Slow Down , You Move Too Fast
How to Make Lemonade out of Life’s Lemons
Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2020- 5781
Maaseh she haya—That’s how Jewish stories begin—A tale of something that once was. So I will start with a Maaseh shehaya
Long ago, in Lithuania, there was a Jew who had to do considerable traveling in order to earn his living.
One cold winter day, he arrived at certain town, late at night, and took lodging in the local inn. He had spent a hectic, tiresome day, and moreover, was bitten by the coId.
After gobbIing a warm meal,he went quickly to his room, for a few hours sleep to prepare himself for the next days trecking. While trying to fall asleep, he heard a melodious voice from the room. next door. The voice seemed to be chanting some passage from the Talmud.
Early the next morning, as the business man awoke, he was surprised to hear the same voice he had heard the night before, still vigorous, fresh, and melodic.
This neighbor, the man concluded must be some great Talmid Hakham, a scholar of the Jewish lore. Indeed, he wasn't mistaken, for his neighbor was none other than the Villner Gaon, the Genius, Rabbi Elijah, of Vilna,the greatest intellect of his day.
The rnerchant hurried tnrough his morning prayers and breakfast before he could build up the courage to knock at the door of the adjoining room
Face to face with the Gaon, he asked him,"Rabbi, tell me, will
I have a share in the world to come, in heaven?"
On hearing this question the scholar replied,"Tell me, my son, do you have a share in this world?"
Where upon., the man
replied," Rabbi, I'll
be frank. No, I don't. I'm on the go from
morning to night. Yesterday, I was out in the cold the whole day, going from customer to customer. I came here late at night, rushed through my meal, and fell in to bed, and now I have to rush out again for the same routine. I'm so much on the go, that I don't have anytime for this world's pleasures.
"Well then,"answered Rabbi Elijah," How can you expect a share in the world to come. You work and labor so hard for this world, and aren't able to enjoy any of this life; how can you possibly expect to enjoy a share in the world to come towards which you certainly haven't had time to work."
The Rabbi's advice is true at all times, whether in good or bad. When times are good, we are scarmbling to get more. When times are bad, we are scrambling to hold on. We went through the most frightening recession since the depression just a decade ago and now, we are in a lockdown plus a recession, and emotionally, we are all in a depression, or at best, a blue funk. If we are healthy, we worry about being sick; if we are sick, we worry about being sicker. If we are working, we worry about keeping our jobs. If we are out of a job, we worry about losing our homes ; if we are in business, we worry about keeping the cash register opened; if we are retired and have our pensions, then we worry about our retirement accounts and about our family and friends who are floundering.
Now, over the last several months, we have, for the most part, been stuck, sitting quiet, not being able to go anywhere; even if we could go out, there has not been much to go out to. Many of us aren’t working physically or aren’t working at all. If we are fortunate to be working, we usually are sitting in our sloppy torn jeans and t-shirt, men, unshaven, women, hair unkempt. We are on an unwanted vacation- or rather staycation!
We are well aware, that our leisure happens while others have been stricken ill, often fatally, by a string of molecules that is a tenth of a thousandth of a millimeter long. I don’t want to sound like a foolish Pollyanna, who says it’s all for the good, in the long run. Too many have suffered unemployment, loss of income, loss of security, loss of even sanity. People are on edge, and it expresses itself in our streets and in our homes.
However, if I may, it is time to make lemonade out of a lemon, and God willing, when we come through this, come out the better for it.
Think of Rabbi Elijah’s advice. Let us take the chance to enjoy a share of this world and win the next world as a bonus. If the pandemic forces us to hunker down, and then slow down, let us make the most of it!
Change, very dynamic and turbulent change, is a fact of our contemporary world for the past several centuries. We have all been living in a Faustian Devils’ Bargain that is the modern world. Yes, our hustle and bustle has been an essential part of our existence for centuries now now, and modern is no longer modern, but standard.
This is the tale, from the German poet Goethe. Dr. Faust, makes a deal with the devil—Dr. Faust can gain endless knowledge, wisdom, and power, he can trample on everything in his way to knowledge and control, as long he doesn’t succumb to one desire, to stop for a moment and wish "Linger a while! so fair thou art!"
Now we are forced to linger a while. What terrible world wars couldn’t do, a tiny virus has done, The most prosperous era in human history, in which billions have been lifted out of poverty, has come with one great fear, that if we linger, for a moment, we might lose it all. Well, we might as well enjoy the lingering, since now, we have no option.
Do you remember Alice in Wonderland? What does the Queen tell Alice:” Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Don’t we all feel that!
Phew! We have an excuse to stop running.
Now- you see the wisdom of the words of the Gaon, Elijah? Instead of running, we must, from time to time, come to a complete stop.
Mah She hayah, hu she yihyeh- That which was, is that which will be again, in the words of Koheleth, Ecclesiastes. He was surely the first to describe the frustration that one feels when “ He’s got it all.” “ Hevel, havalim”- Vanity of vanities, or as the Hebrew really describes it, the faint breathe of a faint breathe. That is what he felt after he had acquired tremendous financial wealth.
So while our Torah recognized the inner lack of satisfaction gnawing at the heart of civilized existence, it also propounded the cure. First our Torah already knew of the benefits of recession, and even introduced a mandatory recession every 7 years, the Shmittah, the Sabbatical year. Every 7th year, the land was allowed to go wild, debts were cancelled, and all land contracts reverted to the original owners—Ironically, bear and bull markets seem to operate on a similar cycle.
Even more so, The Torah even introduced a mandatory depression, that is, a recession, on the 7th of 7years cycles, followed by a second recession, on the 50th year 50 years—culminating on Yom Kippur—the Yovel, or the Jubilee. It’s the original concept behind the words on our Liberty Bell in Philadelphia—that at the 50th year, Ukrtatem dror baaretz-Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land—All finances come to a stop and the entire economy must start up, all over again. Guess what—there is a theory in economics that says that we really do have shnat hayovel- jubilee years of depressions and rebounds, Kondratieff waves, that average 50 years!
Ask for it or not, we have our Jubilee year imposed on us, it seems , on all the world around, by a string of DNA molecules..
We are in the period of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, or period of reflection and of stepping back, for a few days, from the world.
Rosh Hashanah recalls the origins of the universe. We can think of God as the greatest striver, the greatest master builder, who scrambles through 8 billion years of creation in 6 days, and then decides,” Shavat vayinafash”—Rested and refreshed.”( as we chant in Veshamru”). Even the Kodosh barukh Hu needs time off!
We understand that our Shabbat, and our Sacred Days, too, were all given with the injunction to cease from” melakhah” , from work. Not forever, not permanently, but in its time and place.
Sheshet Yamim, Six Days,” taaseh melakhtekha—“ Do your work, positively, be busy, be creative , be active, but : U vyom hashivii: on the 7th Day”, it is Shabbat La’donay” The Sabbath of the Lord. Stop. Let us consider now, that we are in the Jubilee Year, and while we don’t feel like Jubilation, for sure, we need to have this time for introspection, and for connection, as much as it is possible.
Soon, things will open up. We will live, despite the virus, we will need to get back to our scrambling and hustle and bustle. Frankly, many people need it to be able to just make it from day to day. But we need to still have a take-away from all of this.
I go back to Koheleth, the Biblical ancestor of all Jewish kvetsches,” What profit has a man of all his labors under the sun.” To this, a Hasidic Rebbe rejoined many centuries later:
“What kind of reward do you want? In addition to being alive, and seeing the sunshine upon you, to bring you joy of light and life!”
His thought is echoed in a poetic phrasing, of Britain’s great poets, W. H. Davies:
“What is life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare,
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet; how
A poor life is this, if full of care,
We have no time to stop and stare,”
The pandemic will end. As Jews, we believe that God has created all for a purpose, and if the creation throws terrible obstacles at us, we have it in ourselves to overcome them and move forward. So , we will move forward, but as we do so, Let’s think back to the advice of the great Rabbi Elijah—Let us be sure to enjoy what we have in this life, so we will be able to earn our eternity.
May you all be sealed in the Book of Life , Long and Healthy, and Satisfying Life, of Good, and Blessing. Amen.