by Rabbi Drorah Setel

The New Year is a great door

that stands across the evening and Yom

Kippur is the second door. Between them

are song and silence, stone and clay pot

to be filled from within ourselves.[1]

If the Days of Awe, the ten days between  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, can be said to have a single message, it would be “pay attention!” The sound of the shofar is meant to wake us up from the stupor of everyday life, the inattention of rote routine, the affliction of sleepwalking through life. Our tradition gives us the gift of time to pay attention, days of community and reflection, days of celebration and stillness, to enter a garden – pardes, a paradise – of awareness. Awareness of the profound gift of life, awareness of our hopes and dreams, awareness of others upon whom the richness of our lives depends, awareness of the impact of our behavior, awareness of how much we take for granted, awareness of our connection to the rhythms and cycles of the earth.

The Jewish calendar is based on the movement of the moon and sun, rooted in the sequence of seasons, and the weekly anchor of shabbat.  Thousands of years ago our ancestors perceived the seven day cycle of the phases of the moon and constructed a cosmos based on that cadence: six days of creation followed by a sabbath, literally a “cessation.” Six days of doing followed by a day of being. Six days of impacting the world followed by a day to appreciate the world. Six days of exertion followed by a day of renewal.

Extending this pattern, the ancient Israelites observed every seventh year as a time of Shmita, “release:” the release of debts, the release of slaves, and the release of the land from cultivation. In contemporary terms, a sabbatical for all living things.

Tonight we begin a shmita year in the Jewish calendar. We are not farmers and we do not live in the land of Israel. We do not live in a culture that allows sabbaticals for most people. So what could it mean to observe a shmita year here in Rochester, New York?

Let’s begin with the connection between shmita and shabbat: what is involved in understanding them as times of cessation? The talmudic rabbis taught that there were actually seven days of creation – what God made on the seventh day was menucah, rest. But this wasn’t “rest” in the ordinary sense of taking a nap. Anyone who has experienced an orthodox shabbat knows that it is a very busy day, full of time in synagogue, at meals, in study, and, yes, perhaps, a nap, a shabbos shluf.

My understanding of menucah comes from two verses in Exodus which we sing as “Veshameru;”

The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat,  observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.  It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel,  for in six days Adonai made heaven and earth,  and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.  (Exodus 31:16-17)

The key lies in the last word, vayinafash, translated here a “refreshed.” It stems from a Hebrew word meaning “breath” – the substance through which God imparts life to human beings in the Book of Genesis.  In the Bible nefesh means “person” or “self.” While awkward in English, the final words of veshameru might best be rendered as having to do with being re-selfed or re-personed. In other words, the purpose of menuchah, the cessation from ordinary routine, is to refresh our personhood.

The activities associated with shabbat – prayer, communal meals, song, study, walks – are intended to create experiences of renewal, both alone and with others. In the absence of the demands of the work place we are called to do a different kind of work, the work necessary to experience our humanity fully. Both the Sabbath and shmita release us through the gift of time for that endeavor.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of the Sabbath as a “sanctuary in time.” He taught:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.[2]

         In our contemporary, connected, online world,  time has become commodified. Commercial interests compete for our attention on television, the internet, social media, even our phones. Corporations work to perfect algorithms that will grab our attention and addict us to their products. The boundary between work and home has collapsed as it has become possible to work or answer email wherever we have a laptop or a smartphone. Technology allows us to live without a single moment of silence or random thought – if we leave the television or radio behind at home we can always take a phone or music player with us wherever we go.

This ceaseless output and distraction is the very opposite of menuchah, the time necessary for reflection and reconnecting to ourselves and others. It is not the technology that is at fault; it is the way we use it without consideration. The way we fail to pay attention.

The poet Marge Piercy writes:

Attention is love, what we must give

children, mothers, fathers, pets,

our friends, the news, the woes of others.[3]

“Attention is love.” Whom and what do we say we love? To whom and what do we actually pay attention?

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. The foundational assertion of our tradition begins with the injunction to listen, to pay attention. The composer Pauline Oliveras distinguished between listening and hearing:  “To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically.”[4]  The same may be said for other senses: the difference between superficially looking and truly seeing or between eating without thought and savoring the tastes in our mouth.

To give attention. Sh’ma! Pay attention! Attention is love.

For some of us, the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on our time and attention. I don’t want to minimize the death and suffering that have been a part of this experience. But I do want to acknowledge that it made us reconsider our routines. I became aware of how much of my time was spent driving from one meeting to another and how pleasant it was to spend a day at home without those interruptions. Countless urban dwellers commented on the quiet and the renewed presence of wildlife in their neighborhoods. For others, the lockdown became an opportunity to connect with their neighbors. listening to their needs and concerns. Again, I do not want to ignore the terrible consequences of this pandemic, the death, disease, and unemployment. But it gave us a glimpse of the necessity of slowing our pace, of the wisdom of our ancestors’ understanding that we must balance productivity with menuchah.

In the course of my lifetime, we have gone from an economy in which one individual could support a household to one in which two adults can barely manage. While I’m sure there were many sweatshop conditions still in existence sixty years ago, they were not the dominant form of labor in the largest corporations as they are now.  This is not sustainable.

We know that without an immediate and drastic change in energy consumption, we are damning future generations to a planet on which human life will not be sustainable.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that productivity is necessary for life but is not the purpose of life. It must exist in a consistent balance with renewing rest.

As we enter this shmita year, as the doors of Rosh Hashanah open and we hear the blast of the shofar, we can do our utmost to pay attention. This is not just a matter of enhancing our own lives, although it is certainly that. This is a matter of survival.

In the words of poet Adrienne Rich:

[T]here come times…

when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;

when we have to pull back from the incantations,

rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,

and disenthrall ourselves, bestow

ourselves to silence, or a deeper listening, cleansed

of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static

crowding the wires.[5]

We can begin by considering our time. In the coming year, what would we like to spend more time doing? What do we wish we could spend less time on? As the timeworn saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever exclaims, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office!” so are we actually spending our time on the people and activities we say are most important? Where we give our time, we give our attention, our love.

Withdrawing our attention can also be a powerful, restorative act. It has become clear that social media are bad for our mental health. Researchers have demonstrated the link between social media use and anxiety, depression, even suicide, in teens, [6] as well as depression and feelings of loneliness in adults.[7] It is possible to halt the constant, counterproductive interruptions of email notifications and texts, and disengaging from electronics altogether is a wonderful, contemporary means of observing Shabbat.

During this shmita year, I will be leading a monthly discussion and support group to see how we might incorporate these values and actions into our lives. Meanwhile, by coming together this evening and in the days to come, all of us have already taken the time to pay attention. I hope our holiday observances will be an opportunity for menucah, a restful break, a sanctuary in time, allowing us new perspectives on our lives and a renewed joy in life itself.

I am going to finish with Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” which I have read to you before at this season. I find it a wonderful expression of what can happen when we slow down and pay attention as well as summarizing the meaning of these holidays.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?[8]

Shanah tovah – may this be a year of sweetness and growth in all of our precious lives.


[1] Marge Piercy, “Coming up on September,” The Art of Blessing the Day (adapted)

[2] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

[3] Marge Piercy, “The Art of Blessing the Day,” The Art of Blessing the Day

[4] Quoted in Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

[5] Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude,” The Dream of a Common Language

[6] “Facebook Calls Links To Depression Inconclusive. These Researchers Disagree,”

[7] “The FOMO Is Real: How Social Media Increases Depression and Loneliness,”