Day by day: Learning to value each moment of our lives

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeira (Genesis 18:1–22:24)

In our Torah reading this Shabbat, Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and instructs Abraham to banish them from their household.  Abraham, upon the command of G-d, reluctantly agrees and Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert. G-d hears the cries of the young boy and an angel comes from heaven and says to her:  “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” The angel points them towards a well and Ishmael is saved.

The Talmud in Rosh Hashana tells the story that the angels pleaded with G-d not to save Ishmael because in the future his offspring would persecute the Jewish people.  G-d responded that He would judge Ishmael only according to his present deeds. G-d’s response teaches us that we can only see the present and make decisions in the here and now.

The author, Stephen Leacock, graphically describes how we let our days slip by.  He wrote: “The child says, ‘when I am a big boy,’ the big boy says, ‘when I grow up’ and the grown up says, ‘when I get married.’  Then the thoughts change to, ‘when I’m able to retire.’ When retirement comes, he looks over a landscape traversed; a cold wind seems to sweep over it; somehow he has missed it all, and it is gone.  Life, one learns too late, is in living, in the tissue of every day and every hour.”

The Psalmist teaches us:  “Blessed be G-d every day.”  Each day is unique, each day has the potential for growth and spiritual awareness.  Each day we awake from our night’s sleep and thank G-d for returning our souls to us.  In our daily services, each day has a special Psalm to express its uniqueness. Daily, according to Rabbi Judah, we are to recite 100 blessings, enabling us to express gratitude for the moment, for the precious time that seems to pass us by much too quickly. Too often the days slip into weeks, months, years, and even decades.  We sometimes mourn the fact that so much time has passed us by and we have not fully grasped its possibilities.

On Rosh Hashana the world “Hayom” – “today” occurs throughout the liturgy.  Even as we conclude the Musaf service, we offer the words: “This day may You strengthen us; this day may You bless us; this day may You exalt us; this day may You consider us for well-being.”  Rosh Hashana and its liturgy have something to teach us about the present. Each day marks a new beginning, an opportunity to start over; the chance to renew all that has grown old. Imagine thinking about our lives in this way, that each moment has infinite potential.  Just as every life is like an entire world, every moment is an eternity.

In the tractate of Rosh Hashana we learn that in counting the number of years of a monarchical reign one day in a year is reckoned as a year.  In other words, a wasted day is a wasted life. We have lost an opportunity to heal a broken soul, to comfort the bereaved, to bring redemption to the world.  Once the day has passed, it is gone forever. In many ways, there’s no yesterday and no tomorrow, only “Hayom”, only “today.” The question we should ask ourselves is:  “What we will do with this day while it’s still here?”

Rabbi Milton Steinberg of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, was greatly disappointed when he was rejected for the chaplaincy during the Second World War because of a physical problem.  In December 1943, while on a speaking tour of army camps for the Jewish Welfare Board he suffered a heart attack. He was hospitalized in Dallas. After weeks recuperating indoors, he was finally permitted to go outside.  In his sermon, “To Hold with Open Arms,” Steinberg told of that experience: “After a long illness, I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And, as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience – all there is to it.  And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment… The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high… A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the buildings – the golden glow of sunlight.  It touched me, too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing…”

“In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt.  But no, there they walked – men and women and children, in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed.  And then I remembered how often, I, too, had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it.  And I said to myself – how precious is the sunlight but alas, how careless of it are men… I was reminded, to spend life wisely, not to squander it.”

The angels knew how Ishmael would treat the Israelite people in the future and, therefore, offered G-d a solution to Israel’s troubles.  G-d responded that He could only judge Ishmael at this particular moment when he was blameless. As we look at our own lives and how we are living them, what can we say about “Hayom”, this day? Are we creating a better world for the generations that follow us?  Or, will we miss the opportunity to join together with others of goodwill to create a redeemed society?

The choice is in our hands.  The decisions are ours to make.  On us rests the future of the world.  I pray that we are up to the task.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).

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