with the music group The Flaming Lips. Songwriters Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd set these ideas to song in recent years.
All we have is now /
All we've ever had was now /
All we have is now /
All we'll ever have is now.
And so, now, on this night of Rosh Hashanah, as we enter a new year and consider what awaits us in the year ahead, I want to share with you a story:
When the Chassidic master, Yitzhak Yaakov, the Seer of Lublin died, his disciples divided his worldly goods—one took his books, another his notes, still another his study desk, one his tallit, one his kiddush cup. When all his possessions were divided among his disciples, one devotee had neither asked for nor received anything. He was given the rebbe’s clock. But on the way home, he stopped at an inn but did not have sufficient funds to pay for his meal and lodging; he offered the clock in payment and the inn keeper placed the rebbe’s clock in one of the rooms.
A year later, another of the rebbe’s disciples stayed at the same inn but had great difficulty sleeping. All night long he paced back and forth and, when asked by the innkeeper the next morning why he had been unable to sleep, the disciple asked, “Where did you get that clock?” The innkeeper related the story of the other follower who gave it to him in return for lodging and food.
The disciple’s eyes widened and with great excitement he explained to the innkeeper that the clock had belonged to the Seer of Lublin, a learned and compassionate man.
“His clock,” he said, “was a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past—from where we’ve come. This clock ticks toward the future—towards redemption. Every time I tried to go to sleep, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before the future can arrive and redemption be realized.”
There is much to do before redemption will come, before we can say we have borne our part in the incremental betterment of our world and before we can say we are acting now to make our own lives an those of our loved ones better.
The ticking of the clock pushes us to re-consecrate our lives to tasks unfulfilled and mitzvot neglected.
We mean to live up to our resolve; we mean to correct our failings; we mean to recommit to the righteous deeds that are our sacred obligations: sh’lom bayit— domestic tranquility, nurturing a peaceful home; kehilah—connectedness to a caring community; hach’nasat orchim—hospitality to strangers; tzedakah—righteous giving; Talmud Torah—Jewish learning; bikur holim—visiting the sick; g’milut hasidim—acts of kindness; chesed—benevolent goodness; tikkun olam—perfecting a broken world.
And perhaps we plan to do all those things and more. But time works against us; it is not on our side.
And though we cannot hold back time, we can examine our deeds, we can stop delaying the changes we need to make for the New Year, and we can begin by making them now.
The psalmist provides us with the maxim that can guide our path into this New Year: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
So lets get busy. No more waiting. We each have a lot of work to do.
And all we have is now.