What a summer of drudgery it’s been: staring at a computer screen, books and journal articles strewn around my office, trying to put together a few sensible paragraphs to add to my doctoral dissertation, in hopes that my seminary will see enough progress that they won’t kick me out of the program.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I’ve had to juxtapose that, day after day, with the Facebook postings: colleagues reveling in a summer in Israel; friends taking their kids on extended tours of Italy or Spain or the British Isles; former students trekking through South America. And me, slogging through yet another anthropological study about the use of gesture and posture in interpersonal communications. And wanting to be anywhere but staring at a computer screen, books and journal articles strewn around my office.
There’s a name for this syndrome. It’s called FOMO – F-O-M-O, otherwise known as “Fear of Missing Out.” It’s even got its own entry in the Oxford Dictionaries, which defines FOMO as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”
Facebook is bad enough. But my FOMO problem has been exacerbated by my TV watching in the evening, which is supposed to be relaxing. Here’s Andrew Zimmern eating bizarre foods around the world in a culinary voyage of discovery. There’s “36 Hours,” the New York Times international travel column that’s just made its way onto television, focused on whirlwind experiences of seeing, eating, drinking and playing in thrilling locales. As for me: Another cup of herbal tea? Yes, thank you very much.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge people exploring new worlds and new civilizations. Actually, I do. Well, at least I envy them. In the abstract, I could take those opportunities and would love to do so. In the real world, where do I find the time? In the real world, I get sick every time I travel, whether it’s to Memphis, Tennessee, or to Warsaw, Poland. You’ve never had the flu until you’ve had the Polish flu, straight from the source. Trust me on that.
Froma Harrop of the “Providence Journal” made me feel a little better about my FOMO anxiety. She asked in a recent essay: “Are we to believe that their travels are as fabulous as their Facebook posts suggest? Note the pictures showing them in some sublime Croatian village, never at overcrowded Gate 42B.” And “how about the quality of time spent traveling?” she wondered. How deep is the experience when you’re rushing to fit in every café, festival, and museum in southern Spain, where people who actually live there don’t go anywhere?
But it was David Brooks of the New York Times who talked me off the FOMO ledge when he wrote about what he called the “moral bucket list.” “There are two sets of virtues,” he wrote, “the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” When you look at it that way – which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing on this day, of all days – it seems to me that where we have been isn’t nearly as important as where we intend to go.
Brooks pointed out that, instinctively, we know that eulogy virtues are more important. But, he pointed out, “our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies that you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”
That’s really the task facing each of us on this Day of Atonement, isn’t it? Even if we know what we would really like to add to our eulogy virtues in the coming year, do we even know where to start?
This morning I’m going to pull out three suggestions from David Brooks’s essay to try and give us a start.
The first is what he calls “the humility shift.” Let’s face it, we live in a culture where we reign supreme. Social media encourage us to talk about ourselves, post about ourselves, take selfies at every possible opportunity. If we want to get ahead professionally, we have to be good self-promoters – emphasizing our strengths and hiding our weaknesses. Weakness is for losers, as anyone knows who’s watched a political debate lately.
But Brooks points out that the people he has most admired have achieved what he calls “a profound humility . . . an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness” rather than self-centeredness.
That’s actually a very Jewish concept. It comes from the practice of Mussar, a Jewish path to consciousness and self-awareness. I actually went to a Mussar program this past spring and found it a really challenging experience. Mussar involves a series of contemplative practices that allow us to identify the middot, the character traits and weaknesses, that hold us back: things like anger, pride, envy, cruelty, and worry.
Mussar teaches that even the angriest person has a degree of calm within him; the stingiest person has a drop of generosity; people who are lazy or arrogant have the opposite somewhere inside them. We are encouraged, not to avoid these negative middot, but to face them, to engage them, to work through them to the other side: anger to peace, envy to respect, cruelty to kindness, worry to calmness. It can take a lifetime of steady work, within ourselves and with others who can help us identify where we are and how far we’ve come on the journey to teshuvah – to the place where we have turned our inner life around.
In Mussar, they call that letting the inner light shine through – the true essence of each of us, the neshama – the soul that we thank God for in our daily morning prayers: “Elohai n’shama shenatata bi t’hora hi: God, the soul that you have implanted within me is pure.” It may often be obscured by our habits and our egos and the imbalances we struggle with every day. But it’s there, if we give ourselves the time, and do the hard work, to bring it out. And as the rabbis teach: “If a house has no lower doorsill, it looks unfinished, left to fall apart. You, too, even if you are endowed with all other virtues but lack humility, are ‘unfinished.'” It’s the neshama that gives us hope; it’s the work to uncover the neshama that makes us humble.
The second way we come to a place of teshuvah in our lives is what Brooks calls “The Dependency Leap.” He writes that, for example, when we give the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” as a graduation gift, we’re sending the implicit message that, in his words, “life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success.” But Brooks points out that nobody can do it alone. “Individual will, reason, and compassion,” he writes, “are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.”
Actually that’s one of the reasons why Mussar is not just an individual journey. Much of the work happens in a group, where people check in on each other, identifying each other’s issues and challenges. But opening up like that is not easy, and it can be very scary. So can simply asking for help when you need it.
A lot of us learn this the hard way. I know I’m not the only person who’s been stumped by a challenge in my career and thought – hey, I’m a grown up. I can handle this myself. Dysfunctional workplace? micromanaging supervisors? People who challenge my professional skills and integrity, with no earthly idea what I really do? I’ll work it out. That’s my job.
Only it’s really not. Colleagues, mentors, therapists – they’re all available to help us work out the problems, or to help us walk away from them. To help us essentially identify those middot – be they pride or stubbornness or fear – that keep us from a resolution one way or the other. They help us understand that nobody navigates life alone, if you want more than another star on the chart or another bullet point on the résumé.
They also help us understand that we might be stuck in our own mind, in our own self-centered notions about how things should be, or should work out. They provide other-centered insight, encouragement, and love – and occasionally a kick in the tush. If we want our neshamot to shine through, we need that love in our lives, and we cannot be afraid to call upon on it.
A third avenue to teshuvah is one that Brooks identifies as “The Conscience Leap” – that moment when, he writes, “people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family.” Those may be virtues when it comes to the résumé – but not when it comes to the eulogy.
I’m guessing that very few of you recognize the name Flavia Pennetta. She’s 33-years-old. She’s from Italy. She plays tennis. She just happens to be this year’s US Open champion. She’s the one who defeated fellow Italian Roberta Vinci, who had beaten the great Serena Williams. Ah yes, that Flavia Pennetta!
Flavia Pennetta has some impressive credentials in her résumé, as listed in a recent Wall Street Journal article: She has won more than $10 million dollars in prize money. She is engaged to fellow tennis pro Fabio Fognini. She has had a top-ten ranking, a number-one ranking in doubles, and four Federation Cup team titles with her fellow Italians. So what did she do after she snagged her greatest prize of all, hoisting the US Open trophy on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium? She walked away from tennis. She already had decided that this would be her last year playing professionally, and she’s still at peace with her decision.
Why? Here’s the way the Journal’s Tom Perotta explained it: “Pennetta didn’t mind that Serena Williams had won 21 Grand Slam singles titles. Or that Maria Sharapova had won five and earned more in endorsements in a year than Pennetta had earned on the court in her entire career. Pennetta enjoyed the little things, the stuff that stars like Williams and Sharapova couldn’t do. She could get a coffee alone. Paparazzi didn’t follow her when she shopped. She could ride a bike around Central Park without an entourage. She was what she called a ‘normal’ player, and life was good.”
“For me it’s a little bit easy, the life, because you can still have the normal things and sometimes that’s what they miss most of the time,” Pennetta herself said. For Flavia Pennetta, enjoying and appreciating everyday joys is simply more important than the all-consuming life of a tennis champion. Nobody – herself included – knows what the future holds. But she is leaving herself open to infinite possibilities, as career ambitions take a back seat to the peace and serenity that comes from finding balance in life. She has said ‘no’ to FOMO.
David Brooks wrote that “people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, ‘What do I want from life?’ They ask, ‘What is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?’” This, too, is fundamental to the path of Mussar, as we gain understanding of the traits that make us who we are, for better or for worse, and embrace the traits that make us better – traits like enthusiasm, loving-kindness, generosity, and responsibility.
Here’s how the rabbis described it in the Mishnah, in the section we know as Pirke Avot (2:9), the ethical sayings of the early sages”
“Rabba Yohanan ben Zakkai had five [distinguished] disciples, to whom he said: Go forth and discover what characteristic should be cultivated as a way of life. [When they came back], Rabbi Eliezer declared: A generous eye. Rabbi Joshua declared: Being a good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: Being a good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: The capacity to consider the consequences of one’s action. And Rabbi Eleazer ben Arakh declared: A joyous heart.
Rabba Yohanan said to them: I prefer what Eleazar ben Arakh has said to what you have said, because his definition — having a joyous heart as a way of life — includes all of yours.
“Then he said: Go forth and discover what characteristic should be shunned. [When they came back], Rabbi Eliezer declared: A grudging eye. Rabbi Joshua declared: Pretending to be a friend. Rabbi Yossi said: Being a bad neighbor. Rabbi Simeon said: Borrowing and not repaying—because doing that to a person is like doing that to God. Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh declared: the characteristic that should be shunned is a despondent heart.
Rabbi Yohanan said to them: I prefer what Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh has said to what you have said, because his definition includes all of yours.”
A joyous heart, then, is most fundamental to creating a life that is fulfilling and productive for ourselves, and enriching and supportive of others. It is, I think, the antithesis of FOMO anxiety. You can’t have ‘fear of missing out’ if, every day, your goal is – not to seek adventure – but to seek ways to bring out your inner light, your neshama, for all to see and share.
Or as David Brooks put it, “external ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But there’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel, to take in the natural beauty of the earth, or to explore the manmade beauty of art or food or architecture or the relics of history. But, as Froma Harrop wrote, we shouldn’t be so fixated on “the labor of earning more badges to place on the ledger of life.”
Personally, I’d like to take the train through the Denali and see a whale up close. I’d love to walk along the rocky coast of Maine, eat real Italian food in Italy, take a river cruise up the Danube, and finally get my Hebrew up to par in Israel. I might or might not get to any or all of those things. And I have to learn to be okay with that, to keep my FOMO anxiety in check, and just work hard to find a serenity and a balance and an inner voice that tells me that life is okay and beautiful and meaningful either way.
If I can cultivate a generous eye, and being a good friend, and being a good neighbor, and understanding the consequences of what I do and say, and – most of all – unleash a joyous heart that treats every day as an adventure to be savored for all its worth and every encounter as potentially deep and important…if I can do that, then that’s the person I really want to be.
It may take a lifetime to get there. But that’s okay. Because, at the end of my life, it’s not the résumé virtues, but the eulogy virtues, that I want people to remember.
Ken Yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin
“Gail, I need to talk with you about something this afternoon. Can you come by my office at 3 p.m.?” Adam Galinsky, who was then an assistant professor, thought his request to a doctoral student in his department was innocuous enough. So he didn’t give it a second thought. Gail showed up right on time. Galinsky thought she seemed a little nervous but plunged right in with some minor changes he wanted to make to a joint research project. When they were finished, he was taken aback by her stern admonishment: “Never do that to me again!”
Do what? – he wondered?
“Scare the hell out of me by saying you needed to talk to me,” she said. “I spent the whole day obsessing about whether I was in trouble.”
“Initially, I thought that Gail must be particularly oversensitive,” Galinsky wrote in a recent New York Times essay. “But not long after that, the chairwoman of my department, a full professor who would one day vote on my tenure case, asked me to come and see her later in the day. For the next five hours, I was consumed with fear that I had done something wrong – until we met and I learned that the topic was also insignificant.”
These two situations got Galinsky to thinking about how we use language – and the power that words have, especially when spoken by a person with a lot of power to a person who has much less. He gives it the descriptive name, “the power amplification effect.” And on these Days of Awe, it’s a reminder that sometimes it’s not just about what we say, or how we say it – but to whom we address our words.
A few years ago, I stood on this bima and delivered a High Holy Day sermon on civility in public discourse. But it hardly pays to plead for that anymore. Especially not in a presidential election season, when candidates already have been tagging each other as jerk, jackass, or just plain stupid. The language used by politicians and celebrities of course trickles down to the blogosphere and Twitter, where name-calling and insults are almost a requirement, especially if what you’re looking for is validation of your own offensive, narrow-minded slurs.
So my new tactic is to appeal to one person at a time in the hopes that each of us might recognize that we, too, are people with power, which means that when we speak, people listen. And sometimes we may be oblivious to the impact of our words.
Galinsky wrote that there are three types of communication that become amplified by power: direct communication, silence, and ambiguity. Each of us might use – or misuse – our words in any of these situations.
Let’s start with direct communication. Simple. Straightforward. What could possibly go wrong? Galinsky relates that when he was a first-year doctoral student, he shared an idea in class on the very first day. The professor dismissed his comment by saying simply, “That is completely wrong,” violently shaking his head. Said Galinsky: “I was mortified.”
But a few weeks later, he passed the same professor in the hallway. “He stopped me with a smile and said he had enjoyed reading one of my papers,” wrote Galinsky. And then brightened his student’s day by adding: “You are a lovely writer.”
Now, I don’t know if the professor had second thoughts about shooting down Galinsky’s idea, thereby humiliating him on the first day in front of the whole class. But he certainly did not miss the chance to make up for it, making sure that Galinsky knew he did not consider him a lost cause. More than that, he took the opportunity to build up Galinsky’s self-esteem and his attitude toward the teacher and the class.
He understood the power that a professor has over a student, especially one who aspires to be a teacher himself, and who looks to his professors for validation. As Rabbi Yossi taught: “May my portion be with those who inspire pupils to enter and sit in the house of study, and not with those who inspire them to rise up and leave the house of study.” Inspiration and support worked for Galinsky, who’s now a professor at Columbia Business School.
We generally think of direct communication as a good thing. But, clearly, that’s not always the case. Not when it embarrasses or humiliates or debases. Not when it is said off-handedly, or carelessly, or is needlessly critical. Not when that criticism is amplified by the power you hold over somebody else.
And especially not when those words are intentionally meant to inflict pain or discomfort, or to reinforce the power of one individual over another.
This past year, an Orthodox rabbi in Washington DC, Barry Freundel, was sentenced to six and a half years in jail for “mikveh peeping” – using hidden cameras and recording devices to spy on naked young women in the ritual bath attached to his synagogue.
At least 100 women were victimized, 18 of whom testified against him. They were put into that situation largely through Rabbi Freundel’s emotional and verbal abuse, which he used to control them. They were young, vulnerable women who came to him for conversion to Judaism. He warned them constantly that their fate was in his hands, that he could do as he pleased with them, that he could hold up their futures and leave them in spiritual limbo indefinitely if they didn’t comply with his demands. With some, he kept up the threats for years. And they were so afraid and intimidated, most never said a thing until other victims brought his actions to light.
Just last week, the American Nurses’ Association declared it would no longer tolerate abuse of nurses in the workplace. That shouldn’t be necessary, should it? But among other things, 42 percent of RN’s who responded to a survey said they’d been bullied by people with authority over them. That included not only physical intimidation but hostile remarks, verbal threats, spreading gossip, and intimidation. And this is in health-care settings, where you’d think there would be a high priority on creating a work environment that is safe and nurturing.
Starting this year, all of us who work with religious school children are considered mandated reporters by the state when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse. We’ve had to take classes and receive clearances. Most of the time we think of physical or sexual abuse when it comes to kids. But emotional abuse also counts as child abuse, and it often plays out in verbal threats and criticism. Constantly belittling a child – telling him he is stupid or worthless, criticizing her, blaming her for somebody else’s mistakes, threatening abandonment.
It often goes hand in hand with physical or sexual abuse. You’d better not tell anyone or your mother will hate you. You’d better keep our secret because nobody else wants you.
All direct communication. The words of a person in power to a person with little power can be debilitating, and even deadly.
But silence can be devastating as well. My Grandmom Freda always said: If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. But sometimes silence carries with it implicit criticism. Sometimes withholding important information is a potent weapon that people in power use, often in inappropriate ways.
Before we moved here to Pennsylvania, Don served as the editorial director of a magazine in Lexington, Kentucky. It was part of a large publishing company based in California. For months, there were rumors that the company was in poor financial health, that staff would be let go, that projects would be shelved, that income was being diverted under the table from this publication to others in the company.
But the owner never said a thing. He continued to have staff and freelancers do their jobs – while the paychecks to contract employees like Don became more and more infrequent.
One day, each employee received a letter from the owner via Federal Express, informing them that he had folded the magazine and locked down the building. Nobody would even be able to go back to retrieve personal possessions. Freelancers got stiffed, some of them owed tens thousands of dollars.
After years of lawsuits, they all got about five cents on the dollar, after working in good faith for somebody who deceived them with silence. Had the owner – the person with the power over them – had he been honest with them about the company’s financial condition, they would have had the information they needed to make professional choices that were best for themselves and their families. They would have been sad, but they would not have been left emotionally drained and financially distressed.
And what about silence in situations involving physical danger? Adam Galinsky relates in that essay that his brother, Michael, was once on a flight from Colorado to Montana when, without warning, the plane dropped nearly a thousand feet in 12 seconds. It happened so quickly that a flight attendant hit her head on the ceiling and was knocked unconscious, and an infant flew up in the air and back two rows – thankfully uninjured. But the cabin crew maintained silence, never telling the passengers what was going on. Without information, Michael felt unsafe. Of course his mind went racing to the worst-case scenarios.
Some people do understand the devastating consequences of silence. Last week I mentioned the wonderful surgeon who excised the tumor from my breast. She personally took the time to call me late on a Friday afternoon to tell me that, contrary to her preliminary conclusion, I did indeed have cancer. She said she didn’t think she should be holding onto information through the weekend without giving it to me. She understood how terrifying it is to be in a state of limbo because of somebody else’s silence.
Between silence and direct communication there is the issue of ambiguity. And that’s where Adam Galinsky really got himself into trouble. The phrase “I need to talk to you later” may have seemed straightforward to him when he said it to a student. But when his supervisor said it to him, he realized that it really wasn’t. Why does she want to talk to me? – he wondered. Am I in trouble? Am I getting fired? What did I do wrong? Galinsky wrote: “Because the powerful have the capacity to punish others, seemingly straightforward requests can incite unchecked worry.”
The pilots could have provided at least a little information to reassure frantic passengers that their lives were not in danger. The owner of Don’s magazine company could have been open and honest with employees whose livelihoods depended on the paychecks that he signed. And, as Galinsky himself learned, when you’re the one in a position of power over another, it helps to add information to the mix. “I need to talk to you later” can become: “I need to see you later today, but don’t worry – it’s nothing bad.”
The “power amplification effect” takes place anywhere and any time one person has power over another. The inherent inequality in such a relationship gives more psychological force to the words of the powerful. That can apply to a doctor, a rabbi, a pilot, or an employer. But it also can apply to a bigger child, a more experienced colleague, even a friend with information to share or to withhold.
Sadly, Galinsky writes that, according to his research, the powerful express less gratitude and less praise than those with less power.
We must understand the power each of us has to change that dynamic, day by day, in situations big and small. As an example, the Talmud tells us of this dispute that raged for three years between the disciples of the two great sages Hillel and Shammai:
“The students at one school insisted, ‘Jewish law is in accord with our views,’ while the students in the other said, ‘No, Jewish law is in accord with our views.’ Eventually, a Bat Kol, a Divine Voice, came forth from heaven and declared: ‘The utterances of this group and the utterances of that group are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to the School of Hillel.’
“But since both are the words of the living God, by what merit did the School of Hillel have Jewish law affixed to their rulings? Because they were kindly and humble, and taught not only their own rulings but also those of the School of Shammai – even teaching Shammai’s rulings before their own. This teaches us that one who humbles himself will be exalted by God will be exalted; but the one who exalts himself will be humbled by God.”
The “power amplification effect” can be used to control another person, to get what you what from him, or simply to toy with him – to build yourself up by knocking somebody else down.
But it also can be a force for good. We can use it to build up somebody’s self-esteem. We can empower others to grow in their careers, or to make the best personal decisions for themselves. We can alleviate stress and anxiety in inherently stressful situations. We can show respect for others’ abilities. We can be disciples of Hillel.
All it takes is a word or two of praise, a sincere thank you for a job well done, an important piece of information shared. And an acknowledgement that how we use our power defines us as ethical human beings.
May we learn to use our power wisely and justly. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin
We gather this morning in a sanctuary we have come to know well: The sunlight illuminating the stained glass windows. The soft glow of the polished wood that warms the feel of the room. The seats we get here early to claim so nobody else sits in our preferred places. Yes we’re in a familiar space. But in a whole new time.
Just hours into the year 5776, we are in our season of teshuva, when we take note of time and hope we make the most of it. So how cosmically wonderful it is that this coming weekend, on Shabbat Shuva, we get the season nine premiere of “Doctor Who,” one of television’s all-time great science-fiction shows.
For those of you who are new to the Whoniverse, here’s the standing-on-one-foot synopsis: The Doctor is a Time Lord from the Planet Gallifrey, the last of his species after a time war that wiped out his people. He travels in the TARDIS – which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It’s a ship that traverses space and time and contains the most powerful energy source in the universes. It got stuck in 1969 at some point so it looks like a blue British police telephone booth of the period.
The Doctor occasionally invites earthlings to be his companions, and they must live by one rule: wherever and whenever you are, you must enjoy the journey but be careful not to change a thing. Don’t interfere, because you never know what the repercussions might be. The Doctor himself flaunts that rule regularly, though, especially when someone is in danger.
He seems to have quite an affinity for Earth, and nobody’s sure why. But he looks human – or rather, as he said to one companion, we look Time Lord, since they were here first. My own theory – based on my years of Biblical study – is that the Nephilim, the fallen angels described in the book of Genesis, were actually Time Lords who came to earth looking for a new planet for their besieged people, got a little too friendly with earth girls and were called back home. But their DNA is stamped in us, which is why we now look the way we do, and not like primates walking on our knuckles.
But strictly from a Whovian perspective, there’s a lot we can learn from that Time Lord DNA that can help us to become healthier, happier, and more productive earth girls and boys. And since three is a good number in Judaism, I’ll share with you three Time Lord lessons from what may be the most perfect modern “Dr. Who” episode, which is called simply, “Blink.”
First: Don’t Blink. Don’t turn away. Don’t even blink. If you blink, you’re dead. In this episode, the mortal threat is from a species of especially adept assassins called the Weeping Angels, who hide in stone statues. They’ll sneak up on you if you’re not watching them carefully, steal your life, and remove you to another place and time with no hope of return – taking you away forever from everything you have and everyone you love. In Jewish terms, think of them as the Whovian version of Amalek, who snuck up from behind as the Israelites fled Egypt and attacked the young and the old, the sick and the weak – those who were most vulnerable.
How do you keep from being vulnerable? Ah – well, you see, the Weeping Angels have a weakness. They can’t attack if you’re looking at them. They can’t even move. In fact, they cover their eyes with their hands if you stare them down, because they can’t tolerate face-to-face contact. But while they’re covering their faces, you have to be paying attention. If you don’t – if you even so much as blink – you are in their power.
You might think that just a blink isn’t so bad; it’s just a fraction of a second, after all. But remember how the Psalmist explains why God always keeps on eye on us: “For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passes away, and does not come again.” Maybe there aren’t Weeping Angels around to steal our lives. But we shouldn’t need the threat of permanent dislocation to pay attention to the world around us when there’s so little time to enjoy it.
This morning, our very first prayer was to thank God for the gift of opening our eyes to a new day. This is one gift we cannot take for granted. If we blink – if we turn away or close our eyes – who knows what we’ll miss? A chance reunion with somebody we’ve been missing? A random smile from somebody we love? The leaves just getting that tinge of yellow and orange in the tree in the backyard that heralds the changing of the season? A slight mistake we can correct at work, which will save everybody a lot of grief?
And beyond that, what else might we miss? A child who’s being bullied. A neighbor who’s hungry. A person of a different color, or stature, or culture, or religion, who’s being mistreated just because people won’t take the time to really look at him and see the beauty in him.
The rabbis of the Talmud teach us that God uses the same stamp to make each of us. So each of us is created in the Divine Image, yet each of us is unique. It’s all too easy to miss that miracle.
Not everything we will look at is pretty, of course. Anyone who reads a paper or watches the news knows that a good bit about this world is pretty ugly – and that a lot of that ugliness comes from people not really seeing each other. But even the ugly teaches us valuable lessons.
Rabbi Pinchas once went to visit the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who had finally emerged from years living in a cave. Rabbi Pinchas took him to the baths in Tiberias to soothe the abrasions on Shimon’s skin caused by the sand. “Woe is me that I see you in such a state,” Pinchas cried out. But Shimon replied: “Happy are you that you see me thus. Had you not seen me thus, you would not have found as much learning in me.”
The Weeping Angels, eyes hidden behind their hands, have found so little learning in the world. And maybe their self-imposed ignorance is what makes them such cold-hearted, deadly assassins. So don’t be a Weeping Angel. Don’t blink. Don’t skip over something that might inspire you to do something beautiful. Don’t turn a blind eye to others’ distress. Don’t miss a thing.
Second: Time is not linear. That’s what they thought in the ancient world. But Israel and our Bible changed everyone’s notions of time by adding the cyclical: the repeating seasons highlighted by festivals and offerings and celebrations. I actually tend to think of it as a corkscrew, a combination of the linear and the cyclical since it’s always moving ahead.
It’s why we say we read the same sections of Torah each year in the annual reading cycle – because we always come to it a year older and hopefully a year wiser, with new insights and experiences.
For the Doctor, well, here’s the way he described time in “Blink”:
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”
We actually know that instinctively, right? Summer seems interminable – and then you get the ad inserts for back-to-school sales. Deadlines loom sometime in the future – until that report is due first thing Monday morning. That doctor’s appointment you made two months ago is coming up this Thursday – except it was really last Thursday? And why is there never an alarm on my smart phone to remind me of my brother’s birthday, when I’m quite sure I put it on there last year when I missed it.
If you think about time strictly in linear terms, you might have the tendency to say, oh well, what’s happened is happened, there’s no going back, because, there, I’ve missed the chance. There’s no taking back that joke that offended my students. There’s no helping that elderly woman pick up the groceries she dropped. There’s no catching my daughter’s softball game because I was still at work. There’s no chance to volunteer at the shelter that day they could have used one more hand and adopted out one more dog.
In a way, that’s true. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “time is the only aspect of existence which is completely beyond man’s control.”
Even for the Doctor, the last of the Time Lords, there are fixed points in time he cannot go back and change – and only he seems to know what they are and why they must remain. There was even an episode a couple of years ago called “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and they couldn’t even manage that.
But life is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Like the toothpaste squeezed out of a tube, you can’t put it all back in once it’s out. And yes, people might well see what an unholy mess you’ve made of it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to clean it up. There’s always another day at the shelter, another softball game, another chance to apologize to somebody you’ve offended with a thoughtless, offhand remark. You just have to want to do it. You just have to make the time to do it.
Making things right is what t’shuva is all about. Not just turning away from something you regret, but turning toward something you can be proud of. It’s what these Days of Awe are all about. And it can’t just be a one-off – Oh, okay, I did my duty, I’m done now.
T’shuva doesn’t work that way. It has to be part of that big ball of timey-wimey stuff that is your time on earth, part and parcel of who you are. The rabbis had a saying: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah. One mitzvah leads to another, one transgression leads to another. If you make a habit of one or the other, that’s the way your life will end up. That’s what you’ll be remembered for. But even somebody who’s made a habit of aveirot can turn it around.
In the Book of Chronicles, Joseph’s son Manasseh got himself in hot water by worshiping a whole pantheon of idols, and was about to be tortured:
“He turned to all the other gods he worshiped, to no avail, and finally said to himself: Well, I’ll try my father’s God. But if he doesn’t answer me, he’s as worthless as all the others. The ministering angels in heaven began shutting heaven’s windows so that Manasseh’s prayer would not be heard. They came to God, complaining: Master of the universe, a man who set up an idol in Your Temple – surely you would never accept the repentance of such a man! The Holy One replied: If I do not receive him in his repentance, I shall be barring the door to all those who would repent. God then made a little opening under the Divine Throne to hear and accept Manasseh’s prayer of forgiveness.”
Life is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Maybe you can’t undo the harm you’ve already done – even to yourself. But you can make up for it.
Third: When you save yourself, you can save the world. You really can.
The protagonist in the episode is named Sally Sparrow, whose best friends are taken by the Weeping Angels and relocated to other times and places. One, her best girlfriend, is relocated back to the 1920’s. The other is an elderly gentleman dying in a hospital bed when Sally finally finds him, and the two have just a few fleeting hours together. But The Doctor knows all of this stuff, all the timey-wimey disconnects, and Sally becomes obsessed with trying to understand how that’s possible.
Keep in mind: The Doctor may be a Time Lord, but sometimes, time gets the better of him. He had somehow gotten stuck in 1969 and, had somebody not saved him and gotten him back to the TARDIS, the whole of the planet would have been destroyed.
In a convoluted, wibbly-wobbly way, it turns out it was Sally Sparrow herself who had given the Doctor the tools he needed to get himself unstuck – thus unwittingly fulfilling the rabbinic decree that one who saves a single life, it is accounted to her as though she had saved the entire world.
Sally only understands her own role in this at the very end of the episode, after she literally has stared down the Weeping Angels and defeated them. That’s when the timey-wimey elements of her life finally start to make sense, and when she finds her purpose (and true love). That’s when she understands the power of a single human being to influence the outcome of events seemingly out of her control.
Like Sally Sparrow, we never know the impact our language and our behavior might have on any given outcome. Like Sally Sparrow, it might some day all come down to us. In the Talmud, Rav is quoted as saying that “all the set times for redemption have passed. Now, the matter solely depends on repentance and good deeds.” We can’t wait for God to turn things around. We have to commit to a better future, and then we have to work for it.
“Rabbi Hanina bar Papa once asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman to explain to him the importance of this call to God from the Book of of Lamentations: ‘You, O God, have covered yourself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through.’ Rabbi Shmuel replied: ‘Prayer is like an immersion pool, which is open for use at some times but sometimes is closed. The gates of prayer are sometimes closed and sometimes open. But repentance is like the open sea – so that whoever wishes to immerse in open waters can do so whenever he wants. So too the gates of repentance are always open.’”
That’s not to say that God will refuse to hear our prayers after the gates close at Neilah next week. It’s that, once the Days of Awe are over, the time for prayer is over and the time for action starts in earnest.
As my colleague and our friend Rabbi Richie Address wrote recently, “we do not own time; rather, we rent it. . . as we get ready to start a new year, we can be reminded how precious that time is, especially as we get older.”
Well, in the preview of this Saturday night’s season-nine premiere, The Doctor proclaims, “even for somebody two and a half thousand years old, life is short.” And each of us is given only a fraction of that.
I guarantee you that every episode of this season’s shows will be chock full of adventures and misadventures, making mistakes and making up for them, saving whole species by saving just one, and savoring time and space in all its wibbly-wobbly beauty. Here’s to a year in which each of us strives to do the same. Ken yehi ratson, be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin