Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775

 Wednesday, September 24, 2014

 What To Do With the Time You Have Left

 Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim

Friends, I have stopped looking at my face in the mirror watching silver replace dark brown hairs on my face.  I am what most call middle aged. If I am in the middle, I have a chance to live to 114.

Prior to the nineteenth century a typical person was fortunate to reach 40. By the middle of that century life expectancy was 47. Newborns today have a life expectancy of 79 years in America. By the end of the century it will be 100 years. We are so concerned about longevity. Many of us hope that we will live a bit longer than our parents or grandparents. With pride, a few of you have told me that you have done just that.

When one of our congregants died at 99, some said, “Oh if only she had lived a little longer,” as if 100 is a magic number. Of course the joke is that for those fortunate to live past 100, when the time does come, the same people say, “It was about time.” Both comments reflect a confusion regarding whether it is the quantity of years or the quality of years that is important.

Nevertheless, our focus tends to be on quantity. How many more years can we squeeze into a lifetime?

A generation ago, Linus Pauling, a winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, proposed that megadoses of vitamin C would retard aging. It turned out that at megadoses, vitamins can become toxic.

A decade ago, a biotech start-up called Sirtris sought to devise drugs that mimic the supposed health-giving properties of red wine. GlaxoSmithKline bought Sirtris for $720 million in today’s dollars, money the company may wish it had back. The Sirtris experiments have yet to lead to any practical product.

I was curious about how many years I had left so I went online to deathclock.com yesterday. I had heard about it earlier this year on a radio program. I put in my day of birth, month of birth, year of birth, sex, whether I am optimistic, pessimistic or normal, my BMI, and hit the tab for “check your death clock” The result: 1,143,267, 150 seconds – and counting down. I have13, 610 and ¼ days left. I have 37 and 1/3 years left. So, on Saturday, December 30, 2051 at 6:00 o’clock in the morning, according to these cyber-calculations, my clock will run out.

Now that I know exactly how much time I have left, what do I do with it? How do I plan for the rest of my life? Should I plan my retirement? Marcia says I have 10 more years with you all. Are you going to survive without me? What do I do after that? According to the clock, I am actually past middle age. When our congregation started almost twenty years ago, my life was mostly time ahead and very little memory. Now, for me and for some of us in this room, life is almost entirely memory and little time left.

Well, here we are together, celebrating 5,775 years since the creation of the world. Despite our clock, our tradition calls us to greet this moment with a blessing:

Praised are You Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.

My friends, what a gift! Regardless of what happened yesterday. No matter what burdens you bear from 5774: A bad prognosis or aging in front of you, you are to welcome this New Year as a wonderful and mysterious gift. No one knows what tomorrow will bring – wonder, splendor, a surprise just around the corner. All the changes we witnessed in the last twelve months of living: the growth and the decay; the celebrations and the miseries; the successes and the failures – at this moment Jews all over the world pause to catch our breath as we let those memories sweep by us like a rushing stream. And as we let go, watching what we did become memory, we wonder, “What is next over the horizon, in the coming year?”

These days are called Yamim Noraim, usually translated, “Days of Awe” – so as not to scare you too much. The word “Awe” in most translations of the Hebrew is to promote within us a positive perspective on our future that these days and this year may give us glimpses of wonder, amazement, and respect.

Actually, the true translation is “Days of Terror” or “Days of Fear,” or “Days of Dread.” As we look back over the past year, we have seen:

    • Another war against terror that began this week
    • One more report on climate change reminding us of how we are polluting our air, our water, killing wildlife and eventually ourselves
    • Thousands dying of Ebola in Africa
    • 50,000 veterans, who fought for us and our way of life, homeless in cities around the country
    • The gap between rich and poor growing ever wider
    • The worry about fortifying our southern border while ignoring thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims slaughtered by extremists in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia
    • The Ukraine attacked by Russia reminding us of Stalin
    • Israel and the Palestinians continuing to be embattled with one another
    • 57,000 unaccompanied children arriving at our southern border this year. How easily we ignore that many come from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America where high rates of violence and homicide prevail. Are we to turn our backs on them as America did to the German Jews fleeing the Nazis on the St. Louis in 1939?

            How can we have a sense of awesomeness, amazement and wonder for the New Year in the face of tragedy after tragedy we experience on a daily basis or see on the daily news? We are all adrift amidst this madness. With growing despair over the future of our world we tend to exist with less clarity and a lesser amount of conviction. As you face personal struggles, I am sure that your lives may seem empty at times. The thought arises whether hope is a virtue worth keeping.

And yet, despite it all you have returned here tonight, as you have returned each year so that you might hear that the universe ought to be just; that the universe is just, perhaps in some way that you are not quite aware of. How can that be?

 “Some people are mean to me.”

 “I am not taken seriously.”

 “I cannot get ahead.“

 “Shouldn’t life be fairer?”

 “Why is life not fair?”

These are all good questions, but rarely do we wait for the answers. We flee from the complexities of living. When things go badly, we wonder, “Doesn’t God understand the obligation to manage some justice in the world?” “What is the use of doing anything if there is no justice and I continue to be treated unfairly?”

            We seem to be surrounded by doom and gloom. And if I can no longer avoid the gloom then life is really not living.

I hope it is only poor Edgar Allan Poe, broken by drink, cursed by the world’s indifference, who actually believed when he saw the dread symbol of the shadow of the raven on his floor that, “My soul from out that shadow shall be lifted never more.” As for the rest of us, as for our souls, our values ought to lift us in the opposite direction. No sooner are we in the shadow than we begin looking to see where the shadow ends. We all have the power to overcome that gloom; we have the mandate to fight for the light.

            A caller to a radio show in Los Angeles asked the host, “How can we raise our children in a society that is so corrupt?” and the host responded correctly, “You cannot view the world as if evil and bad are raining upon you and you can do nothing to shelter your children from the storm. What you need to do is to raise your children with ethics and a sense of morality. Those children will grow up and provide ethics, and values, and morality to society and then our society will be a better place for everyone.”

            As you begin a New Year once again, you can choose to live your lives wisely. You can choose those values that reflect kindness, love, caring and compassion, because they do make a positive difference. You should never give up hope. The greatest sin is despair. Despite the prejudice and oppression and persecution in the world, you should never despair. Despair leads to hopelessness and hopelessness leads to inaction, doing nothing. The homeless can be housed. Barriers can be broken down. Power can be used for something constructive. Rifts among family members can be mended. Your participation is necessary for those things to happen.

When do I start? Perhaps I can do it tomorrow. But tomorrow may never come or tomorrows stack on tomorrows and you may never face the Truth.  At shivah services we read, “All things pass; all that lives must die. All that we prize is but lent to us, and the time comes when we must surrender it. We are travelers on the same road that leads to the same end.”

Yes, we will all experience the same end – death. But what are we to do with the time in between? Rabbi Eliezer (two thousand years ago) said, “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked, “How can one know which day that will be?” (At the time there was no deathclock.com!) “Precisely,” he replied. “Repent today, therefore, in case you should die tomorrow. Thus will you spend your days wisely.”

Each one of you has the power to “live your lives wisely,” to do what is right in this world, to make a difference. But you have to rise up and do something. You can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket. Though you may be unsure, take a chance. Take a first step. You may be surprised at the outcome.[1] 

    • You are not sure about human nature. Many people will prove untrustworthy – be decent to them anyway.
    • You are not sure of your career; it may end up being futile – work as hard as you can anyhow.
    • Culture may seem boring, your classes tedious, your professors, pompous – read and study anyhow.

Live life with confidence. Take a chance that life has meaning.

For some, it is regrets that prevent you from taking positive action. The Dalai Llama was once asked, “Do you have regrets?” He answered, “I have many regrets; but I do not let them burden me or weigh me down.”

Don’t let your regrets stop you. Let them go and do what you are called to do. You may fall and you may fail, but learn from your failures and rise again. Hope does replace despair. Your life is not dependent on what circumstances befall you or on what someone says to you. You will succeed and others will learn from your successes.

On this Rosh HaShanah, God is telling you, “I want to be good to you. I extend My Mercy to you. I grant you Forgiveness. These are My gifts to you for this New Year. This is a New Beginning – take advantage of it. You are starting with a clean slate – get started now.”

This is what God has in store for you. Will you believe in God’s mercy? Will you believe that God has forgiven you? Or are you going to say, “I don’t deserve it?” Today, God is declaring to you that God is not finding fault with you. Stop finding fault with yourself!

You are not perfect, will never be perfect. You are not a finished product. This is your opportunity to allow redemption to come to this world that sorely yearns for it “When [you] master the violence that fills our world. When [you] look upon others as [you] would have them look upon [you]. When [you] grant to every person the rights [you] claim for [y]ourselves.”[2]

Friends, you have come here at this time, to this place, to shape your future, to control it as best you can. Circumstances and people may tempt you or thwart you, and yet you will learn from every moment and return to your God-given purpose.

This is why we wish each other Gut Yontiff, “Good Year.” And today, it is also a Yom Tov, “a Good Day.” With apples and honey on our lips we say, L’shanah tovah um’tukah, “May it be a sweet New Year,” not because by accident or fate it might be; rather because you will make an effort to make it a sweet New Year by your thoughts and your efforts.

You will find healing from past mistakes and events and take a chance that no matter how many or few your days are ahead, you will bring blessings into this world just as you have been blessed this night.

Blessed is the One, the Nameless, the Unknowable, who by some miracle has kept us alive, sustained and given us another chance to enter a New Year with a renewed sense of hope.

Put forth your energy and achieve great things this year. May God grant you this year that the evil days are few and that the strength, the passion and the joy are abundant. Amen.


[1] (Cast your bread upon the waters and in the fullness of time it will return to you, Ecclesiastes 11:1 – Always be ready to do a good turn even if you do not expect a reward for it. For some day, you will surely find your reward waiting for you.)

[2] Gates of Repentance, pg. 103.