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Angela W. Buchdahl
A Sanctuary of Time (Rosh HaShanah 5774)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  September 5, 2013

Sarah Winchester wanted to build a home, a sanctuary from the demons that haunted her after the deaths of her infant daughter and husband.  So she began obsessively building, hiring carpenters to work in shifts, around the clock.

She built, every day. Not stopping until the day she died.  Her original eight-room home grew and grew, haphazardly and continuously, for 38 years, until it was a sprawling palace covering 6 acres, with 160 rooms, 47 staircases, 2,000 doors and 10,000 windows!

The Winchester Mystery House, as it is now known, still stands in California—as an outlandish tourist attraction.

Have you ever been there?  I have not.  But Rabbi Rubinstein had the chance to visit it when he lived in California.  He told me, “The Winchester House has a frantic energy about it, you just go from one room that leads to another room, to another room, with no purpose.  Staircases go up and then lead back down.  You get sucked in and lost.” 

Sarah Winchester managed to outbuild Herod the Great with her sprawling palace, but one thing was clear—it was no sanctuary. Sarah Winchester built and she was productive, but she never took a moment to stop, to try to understand her purpose for building.  She never ceased building long enough to just enjoy being present in what she had created.

Sarah Winchester had no architect, and things surely would have been different if she had had a blueprint.  If she had had a real design, perhaps she could have actually built the sanctuary that she’d hoped to create, rather than the overgrown monstrosity she constructed.

Now, don’t worry, this is not a sermon criticizing the real-estate industry. I know better than to give that sermon to this crowd.  And I know that you all hear this story and are certain you would never choose to build a home like Sarah Winchester did.

And yet, more and more, the Winchester House reflects the way that you build your lives.  You spend your days relentlessly building, renovating and improving: your careers, your bodies, your minds.

Now this is a room of high achieving, Type-A New Yorkers—I’m not going to ask you to stop doing those things.  You should build your careers, train for your triathlons, expand your minds with classes and lectures.  These things are good and essential.

I’m not asking you to stop building.  But if you have no architect for your time, if you do not stop to reflect on the ultimate purpose of all the building, you end up building a life without a soul.

To be an architect of your own time, the first thing you must do is to reclaim the Jewish understanding of time.  Today, our most common understanding of time is in terms of productivity.  Accomplishment.  Rungs on the ladder.  We ask if our time is “used well?”  Will this contribute to the resume?  The self-fulfillment plan? 

At least since Isaac Newton articulated a scientific understanding of time, we have increasingly quantified it—measuring and dividing it, down to the billable minute.  Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “time is money,” and we have been trying our best to convert time into profit ever since.

But Judaism does not judge time like this.  It’s refreshingly counter-cultural.  Judaism divides time into two distinct categories: kodesh and chol, the sacred and the profane.

In profane time, you go to your jobs, you do the dishes, you tone your triceps, you do volunteer work.  You are encouraged to busy yourself with the important work that enables you to be fed and sustained, healthy and constantly growing.

But sacred time, Z’man Kodesh, such as this Rosh HaShanah day when we celebrate the New Year, is completely different.  You feel it already in this space through the elevated energy of this community gathering, with family and old, familiar friends.  You feel it from the leadership of our beloved Rabbi Peter Rubinstein.  In the music washing over you and the timeless liturgy.  Sacred time gives you the opportunity to stop building and instead, to dwell.  To be fully present.

Sacred time is designed to enable you to see yourself and the world around you as whole.  How do you design your time?  Do you have a blueprint in your life for Holiness?  In fact, you doWe do.  We call it Shabbat.

It was a radical and beautiful innovation our ancestors brought to our understanding of humanity.  We are not meant to build and create and workday in and day out.  Shabbat is our sanctuary in time.

How did our tradition come to the wisdom of Shabbat?  It originates in the first chapters of our sacred text, the very beginning of the Torah.  A creation story that we recall on Rosh HaShanah, this birthday of the world.

The Torah recounts how for six days, God breathed life into a massive building project—making lights in the heavens, mountains and seas, the beasts in the field, all grasses trees and plants, and of course, human beings. The whole world in six days—God was certainly a Type-A overachiever!  Sounds like, maybe, a New Yorker! But then the Torah says that on the seventh day, God rested and there was Shabbat.

Now I can guess why we mortals need Shabbat, but it’s rather a mystery why God would need Shabbat.  Doesn’t God have unlimited power, unlimited energy?  Does God get tired?  The Vilna Gaon, the eighteenth-century rabbi and scholar, gave this explanation for the mystery around God’s first Shabbat: “God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful only once we stop creating it and start remembering why it was worth creating in the first place.”

Even God needed to stop to remember the point of it all.

God not only stopped working on the seventh day, God blessed the day and made it holy. The first time the word “holy” is ever used in the Torah is not in reference to human beings: the first thing God sanctifies is time. And God commanded you, who are created in God’s image, to do the same thing: the fourth commandment says, “Shamor et yom Hashabbat L’kadsho—keep the Sabbath and make it Holy.”

Making holy or sacred time doesn’t just happen. We have to make it happen. Ironically, rest requires purposeful action. An active release of the hammering and sawing, the noise and competition, the desire for more stuff over the basic human need for more meaning.

So, here’s the blueprint: Create and build, renovate and improve for six days, but then, one day a week—or if that’s too intimidating, just start with Friday evening—create a true Shabbat. Forbid the desiring and considering of what is missing.  Be the architect of your days and create your Sanctuary in time.

Now you may be thinking, “Even if I had the time for sacred time, I don’t know how to do that—I’m not observant.” But the fact is that many of you have already created some elements of sacred space in your lives.

What time is sacred to you?  Time that you insist on scheduling the rest of your life around, no matter the inconvenience?  Is it your Sunday tee time? A great yoga class?  I know some of you are thinking, “therapy.”

I’ve heard many parents, especially of young children, describe bedtime as “sacred time.”  Bedtime is often highly ritualized and a most precious part of the day.  So it was both surprising and discouraging when I saw this book on Amazon entitled One Minute Bedtimes Stories. This brilliant volume had condensed each beloved bedtime classic into just one minute.  I was even more disturbed to see the series also included One Minute Bible stories.

If we only judge time in terms of productivity, then it certainly is efficient.  But in the Jewish view of time, we’ve taken a sacred moment and forgotten the purpose.

A congregant recently shared with me a story that brought this home for me.  She was putting her son to bed, with all their rituals: a bath, brushing teeth, PJs, and a book. But as she crawled into his bed, her son took the book away and put it on the floor.  Instead, he just snuggled up next to her and nuzzled his head on her shoulder. He just looked up at her and said, “Mom—this is the point of life.”

I know you have experienced time like this, when you have that sense that “this is the point of life.”  Those sacred moments when you’re not reaching for anything else.  When you feel like there’s absolutely nothing missing.  When you feel so satisfied, so present that the moment is entirely self-contained.  Timeless.  Perfect. Whole.  You don’t have to believe in God to know these are sacred moments.

But it would be pointless and naïve to just wait and hope for those rare moments to happen.  Don’t wait for a vacation or a holiday to have sacred time.  Be the architect of your own time.  Take our tradition’s blueprint to make Shabbat, which is true sacred time, a habit in your life.

Like most of you, neither Jacob nor I grew up with a habit of Shabbat. Our families often lit candles and sometimes went to services, but the Sabbath was not set apart—it didn’t feel holy.  But a few years ago, Jacob and I decided to rethink our Shabbat practice from the way we had grown up.

We recognized that the primary threats to our Shabbat environment were electronic.  So we decided to set a boundary: no phones, computers or television for 24 hours.  Importantly, we didn’t pose this as an option: it was a command.

Like so many rules that create boundaries, this one was immensely liberating.  We didn’t have the option of multitasking, responding to emails, or checking headlines.  Imagine the thought—single tasking!  Being fully present in the one thing you are doing!  We had no other option but to dwell in this sanctuary of time.

We embraced decadently long Shabbat lunches with friends that lasted until evening.  We watched our unplugged children find the simpler joys of a card game or disorganized sports.  We embraced idleness and the Shabbas shluf, Shabbat afternoon naps.  We made time for reading, conversation, and walks with no destination.  All those things that knit us together as families, friends, and community.  All those things that remind us of the point of it all.

What would it look like if this entire city, if this entire country, took a Shabbat rest? Could you imagine what it would be like if we all rested together? There was a time when Sunday blue laws were enacted to legislate a communal Sabbath observance in this country.  Now we just think of blue laws as an annoyance when we want to buy liquor on Sundays.

It’s definitely best to keep the wall between church and state firmly up, but I empathize with a society’s desire to decree rest for all its citizens.  For it has been shown that commanding rest is not only good for individuals but for binding societies together.

The cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-am famously said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”  What if we all in the new year kept the Sabbath? How would the Sabbath then keep us—more present, more whole, more connected?

In some ways, I envy more traditionally-observant Jews who feel fully commanded to set aside sacred time.  The fourth commandment says, “Keep the Sabbath and make it holy.” And that is all they need to hear.  It is much harder for us as liberal Jews, who so value our personal autonomy.  We want to choose, and only follow those commandments that feel personally meaningful and morally relevant.

But as Reform Jews, if what we are doing is determining which mitzvot have meaning for our twenty-first-century lives, the commandment to keep Shabbat is more relevant than ever before. Is there anything more fundamentally important than how we design our time?  As Abraham Joshua Heschel said in his seminal book, The Sabbath, “We can only solve the problem of time through sanctification of time.”

What is at stake here, in solving our problem of time, is not just our sanity. It is our very humanity. Sarah Winchester lost her humanity in the relentless, daily building of her house.  The building project with no end.  She never understood the purpose for which she was building. She did not know how to be present, how to sanctify her time.

Judaism does not allow you to construct your life this way.  God commanded you, Shamor et yom Hashabbat l’kadsho.  Keep the Sabbath and make it holy.  Judaism gave you a blueprint to build a life sanctified in time and rich in meaning.

In this New Year 5774, redesign your holy time.  It is the point of life.

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