Thursday, September 13, 2012

Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life

Bein Ohr L’Choshech: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life
Shabbos, September 8th, Parshas Ki Savo
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg - Boca Raton Synagogue 

Modern man places a tremendous premium on speed.  We want our cars to go from zero to sixty in as few seconds as possible.  We often upgrade our computers in order to get the fastest processors possible.   Dial up internet, which just a few years ago was considered luxurious, is today thought of as antiquated and practically obsolete.   We insist on the web-browser with the fastest speed, eat at the take out restaurant that can truly provide the fastest food.  Our oatmeal and our coffee are instant, our TV shows and movies are on demand, and our stocks and sports scores come in real time.   We daven at warp speed.  We talk swiftly, we walk briskly, and we drive quickly.  We want everything, we want it fast, in most cases, we want it now.

U’shmartem es divrei ha’bris ha’zos va’asisem osam, l’maan taskilu eis kol asher ta’asun, you shall observe the words of this covenant and you shall perform them, so that you will succeed in all that you do.”   This innocuous, often neglected and overlooked pasuk at the end of our parsha is in truth a critically important statement of Jewish philosophy.  It contains an answer to a question that plagues countless Jews, a question I have been asked countless times. 

What is the point of halacha?  Why all of the minutia, the details, the restrictions, boundaries, rules, and regulations that cramp our lives and impinge on our lifestyles? Last Shabbos we spoke about “Jewish exceptionalism” and the awesome responsibility of being different.  I understand how the mitzvos that charge us to live more ethically and care for others more deeply differentiate us.  But, why does it matter what order I tie my shoes in, or what kind of food I eat, or if I daven Mincha one minute before sunset or one minute after? 

Our parsha provides the answer.  Asks the Torah implicitly - do you want to know what is the purpose of halacha, the essence of Jewish living, the goal of mitzvosL’maan taskilu eis kol asher ta’asun.  The Ibn Ezra translates taskilu as “k’mo tatzlichu,” so that you will succeed in all that you do.  Torah, mitzvos and halacha empower us to find success in every aspect of our lives.  But how?

The Targum Yerushalmi, however, translates taskilu differently – “d’tisbonenun yas kol mah d’mis’abrin, you shall guard the words of the Torah and observe them so that you will contemplate, all that you do.”  Taskilu, for the Targum does not mean success.  Rather, it means hisbonenus, being contemplative.  You see, the purpose of Torah, the essence of a halachic life is to be a misbonein, mindful, conscious, aware and present in all that we do. 

Most people, indeed most of us, are on autopilot. We are creatures of habit, custom, tradition and routine.  It is as if our bodies are preprogrammed and know exactly what to do, whether our minds are present or not.  Perhaps you can relate to pulling into your driveway, but you can’t remember driving home.  Or, maybe you have finished an entire bag of potato chips, but you feel like you only had a couple.  Or, maybe you have closed the siddur at the end of davening knowing you said everything, though you can’t remember reciting one word.

Says the Targum Yerushalmi, all of halacha, our entire framework of living, is designed to bring us into the present, to help us be mindful and to allow us to live at a higher state of consciousness.   Kashrus is designed to make us think as we put food in our mouths, time bound mitzvos make us conscious of time, the rules of lashon harah make us cognizant of what we say, modesty makes us think before we get dressed, business ethics demand that we examine every decision we make and the list goes on.  L’maan taskilu, all of Torah is there so that we are transformed into misbonenim, from zombies mindlessly living life, into thoughtful, mindful, people living in the present.

The final al cheit that we will be reciting repeatedly a short time from now concludes, al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha b’simhon lei’vav.  What is simhon lei’vav, I don’t even remember doing it, why am I apologizing for it?

This expression actually comes from the tochecha in our parsha.  “Yakecha Hashem b’shigaon u’v’ivaron u’vsimhon lei’vav, Hashem will strike you with madness, blindness and confounding of the heart.”  Rashi explains that simhon lei’vav means otem ha’leiv, the clogging of the heart.  Just as cholesterol clogs the physical arteries and contributes to heart disease, so too apathy clogs the spiritual arteries and contributes to hardheartedness.  This is indeed a great curse.

The great ba’al mussar, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the Alter of Kelm elaborates on the idea of clogged spiritual arteries:  He says the following: “Simhon lei’vav is the closing off of the heart, as if a deep sleep overwhelms the person.  It’s similar to when a person is put to sleep with anesthesia for purposes of an operation on one of his limbs.  While he’s submerged in a deep sleep, he feels nothing when they cut into his flesh.  So too when a person’s heart has been struck with ‘clogging of the heart,’ he is stuck in a deep sleep and doesn’t wake up even if his life is in danger.”

Put simply my friends - when we speak carelessly, put food into our mouths mindlessly, allow the passage of time thoughtlessly, when we are not mindful and present in all that we do, we are asleep, even when we are awake.  Being a creature of habit, and routine leaves us feeling as if we can’t change or grow.  That helplessness and hopelessness leaves us feeling in a very dark place.  This second installment of our sermon series of “The Courage to Make Havdalah and Lead a Life of Distinction” is focused on Bein Ohr L’Chosech, between light and dark.   This morning, I want to share with you how to light up your life in ways you never imagined, ways that will empower you to make changes you never thought you could make. 

The secret to a life of taskilu, a life of success, is a life of hisbonenus, a life of mindfulness.  Be present and give thought to every morsel of food that enters your body.  Be aware of every word you speak, every decision you make, every penny you spend, and every moment that passes.  But how?

The answer is simple, slow down.  The only way to achieve mindfulness and to find the serenity it provides, is by hitting the brakes a little bit.  Slowing down is an art, and unfortunately it is ever increasingly becoming a lost one.  

Our society encourages us to think of the winner as the one who comes in first.   But, the truth is, in life, more often than not, the winner is the one who finishes last, the one who moved most slowly and savored every moment. 

Consider the following:  The greatest pleasures in life are enjoyed most when they are savored leisurely and the important accomplishments are most meaningful and lasting, when they are achieved slowly.  We all know that the proper way to appreciate a fine wine or even a shot of single malt scotch is not to swallow it quickly, but to allow it to roll on your tongue and make contact with every taste bud while at the same time inhaling the pleasant aroma only then allowing it to slowly trickle down the back of your throat.   

We are drawn to fast food, but it is slow eating, which not only provides the best taste, but is most healthy for you as well.  The Rambam tells us we are to chew our food until it becomes liquid before we swallow it.  I challenge you to go to lunch today and not swallow one morsel that enters your mouth before you have chewed it a minimum of 5 times. 

The University of Rhode Island at Kingston found that, on average, people who ate slowly consumed almost 70 fewer calories per meal than those ate quickly. Multiply that by at least three meals a day, 7 days a week and you will be buying new clothing in no time.

Doctors often point to slower breathing as the simplest way to better your health. "Humans have two nervous systems: an accelerator, or the sympathetic nervous system, and a brake, or the parasympathetic nervous system," says Dr. Mehmet Oz. "In our hectic lives, we spend more time hitting the gas than the brake, and our breathing becomes quick and shallow."   We don't draw enough oxygen deep into our lungs, and eventually we harm our health, all because we are breathing too quickly.

But, slowing down won’t only help physical health; it will expand your mind and sharpen your memory.   Speed-readers impress us, but we never bother to find out how much they retain.  Dr. Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the author of Intelligent Memory says that our memories benefit greatly by reading more slowly.  In fact, he encourages us to read important things twice.  “The first read is to absorb the general themes.  Once you have those organizers in your head, you'll be able to store more details from the second pass."

And lastly, is there an area of life that stands to benefit more by slowing down, than our spirituality.   Our parsha tells us “u’va’u alecha kol ha’berachos ha’eileh v’hisigucha, all these berachos will come upon you and overtake you.”  What does it mean to be overtaken by blessing?  The answer is simple.   In truth, there is blessing all around us.  Most of us have our health, we have families, we have a roof over our head, a job, a car, a community and more.  The problem is that life is moving at such a fast pace, we don’t even notice the beracha.  V’hisigucha is the blessing that we slown down enough to see the blessing.

Slow down and savor a magnificent sunset.  Savor a few moment with your children in the car, savor a coffee with your spouse, savor the walk home from shul, savor the book, savor the song, savor the experiences of life and savor life itself.  If we don’t learn to slow down when we cross the threshold into Shul, both literally and figuratively, we stand no chance of connecting spiritually.

The 19th century American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”  We all want to elevate our lives.  Long before Thoreau, the Torah told us how.  L’maan taskilu, hisbonenus, be conscious and mindful in all that you do.  

If we start to slow down and work to be present in every moment, our food will taste better, our bodies will become healthier, our relationships will become richer, our minds will expand larger, our memories will last longer, and our souls will reach higher.   In the future, let’s be in the present so that we can truly anticipate that the rest of our lives will be the best of our lives.

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