This summer, I was blessed to have the opportunity to take a few trips. I don’t fly as often as some of my friends who travel every week for business, but I travel enough that I have my airplane routine. After getting settled in my seat, and pulling out the book or magazine I hope to read during the flight, I usually spend a few minutes browsing the SkyMall catalogue before my taxi and take-off nap.
I love the SkyMall catalogue. It’s the greatest collection of stuff that you’ll never need. For $119.99 you can buy the Grillbot, an Automatic Grill Cleaning Robot; for $59.99 you can by a motorized gondola for your pool, complete with gondolier Luciano Poolvarotti who serenades you with three Italian songs; and you can buy a raincoat for your dog for $39.99, complete with rain hood. Honestly, it’s usually the same garbage from year to year, but on the last flight I took in August, I saw something new that blew my mind.
It’s called the “Happiness Watch”. The ad says that using statistics and a personal health algorithm, the watch calculates your life-expectancy, and then the countdown begins. On the face of the watch is the rest of your life, counting down by years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Seize the day, follow your heart, and be happy, the ad says. Oh, and it does also tell you the current time -- $79.99.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that watch. In many ways, I kind of wanted to buy it. No matter where we are in our life’s journey, the recognition of our mortality is often very useful. It’s an important theme of these High Holy Days. Tomorrow, our liturgy will declare “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day,” as we think about life’s fragility “Who shall live, who shall die? Who shall see ripe age, and who shall not?”
As I think about all the things I want to try to accomplish in my life, all the things I want to experience, time seems awfully short. All of us are, as they say, on the clock. It’s trite but true – but my children all seem to be growing up way too fast. As my aches and pains build from my obsessive need to keep playing soccer, I admit to looking a little longingly at the younger players in our league. The reminder that time is ticking away might indeed spur me to be more deliberate and diligent in attacking my bucket list.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the “Happiness Watch” isn’t going to make us happy. While the sense of our fragility, of the limited nature of our sojourn here on earth might encourage us to shout: “Carpe Diem! – Seize the Day!” it also might have the opposite effect. We might look at the time we think we have left and think we’ve missed our chance to make a meaningful impact on our world, that there isn’t enough time to do what we want to do. We might feel like throwing up our hands in despair, like a football team that’s down by too many points in the fourth quarter – and choose not to live at all.
Rosh HaShanah is a holiday that has many names. The Torah describes it as Yom Teruah – a day for loud blasts and the mystical call of the shofar. The rabbis called it Yom HaZikaron – Remembrace Day, for it is on this day that we are called to remember what each of us did in the year that’s passed, and for God to remind us of the path in life we might have, could have, should have taken. But later the rabbis called this day Yom Harat HaOlam – this is the day of the world’s beginning. Traditionally the congregation would call out these words after each sounding of the shofar, to recall the three times the world itself was renewed – at the beginning of time in creation, with the renewal of the world after the Great Flood, and lastly with the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. But what the rabbis seemed to understand is that each Rosh HaShanah is a renewal of the world. The New Year gives us the opportunity to renew not simply the world, but our own lives in it.
Think about the story of creation – which we read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. The story of creation begins with these famous words: “ In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” But the first act of creation was not the grand proclamation: “Let there be light!” The first act of creation was an idea, a question: “What if I could make a world? What would it look like? What would it be? Who or what would inhabit it?” And then – from answering those questions emerged ... a choice. “Do I create or do I not create?” And from that primordial moment of choice began life itself – an ever growing and cascading wave of choosing, in each and every moment, choice after choice after choice. And with each successive choice, God saw that it was good.
And then, as the process unfolds to its penultimate moment, God chooses to create humanity in God’s own image. What does that mean? What is it about humanity that makes us a reflection of the Divine? The essential element of any human life, the Divine aspect to our being, is our God given right and ability and freedom to choose. We are not here by accident. It was God’s conscious choice to bring us into being, and to bless us with consciousness and choice.
It is also not by accident that the entire core of Torah, the corpus of our narrative of learning and instruction, is a story about freedom – the freedom to choose how we will act and respond in each and every moment of life. In every single moment we live, from the first day we enter this world until the day we lose hold of our consciousness, we are constantly choosing and choosing again, choice after choice after choice.
The context in which we make our choices is also continually changing. From the moment we take our first breath to the moment we breathe our last, at the most elemental level, our lives are in constant flux. Science teaches us that essentially each of us is a collection of atoms, constantly moving and interacting, always flowing in and out of us. We inhale and exhale, we eat, digest, excrete. We move and touch and give and take with the rest of creation, continuously and simultaneously.
The universe is in constant motion, and ultimately so are we. No matter how repetitive our daily tasks, and no matter how mundane our daily routine, each of us is constantly, inexorably, growing and changing. The world around us changes, the world inside us changes, and with every moment of change comes a new opportunity to choose. Change and choose. Change and choose, Change and choose.
The world and we, are constantly in process. A process is a series of actions or steps we take in order to achieve a particular end. On Rosh HaShanah, we are asked to think about the process of our lives. Think about the choices we have made in the year that has passed. How do we make the choices each moment demands without thinking about the particular end toward which we should rightly aim?
The Book of Life has a page with our name on it. In every moment, since we first were born and took our first breath, we have made choices – in each and every set of circumstances we made choices of what we chose to do, how we chose to react, what we chose to learn. From the moment as infants we turned our heads away because we decided we had enough to eat, to the moments we chose to cry because we wanted something to drink, in each and every moment of life we made choices that determined what the next moment in life would look like, and what choices we would have when that next moment came.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches: “We each know that in our own lives, choices that we made years ago shape the kinds of choices we have available now....” For better or for worse. By choosing to be frugal and save money, we might secure a nest egg that will provide financial security for a more stable retirement, or resources to pass on to our children, but that frugality may have required that we forego opportunities for life experiences that can never be replaced. At the same time, if we choose to indulge every whim or fancy we may enjoy so much of what life and our world have to offer, but we may also consume the resources necessary to care for ourselves in later years.
I often think back to choices that seemed so inconsequential when they were made, but completely altered the course of my life. By choosing the Freshman Seminar in my first year of college titled: “Moral problems of the 20th century” I thought I was just taking an interesting class. But that class was taught by Professor Charles Rice, who became my advisor and my mentor, who steered me toward courses in Philosophy and Religion and well ... here I am today. I think of a night out with friends at a dance club during my junior year in Israel when I decided to hang out with this cute girl named Aimee instead of another girl I also knew and well ... here we are. With each and every choice we author new episodes and chapters in the book of life.
But we are not the only authors of the story of our lives. The Book of Life is co-authored by all creation. Everything that has come before in some way impacted the setting and circumstances of our own lives. We share authorship of the Book of Life with everything and everyone who has ever lived. Our page has an infinite number of footnotes and references to pages in other parts of that book, to those whose lives and choices shaped not simply the pathways through history that created our own situation in life, but to all those we have affected and impacted through the process of our own decisions and choices.
We do not always have choice over how our world changes. The choices made by those we know, and those we may never know, can drastically impact the circumstances of our own predicament. A person can choose to look down at a phone instead of keeping eyes on the road and change the lives of countless people. A group of people can bet too much money on the housing market, which can impact the choices of another group of people who loaned too much money to people with shaky credit, which can impact another group of people who thought they could buy and trade those mortgages, and the entire economy of the world can convulse and cause untold numbers of people to suffer.
Sometimes the events that take place seem incredibly unfair. A loved-one is stricken with a terrible disease, a child is made to suffer trauma, someone we love dies much too young. If God is a choosing God, then did God choose this too? Is God the big bearded force on high who sits around this time of year and deals out tzurris? I’ll give cancer to you, a stroke to you, a failed business to you, a broken marriage to you, an autistic child to you? How can there be suffering and evil in the world when there is an all-powerful God that could choose to make a difference?
Years ago a member of my congregation in New Jersey became sick with lung cancer. It was the greatest of ironies, as he was the administrator at Sloane Kettering of the department that studied lung cancer. He was a young man, in his forties, married with a teenage daughter. His wife was bereft. Together we sat in the sanctuary and she said: “Why? I just want to know why?” She had to ask, how could she not ask? Where is the justice, the fairness, the goodness in a world where a man is stricken with the disease he has devoted his life to cure?
But as we talked, she realized that “why” was not simply a question we couldn’t answer, it was not really the question she needed to answer. What she really wanted to know, a question she could answer was this: “What now?” “What can I do to help my husband cope with the radiation and chemotherapy? How can I raise my daughter so that she will become all she can be? What choices do I need to make today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?
The fact is that God is not what we often imagine God to be. God is not the unreachable, unchanging, wrathful force that compels and punishes. God does not determine our future, and God does not pejoratively impose suffering and hardship. God is part of the process, the force that invites us to see the world anew, the source of novelty and imagination.
In the Talmud, the sage Resh Lakish teaches that the Holy One renews the work of Creation every single day. Rabbi Jacob Emden, the great scholar of the eighteenth century teaches that the word M'chadash – Renews, should be translated differently. He said instead we should think of it as “make something novel.” Each day is novel in that there never was and there never will be such a day in the history of the world.
Our tradition teaches that with God we share a covenant, a relationship which inspires us to grow in love for each other. The book of Exodus describes God as ever changing. When Moses asks for God’s name, God replies: “I will be what I will be.” As Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes: “God is the ultimate Source for all possibility and potentiality in the universe.”
God is ultimately what process theologians call the lure – the force that inspires us to make holy choices in the context of our freedom to choose. The covenant we share with God is filled with commandments, mitzvot, which we may choose to perform. Those laws are not there to annoy or to restrict, but to challenge and guide. The fact is that the more our choices in life are guided by the loving wisdom of our covenant, the more our choices lead to a deeper, richer, more meaningful and purposeful life.
God shares with us in a life of process, guiding us toward the particular end for which God brought forth human life. That end is a world in which, together with God, we create a world which is filled with light and love, a world balanced by knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, drive and wonder, splendor and life. A world that is one with itself and one with God as well.
Change is liberating. We are not enslaved to who we have been before, nor are we chained to the choices we are used to making. We can make different choices, healthier choices, more loving choices.
In this New Year 5775, let us find happiness in counting forward, rather than in counting down. Let us use each and every moment we are blessed to share to choose to build a different kind of world. No matter where we find ourselves, no matter how constrained our choices may seem, let us be drawn by God to choose life, to choose love, to choose service over selfishness and purpose over placidity. Let the chapters we author in the book of life not only tell the story of how we grew to our highest possible selves, but how our choices liberated others to be their own highest selves. And may all of us together, with God’s loving help, be inscribed for health, happiness, blessing, and peace.