Slow down and let blessings catch up

By Rabbi David Stern
Parashat Ki Tavo

In his poem “A Man Doesn’t Have Time,” the late great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai wrote a rebuttal to Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, a retort to the symmetrical poetry of “A time to be born and a time to die/A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.”

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything. 

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.

Amichai’s insight rings true: We don’t experience life one dimension at a time. At a funeral, we experience grief at loss and gratitude for a life shared. At a wedding, a parent holds close and lets go. I remember the week that a friend told me his cancer had gone into remission; his brother had died the week before. Relief and mourning, joy and sadness, we “laugh and cry with the same eyes.”

But I think Amichai is also teaching us about the pace of things: “A man doesn’t have time in his life/To have time for everything.” Our experiences pile onto each other in part because we don’t grant them their own space. We go back to work too soon after the funeral. We bring our work laptops on our honeymoons. We cram in just one more meeting, one more social commitment, one more email, one more deal and we tell ourselves that we’ll slow down soon.

And then comes a curious pair of verses from this week’s Torah portion: “Now, if you obey the Lord your God, to observe faithfully all God’s commandments which I enjoin upon you this day…. All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). A more literal translation of the final phrase would be, “All these blessings will come upon you and catch up to you” or even “overtake you.”

The great Hasidic commentator the Degel Machaneh Ephraim wondered at this strange phrase: “It should have stated just the opposite — that we will catch up to the blessings, not that the blessings will catch up to us!” But of course, the Degel argues, that is just the point: “Sometimes we run away from what is good because we are short on awareness.”

We talk about chasing glory, pursuing happiness, grabbing the brass ring, running after success, all the sprints and marathons. But Parashat Ki Tavo and the Degel challenge us to a different dynamic: The problem is not that the blessings are just ahead of us, but they have been chasing us all along, if only we could slow down to notice them. The blessing of the child is already at the dinner table while we are still at work. The blessing of the friend is just a phone call away, but our minds are still racing about the way they might have slighted us. The blessing in the opportunity to bring healing where there is pain, justice where there is oppression. The blessing of the spouse who seeks greater connection, but we are too distracted to notice. The treasure of this tradition that is right before us, but we are too busy chasing more shallow satisfactions. We do not need to run faster to catch our blessings — we need to move more slowly, more mindfully through the world, so that our blessings can catch up to us.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, let’s be careful about resolutions that just give us more to chase. Ki Tavo suggests that perhaps our goal should be presence and not pursuit, awareness and not achievement. As 5784 begins, may God’s blessings catch up, and lift us up, to a new year of health and peace.

Rabbi David Stern is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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