Rosh Hashanah 5775: Beni Wajnberg
On not taking time and space for granted: inviting sacredness into the world
Beni Wajnberg’s Sermon 5775/2014
A story is told of a little shtetl, a little village somewhere in Eastern Europe. So many Jews lived in such a small area that they built their houses really close to each other. One year, right at the beginning of Yom Kippur, everyone in the shtetl was praying together in the only synagogue of the area. Everyone had eaten plenty, and were reminiscing about what they ate. One person, Moishe, remembering his dinner, suddenly had a realization. “Oh no, I think I left my oven on!,” he said. He hurried back to his little home, and found that his house was on fire! He rushed to the synagogue to warn all of those present; after all, there was a risk that the strong winds of the early evening would spread the fire fairly quick. Scared, they all ran back, only to find that the whole village was burning. Moishe thought that he had time to warn the other ones.// He thought that the space between the houses would be enough to preempt an immediate spreading of the fire. Could he have tried to fight the fire in his own house, instead of going back and forth to the sanctuary?// Maybe – but now it was too late. He took it for granted that there was space in between the houses, and that the couple of minutes more that took him to warn the village would be enough time. He was wrong.
It is easy to take everything for granted. If we were to take a look at simple parts of our daily life, we would notice that we too take space and time forare all breathing – we all have time left in our lives. We also have beds, and roofs over our heads – we have our personal space, and we don’t reflect on how we should not take that as a given. We should not take anything as a given. Time and space are connected; we need both, because we live specific moments in a specific location. In our daily lives, we many times take one or the other for granted.
In the summer that I served as chaplain intern at the Los Angeles County hospital, I met a patient that taught me a powerful lesson on how I should re-evaluate the way that I take time for granted. It was the early hours of the morning; the sun had yet to rise. From the midst of my sleep, I woke up to a loud sound.// Beep-Beep-Beep.// My pager was going off. I trembled. It was only my third week working at the hospital. I could barely tell my way around yet. I knew my pager could go off; I was hoping it wouldn’t.// But it did.// I called the number on the screen, as I tried to recover from the abrupt awakening. Only twenty minutes later, I was at the Emergency Room to respond to the crisis. I could barely hold myself together. I was then 25 years old, and the patient was 17 years old, much younger than me. He was still conscious, but he was dying. He was in a terrible traffic accident, and the medical staff had given him one hour more of life; two if he was lucky. “Lucky,” I thought to myself. If he were lucky, there would be no accident. If he were lucky, he wouldn’t be there. At that moment, I knew how unlucky he was, how he was about to die. I could sense it in the air. A dark, heavy coat of air sat around his shattered body. We talked for a minute; he was afraid and lonely. He hadn’t talked to his mother for 4 years now; he had left home and was living with friends since then. He wanted to talk to her again; he wanted to talk to her for the last time. We called her. He cried on the phone, saying: “I am sorry. I am sorry for all I did. I am sorry. I wish you were here.// I am dying. //Don’t forget me. //Please, just don’t. Promise me.” These were his last words.
Two hours before hand, what could be wrong? A young man in his late teens, just as healthy as one would expect a 17-year old to be. I remembered when I was 17 – I felt like I could do anything, as if I had time for everything; in fact, 8 years later, I still see a whole future ahead of me. But all of it could change in only one second (snap), like it did to this young man. In one moment, he could have been joyous, having the time of his life; maybe taking advantage of the summer months to relax and enjoy the company of friends; maybe going to the beach and relaxing, or maybe taking hikes in the mountains. One second later: boom.// Everything changes.
We take time for granted. We think, and act, as if we were always going to have time to do what we want, or what we need to. But our tradition advises us differently. The Talmud teaches that one of our great sages, Rabbi Eliezer, once said: One must repent one day before one’s death. His disciples asked him: “But does a person know which day the person will die? Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Aha! Then all the more reason for one to repent today, lest one dies tomorrow; therefore, all of one’s life [should be] spent in repentance.”
From this story, we can understand many lessons, including that one should not take time for granted. The correct way of behaving and relating to the world should not be reserved to a specific moment. We can’t control time. We exist from within time, as opposed to above and beyond it. God, who in Jewish mysticism is called Ein-Sof, or Without End, is the One that exists beyond time. We are finite beings, even though our soul is eternal. Our souls come from God – God breathed life into the first human being. As God did to him, God does to us. Our nefesh, our life, our spirit, is eternal; however, it lives in a body that has an expiration date. Do we know what date that is?// Not in most cases; that date can change, as it did so tragically and abruptly with my patient in the hospital. We do not control time; therefore, we should stop taking it for granted.
So what should we do when we see that our houses are burning? What should we do when we act wrongly? How should we behave if we can’t know when will be the last time that we see and talk to the people that we love the most? The answer of Rabbi Eliezer is, I think, a great one: don’t leave it for tomorrow. Put out your fire, before it gets a chance to spread around. Repent today, everyday, at all times (not only during the High Holy Days).// Love, love a lot.// Love at all moments.// Invite opportunities of bringing the sacred, the mysterious, into your life, at every opportunity that you get. Today, not tomorrow.// The fact that we cannot control how long we will live for is not an obstacle to pursue fulfillment. In fact, it is the opposite. It is an invitation to pursue meaning at every single second. Every second as if it were the last one you get.// As Vinicius de Morais, a Brazilian poet, wrote about love: “Be not immortal, since it is flame, but be infinite while it lasts.”//
But time is not the only thing that we take for granted; we also take space for granted as well. Our friend Moishe, from the shtetl, thought that there would be enough space in between houses to prevent the fire from spreading around, and he was wrong. We cannot take space for granted either. By that, I mean the fact that we have a home and that we are safe in it is also something that should not be taking for granted. Space and safety are also important factors in our capacity of living our lives in a meaningful way. My generation has some trouble understanding this.// We were born much after 1948, when the State of Israel proclaimed its independence. Israel was, by the time that I was born, undoubtedly strong. We think that Israel always existed, and that this means that it always will. For many of my generation in this country, where many families came from Europe long before the Second World War and theshoah, the shoah seems foreign, seems something that happened ages ago. People may think that hatred towards Jews will never manifest itself again. But what do we see if we open the newspapers?// This summer, there was a spike in anti-semitism in Europe; in Germany, France and the Netherlands to name a few. Israel still has not found the peace that it pursues for so long. Hamas threatens the daily life of citizens throughout the country who are unable to live their normal routines without the possibility of having to find shelter at any moment. Israel discovered a complex system of tunnels, many of them leading into the country! We cannot take the existence of Israel, nor the safety of worldwide Jews for granted. In this case too we should go back to the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer, and make sure that today – and not tomorrow – we work so that the State of Israel, and local Jewish communities throughout the world are safe and sound. Today, because we don’t know when the fire will spread around. Here, because the partnership between the American government and the State of Israel, that has always been strong, is so very important for our safety and the safety of our brethren.
Moishe, from the shtetl in Eastern Europe, learned that it is risky to think that one has enough time to spare, or that there is enough space to ensure safety. We too, today, must ponder about this question as we contemplate how little control we have over time and space. This sermon, if I did my job right, is not about causing desperation. This sermon is about the sacred opportunity that we have to use today – in the absence of certainties about tomorrow – to truly make our lives a blessing, and to bring forth the sacredness that comes from space and time into the world. The sacredness that comes from being in a secure place and from inviting love into our lives – today. The awareness of the Holy One through making sure that our family and our people are safe, and that we use our time wisely to its full extent.// If we do decide to work on this invitation to holiness,// if we see this challenge as the spiritual work ahead of us in this new year, then we will never forget the people that gave their lives to ensure the safety of our society and of our homeland, or the lesson from the 17-year old boy who deeply loved his mother but was unable to fully express it. Then, and only then, we will be able to see our work as one of inviting the sacred into the world and into our daily lives, so that time and space are never taken for granted anymore, and so that love and peace permeate the world. Because of us.// Because of each of us.// Ken Iehi Ratzon, May this Be God’s will.
1: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 153a