How Do You Measure a Year? Rosh Hashanah & Making Time Count

By Rabbi Jennifer Tobenstein, Tishrei 1, 5784 – 9/16/2023

(singing together)

Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets

In midnights, in cups of coffee

In inches, in miles

In laughter, in strife

In five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure a year in the life?

For 16 years Jay Rosenblatt recorded his daughter Ella on her birthday. Each year she would sit on their living room sofa and he would ask her a similar set of questions. From her carefree 2-year old self, through her moodier adolescent years, to a more reflective 18-year-old about to go off to college, Ella would respond in word and expression to her father asking:

  • What do you want to do when you grow up?
  • What are you most afraid of?
  • How do you feel about our relationship?
  • What is power?

Her answers map the changes and constants of the passage of time. And almost two decades after the last recording, Rosenblatt, who is a documentary filmmaker, went through the home-movie footage and wove together his award winning short-documentary: “How Do You Measure a Year.” Riffing its title off a song from the 90s Broadway hit Rent (which Ella sang in one of the clips and we also just sang), the film offers a model for how we too may measure time.

As we look at the opportunity that the new year of 5784 brings, let’s reflect on this model with some questions of our own:

  • How do we measure a year in our lives?
  • What experiences stick with us, marking time?
  • With JOY as the theme for this High Holiday season, how might we better embrace and nurture its gifts?
  • What personal roadblocks stand in JOY’s way, and how might we clear the path for a happier year ahead?

The biblical Book of Psalms is one of the most oft-read texts in Judeo-Christian tradition. As Jews, we use psalms as part of our daily prayers, on Shabbat and the holidays, at funerals, weddings, even baby namings. While it may seem like there’s a psalm for every occasion, what it actually reflects is that through the poetry and music of the psalms, King David put a large array of complicated feelings into words. As the masterful songwriter that he was, he laid out on paper all the love and yearning, doubt and pain in his heart. He questioned God, got angry with God, praised God, and thanked God. And around the question of measuring time, he turned to God with this plea: “Limnot yameinu ken hoda, ve’navi levav chochma. Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” In Psalm 90 (vs 12) the king pleads with God for insight into the meaning of counting. What does it mean to “number our days”?  he asks. Does the act of marking time itself lead to wisdom? An alternate translation of the verse says: “Teach us to count our days rightly.” Here the value is not only in the act of counting time, but also, in making time count.

For the past year I’ve been working as the head chaplain of a nursing home and rehab center in Connecticut. Each day, it is my labor of love to be present for the residents, accompanying them as they reflect on the blessings and losses of their long lives, and helping them create meaningful community. I spend a lot of the day reflectively listening to their stories, but quite honestly, I learn from them far more than I can ever offer. One of my teachers there is a woman who had a stroke in her early fifties and has lived the last twenty-five years of her life physically disabled in a motorized chair. Each morning when I see her driving through the hallway I ask, “How’s it going today, Ms R?” to which she unfailingly answers, “Jennifer, I’m above ground and breathing, so it’s a great start!” When I’ve scratched the surface of this cheery response, her heart continues to walk in wisdom with the insight: “I can live in anger and resentment for what’s happened to me, but where would that get me? It hurts mostly me. Instead, I choose gratitude and the opportunity of a new day.”

Each time I think about her answer, I get a little choked up. This woman has all the reasons in the world to wallow, and instead chooses gratitude and joy each day. However, unmitigated joy as a conscious choice can be a challenging one. Unlike the resident, I often get stuck in my negative thoughts. I count my blessings daily, but in the funhouse mirror of my mind, it’s not quite enough to balance out the doubting, fearful what if’s. The neuroscientist Rick Hanson uses the following analogy: our minds are like velcro for negative information, and teflon for the positive. Studies have shown that positive feelings are actually weaker and more fleeting. Negative emotions tend to linger and be stronger. So with the challenge of joy as our holiday’s theme, I ask: What if we shift the weight of these emotions? If we equalized them or stacked the positive with extra anchors, how might we then view our lives? Our ability to receive and feel joy? How might we, like King David, count each day and make each day count?

This challenge comes to life at the beginning of this morning’s Torah reading. By the miracle of God’s promise, our matriarch Sarah gives birth as a nonagenarian. As a reader and interpreter of Jewish texts – and as a woman aging in my body – I’ve often considered what Sarah might have been feeling here. How amazing and incredulous an event this must have been. In America today, any woman bearing a child after the age of 35 is considered as having a geriatric pregnancy. How much more so must Sarah have felt the burden or judgment of age, going through the process at 90? After years of fertility struggles and other hardships, I like to imagine that Sarah may have leaned into her golden years with a nostalgic eye for her many accomplishments: for her world travel, her revolutionary faith, for her loving marriage, and the welcoming home she and Abraham created. While it was a life with struggle, it was also filled with joy and blessings. And so, when Sarah finally becomes a biological mother – miraculously, blessedly, and still quite shockingly – her instinctive response is to laugh. Her laughter here contains a range of emotions: abundant joy, surely, but also self-critique, doubt, and fear. The laughter is such a powerful experience for her, that she harnesses it in a creative way, making it count by using it to name her beloved, only child: Yitzchak, Isaac. “God has brought me tzchok, laughter,” she says, “and everyone who hears, yitzchak, will laugh with me.” (Gen 21:6)

Joy, and then fear. Joy, followed by doubt of its truth. The American psychologist and best-selling author, Dr. Brene Brown, explains this kind of reaction as “foreboding joy.” Not only is foreboding joy a natural feeling, she says, but it’s the easier emotional response to something wonderful happening. Think back to a time of great blessing: Perhaps it was falling in love, seeing the fruits of a project, graduation day, getting a dream job, watching a newborn baby sleep, or holding a grandchild for the first time. How long were we able to be in the moment of overwhelming and exposed joy before those thoughts started creeping in. You know the ones… What if something bad happens? If it all falls apart? Someone gets sick? I get hurt?

Our matriarch Sarah became so mired in the foreboding, that she drove herself to severe action. She imagined that she had to keep Isaac safe, no matter the cost. The collateral damage was in banishing Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, and his mother, Hagar. While Sarah’s actions may come across as callous, even cruel, there are times when we too might imagine extreme measures in order to protect our joy. With these kinds of foreboding thoughts, Sarah – and we – dress-rehearse for tragedy. We close ourselves off to greater hurt, but we also limit true joy. In doing so, we compromise our relationships with ourselves and with others. And if we can’t be emotionally honest with ourselves, how might we ever hope to be with God? Is it even realistic to say, ‘Ok, now I’m going to totally open myself up to feelings, no holds barred,’ if we’ve been doing otherwise for most of our lives?

Dr. Browne succinctly puts it: “Joy is the most terrifying and difficult emotion we experience as human beings.” Foreboding joy is not a character flaw, she reassures us. Joyful people feel it too. Their secret is that when they feel darker thoughts creeping in, they quiet them by turning to a powerful antidote: gratitude. Gratitude opens the heart. It refocuses the mind from the fear of what might be, to the joy of what is. But gratitude isn’t just an attitude, as the platitude suggests. It is an intentional, practiced, often difficult, and sometimes initially questionable, expression that can change the foreboding tide.

As Jews, we’ve been practicing this idea for millenia. When we wake up each morning, tired in body and mind, our tradition challenges us to say before anything else: Modah Ani, I am so grateful to you, God, that my spirit has been restored to my body and I get to experience another day of living. We continue with prayers thanking God for almost all aspects of our personal being and the world around us. Our prayer services, however, can be long, making it unrealistic to pause and meditate on each phrase. But ritual gratitude practices are not designed to be convenient. We have to make time, make space, sometimes even seek out community, in order to recite them. And the intentionality of this effort can in and of itself lead to a place of greater understanding and gratitude. Informally put, we can fake it until we make it, but we can’t make it, if we don’t try.

Gratitude deepens our relationships with God, with ourselves, and with others. And thankfulness feeds our inclination to recognize joy in the big – and small – moments of life. When joy leads to gratitude, our thankfulness can then lead to new joy. In other words, gratitude both sustains and creates more joy. What better way is there to measure time? What more fulfilling way can there be to make time count?

Going back to the Broadway tune that we started from, I’d like to take a final moment to think about the playwright’s words. In the late 1980s when Jonathan Larson, a Jewish writer who grew up in nearby White Plains, began penning his play Rent, he was living in a rundown, unheated apartment in lower Manhattan. He didn’t return to the comforts of his suburban upbringing, but chose to live the life of a struggling artist who dreamed big and felt fully and developed one of the most successful plays in musical history. He felt the highs and lows of life, and he put his feelings to words so that they could inspire others. Sadly, the accolades for his hard work would all come posthumously as he died at the young age of 36, the day before Rent’s Off-Broadway opening. His family gave the green light for the show to go on, even as they sat shiva. And the gift of their son’s gift to the world lives on, continuing to offer us insight even – and perhaps especially – at this cusp of the new Jewish year.

“How do we measure a year?” the song asks.

It begins its answer: “In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, and in strife.” We measure life by the finite and infinite wonders of the world. We measure it by knowing joy and challenges and living life wholeheartedly. And the song offers the ultimate answer in its soaring chorus: “How about love? Measure in love. Seasons of love.”

As we journey together and alone over the next days and weeks and 525,600 minutes, may we open our hearts – fully, joyously, without limitation – to:

a season of awe and return,

a season of reflection and forgiveness,

a season of sweetness and joy,

a season of gratitude for it all, AND

a season of love.

Shana Tova.

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