Remember when you were a student and had a big paper or project due? Remember hanging out with your friends, or reading that novel, or watching that movie, or playing that game instead of working on the paper? Remember the panicked feeling as the deadline approached and you had not yet started work? Consciously, you knew that you could have had all of the fun, without the uneasy undertone, if you had done the work first. Yet, for one reason or another, you procrastinated until the deadline towered before you to push you into action. Procrastination remains one of my besetting sins. Remember when you were a kid and there was a toy you really wanted? Or perhaps you were a teen and worked doing chores for neighbors to save for game or piece of equipment you knew would be really fun, but when you got the toy, the game, the special scooter or bike, it turned out to be not so special. Perhaps it ended up gathering dust and you regretted the effort of pleading for a gift or the sweat invested in working to save for the special thing. This is a sadder case than the one of procrastination. In procrastination, there is at least some level of choice-here one is working for a goal one truly thinks will bring a measure of enjoyment of even happiness and one finds that the goal is flawed and a disappointment.
R. Aryeh Kaplan translates the beginning of the 55th chapter of the book of Isaiah from today’s Haftorah as follows:
Say there! Every one who is thirsty, come and drink. He who has no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good. Let your soul delight in abundance.
This Haftorah is clearly tied into the beginning of the Torah portion in Deuteronomy 11:26: See, I am placing before you a blessing and a curse.
Isaiah is saying to us, in G-D’s Voice, “Listen here, Dweezel, you know what to do. You have a clear choice between blessing and curse. Just follow the rules you have been given and all will be fine. It ain’t that hard!”
There is a problem with that. We are working with old maps. The terrain has changed, there are new roads, old roads have been consumed by forest or waste, and seismic shifts have blocked off formally open land. Time and again, throughout our history, we have had to rework our maps, striven to follow the course that has been laid for us in a world that shifts even as we set our sights on the next goal. Some courses, such as the command to wipe out some other peoples, have become repugnant to us. Much of the time, though we may have a sense of direction, we are stumbling about in that part of the chart marked “here there be dragons.”
Even when we know what we should do we often don’t do it, as in the case with procrastination. We know we should get down to work, but for any number of reasons we delay. We are tired of working, we need a break, we are worried that we will not do the kind of job we want to do, or we just want to have some fun. We may think there will be plenty of time later, only to have the hours slip away or something come up that swallows up that plenty of time and turns it in to a heart pounding race to the deadline.
Worse than this is the case were we think we know what we should do, what the right road is. We work hard, are focused and dedicated. We reach our goal, sometimes after years of work, only to find it is not where we want to be. Think of all those people who seek only wealth to find, even great success, unsatisfying in the end. There is the saying that he with most toys at the end wins and the response that he with the most toys still dies in the end. Don’t get me wrong, we are supposed to enjoy life and material pleasures, but the emphasis on this aspect, sold so vigorously in our consumer society, often finds us with a sense of unease and unfulfillment—a sense of the lurking abyss of meaninglessness that can reach up an grab the wealthy and the poor alike.
The problem is, perhaps, in seeing happiness and meaning lying in some goal out there or up ahead. There is nothing wrong with goals; I frequently set them and work to achieve them. They can give direction and impetus to life. Yet, we are foolish to think, “If only I have this or achieve that I will be happy.” I have no prescription or method for finding the right goals in life. It seems to me that neither does Judaism. We are not selling salvation in this sanctuary. I suggest that the previous analogy of a map is no longer valid, if it ever was.
What we have for sale is a set of rules of the road. Indeed, we are giving them away for free. General rules such as “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Love the stranger, for you know what it is to be a stranger”, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others”, “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human”, and specific rules about rituals that help keep us in touch with our people and G-D, rules about eating that keep us mindful about the way we interact with the Earth and the other species living here, rules about rest to help us balance the doing and being in our lives. We are not always rigorous in our adherence to these rules—who has not set that cruise control at 69 mph in a 65 mph zone, or changed the radio station when driving though we have been urged not to. Yet, as the traffic laws, when generally adhered to, keep driving safe and pleasant, these rules of life can help us moving along life’s highway and take pleasure in the journey, even if we do not know where we are going or even why we are traveling at all.
Our driving test is the living of our lives. Every road can be a path of kindness; every highway a trail of justice. It is all in how you choose to drive it. The Hebrew word for Jewish law is halacha, which comes from the root for walking. We are literally offered a way to walk through our lives. Yes, as with the maps we have been offered, some rules may be out dated, need to be changed or reinterpreted, yet, as we wrestle to adapt them to our ever shifting world, they can make the way smoother even when we feel lost in the journey of our lives.
We pray that we have the wisdom to know what our tasks and directions should be in the grand course of our lives. May we have the strength to do what we should do when we discern what it is. Remember, though, even if you do not know where you are going and are unsure of your direction, you can always walk in kindness, always take pleasure in the beauty and joys, no matter how small, that present themselves along the way, you can choose to be a good traveling companion to those who walk beside you, even if it is only for a little while. You will find that the best way to be blessed in your travels is to be a blessing yourself. Good journeys, my friends.
From a sermon given by Seth F. Oppenheimer, student Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Starkville, MS.