Gut Yontif and Shana Tova.
Tonight as we gather here for the beginning of our High Holy Day season, and the formal start to a new year, we’re also, with Labor Day, marking the informal end of summer. I hope that over the past few months, many of you’ve had the opportunity to spend some time away. And I’m pleased to say that for the first time in I don’t remember how long, I also got the chance to get away for a large part of the summer. Now you may know that it’s unusual for rabbis to take off significant chunks of time. And if you ever wondered what it looks like for a rabbi to go on vacation, it’s not so different from what other people experience on their time off. Shorts, sandals, a few gin and tonics. But then, of course there is this one notable difference:
“Good afternoon, Rabbi Matt Green. This is Susan Levy calling – a friend as well as a congregant. Just calling to check where you’ve been? We haven’t seen you on services! Are you on vacation somewhere? A long vacation? Anyway, just hoping you’re around and…”
I got Susan’s permission to share that, don’t worry. But it gives you some idea of the kind of response to when rabbis go on vacation. And for good measure, let’s just get a little last taste:
“I think Judy Wild said she spotted you the other day, so you might be back in Brooklyn. Anyway, I had emailed you once or twice but I haven’t heard, so I’m just calling as a friendly friend. Alright, when you have a chance, give me a call…”
I missed you, too, Susan. That was very sweet. And from the many other texts and voicemails I received, it seems that Susan wasn’t the only one to realize the uniqueness of a rabbi going away. Now, let’s be real: I love being in this kind of community. Where members check in on one another, and on their rabbis, when they’re not around. And it was unusual for me to be gone for such a long time.
As someone who speaks from the bimah about the value of rest each week, this summer gave me the chance to practice what I literally preach. As it happens, this Rosh Hashanah marks the seventh year that both Rabbi Timoner and I have served this community. Some rabbis take a sabbatical in their seventh year. Which probably isn’t in the cards for either of us right now. But as I went away these past couple months, I kind of imagined my time off as a mini-sabbatical. Giving me the chance to breathe and also get back in touch with what it means to really rest.
In my own time away, and in the trips that many of my peers took, I observed that there seem to be basically two categories of vacation.
On the one hand, you have the vacation that is more like a party. Letting loose and having fun the way that we can’t during a normal workweek. This is where the gin and tonics come in handy. At one point this summer, I went on a weeklong adventure at a resort where the very explicit goal was for travelers to forget about the tsuris of normal life. To take on new identities, to take risks, to consume as much as possible, and, in essence, to avoid reality. Before it seems like I’m about to condemn this mode of rest, I want to be clear that this kind of vacation is awesome. It was a really fun week. It reminded me a little bit of Purim, taking on a new identity and imbibing to avoid the painful reality of life.
But then you have another kind of vacation, sometimes interspersed with partying and sometimes isolated unto itself, which I would call a retreat. Going out into the woods, or the mountains, or even doing something closer to home that allows you to just be. To recalibrate and recenter and renew. Just a couple days after my week at the resort, I drove up to the Adirondacks to be with friends for this kind of rest. The goal here was not to let loose so much as it was to be still. Not to dance, but to sit. And to canoe and hike, sure. But to really sit away from civilization, away from social expectations, and to be still. If the first trip was Purim, this was a little more like Shabbat. Taking a breath instead of taking a step. And being present with myself.
Neither form of rest or vacation is inherently better than the other, and both are probably necessary at different times. After all, the Jewish calendar commands both kinds of experiences. Sometimes it’s useful to be intoxicated, and sometimes it’s important to be radically awake. But it is essential to understand the distinction. And even if these modes of being are so different from one another, many of us frequently confuse or ellide the two.
In Hebrew, one word for alcohol is Shechar. As in Shikur in Hebrew, or shikker, in Yiddish. Shin Chaf Resh. The word is almost identical to Sin Chaf Resh, where all that changes between the two is the dot above the letter. But if you read it as “sin chaf resh,” Sachar or S’char, you get a word meaning “reward.” It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Shechar can feel like sachar. Especially after a long week. Sometimes the intoxication and escape of certain kinds of fun can feel like the reward of true rest. But shechar and sachar are two dramatically distinct kinds of experiences. The little dot above the letter that makes it shin or sin makes all the difference. And if we’re looking for the reward of true rest, intoxication may be a backwards step.
For this, sachar, the reward of rest, no amount of escape will help you. Dancing and drinking and even being happy may be tools of avoidance, whereby a true retreat or recalibration remains elusive. Instead, digging deep is what’s required. The Talmudic sages offer us a famous phrase, “drosh v’kabel s’char.” Which means that in order to receive a reward, you have to study. Examine. Expound. Our rabbis believed that in order to experience the meaning of Torah, you have to interrogate it. Sigmund Freud and our high holiday prayerbook might add, in order to experience the meaning of life, you have to interrogate it.
And this, I think, is the point of a retreat. Not merely to have fun, but to dive deep into yourself. To sit as still as possible. And to emerge more awake to what it means to be alive.
Each of us here tonight has a special reason to understand the distinctions between different kinds of time off. Because the year that we are gathered now to celebrate, 5782, is a shmita year: meaning a sabbatical year, in the agricultural calendar of the Land of Israel. Tonight we enter a biblically ordained year of rest, the seventh year in the cycle of the land. And though most of us here are not Israeli farmers, we still have an invitation to consider what this year of rest might look like, beginning this evening.
It’s odd, in a way, to think about this year, 5782, as the year that we take off. After all, what have we been doing this whole pandemic? Sitting at home in front of computer screens, watching television, taking up hobbies, maybe drinking more alcohol than normal, unable to hustle and produce the way we normally might. But all of that stuff was, by and large, an attempt at escaping. We did what we needed to do in the pandemic to feel OK. And this, I think, was the right move. After all, ancient Jews had plenty of reasons to want a little Purim escapism each Springtime. And so did we, during the past year and a half.
But now, as we approach the next phase of the pandemic, moving through the mercurial headspace of vaccines and breakthrough cases, it’s time for a real retreat, in the sense of shmita. Whether we are thinking of our personal lives, or of our collective, it’s time not to avoid, or run away from, but to sit with what we have become.
The notion of shmita, or sabbatical, is first mentioned in the book of Exodus. We read, “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops, but during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do.” From its biblical beginnings, shmita was all about recalibrating society as much as it was about restoring the land itself. It took the idea of Shabbat and extended it to a yearly cycle of sustaining the planet. This, of course, should give us pause as we confront a warming Earth with unprecedented weather patterns. But it is just as useful for us to consider in our lives. We who do not own farms can still benefit from the idea of a yearlong period of retreat and release.
There are explicit connections between shmita and the High Holy Day season, as well. Leviticus refers to shmita as Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of all Shabbats. Which is also the phrase the Torah uses for Yom Kippur, signifying that shmita, like Yom Kippur, carries with it a spiritual aspect of release.
When shmita was first reintroduced by modern Jewish farmers in the land of Israel, the foremost Ashkenazi spiritual authority of that time was Abraham Isaac Kook. Rav Kook was an avowed proponent of shmita, and for him, the goal of the sabbatical year was not merely to respect the earth and let it rest, but to teach a lesson to all those who till it. He wrote, “Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways, is meant to move this nation, when it is well-ordered, to rise towards an encounter with the heights of its inner moral and spiritual life. We touch the divine qualities inside us that transcend all the strategems of the social order, and that cultivates and elevates our social arrangements, bringing them toward perfection.”
Rav Kook is saying that the purpose of shmita is to still ourselves. And in our stillness, to perfect ourselves and our world. Only in stillness, can we encounter the divine within ourselves that allows us to move forward. We may be more inclined after Delta has ruined so many of our vaccinated plans, to act out — to get angry, perhaps to drink, to do whatever it takes to forget how horrible the world seems at times. But the goal of 5782 might be the opposite: to sit with how horrible things have felt for so long, to try hard not to avoid the pain, and to see what comes up for us.
Tomorrow morning as we chant the text of Unenetaneh Tokef, we will hear one of the most iconic sentences of the machzor: Uv’shofar gadol yitaka, v’kol d’mamah dakah yishama. The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard. This phrasing comes from the prophecy of Elijah in the Book of Kings, when Elijah encounters a mighty wind, splitting mountains, and shattering rocks. But God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. Rather, after the fire, it was in a still small voice that Elijah perceived his prophecy.
As we hear the shofar on this holiday, we get a chance to leave room for that still, small voice within ourselves. Entering this shmita year, how will we do that? What will it take for us to sit still, for a moment, or a week, or longer? To experience Shabbat Shabbaton at some point during this holiday season, and maybe even at different moments throughout 5782.
Most of us won’t be able to take a sabbatical away from our responsibilities this year, taking leaves of absence from our lives. Fortunately, shmita implies the opposite, beckoning us to be radically present. We fool ourselves into thinking that only going away for a wild adventure will restore us, when really, the kind of rest, release, and recalibration we might pursue this year requires sitting. Wherever we are. In these pews, on your couches or chairs at home.
And allowing ourselves to sit still.
This year may be the year for just that. And these high holidays offer us a great place to start. May each of us find the ability during these days to center ourselves, and set ourselves up for a real shmita — a year of sitting still. And if at times, we feel a little overwhelmed by that still small voice within ourselves, may we find friends like Susan Levy with whom to sit together.