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Drash on Parashat Nitzavim 2019

Drash on Parashat Nitzavim 2019

Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

Recently, one of my son’s teachers suggested an organisational method called the Pomodoro Technique to help him stop procrastinating. The technique, which is named for a tomato (pomodoro) shaped kitchen timer, has users break their work into sections of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break.

While a bit dubious, my son tried it and it worked like a charm. The whole family has adopted it now with the result that you are likely to hear things like “I can’t talk now – I‘m in the middle of a pomodoro!” or “I did six pomodoros before lunch!” or “It only took one pomodoro,” if you are around our house. We are a family of procrastinators who have been saved by a tomato shaped timer.

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, also speaks about procrastination and it couldn’t come at a better time. Speaking to the entire people of Israel – from the elders to the toddlers, the big shots to the schleppers -- as they prepare to establish their covenant with God, Moses warns: "Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?'” (Deut. 30:11-13).

It sounds like Moses knew his people and the excuses they might offer well. It is too baffling, too hard. It is in heaven – too lofty – not down here in real life. It is too far away – to obscure – some one needs to bring it to me. Moses was not going to let the people procrastinate in making their commitment to God. Whether thousands of years ago at the edge of the Promised Land or today at one’s desk, humans are excellent at finding reasons to procrastinate.

We are fortunate that parashat Nitzavim comes at this time in the Torah reading cycle, only days before Rosh Hashanah. This is a crucial time because we should now be deep in the process of cheshbon nefesh, undertaking a thorough inventory of our souls as we head into the Days of Awe. Have we gotten off to a good start? We have passed through the contemplative month of Elul, offered the prayers of selichot, and
yet many of us will have put off searching our hearts and examining our deeds to the extent we know we should.

Spiritual laziness (atzlut) can be a barrier to introspection, but I sense that laziness and the dismissiveness, and even arrogance that can accompany it, is not the greatest hurdle for most people. Rather, psychologists tell us that procrastination is often due to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, a belief that we are not up to the
task. If fear of failure prevents us from beginning to write an essay or clean a closet, how much the more so does it stand as a barrier to confronting ourselves and searching out our shortcomings and weaknesses.

But now is the time – and our Torah portion reminds us: "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life ..." (Deut. 30:19).

In order to heal, grow, and thrive, in order to "choose life", we must first choose to review our actions and our words, to face our hurts and those we have hurt, and to root out the ways we stunt ourselves and diminish others. Only then are we open to the fullest life possible.

Taking a full accounting of the soul is very hard, but it is something only we can do. And we do have it in us, as our Torah portion reminds us: "No, this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it" (Deut. 30:14).

We can’t put it off any longer. We must choose to take that first step toward renewal in the New Year. Admittedly, getting started can be daunting and so I offer a Zen Buddhist tradition called Naikan as a possible guide. In its original setting, Naikan is a very intense meditation practice that takes place over the course of multi-day retreat, but I believe that the questions it asks can provide a technique – a pomodoro, if you will -- to help us with cheshbon nefesh. Naikan is done by reviewing each relationship in one’s life and asking these three questions:

  • What have I received from this person?
  • What have I given this person?
  • What trouble have I caused this person?
  • Why not set a timer, take a pomodoro, and think about those questions for just 25 minutes?

Whether we use Naikan or some other means of self-reflection, it is still very hard to fully examine the state of our souls. It is so tempting to procrastinate, to avoid and put off serious introspection. But if we have the courage to take the first step we will see that a life filled with compassion and growth, joy and blessing is not in heaven, and not across the sea, but very close, in our hearts.

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