With Rosh Hashanah on the horizon, we pause to take stock: What is a year?
We do not get many of them in a lifetime. According to Moshe Rabbeinu, in Psalm 90, we typically may look to seventy – if with strength, to eighty – of them, and most of our years are about toil and pain, struggle and “what-not.” That is a year.
For us, we use the calendrical marker to look ahead, partly by looking back. What did I do with last year? With one fewer left ahead of me, what will I do with next year?
Many of us maturely defer gratification for many of our years. For example, if I want to travel abroad but need, instead, to focus on saving money for a home down-payment, or to put my children through yeshiva, or simply need to stay around to focus on my career – well, there is always next year. So I can travel next year. Or the year thereafter. Or whenever.
We deem that mode of thinking wise – and it is wise – because, if I devote time and money to travel when I have more urgent priorities that cannot be deferred, then I ultimately will not enjoy. So I have to keep my priorities straight. I need to save. I need to provide a home. I need to establish myself in a career. As for travel, as Sabrina said, “There will always be Paris.” And, come to think of it, I no longer care about seeing Paris. I’d rather visit Binghamton.
If there is maturity and wisdom in deferring gratification for the here-and-now priorities that are burning, it nevertheless remains important to recognize all that is important in a life. A career and success are important – for self-esteem, to pay bills, to make a gainful life. A house is important – for shelter, for comfort, for leisure. A yeshiva is important – because, in the greater frame of things, what could be more important than assuring that my son and daughter receive the best possible secular and Torah education I practicably can offer them? But, even as we defer gratification for ourselves and wait till another year – because we are smart and wise enough to know that, in the long run, we will be far happier and will enjoy more leisure and travel and entertainment in a lifetime if we line up our ducks in a row now – it remains important to “make the list,” to set the priorities, to know what we are aiming for.
What goes on a list? One of the most beautiful answers, from a secular perspective, comes in a country song written by one of my favorite artists, Toby Keith. Playing on the expression that all busy people reiterate several times daily – “OK, it’s time for me to do the next thing on my list” – he offers this alternative to the list of priorities for the day he has set under a paperwight:
- Go for a walk, say a little prayer.
- Take a deep breath of mountain air.
- Put on my glove and play some catch.
- It’s time that I make time for that.
- Wade the shore and cast a line.
- Look up a long lost friend of mine.
- Sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss.
- Start livin’ — that’s the next thing on my list. . . .
For a Jew, I would add a few more things to the list, although I basically adopt Toby’s list and his expressed values structure:
- Put my kid in a real Jewish school.
- Join with my spouse and walk to shul.
- Buy Torah books to put on my shelf.
- Open them up – I owe that to myself.
- Start keeping kosher and opening my home.
- Never let a shul visitor sit alone.
- Look up a friend and invite her for Shabbat.
- It’s time that I make time for that.
- Turn my hopes to G-d and pray each day.
- Then listen to the things my children say.
- Ask my child if anything hurts.
- Think about the text printed on his shirts.
- Grab him and the tefillin and pray with my son.
- Learn Torah with my daughter so she associates Torah with fun.
- Study Talmud each day for all the years I’ve missed.
- Start livin’ – that’s the next thing on my list.
The problem we face is that we train ourselves – wisely, with maturity – to defer our gratification. Like the Brooklyn Dodgers, we promise those closest to us: “Wait till next year!” Sometimes, as in 1955, the wait proves worthwhile for everyone in Brooklyn. And sometimes, as only a few years later, the decades of waiting is rewarded one morning with the headline: “Dodgers to leave Brooklyn.” We have waited for so long – and time has passed us by.
So it is a tug. At what point do we set aside a bit of the rat race towards career success, towards the house payments, and towards providing the basics for our children? Well, for the last of those three, perhaps we never set aside anything for that priority. And perhaps we never completely can set aside everything at the expense of career success and house. So be it. But if we are to move, ever, towards the “next thing on the list,” we absolutely cannot forever “wait till next year.”
And that is Rosh Hashanah’s pull and force. Another year has passed. Another year during which I failed to get to so many of the most important things on my list. And now I am jolted in recognizing that these years of my life are finite. So if I ever am going to observe Shabbat more meaningfully, I really ought to start now. If ever I am going to kosher my home and open it to Shabbat guests, I this year finally is the time to act. And if I want to grow as a Jew, I really should start attending one or more of those Torah classes that they always are announcing. Tefillin with my son on Sunday mornings. Daf Yomi. Learning to read Hebrew with facility. Parent-Child Torah Learning on Saturday nights. Assuring that the Shul Youth Director and Irvine Chapter of NCSY has my child on their list. Start livin – that’s the next thing on the list.