Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah
Sabbatical Reflections: Rosh HaShanah II 5784/2023
In his TED Talk , graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister articulated something we know to be basically true: We spend approximately the first 25 years of our lives amassing knowledge; then we work for about the next 40 years. Then, in our society, it’s customary to reserve the last 15 years of our lives for retirement–a reward for contributing to society for so long. Each of us knows exactly where we are in that very schema of 25-40-15. Rather than accepting this fate, Sagmeister argues that it’s a waste to reserve the most flexible, potentially best years of our lives for a time when we may not be as physically capable, when we have a much smaller sphere of influence.
And his solution? He takes a sabbatical from his design company every 7 years.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Every 7 years, he simply leaves his studio to the other employees and sets off to a new location–New York City for the first one, Bali for the second… and who knows where his third will take him. Like everyone else, he experiences some boredom, lack of inspiration, and a general feeling of monotony even in the throes of creativity and design. He goes on to describe the incredible inspiration and creative bursts he experiences by making this intentional periodic change, and by forcing himself to take a break every seven years to reinvigorate himself and his work.
Sagmeister isn’t Jewish; in fact, he notes that he’s not religious at all. But we know what he’s describing, right? It’s Shabbat. It’s shmitah, the biblical sabbatical year. Our Jewish tradition introduced these concepts to the world millenia ago, and they have stood the test of time. Shabbat–a day of rest, a pause in the mad rush to labor, to create. And shmitah, a full year of rest every 7 years for the land of Israel–an opportunity for the soil to replenish its nutrients, and for us, the Jewish people, to be reminded that the land ultimately belongs not to us, but to our Creator.
Both Shabbat and shmitah are ancient examples of exactly what Sagmeister has implemented in his life–an intentional change of pace every few years with a different focus. It makes all the difference.
And he’s not the only one experimenting with taking extended time off to rejuvinate during the course of his working years. A New York Times article entitled “Do-It-Yourself Sabbaticals” , from October 2019, describes many ways that people are experiencing work-free periods in their lives. Some make the choice very deliberately, while others find themselves with some time between jobs and choose to utilize it with purpose. Gone are the days when workers expected to labor in the same job their entire careers, or until they simply couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to quit. Millennials have turned out to be quite confident in walking away, relying on some savings for a few months, and pursuing something more fulfilling. Indeed, in an effort to woo that exact population, plenty of companies are now offering sabbatical time as a perk of the job, something simply unheard-of outside of academia and clergy positions until relatively recently. The NY Times article describes the sabbatical perk at Birchbox, the beauty and grooming subscription service–work for 3 years and earn an extra 3 weeks of vacation, plus a $750 stipend. Work for six years, get the bonus time and double the stipend. Want to guess how many employees, out of the company’s 120, have taken a tri-bat in the last 2 years? 42! Birchbox’s COO, Pooja Agarwal, said:
A lot of employees have used it to get perspective. People have used them for once-in-a-lifetime trips, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. As adults, you so rarely get to travel for three weeks in a row.
It’s not hard to see why sabbatical time is attractive and gaining in popularity. For the time being, it’s a pretty privileged opportunity–you have to be able to fund your break from work and the activities you choose to do.
At the same time, how could we not prioritize our joy, our spiritual and mental well-being throughout the majority of our lives? Today, Rosh HaShanah, is the time we slow down and study the big picture. Our liturgy asks: Mi yichyeh u’mi yamut? “Who will live and who will die?” Turn that question just a bit, and it becomes: “If my life were to take a drastic turn this year, would I be satisfied with how I’ve spent my time on this earth? What am I missing? And if I am granted some more time, what would I really want to change?” This notion of sabbatical time isn’t just a simple fantasy; it’s an opportunity to look seriously at our long-term goals, the trajectory of our lives.
It’s obvious to you why I’m reflecting on this subject today. I’ve recently returned from a 6-week sabbatical in Israel.
I’m glad to share with you some of the highlights of my time away as well as the more serious reflections that have come into focus.
First things first: I could only take this wonderful sabbatical because of the generosity of the members of my contract committee, the executive committee, and the Board of Trustees; because of the extra burdens Jody and Hope carried in the office; because of the planning work undertaken by the sabbatical planning committee; and because of individual congregants and rabbinical students who stepped up lead services, read Torah, offer Divrei Torah, and care for our community’s pastoral needs for 6 weeks. That’s a lot of work. And I thank you all for making it possible.
Many of you have asked me what I did in Israel–did I stay in Jerusalem the whole time? Did we travel all around? Do we have family there? Did the girls go to camp? What did I do the whole time?
The day-to-day details are relatively mundane, and here they are:
- I traveled with my 2 daughters and my parents the entire time; my brother and sister each came for 3 weeks and they overlapped for a week.
- We spent 2 weeks in Tel Aviv and 4 weeks in Jerusalem–and we rented AirBnBs. It was a great way to have our own space.
- The girls went to camp in Jerusalem for 3 weeks–Noa had her first summer at Ramah, at the day camp in Jerusalem; and Ayala went to a day care program.
When the girls weren’t at their programs, they were mostly with me. You can imagine the fun we all had as I ran Camp Ima.
And that left me with just under 3 weeks of time to myself, during the hours of 8am and 3pm. I did plenty of standard vacation activities with my family–shopping, eating, and visiting places like the Jerusalem Botanical Garden and the Chutzot HaYotzer Artists’ Festival–and I reconnected with a number of old friends. My siblings and I planned and threw a lovely 50th-anniversary party for my parents. Personally, I’d hoped to find myself a Hebrew-speaking acquaintance to help me achieve true fluency, but that didn’t pan out. I made do with a slew of Israeli podcasts–news podcasts, culture and music podcasts, parenting podcasts–all in Hebrew, which I listened to while I reconnected with my favorite city on foot. I walked a lot. Somewhere between 12 and 19 miles a day. And I loved it.
So there you have it. The details add up to a really nice, not so relaxing, family vacation.
As I’ve reentered my life here in Norwalk, here at our Congregation Beth El, the meaning of this sabbatical has crystallized in my mind. Like the Shabbat that comes at the conclusion of each work week, this was a 6-week Shabbat from the creative labor of my regular life. Now, please know that I feel deeply privileged to serve as your Rabbi, and I like my work. But, like Sagmeister, and like every one of you, I also experience some boredom, lack of inspiration, and the feeling that my work-life balance is off. What I felt during this sabbatical is what the Torah says about Shabbat:
כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃
“For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.”
Vayinafash–from the Hebrew word nefesh, or soul, or breath. After creating this beautiful world for a straight six days–and who knows how long those days really were!–God paused very intentionally and, as it were, caught God’s breath. God caught up with God’s soul. Creative labor can take a lot out of a being–human or divine–we devote ourselves to the project at hand, or the needs of this person or that group. A week can fly by in an instant; and we are gasping for breath, grasping for something to balance the giving. The change of scenery and pace, the shifting of my responsibilities, was exactly what I needed for my Vayinafash.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share four areas where I felt–and still feel–that Vayinafash, that deep soul-filling breath. Three of them are specific to Israel, and the fourth is universal.
1. For me, extended periods of time in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, are a homecoming. Over my adult life, I’ve spent 3 academic years there and plenty of summers and other visits, and I cherish the feeling of knowing the city. I know the streets, the walking routes, the fruit and veggie corner stores, the coffee shops. It’s home. And when I’m not there, I miss it terribly. Just make aliyah? Maybe one day. For the time being, I’m split between two homes, and during these six weeks I felt sooo… Vayinafash’d. PS–I just made that word up. Don’t ever use it in proper conversation!
2. The moment I started planning for this sabbatical, I knew that Friday afternoons would be really important. Yes, I hoped I’d be able to hear the siren blare in Jerusalem at candle lighting time. But more than that, I wanted to experience some of the wildly popular public-space Shabbat events. In Tel Aviv, we went twice to Beit Tefillah Yisraeli, a service that takes place each week over the summer on the Tel Aviv port, against the backdrop of the setting sun. The attendees appeared to be relatively secular and were there from all over the world. The service is led by a rabbi, several vocalists and musicians. It weaves together some of the Shabbat melodies familiar to me with new music, modern Israeli songs, and Shabbat melodies from other Jewish communities, like Morocco or Uganda. And it was truly uplifting. In Jerusalem, we went a couple of times to the Shabbat service at the Tachana HaRishona, the historical First Train Station, which was converted a decade ago into a restaurant/shopping/entertainment hub. Again, a large crowd of Jews who didn’t appear to be particularly religious and a weekly rotation of leaders from different community organizations and synagogues. In both locations, what I loved so much was seeing Shabbat out in the open, ready to embrace anyone who might just be walking by. I also loved that these events started much earlier than Shabbat itself, which meant it was good for kids and for transporting home in time. And for me, a congregational rabbi who is responsible for leading Shabbat services week after week, the chance to experience beautiful Shabbat services crafted by others was soul-filling.
3. This one has to do with my kids. Now, I’ve led a lot of teen trips to Israel and witnessed young Jews bonding with our homeland. This time it was a mission of love for me–to help 2 young Jews fall head over heels with Israel. And it worked. To be honest, it’s hard not to fall in love with a place when you’re with your mom all day long, you quickly memorize the way to the beach, you play at every playground, you get to ride the bus AND the light rail, and you get the tastiest ice cream EVER. Every day. For 6 weeks. It was a sure deal, and making it happen brought me so much joy. They may not remember what we did for the rest of their lives, but they will always feel in their hearts that Israel is home. Talk about Vayinafash–I feel so satisfied to have achieved this goal.
4. Here’s the Vayinafash that Sagmeister and the NY Times article are talking about. It was quite freeing to let go of my work schedule, my work demands, and the constant knowledge that there might be a life cycle emergency. Each working person has responsibilities, of course, but you know that a rabbi sometimes needs to drop everything–even at night, even on the weekend, sometimes even on Thanksgiving. That’s a lot, and the stress definitely built up inside me over the last 8 years. I know the details of what I did during this sabbatical come off as trivial; but it’s what I didn’t need to do, what I had the freedom and flexibility to do, that allowed me to breathe deeply, to Vayinafash.
So that’s me. Now let’s talk about you.
If you are lucky enough to have been granted a sabbatical from work, kudos to you. You know how restorative it can be. If you’ve had an extended break between jobs and were in the mindset to make the most of it (and not just stress about interviews!), good on you. Most of us, I believe, haven’t been in that position.
So here’s the question:
Where can you find or create time and space for your Vayinafash? If you’re in the working phase of your life, how can you recharge in a meaningful, inspiring way? Is there something you’ve not tried but could–maybe, possibly, with the support of your employer and your loved ones? If you’re retired, how do you utilize the time you have to feel energized, to support your passions?
It’s not just time we’re talking about. It’s the intentional use of that time. That’s what transforms the days, the weeks, into a Shabbat, a sabbatical, a soul-filling Vayinafash.
As we sing those words together today–B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written”–invite your soul to sing with you. Listen to its deepest desires, its vision for your Vayinafash, and write for yourself a way to refresh and restore.
May each of us be written and sealed in the Books of Inspiration, Satisfaction, Joy, and Health for this new year. Amen.
 Exodus 31:17