Really living is mostly up to us
The message arrived from the SA Jewish Report, “Good morning, rabbi, how are you? We’re gearing up for our Rosh Hashanah edition, which has suddenly snuck up on us. The year really goes too fast, doesn’t it? Would you consider putting the pressure of being written in the Book of Life into perspective? Is it a big exam? Are we on trial for our lives?”
Gulp. That’s a big ask.
Allow me to take one paragraph at a time, and address the statement that Rosh Hashanah has snuck up on us.
Until moving to South Africa almost 13 years ago, I had never heard that statement. Maybe it’s because, in the northern hemisphere, July and August are holiday times. Everyone knows that immediately after summer comes the high holidays.
In this town, you can’t arrive at Rosh Hashanah without hearing at least 1 000 times “Rov, can you believe how quickly the year has flown by? Time flies, doesn’t it?”
Ahem. Well, in my line of work, in which Rosh Hashanah is the biggest time of the year, you can be sure that it doesn’t ‘sneak up’ on me. We rabbis are preparing months in advance for the big day. So, no, sorry, it hasn’t come ‘early this year’, and apologies if I don’t nod in agreement to that yearly refrain about the year ‘flying by’.
More importantly, the statement generates a question: is it a good thing for a year to fly by? What does it say about the year if it passed me by and suddenly the big month of Tishrei has snuck up on me?
I’d argue that a year that goes by fast isn’t necessarily a good thing. It can mean that the year lacked in reflection, and it was a year in which we didn’t process our experiences and lessons at the level we’re called upon to do. A full year doesn’t fly by.
Let’s put it this way. Imagine that I challenged you to share with me one special moment that happened to you during every month of the year – one moment per month – would you be able to do so easily? Having posed this question to many, the usual response is that it would be difficult to reflect and articulate on 12 special moments that happened in each year. Possible, but hard.
Remember, we’re not talking about one lesson per day or one lesson per week! We’re asking for 12 powerful moments over 12 months, and yet many of us would struggle to name those moments.
Perhaps because we allow our lives to fly by us. Time ought to be full and rich. A year full of experiences, growth, productivity, meaning, love, faith, discipline, study, meditation, and kindnesses is a full year, and such a year doesn’t fly by.
Time that flies and time that drags are both not ideal. Time needs to count. Years matter. Months matter. Weeks matter. Days matter. Hours matter. Seconds matter.
Marc Levy put it this way, “If you want to know the value of one year, just ask a student who failed a course. If you want to know the value of one month, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby. If you want to know the value of one hour, ask the lovers waiting to meet. If you want to know the value of one minute, ask the person who just missed the bus. If you want to know the value of one second, ask the person who just escaped death in a car accident. And if you want to know the value of one-hundredth of a second, ask the athlete who won a silver medal in the Olympics.”
After establishing the obvious fact that time and life matters, let’s go back to that message from the SA Jewish Report.
Would you consider putting the pressure of being written in the Book of Life in perspective. Is it a big exam? Are we on trial for our lives?
To which we can perhaps answer, yes. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d will decide how our year will play out in domains that are His department. And yes, that can be stressful.
The bigger stress, however, isn’t what G-d will do for us this coming year, but rather what we’ll do for ourselves. Because, let’s be honest, the being who has the most power to affect how our year will play out is us.
“Everything is in the hand of Heaven other than our fear of Heaven,” thus our choices. (Talmud Brachot 33b)
Does G-d decide how I’ll treat my spouse this year and what my marriage will look like? I do. The two of us must work on it, obviously with the strength we receive from above.
Does G-d decide if I’ll have a balanced life of work, family, health, play, and learning? I do. I’ll ask Hashem for His assistance, but I must take ownership.
Does G-d decide whether I’ll be offended by every wedding invitation I don’t get and other faribels like, “Why didn’t I sit at the cool part of the table at the Rosh Hashanah dinner?” I do. I could talk myself out of the pettiness of grudges.
Does G-d decide if I’ll grow in my faith and observance of the Torah and mitzvot? I do. I have the gift of free choice. He might inspire me, but I still have to run with that inspiration and make it a reality in my life.
Yes, there’s so much in G-d’s department. Life itself – whether we will live or die – that’s a big one! Our health – although we have a role in some of that as well. Eat well. Sleep. Exercise. Have a social life, etc. Our livelihood. And much more. And to that, we turn to G-d as our king and father and ask for the good stuff to come our way.
But the biggest pressure of it all is when I grow up and acknowledge that “Clearly the matter depends on nothing other than myself.” (Talmud Avodah Zara 17a) I have to make the next year into a year of meaning and growth.
It’s on me. With G-d’s help.
Let do this, friends!
- Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the rabbi at Linksfield Shul.