Sprinting Through Life

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The Almighty communicates with us in mysterious ways. We may be going about our daily routine when G-d unexpectedly sends us a message of great importance. Such was the case about two years ago, when I had a harrowing experience sprinting down the corridor of the Love International Airport, outside of Dallas, Texas.

passenger in the shanghai pudong airportI did not plan to be in Love, Texas. As an OU kashrus administrator, I spend most of my time in the central OU office in Manhattan, but on occasion, I travel to OU facilities for which I am responsible. Two years ago, I planned a two-day trip to visit plants in Oklahoma City, followed by Stuttgart, Arkansas. I booked a hotel room in Oklahoma City for an overnight stay between flights. Three weeks before my trip, a devastating tornado ripped through Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, leaving 24 dead in its wake. Subsequently, I learned that Oklahoma City is the tornado capital of the world, and I reconsidered staying there overnight. I am a very deep sleeper, and suspect I can sleep through a tornado. I had visions of going to sleep at night in a hotel in Oklahoma City and waking up in the morning, clutching my mattress, in the middle of a cornfield.

I changed my travel plans and arranged to stay overnight in Love, Texas. I had an 8:00 AM flight to Little Rock, Arkansas, the next morning, and arranged a wakeup call at the hotel for 5:30 AM.

While I may be able to sleep through a tornado, I always hear the telephone. Maybe that is because I am a pulpit rabbi. At times, I receive emergency calls in the middle of the night, and I have trained myself to be attentive to a ringing phone. Yet that morning in the Texas hotel, I missed the wakeup call. When I woke up, I looked at the clock and was startled to see that it was 6:40 AM. The phone was still ringing, but for seventy minutes, I had slept through it all.

At that point, everything went haywire. I hurriedly dressed, packed, davened and ran downstairs to catch the 7:00 AM shuttle to the airport. To say I was distressed would be a gross understatement. Love was a very small airport, and if I missed the 8:00 AM flight to Little Rock, there would be no further flights until much later in the day. I would miss my appointment at the plant and the airfare would be wasted. Aside from the embarrassment of sleeping through a wake-up call, I would miss my plant inspection.

As I clutched the railing of the shuttle bus, I tried to calm myself. “Don’t worry,” I told myself, “it’s a small airport. I’ll quickly pass through security and catch my plane.” That turned out to be wishful thinking. I arrived at the airport at 7:15 AM and was shocked to find hundreds of people standing in line, six rows deep, waiting to get through security.

I was a nervous wreck as the line slowly inched forward. Sticky molasses flow faster on a cold winter day. I pleaded with the TSA security guard to let me move to the front of the line to catch my flight. He eyed me suspiciously, as if I were a terrorist. He was unmoved by my pleas, and sternly informed me that the Love Airport rules strictly forbade cutting ahead in line.

Finally, at 7:45 AM, I passed through the screening area. I quickly put on my shoes without tying the laces and grabbed my belt in my hand. I ran down the corridor to the gate, belt and suitcase in one hand, while holding my hat down with the other. I must have been quite a sight with shoes untied, unbelted pants hanging low, shirt untucked and my tzizis flying behind me.

When I saw the sign, “Gates 2-12”, I was somewhat relieved, but I panicked again when I discovered that the gates were arranged in descending order. Of course, my gate, number 2, was at the long end of the corridor, which appeared to be a quarter of a mile away.

It was unfortunate that I was not running an Olympic race at that moment, because I would likely have won a gold medal. I flew down the corridor and arrived at the gate at 7:58 AM. I was the last person to get on the plane, and just as I boarded, the airline staff slammed the door shut behind me.

It was a full flight with open seating, and there was only one seat left in the back row of the plane. Panting and exhausted, I collapsed into my seat. The fellow next to me eyed me with suspicion, wondering, no doubt, why my shoes were untied, my belt was in my hand, my pants were drooping, my shirt and tzitzis were untucked, and I was breathing heavily, as if I would soon expire. Nonetheless I took a deep breath and thought, “Boruch Hashem I made it.”

I knew that G-d was telling me something important with this strange sequence of events, but I was not quite sure what it was until a few months later when Yom Kippur arrived. Erev Yom Kippur was hectic as usual. I had to run to the mikvah, go shopping, answer three dozen questions about fasting (I am a congregational Rabbi), call my relatives to wish them a good year, give brochos to my children and finally gobble down the pre-Yom Kippur meal ten minutes before leaving for shul. I came rushing into the sanctuary just as the chazan was about to chant the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei on the holiest day of the year. With my sneakers untied, my shirt untucked and my tzitzis flying behind me, I was struck with a strong sense of déjà vu, as I arrived in the shul in the same unkempt manner as when I boarded the plane in the Love Airport a few months before.

Now you might think that this replay of events was just a coincidence, but Judaism teaches us that there is no happenstance in life. G-d orchestrates all events, and each is fraught with significance. I knew there had to be a reason why this strange experience recurred once again.

Not being a prophet, I cannot claim to know the explanation with certainty, but I can theorize, nonetheless.

Yom Kippur is a day of remorse and repentance, but it takes weeks of intense planning to engage in teshuva properly. Recognizing one’s shortcomings and charting a new course of transformative action is a long and arduous journey that cannot take place with a moment’s notice on Yom Kippur day. I had failed to prepare for Yom Kippur that year, and I foolishly thought I could run into shul for Kol Nidrei, take my seat and swiftly shift gears to a teshuva frame of mind. But it cannot be done.

Sprinting into the synagogue in a disheveled state was symbolic of my own spiritual state at that moment. I was unprepared for the Day of Awe. The striking similarity between my nerve-racking race to the airline gate and my last minute dash into shul was G-d’s way of letting me know that this was not the way Yom Kippur is meant to be experienced. Racing to a plane in a disheveled state is not appropriate; neither is rushing to perform teshuva on Yom Kippur with no advance preparation.

It’s not as if I did not have enough time to prepare myself for that moment. The month of Elul began 40 days earlier, followed by Rosh Hashana. During that time, the shofar was sounded repeatedly, which should have reminded me that the days of judgment were on the way. In a famous passage, the Rambam describes the clarion call of the shofar. “Uru yishainim mi’shinaschem– wake up those who slumber from your sleep”. Yet grabbing a person’s attention and arousing one from the numbing routine is no simple matter. I had missed the wake-up call of the shofar, just as I had not heard the wake-up call in the Love hotel a few months earlier.

In truth, what I experienced on Yom Kippur was emblematic of a broader problem that we all face: the fast pace of modern life. Most of us sprint through life, similar to the way I raced down the corridor of the Love airport. We are always on the run. The traditional 9-to-5 workday has faded into the past, as we work remotely using computers and smart phones, anywhere and anytime of the day. Email, text messages, Instagram, and social media relentlessly pound us with communications that demand our immediate attention. We are constantly pursuing the latest technological device, running to the most exotic vacation spot and trying to keep up with the information overload that incessantly bombards us. No wonder we are so busy and have no time to pause, think, plan and take stock of our lives.

Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur present great opportunities to recalibrate our values and choose more positive courses for our lives. Yet without planning and contemplation, the opportunity for changing direction will have been squandered and lost. When life becomes a constant marathon, the Days of Awe pass by as swiftly as a fleeting shadow, leaving unfulfilled promises and aspirations in their wake.

One of the most moving parts of the liturgy of the High Holy Days is the U’netaneh Tokef, which describes the fear and trepidation that overcome the angels on the day of judgement. I reflect on the familiar words, “U’vishofar gadol yitakah– and he will blow a giant shofar, vikol dimama daka yishama– and a faint sound will be heard.” How peculiar. Shouldn’t a large shofar produce a resounding blast? Why is only a quiet sound heard? Perhaps the answer is that G-d’s shofar is indeed thunderous, but when a person isn’t paying attention, even loud noises seem very faint. We all hear the shofar blast, but we rarely pay attention as we continue racing through life.

Man’s ability to ignore the “shofar gadol” (great shofar) while on the run finds powerful expression in Yonah’s futile effort to escape from Hashem. G-d instructs Yonah to deliver His prophecy in the great city of Nineveh, and Yonah foolishly attempts to run away. Yonah boards a ship to Tarshish, but G-d does not allow Yonah to escape. The ship is soon caught in the midst of a mighty tempest and the boat is tossed violently on the waves of the churning sea. Yet, even as the storm rages, Yonah continues his futile effort to flee, and he descends into the hull of the ship and falls fast asleep. The captain bursts into Yonah’s cabin and confronts him. “Mah lecha nirdam – how can you be asleep?” The captain does not ask, “Why you are sleeping”, but rather, “How in the world can you sleep at a time like this? How can you be oblivious to the violent tempest that is about to sink our ship and take our lives?” How indeed did Yonah remain oblivious to the turbulence that engulfed him? Yonah was so intent on running away, that even a violent storm directly from G-d could not arouse him from his sleep.

The story of Yonah resonates with us as well. Yonah’s sleep in the midst of the powerful storm is similar to the state of passivity and indifference that we practice in our own lives. The world is in a state of turmoil with cataclysmic events unfolding all the time: volcanoes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and stock market crashes. Personal crises of health, relationships and child rearing can be no less devastating. These powerful events are the Almighty’s shofar gadol. Hashem seeks to grab our attention and arouse us from our emotional lethargy and spiritual malaise, but like Yonah, we are busy running, and barely noticing that G-d is calling.

As these thoughts passed through my mind on that Yom Kippur day, I felt G-d tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear: “Yankie, did you get my message? Life is not a marathon. Stop sprinting from one day to the next. Next year, pay more attention to the blasts of the shofar.  Prepare for the Day of Judgement during the 40 days before Yom Kippur by spending a few minutes each day in quiet solitude, reflecting on how to make enduring changes in your life. You will then enter Yom Kippur in a strong position, and atonement will be in your grasp. If not, you may really miss your flight.”