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To Catch One’s Breath, to Renew One’s Soul

Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve

September 22, 2015 • 10 Tishrei 5776

Rabbi Bridget Wynne

I admit that, like many adults, there are kids’ toys that I love. For some it is model trains; for me, it was a plastic phone our son used to play with. You push a number, hold the phone up to your ear, and it says things like, “Hello, let’s play!” There was something about that silly voice saying things kids really do that was so entertaining. Even when our son had long outgrown it, I didn’t give that phone away, and just thinking about it makes me smile.


This personal connection made me especially saddened when I read an article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnick about his three-year-old daughter Olivia’s imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli. Imaginary friends are not uncommon for three year olds. The odd thing about Mr. Ravioli is that he is always too busy to play.


Gopnick writes: “She holds her toy cell phone up to her ear, and we hear her talk into it: ‘Ravioli? It’s Olivia… Come and play? OK. Call me. Bye.’ Then she snaps it shut, and shakes her head. ‘I always get his machine,’ she says.”


“Or she will say, ‘I spoke to Ravioli today.’ ‘Did you have fun?’ my wife and I ask. ‘No. He was busy working.’ … She sighs, sometimes, at her inability to make their schedules mesh, but she accepts it as inevitable, just the way life is.” (“Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” September 30, 2002)


It’s a poignant story: a three-year-old reflecting what she sees around her – life lived on the run, with human relationships squeezed in between.


Today speed is everything. We want it now, and if that can’t happen, someone is developing an app to make sure it is possible. We roll our eyes in annoyance if we’re on hold; we keep clicking on our devices while we wait for a website to come into view; we pound on the steering wheel in frustration while sitting in traffic.


One writer says: “It has gotten to the point where …I hear an invisible stopwatch ticking even when I’m supposed to be having fun.” (Less is More, Jay Walljasper)


Too much information comes at us, too fast. Too many choices. Life goes by in a blur, and people we care about grow older while we’re not looking.


Speed is seductive. It means convenience and progress. Historian Stephen Kern writes: “The historical record shows that humans have never, ever opted for slower.” (“The Culture of Speed”)


But that’s not entirely true. Tonight, around the world, Jews and their family and friends are gathered for a purpose that goes against the grain. Yom Kippur is long, and slow. It’s repetitive. We listened to the Kol Nidre three times. We will repeat the Ashamnu, an alphabetical list of regrets, and sing Avinu Malkeinu, several times tonight and tomorrow. Our tradition calls us to step away from the rush of information, tasks, and choices, to spend time in reflection, with no distractions, no multi-tasking, no screens.


Perhaps our ancestors devised this long day because they knew that some things, to be done well, have to be done slowly. Self-reflection, mending relationships, and taking steps towards becoming better people, which are at the heart of Yom Kippur, cannot be hurried. You cannot grab them on the run, or complete them and check them off on your to do list.


What Bay Area filmmaker Tiffany Shlain calls the Jewish science of “mensch-ology” – developing ourselves into mensches, into people whose actions more closely fit with our deepest values – takes time.


Each year at Yom Kippur I ask people to write down their regrets from the past year, anonymously, and to post them on our Torah Of Life. It makes our intentions more concrete, and helps us to see that we are not alone. All around us people are struggling with the same issues we are.


Many of these regrets are connected to the speed at which we try to live. In Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, she reports that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us to concentrate, solve problems, and modulate our behavior, shrinks under constant stress. That lets the amygdala, “the seat of negative emotions like fear, aggression, and anxiety,” take over. Anyone who has ever yelled at your family members while searching frantically for your car keys 10 minutes after you should have left understands this.


This is reflected in many of the regrets that were shared here last Yom Kippur. Here are just a few:


I regret not being able to control my anger and rage.


I regret being grumpy, judgmental, ungenerous.


I regret spanking my son, and using inappropriate retaliating behavior.


I regret not making more of a contribution to friends, family, and society.


I regret that I am not more appreciative of my wife and the happiness she has brought into my life.


Busyness makes it less likely that we will have the time and focus necessary for becoming better people. It harms our relationships. Yet it also delivers cultural rewards. We feel important when we, like Charlie Ravioli, are always booked.


Researcher Ann Burnett, who studied thousands of the holiday letters people send each year, dating back to the 1960s, describes them as “an archive of the rise of busyness” as something to be proud of. Burnett reports: “People are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. … if you’re busy, you’re important.” (Overwhelmed) The more you do, the more you matter, American culture tells us.


Tonight, we are part of a revolt against the frenetic, the proliferation of choice, the demand to be and do and have “more.” We are part of a counterculture that values what is slow and reflective, deep and true.


I invite you to claim some of that counterculture, not just tonight, but throughout the year. To do so, I want to share some insights based on the Jewish tradition of Shabbat. When you hear the word Shabbat, you may think of what you are not supposed to do, but I want to focus on what this concept might make possible.


As I mentioned at Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat – the Jewish name for the seventh day of the week – comes from the Hebrew word for “stop.” When Shabbat is first described in the Torah, it is called a time for “l’hinafesh” – literally, to catch one’s breath, or to renew one’s soul.


How might we modern people create times to catch our breaths, and renew our souls? And what might we discover if we did?


Earlier I mentioned filmmaker Tiffany Shlain. For the past six years, she and her family have turned off every screen before dinner on Friday night. Shlain is far from opposed to technology. “But,” she says, “I got to a point where I felt overwhelmed and distracted by it.” (“This Woman Unplugs Every Saturday,” Greatist, August 7, 2015)


That feeling became clear when Shlain’s father was dying of cancer. He often had only one good hour each day, so Shlain and her family made a point of turning off their phones and spending time being completely present with him. They experienced how unplugging enabled them to connect with one another. They decided to make it a weekly ritual, and what they call Technology Shabbat was born.


Tiffany Shlain and her family created a way to draw on the insights of Shabbat, and discovered deeper connections with one another. How might you create time to catch your breath, and renew your soul?


I ask this knowing that we live in the real world, of children squabbling and things that must be done. It is a world with periods of isolation and sadness, when the last thing we want is a chance to reflect, a world with times during which we feel isolated, or are too angry with family or friends to desire connection.


I’m not suggesting perfection. I am inviting experimentation. Perhaps your time for renewal would be a Sunday morning hike, a chance to experience the awesomeness of the natural world. It might be a weekly phone call with a faraway friend or family member with whom you don’t want to lose touch. It could be a brief break on a Saturday morning when each person in your family offers a genuine appreciation to one another. Perhaps it would be exploring with others how traditional elements of Shabbat might work for you – candles, blessings, a shared meal, song, learning, prayer …


In closing, I ask you to imagine yourself, next Yom Kippur, having accepted during this year Judaism’s invitation to draw on the countercultural insights of Shabbat. Might you have had more moments of slowing down to focus on being the person you intend to be? Might you have had fewer times when you were too rushed or overwhelmed to treat others as you mean to? Might those of you with young children have helped them experience a world in which their imaginary friends do have time to play? Might you have created closer connections with people you care about, with the aspects of our world which renew your soul, with the beauty of that which is deep and reflective, slow and true?


There is only one way to find out, and I hope you will consider giving it a try.

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