(RNS) — I was talking with an old friend about travel — a fellow very tall person.
He told me: “Whenever I fly anywhere farther than two hours away, I fly business class. I am 6 foot 2, and I simply cannot fit into those regular seats.”
I said to him: “I get it. I feel the same way. But, how do you afford it?”
He said to me: “It’s really quite simple. I use miles and my Amex points.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “I could do that. I have a lot of miles and points.”
To which he responded:
“You might as well. Your loved ones won’t be able to use them to upgrade your funeral.”
It reminds me of something I saw in an old synagogue in a small village of Poland — a quote that is framed on the wall of the sanctuary.
It comes from “Sefer Ha-Chaim,” the “Book of Life,” which was published in Krakow in the year 1593. Its author was Chaim ben Bezalel, which is probably why he named the book “Sefer Ha-Chaim”
You have probably heard of his brother, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the MAHARAL, whose greatest professional achievement was the creation of the mythical golem, the creature that protected the Jews of Prague — until he ran amok and had to be destroyed.
But, Chaim was no slouch. He wrote this work during the two months in 1578 when he was confined to his house as a result of a plague.
“People worry about losing their money and they never worry about losing their days. Your money won’t help you, and your days will never come back.”
Get it? We can theoretically get our money back (and let us offer a silent prayer for the stock market) — but we can never get our days back.
This is about the urgency of today. Do it now. Yes, I originally delivered these words on Yom Kippur. But, they are equally relevant, if not more relevant, to the festival of Sukkot. The sukkah (hut) is fragile and temporary — a hymn to today.
Likewise, the plants that make up the lulav bundle — the willow and the myrtle — lose their leaves with every passing day of the festival. Until, by the end, the willow is a frail twig.
I think this is the lesson. Beauty fades. Even the most beautiful flower can become a twig.
Decades ago, when my mother died at this season, I remember sitting with my brother and with my father, may his memory also be a blessing, going through my mother’s stuff. We found her beautiful clothing, with the tags still attached. She expected to wear them — to my wedding, perhaps, which she was too ill to actually attend, or other occasions. That was not going to happen.
Her still-tagged dresses testified to the fact she was living — yes, with hope — in the presence of unseen tomorrows that would never come.
We utter the blessing, the shehecyanu, with utmost regularity at any sacred moment, at any joyous occasion.
But, the official name of that blessing is not the shehecyanu.
It is birchat ha-zman, the blessing for time. Ha-zaman ha-zeh: not some idealized moment in the past, and not some imagined moment in the future.
This moment, today.
To live for today could mean a life of hedonism, a life of unrestrained pleasure.
The prophet Isaiah spoke out and castigated those who said: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Neither am I counseling those words that once appeared in the window of a bakery on Columbus Avenue in New York City: “Life is uncertain; eat dessert first.”
I am saying: Don’t waste time.
The great sage, Hillel, said: “Do not say ‘When I have leisure, I will study and learn.’ Perhaps you will never have leisure.”
Waste no time, he was saying — in the task of growing intellectually and spiritually. This is not the proverbial can that you can kick down the road.
Yet another ancient sage said: “Repent one day before your death.”
How can you know when you are going to die?
That is precisely it, he said.
Act as if every day were to be your last.
When I got COVID in May, in the middle of the night I woke up in a cold sweat that was not induced by the illness. It was my anxiety: Had I updated my will? Did my kids know my account numbers? Could they access my pension?
I was being a little over-dramatic. But could you blame me?
Act as if every day could be your last — not by seeking fun, but by seeking meaning — by making each day a glimpse into eternity.
On Yom Kippur, in the days of the ancient temple, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and would utter the unpronounceable-to-everyone-else Four Letter Name of God — Yud Hay Vav Heh.
That sacred word was an impossible combination of the past, present and future tense of the Hebrew root hayah, which means “to be.”
God’s Name was IS-WAS-WILL-BE. Or, all of those things said simultaneously, which is impossible to say.
That is the meaning of eternity. Those moments when the past, the present and the future come together. Those moments that lift you out of time.
That is my job description. Or, rather, that is the benefit of my career as a rabbi.
I feel that sense of eternity when I am at a bris, or a baby-naming, and I feel that this moment could have happened at any time in Jewish history. At that moment, past, present and future collapses.
I feel that sense of eternity when I stand next to a child who is becoming bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah and sense that moment — rabbi with child — could have happened at any moment in Jewish history, at any place in Jewish history, going back almost a thousand years.
At that moment past, present and future collapses into one. No science-fiction film could ever imagine it.
There are other such moments as well.
Those moments describe the sacred, the holy, the other-worldly embedded in this world, the ineffable, like the name of God — that which we cannot say, and that which we cannot pronounce — that which is in the soul and might come into the mind but rarely can leave the mouth.
Your homework for the coming year: multiply those moments. Realize that every day can contain a moment in which we can glimpse into eternity.
Do not let this pass you by.
I end with the words of the Psalmist:
The days of our lives may be many or few, but the best of them are filled with sorrow,
and they pass by speedily
and we are in darkness
Teach us therefore to number our days
That we may attain a heart of wisdom.
To number our days … Limnot yameinu, keyn hoda. Literally: to number our days — teach us to say yes.
Teach us to say “yes” to every day. That is the teaching. That is the Torah of life.
This is the urgency of today.
Do it now.
(Excerpted from my Yom Kippur evening sermon at Temple Israel, West Palm Beach, Florida.)