Kol Nidre 5783: Spending Time

By Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Imagine, if you will, that every morning when you woke up some anonymous donor placed $86,400 in a bank account for you to spend any way you wished – with one proviso: any dollar not spent would disappear at the end of 24 hours — no money could be saved.  What would we buy?  How would we spend our money?  

Although it would be fun to imagine, the fantasy is not far from reality, for in effect every day that we wake up, 86,400 seconds are placed in the bank account of our lives and what is not used, disappears at the end of each 24-hour period.  

We stand here on this day to take account of our lives.  We cannot help but recognize that the time given to us is a gift for us to squander or use, and we are judged on how well that time is spent.  

Benjamin Franklin once asked, “Dost thou love life?  Then do not squander time for that’s the stuff life is made of. Time must be the greatest prodigality; since lost time is never found again and what we call time enough always proves little enough.  Let us then be up and doing, and doing to the purpose; so that by diligence shall we do more with less perplexity.  Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy.  Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure.  Since thou are not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour.” 

This message is perhaps one of the most important messages of this season, for it is now that we reflect back over the year, and we ask ourselves, “What have we made of the time allotted to us?”  We look around us, see that some that once sat next to us or with us are no longer here.  We review our successes and failures and wonder how have we matured, how have we progressed, what have we contributed, what have we learned?

Cantor Levine and I stand before you in white robes, our Sifrei Torah are dressed in white, many of our traditional Jewish brothers stand in shul wearing white robes or kittels.  The wearing of the kittel is a traditional part of the Yom Kippur commemoration.  Aside from wearing it on these High Holy Days, the kittel is traditionally worn at two other times: the first time is when one stands underneath the chuppah and the only other time is when we are laid to rest.  The kittel reminds us that before God, we are all equal and judged only according to our merits.  The rich and poor alike, the short and tall, the powerful and the weak, stand before the Holy One of Judgement on equal footing and only our deeds can speak for us.

A number of years ago, the New York Times published a strange article buried in the back pages. As part of a program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dads who abandoned their children and were behind in child support were given a strange sentence in the court of law.  They were required to write their own obituaries from the perspective of the short-changed children that these fathers will someday leave behind.  An interesting sentence the judge handed down, but it is no different from the sentence that each of us are handed at this time of year.  

Imagine, if you will, that you were given the same sentence.  If your life ceased now, what would be said of you.  How would you be remembered?  How would you be judged by those you left behind?  That is truly the call of this Yom Kippur: the demand that we take stock, look at ourselves critically, examine where we have gone and where we might be going.

The great philosopher William James said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”  What have we done that will outlast our numbered days?  

As rabbis, or members of the clergy, we have had the opportunity, responsibility, and, more often than not, the honor of standing with a family in grief, to deliver the eulogy of one loved and now lost.  Many of us are taught that a eulogy is not a curriculum vitae, nor a resume.  It is not a recitation of the awards and honors that one has accrued during life.  When trying to assemble notes for a eulogy simply ask the loved ones, “Using words, draw a picture of your loved one – use the first words that come to mind. What did this person mean to you?  How did they touch your lives?  What did they teach you?  What do you remember most about them?”  The responses to the questions are not how late they stayed in the office, or how many organizations hosted testimonial dinners in the deceased’s honor.  What are remembered most, are the seemingly little things: the impress of their hand in our own, the way their lips felt when they kissed us on our cheeks, the lessons they taught us, the way they made our lives better and more complete.  

This is the day when we confront our own mortality, and this is the day we confront ourselves.  As we learn in the U’natana Tokef prayer, out of our hands is the decision of when we die – for it is God who determines who shall see old age and who shall not, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall prosper and who shall perish.  But how we live our lives, is in our hands.  How we choose to spend the time allotted to us is of our own design.  As the psalmist says, “The span of our life is seventy years, or, given strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness. So, teach us to number our days that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:10-12) And with that heart of wisdom we pray that in the year to come we might learn from our mistakes, realize all the missed chances, confront all the unused opportunities, examine the mistakes not readily corrected, and mourn the love not shared.  This day should remind us of the gift that we have been given and it is in recognition of the fact that our time is short that drives us ahead to make this year a better year. 

The essayist Robert William MacKenna once wrote (N.B. – I have changed the gendered language of the early 20th century)) “Practically all the progress that humans have made is due to the fact that we are mortal.  If one knew that one’s days on earth were to be endless, all incentive to bestir oneself, except to seek food and clothing, would be lost.  There would be no desire to make a mark in the world, no stimulating ambition to leave the world a little better than it was found, no hungry aspiration to be remembered after one is dead.  If there were no death, life would become a thing stagnant, monotonous, and unspeakably burdensome.”  (“The Adventure of Death” 1916)

It is in recognition of the limited time we do have that should drive us forward in the New Year.  We should be driven in this New Year to make our lives better and to leave a legacy that is worthy, that is true, and that is right.  

On this awesome evening we must recognize that we are given the gift of time and that we are judged based on who we are and not what we bought.  The way that we will be remembered is based upon how well we lived our lives with the time allotted to us.

In Talmud Shabbat (153a), Rabbi Eliezer said “Repent one day before your death.”  His students asked, “How will we know when that day is?”  Rabbi Eliezer said, “Exactly.  No one knows when death will come.  Therefore, spend your days in repentance and live every day as though it was your last.”  

As we enter this New Year, we pray that we may all learn to appreciate the gift of time that has been given to us and to appreciate the reality that life has taught us – that how we spend our time is up to us and how we will be remembered will be based on how we spent our time.  

May we all enter this New Year refreshed in spirit, ready to live our lives to the fullest and add meaning to our world and to the world of those we love.

L’shana Tova u’Mitukah – May this be a good and sweet year for all of us.


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