Rosh Hashanah, perhaps more than any other Yom Tov, urges us to slow down, smell the roses and listen to the shofar. It sensitises us to the full significance of time, to look at time past, present and future.
To be a Jew is to live with an acute sense of the past but not to be chained to it. We remember the bitter past but refuse to be burdened by it; we remember our glorious past but only to be inspired by it. We must remember the Shoah but we dare not be paralysed by it; and we certainly shouldn’t make it the base of our education of young Jews.
To be a Jew is to be future oriented but not to be obsessed by it. We aren’t a people possessed by what will be but rather by what is. Yes, we are a people of hope, and the very name Rosh Hashanah suggests that, because, as Rabbi Jakobovitz pointed out, rosh means head and the default position of the head is looking forward, not backwards.
To be a Jew is to live in the present, poised past and anticipating the future. God is in the here and now, and one of our most popular and endearing toasts is L’Chaim to life, to today to the gift of now, to living fully, mindfully, consciously in the moment.
It isn’t just Buddhism that reminds you to listen to your body and watch your actions so you don’t wind up as human doing rather than a human being. It isn’t just the mindfulness philosophy that teaches you need to focus vitally and attentively on the present moment, on the other person.
It’s not just the international Slow Movement that urges us to take time to linger over foods, over friends, over our family. And it wasn’t just Simon and Garfunkel who sang, “Slow down, you move too fast, got to make the morning last”. The Torah from its inception proposed an International Slow Day, Shabbat, and if it was radical then, it is still radical today. For Shabbat, perhaps more than any other Jewish notion, is about switching off the incessant noise of life and demands of business and switching on your soul, setting aside precious moments of mindfulness with your family, your friends, your community, your God.
If there’s one lesson to take out of the pandemic it’s to appreciate each and every moment of good health, each opportunity to savour family time, every chance to gather at shule or for a simcha. Paradoxically,the pandemic has helped many of us slow down and smell the scent of Shabbat time…
You may choose not to observe the Shabbat because you may be put off by some of the minutiae and stringencies of Shabbat observance; but if you ignore the Shabbat or just pay it lip service, you do yourself a disservice, you are missing out on something vital, rich and healthy.
There is nothing quite like a long Shabbat lunch, time to linger over food and family, to catch up with friends and to renew your connection to community. There is no better way to forget about the gloomy pandemic numbers and global conflict. That’s why the Shabbat command precedes and follows the Golden Calf episode.
Shabbat is the antidote to the Golden Calf because it’s the day we stop thinking about the price of things and focus instead on the value of things. Or as reported in the name of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, (known as the Alter Rebbe) put it: “It’s the day we stop thinking what am I going to live from and start thinking about what am I going to live for”.
By slowing down at the right moments, we live better and do better, just like trees that are slow to grow tend to bear the best fruit; or, as Aristotle remarked: “Wishing to be friends is quick work but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit”.
Let’s challenge the culture of speed with a Shabbat culture. Let’s move a little more wisely and slowly – they stumble that run fast. Let’s remember what Harvard is now telling its overanxious, over-prepared first year students before they even start: “You get more out of life sometimes if you do less, so remember just two words: Slow down!”. Let’s decompress, take time to savour life. Especially in these trying and tense times, let’s pause and reflect before we react.
In conclusion, let me share an excerpt from one of my favourite poems of William Davies.
What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows…
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night…
A poor life this, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Under lockdown we can kvetch or we can kvell!
I choose to kvell!!
The piece for this Shabbat is adapted from a selection of my articles from the past 14 years which will be published early next year. The book is entitled: Living in an Upside Down World