It was 3:00 AM, and I was in a hotel room in Azerbaijan, lying awake. I was on the first night of a trip through Central Asia, jet-lagged, and disoriented. I groped around the room, looking for the alarm clock. I was so frustrated. Eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, my body thought that now would be a good time to get things going for the day. Somehow, I had convinced my body to fall asleep a few hours earlier, but jet lag is among the most powerful of forces. Despite my will, it would not be tamed after just one night. While my mind craved sleep, my body was busy making other plans. All I could do was lie in bed and – since it was evening on the East Coast – play HQ on my iPhone.
Jet lag is a vicious, vicious fiend.
In many ways, the human body is remarkably resilient. But our body clock stands out as an exception. A cluster of 20,000 neurons located in the brain, it works 24/7, busily coordinating important bodily functions: regulating temperature, blood pressure, and hormone production. It’s a highly sensitive system that can’t withstand much pressure at all: just one hour’s displacement will throw it off for days, causing physical, mental, and behavioural havoc.
We’ve all experienced this, even if you don’t fly around the world through multiple time zones. Twice a year, when we switch back and forth between standard time and daylight saving time, our bodies actually experience the same symptoms as jet lag. And just that one-hour shift has catastrophic consequences: In the days after the time change, car accidents increase by 8%, heart attacks spike by 24%, and strokes by up to 25%. Suicide rates rise. One study suggested that 366 deaths from car accidents could be saved per year by getting rid of daylight saving time. And another showed that judges, sleep deprived by the shift, impose harsher sentences. The Boston Globe called daylight savings time “dumb, dangerous, and costly.”
Jet lag is a mess that has serious practical, physiological, emotional, and yes, even philosophical implications. Our disorientation sends confusing signals: your outer body is in one place, but your mind and soul are in another.
But if you can get past the fatigue, it’s an opportunity to confront a profound question: What is real? What counts as true? Is it the outer world that we happen to find ourselves in at any given moment, or the world within each of us that strives to regulate itself
Stuck in the depths of jet lag at 3 am in Azerbaijan, I was thinking about this. I was thinking about what it means when our body and our mind are misaligned; what happens when we’re torn in two different directions; what happens when the way things are and the way we want them to be are out of sync.
Jet lag is a perfect example of something we all know to be true: when our very self is out of alignment, it can get pretty rough.
This is the message of the entire high holiday season. We have a vision of who we want to be, And, God-willing, we will have many successes in reaching that vision. But we are human beings, each one of us fragile and fallible. Despite our best intentions, we also inevitably fail. We live in and out of sync. The beautiful gift of Yom Kippur is the opportunity every year to resynchronize our spiritual clocks.
The vision, the goal, the standard time, is one of holiness. The very centre of the Torah – its thesis statement – is captured in two simple Hebrew words that God addresses to us: קדושים תהיו: You shall be holy.
Judaism teaches that at our very core, each one of us is holy.
On the very first Yom Kippur, thousands of years ago, there were no synagogues, and no day-long services. The solemn occasion was marked by the High Priest ascending the steps of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and entering into the innermost sanctum – the Kadosh Kedoshim– the Holy of Holies, believed to be the most sacred place on earth. There, he uttered the secret name of God, and prayed for forgiveness for the entire community.
But the temple no longer stands. We have no High Priest to pray on our behalf. A radical revolution took place within Judaism: holiness was no longer the purview of only the Priest, but could be accessed by anyone and everyone. The idea of holiness was democratized. Ever since then, we have all been able to see ourselves as holy – perhaps as God had intended all along.
But do we know what we mean when we say this? And do we really believe it? What does it mean to be holy? How can we make it more than just a nice adjective we use to describe good behaviour?
Here’s one idea: in the Torah, after the text tells us that we will be holy, you might expect that we would get an exact definition of what the word “holy” means. But we don’t really. Instead, the text immediately discusses making intimate relationships sacred, forming loving relationships with our parents, how to conduct business ethically, how to establish a system of equal justice, how to relate to our neighbours, how to treat the most vulnerable in society, and how to ethically consume food.
It’s an all-encompassing focus that suggests: being holy isn’t about only believing in one image of God, or praying just the right words. Holiness is intimately linked with acts of loving kindness and morality. Being holy entails how we relate to others and the world around us through a system of sacred justice.
Ultimately, “holy” probably looks different to each of us. And our understanding likely changes over time. But for now, pause for a moment, and think about the best image you have of yourself and the world in which you want to live. It may not grasp a precise definition of holiness, but it’s probably a good start for recognizing that we have, built into us, the knowledge that we can be something we can call holy. It’s what differentiates us from the rest of creation. Animals, plants, stunning natural vistas, even the Torah – they all have elements of holiness within them. But the difference is they can’t know that they are holy. We can.
How many of us see ourselves as holy? As worthy of this description? When God says קדושים תהיו to us, it is an invitation to believe that we have the ability to be holy. Not just as a metaphor, but as a true description of who we are.
I think it matters. The message of Yom Kippur isn’t only self-improvement for self-improvement’s sake. There are plenty of bookstores and therapists who can help with that. It’s not just about kindness or interpersonal reconciliation. And it’s not simply a release valve for all the guilt we build up each year.
The message of Yom Kippur is that each of us in this room needs to stop – at least once a year – to take stock of our purpose and mission as a unique being; a being created in the divine image, deserving and capable of holiness. And when we recognize that in ourselves and in others, we help bring more holiness into the world.
It’s why the rituals of the day are built around simulating our own deaths: we don’t eat. We don’t drink. We refrain from intimate relations. We dress simply, often in white. It is the only time other than our own deathbeds when we utter the words of the vidui– the final confession. We grapple with the impossibly challenging liturgy of u’netaneh tokef –who shall live, and who shall die? Who shall cease to be, and who shall come to be?
Here, on the very precipice of life, we ask ourselves: What would the world be like if, God forbid, I wasn’t here? If, God forbid, the people most important to me in the world weren’t here. What do I need to do to make my presence on earth worthwhile? What goodness am I responsible for bringing into the world?
These are questions desperately needing answers today when so many are more intent on defaming the humanity of others; more interested in proving each other wrong; and more interested in establishing litmus tests for worthy association.
And this is not just about partisan politics or twitter. It’s a challenge the Jewish community must reckon with. We have an unfortunate tendency of spending too much time policing mostly artificial boundaries, and not enough time recognizing the holiness in each of us: “You’re too pro-Israel.” “You’re not pro-Israel enough.” “You don’t look Jewish.” “You don’t observe the right laws.” “You didn’t perform the right ritual.” “You didn’t fall in love with the right kind of person.” Meaningful debate about certain matters is okay – necessary, even. Moral wrongs should be righted. But the noise often drowns out the message.
Because God didn’t say: “You shall be holy… only if you support Israel unconditionally.” God didn’t say: “You shall be holy… only if you condemn the occupation of the Palestinians.” God didn’t say: “You shall be holy… only if you marry a Jew.” God said: “You shall be holy.”
What if this isn’t just a command to behave in a certain way, but a statement of our very essence? A reminder of who we are? I think we have an internal awareness of this holiness, similar to our internal body clock. Think back to the questions I asked earlier: What would the world be like if I wasn’t here? What goodness am I responsible for bringing into the world? In each of our answers lies an awareness of our holiness.
And just like our body clock, our holiness clock is highly sensitive. When it’s displaced, it can wreak havoc.
I think that in 2018, we’re collectively experiencing a state of spiritual jet lag. We say we’re “spiritual, but not religious.” But what does that mean? We crave meaning and purpose, but stumble around looking for it. We have a sense of the greatness of existence, but are missing the words and tools to describe it.
We are among the most intellectually, philosophically, and professionally advanced citizens in the world. We go to the greatest academies and develop mature worldviews. Our daily life is for the most part sophisticated, visionary, and forward looking. But when it comes to a sense of our spiritual significance… it often feels like we’re stuck in a different time and place.
So it’s no wonder that when our prayers and texts speak of our holiness, they confuse, offend, or bore us. We’re spiritually drained and exhausted, suffering from the side effects of this jet lag. We don’t really talk about holiness that much anymore. And I worry it might mean that we no longer believe we are holy.
It can be exhausting to think about what it means to be holy, but our hearts and souls are aching for it.
Exhausted by jet lag, how do we fix it? Contrary to what the body thinks it wants, it’s not by sleeping. In fact, sleeping just makes it worse. You wind up even more out of sync. There is a whole cottage industry of people who think they’ve found the way to beat jet lag, trying to sell you on their cure: medical sleep aids, herbal supplements, or light therapy. Articles in magazines from Forbes to Vogue list their top-five tips on how to arrive looking more alive. But the reality is… this is all mostly junk science. Our internal clock is just too powerful and too sensitive.
What you have to do – despite all the cravings of your body – is lean in to your jet lag – confront the fatigue head on and fight it. Stay awake and fully realize how being jet lagged makes you feel. Then, at the right time, you go to sleep and re-synchronize your body and mind.
I think we need to lean in. We need to talk more about holiness. When I tell you that you are holy, how does it make you feel? What does it inspire you to do? What questions does it pose for you?
Rabbi Bradley Artson puts it this way:
“What does it mean to take seriously that the electricity that sparkles through your cranium is the reverberating echo of that first big bang? … We are fully an expression of the world which has created us and summoned us into being… Armed with the awareness that you have a pedigree that is as old as space-time… how does that help us to use our time wisely? If we take seriously that at each and every moment we are invited to add significance to the world… to add meaning, to add connection, to add compassion, then any moment we don’t do this is an opportunity squandered.”
We have a spiritually authentic, 4,000-year-old tradition that says something sublime: “you are holy.” But today, we mostly speak in a different language. What if we brought back “an ancient and holy dialogue” between our ordinary daily lives on the one hand, and our spiritual core, on the other? A resynchronisation; a return – a teshuvah– to the centre.
Can we focus a little less on the politics of our relationship with Israel, and more on the holiness of our relationships with our partners and friends?
Can we spend less time cultivating polished social media presences, and more time cultivating a nourishing presence with our families? That is holiness.
Can we worry less about what people are saying on Twitter, and more about the kindness we can bring to each other as we go about our business each day? That is holiness, too.
Can we dwell less on what we don’t have – time, money, patience – and more on what we do have – the ability to share our presence and resources with the most vulnerable among us? That, most certainly, is holiness.
There was a group of scientists studying jet lag – which, you know by now, is a vicious problem that demands our attention. And they discovered that in addition to our brain’s primary master clock, we have a secondary internal clock that responds not to our sleep pattern, but to the time that we eat (or don’t eat). It turns out that in addition to staying awake, the most effective way to synchronize your internal clock is to temporarily deprive yourself of food.
Fasting! Fasting is the key! These scientists stumbled upon something that we have known for thousands of years – that taking the time for self-reflection by directing ourselves away from consuming things like food and sex – has the ability to reset the mind and body, and bring us back into synchronicity.
This should come as no surprise. Fasting is more spiritual than biological. It is a discipline that connects you to yourself and to something much bigger. It allows us to step away from our daily demands and the forces of the outside world, and consider the more important questions in life:
What does it mean to take seriously my time on earth?
What would the world be like if, God forbid, I wasn’t here?
What do I need to do to make my presence on earth worthwhile?
What goodness and meaning and significance am I invited to bring into the world?
I invite you to consider your own answers to these questions. They are among the most important questions in life. You can use the cards we’ve provided to record your thoughts, or you can meditate on them silently (or, if you’re reading this online, you can comment below). Know that there’s no single answer, but that the quest for the answers is part of the very nature of the spark of holiness within you.