Swimming Through Life Like A Jellyfish - Rosh Hashanah 5778


It was a sweltering hot August morning when my wife, two dear friends, and I decided to spend the day at the Monterey California Aquarium. The Sea Lions were hooting. The gulls were calling. But we sought sanctuary from the heat indoors with the underwater fish. There I saw the most beautiful jellyfish of my entire life. Illuminated with red light against a blue screen, I watched these primordial predators swim. For a good part of an hour, we were transfixed, watched them ripple with perfect ease.

A young volunteer told me of a new discovery about these old invertebrate swimmers. A jellyfish swims by contracting its bell, the umbrella-shaped part at the top of its body, which forms a vortex behind the animal that propels it forward. Then the bell relaxes, and the jelly encounters increased drag before its next pulse. Most jellyfish acceleration happens when it contracts, but until quite recently, scientists were missing something important about the jellies' recovery stroke. As the bell relaxes, a second vortex in the opposite direction forms just above it. This is called a stopping vortex, but in fact, it does just the opposite: because of its perfect timing, it actually propels the jellyfish forward again. This stopping vortex provides 30% of the animals thrust and makes jellyfish the most energy efficient animals on the planet, better than any flier, runner, crustacean, or fish. They are propelled forward both by their effort and again by their rest.

Over the past six years of working for Hillel, it is rare that a day goes by without a student telling me that they don’t get enough sleep. Sometimes they complain. Sometimes they brag. Often it's a mixture of both. Graduate students and community members generally know that missing sleep negatively impacts their body. Many undergraduates have younger bodies that are still able to regularly cope with fewer hours of sleep - especially with caffeine or other stimulants. How else are they to cope with classes, extra curriculars, friendships and 200+ emails a day? Not to mention keeping up with Instagram?

Now everyone knows that sleep and rest are essential for physical and mental health. But here are a few statistics. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 in monetary losses. Doctors have found that sleep is also necessary for memory consolidation - the process of making memories stable in the brain. They have also found that getting 5 hours or less of sleep over years is correlated with a 15 percent higher risk of becoming obese. Sleep also makes up happier: A recent Gallop Poll found that people who get adequate sleep are more likely to rate their lives as happier. It is simple - Rest makes us healthy.

Rest also makes us productive. A growing number of companies give their engineers time to pursue their own projects because they know that people are most productive when they are given freedom. 3M, which gives their engineers 1/7 of their time for their personal projects found that this led to the development of Scotch Tape and Post It Notes. Google too has experimented with “20% time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects. Adsense, Gmail, Google Transit, Google Talk, and Google News were all visioned through such a process. There are also Sabbaticals. There are countless stories of CEOs, academics, artists, and rabbis, who have taken sabbaticals and returned inspired and filled with new ideas that disrupt the status quo. It’s only in stepping back and stopping, that we are able to see the givens in our systems and think new thoughts.

Together, rest for health and for productivity can be summarized by Aristotle, who argued in Nicomachean Ethics “ We need rest because we are not able to go on working without a break, and therefore it is not an end, since we take it as a means to further activity.”

Friends, the Jewish concept of rest radically different from that of Aristotle’s and of Western society. Let’s look at the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat. What is the goal of our creation myth? Not the creation of sun and moon, nor of the fish, nor even of humanity. The highest point of creation is Shabbat . In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

To the biblical mind... labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.”

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living. Three acts of God denoted the seventh day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3). To the prohibition of labor is, therefore, added the blessing of delight and the accent of sanctity. Not only the hands of man celebrate the day; the tongue and the soul keep the Sabbath. One does not talk on it in the same manner in which one talks on weekdays. Even thinking of business or labor should be avoided. Labor is a craft, but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of an accord of body, mind, and imagination.

Today, we can celebrate by turning off our phone, putting down our textbooks, lighting candles, drinking a glass of wine, and surrounding ourselves with friends and family. Am I suggesting that we all keep a strict Orthoprax Shabbat? No. But we do need to take hours and unplug. Maybe just on Friday Night. Maybe on Saturday Morning. Or try a technology sabbath. It will be hard at first, but soon you will yearn for it.

Many of you who have been in this minyan for years might remember Aisha Down. She was a student leader for a years and shared some of her wonderful sermons and poetry with this community. I spoke with her a few days ago about her experience of adopting the practice of a weekly Sabbath. She reflected to me how how terrifying it was for her at the beginning. She realized that in order to keep Shabbat, she would need recognize that “our lives need to be bigger than our work. Shabbat is a time to explore for yourselves what your life is for other than productivity.” By turning off her phone, and refraining from schoolwork, she began to discover that “our value is not based on the work we do in the world... We are valuable because we are created in the image of G!d.”

Friends, do you know what the Jewish tradition calls someone who works 7 days a week? A slave. Deuteronomy commands that we keep Shabbat to remember that we are no longer slaves in Egypt. No matter what our task is, we need to be able to take regular, meaningful and restful breaks. And if we can’t, then we are slaves: to society, to our families, to our mortgages, to our egoic stories about our own importance and that of our work.

It is not just Shabbat, when we need to rest. It says the Torah, “V’alchta Vsavata Uverachta et Adonai Eleohechah” - You should eat and you should be satisfied and you should bless G!d for the good land. It a mitzvah to find, notice and celebrate our satiety. This is so difficult for me. I make myself so busy that I eat the the majority of my meals while talking on the phone, walking, or driving. A few days ago I found myself driving, eating, and talking on the phone at the same time. I felt ‘productive,’ but the truth its, I never tasted my food, I never felt thankful for my food, and I never noticed that I was full. I just ran on to the next check on my to-do-list.

It is so hard to feel satiated. I spend so much emotional energy worrying about getting everything done, reading the news, making all of my meetings, cooking and cleaning, and so on. The fact is, that I spend only a small faction of my energy giving thanks for all that I have. Its cruel to myself that I berate myself so harshly for what I haven’t done yet, but don’t take the time to celebrate it when I do.

The Jewish perspective of work boils down to this: There is no mitzvah to work. There is a mitzvah to fix the world, to care for our children, to tithe, to visit the sick, to feed and clothe the naked, to honor our parents - and all of that can take money. But among all of the Torah’s 613 Commandments, it never says Thou Shalt Work - Certainly not 7 days a week. Work is instrumental and not an end in of itself.

Our rest will make us healthier, happier, and more productive. Over time, skillful rest will allow us to out-compete others who try to work 24-7. More importantly, our rest will force us in time to learn that remember that our humanity is more valuable than the sum of our work over our lifetime.

Arthur Rubinstein, a famous pianist was once asked, "How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” He replied, "I handle notes no better than many others, but the pauses - ah! That is where the art resides.”

Life is an art. Stopping, resting, feeling satiated, Shabbat-ing, and breathing deeply are all essential pieces. Like Jellyfish and all animals, we must rest in order to thrive. But in truth it is more than that: we humans deserve rest. As an essential human right. We deserve to shut off our phones and close our textbooks and dream.

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