Life, however challenging, brings choices

Minutes turn to hours, hours to days, days to weeks and then months. It all starts to seem a blur. But, in our home, two 24-hour periods of time stand out. One is Friday night to Saturday morning and the other, Tuesday night to Wednesday afternoon.

Why these days? Many, if not all, would get the first answer right, Shabbat. The second period of time might be a bit more challenging, so I will answer it for you.

Wednesday morning is when the recycle and trash trucks pick up on our street. No matter how good or bad, meaningful or mindless the prior week, garbage day arrives. We empty the many small trash cans around the house, collect the last week of newspapers to be added to the recycle bin, grab the two large bins from our garage and set them out only to return them to the house Wednesday night and begin the ritual again.

At a time when there is so much sameness, Shabbat and trash day frame our week. They draw attention to the passage of time in this pandemic. Both days bring order to our new and strange lives.

But of course, there are differences. On Friday night, I pause, turn on the computer and look at faces we have not seen in a week. Members and friends light candles together and wish each other a Shabbat Shalom on Zoom. On Saturday I might join one of the community’s many Torah study sessions and then our own Shabbat meditation and Havdalah groups. In that 24-hour Shabbat period of time, I have a powerful reminder of the potential for holiness in each moment. 

On Wednesdays, we clear the cans, discard the moments and materials of the past week. We consume, we collect, and then we throw it all out to begin again. 

Both days mark the passage of time. But one, as important as garbage collection and recycling can be, is a reminder that I am at heart an animal that devours the material and minutes of my days. The other moment, Shabbat, reminds me that I can be something more.

This year, Shabbat occurs on Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish New Year. These two sacred days observed together remind us that our lives can be something more, especially in a pandemic. Both tell us that life is something beyond birthday cake and a song. Although, I confess, I love a good birthday cake.

Our Rosh Hashanah Torah readings speak of God asking Abraham twice to discard his children. Once, to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and then, immediately thereafter, to bring Isaac up to a mountain to be sacrificed. But in each case, God stops Abraham to remind him that his offspring will persevere. We have a role to play and are not creatures controlled by the whim of gods. Life, however challenging, brings us choices and God wants us to be an active participant in controlling our destiny and owning those choices.

In his book, “The Gifts of the Jews,” Thomas Cahill, a non-Jewish author, explains to his mostly non-Jewish readers something we know as Jews, but sometimes forget. We are not predestined to be machines marching at the whims of whatever fate brings upon us. We are commanded to be active participants in our own history. 

The birthday cake is fun to eat, taking out the garbage is necessary, but living requires more. Let us make new vows in this new year that at the moment does not look so different from the last one. Let us make our moments matter whatever the circumstances so they can be more than just the sum total of the passing of seconds. 

May Rosh Hashanah, our New Year, also known as Yom Teruah, the day of the shofar blast, be an awakening to the potential for holiness in Shabbat and in all of our days — even when taking out the garbage cans.

Brian Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Fort Worth.

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