"Teach us to treasure each day"
by Mark Elber
Published in the Herald News on February 22, 2014
When I was young I yearned for summer all winter long. I suspect that might have been related to the lack of school during those months, but I also loved the warmth, the water, the late sunsets, the sense of open-endedness that’s endemic to youth. Time passed much more slowly then. After spending the seemingly endless school year in New York City, I had the good fortune to summer on Long Island in a small cottage 40 miles from Manhattan and 100 yards up the road from the harbor in Huntington. Among the small cluster of closely built cottages, I made lifelong friends.
I’ve been attracted to coming-of-age stories for most of my adult life. Those adolescent summers in Huntington with a few intimate companions had all the makings of those tales. We watched and helped each other grow up, barely conscious of that fact. We shared the milestones and frustrations of adolescence and gradually matured, migrating to different sections of the country, pursuing careers, and getting caught up in the daily demands of adulthood. Gone were the days of lying under the stars at night discussing the meaning of life and our extravagant and ambitious dreams.
“Teach us to treasure each day, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom” is the message of Psalm 90:12. One of the privileges and poignant aspects of clergy life is sharing in the major life cycle events of your community. Sadly, some of these events entail the final parting from people for whom you’ve come to care deeply. I sing a version of this verse from Psalms at funerals as a reminder to all of us that the gifts of life are great, but fleeting. Unfortunately, I’ve been singing this powerful verse too often lately. Unfortunately, I discovered last night that one of my closest life-long friends, whom I met when we were less than ten years old on those summer streets of Long Island, passed away suddenly at the relatively young age of 60.
We naturally seek wisdom, meaning and tools for living in our religious traditions. The great insights that Scripture can offer are wonderful, but the ability to incorporate these gems into the actual lives we live is not a given. We are inundated with demands on our time and on our limited resources. Our attention is taxed by some of the very tools that technology has made available to us to lighten our loads and dispense with obligations rapidly. Our culture is awash in advertisements; our senses bombarded with them. I remember when I was living in Manhattan, riding the subways regularly, realizing one day while looking at the numerous advertisements cramming the walls of the subway cars that many of the things we were being encouraged to purchase were things that not only we didn’t need, but were actually unhealthy. The amount of human intelligence, ingenuity and creativity poured into advertising is astounding - were it only put into solving more of our society’s problems, who knows how much healthier our country and planet might be today?
How do we learn to treasure our days, to open our senses and appreciate the many blessings in our lives? In my own tradition, I find the weekly observance of the Sabbath (or Shabbat as it’s called in Hebrew) affords me a day every week in which “to be” rather than “to do”. Without the pressure of achieving something quantifiable during the 25 hours of the Sabbath (from sunset Friday evening until the stars come out on Saturday night), one can better connect to the quality of one’s time, recognizing the everyday miracles in our lives. Thus Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, the great 20th-century theologian, called Shabbat “an oasis in time.” Can we find islands of sacred time during our weekdays too, times in which we release ourselves from bondage to things and cultivate our connection to each other and to the eternal in the midst of the ephemeral?
Time seems to accelerate with each passing year. Unlike the days of my youth, I’m in no rush to see the seasons pass. I want to enjoy each moment, rather than wish the weeks away. I see my young son maturing before my eyes and realize that each moment is precious, each is unique and won’t come back, though it will hopefully be succeeded by other unique and precious moments. I treasure the times I shared with my recently departed friend, but wish we had seen each other more in his last years. Who could have known they would end so suddenly?
Rabbi Mark Elber is the co-spiritual leader of the Jewish congregation, Temple Beth El, of Fall River.