S.L.O.W. D.O.W.N.: In memory of our ancestry, for the sake of our earth

1 TISHREI 5781 / SEPTEMBER 18, 2020

S.L.O.W. D.O.W.N.: In memory of our ancestry, for the sake of our earth

Let me take you back for a moment to my bubbie’s kitchen.
My mother’s mother, Bubbie Shirley, was a renowned cook.
She was, hands down, the best cook I have ever known.
Every Friday, we would go over to her home for Shabbos dinner,
and, too, all of the holidays,
without ever a complaint from any of us.
Her Yiddish accent greeted us,
her soft arms embraced us,
her sharp mind made for delightful conversation—
as we were set to experience the best meal of our lives, yet again.

It was the chicken soup we’d fight over.
Split pea soup that had us in joyful tears from the white pepper.
She served a simple salad with her delicious dressing,
and hand-made gefilte fish,
served with a healthy dose of horseradish.
There was chicken and bowties and kasha,
salmon patties, potato kugel,
and potato knishes with hand-made dough.
And most importantly, always an overabundance of food.
She would offer us seconds, thirds, or more!
And we would jump at the opportunity.

Dessert was marble or honey or apple cake.
There was mandlebroit, roly poly, geyurnst,
and cheese pie,
and a side of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Cooking was different back then.
Everything was made from scratch, no recipes, simple food.

My mother would recount stories of growing up
in the now hipster Plateaux area of Montreal,
then filled with working class Jewish immigrants.
She tells stories of going with my bubbie to the shoychet.
There, my bubbie would pick the chicken she wanted, the live chicken,
and the shoychet would ritually slaughter it,
so that my bubbie and mom could take it home to pluck.
When Rosh Hashanah was just days away,
it got hard to take a shower at their house,
because there was a live fish in the bathtub,
sometimes the fish was one my zaidie
would have caught on a fishing excursion.
And to this day, I have a kneading board
that my bubbie claimed was brought on the ship that carried her and her parents
from the old country after the First World War.

Those days were different.
Time itself was different back then.
No one was checking their cell phones during dinner.
I don’t remember being in a rush those Friday nights and holidays,
except to eat her food.
Sitting at my bubbie’s table was an altogether
different sensory experience, as if life was heightened.

Recently, time has slowed down, too,
as we stay home to keep others safe.
In some ways, it’s been good for us to do so.
When we face the current moment,
when we think back to the life our ancestors once lived, we are called on to S.L.O.W. D.O.W.N.
and turn back the clock.

This, too, is the essence of these holidays.
As one of our members, Susan Bauchner said:
the High Holy Days are a time
to “push a pause button from our run-around year.”
To slow down.
To consider the past, even as we look ahead to the new year.

This is why, every year at this season,
we devote time:
to chant ancient texts,
to eat centuries-old food recipes,
to remember lost loved ones and prior generations,
and to offer prayers from long ago.

Tonight, I want to tell you why slowing down matters,
in other words, why this season matters,
what difference it makes,
and what happens when we don’t take time to slow down.
And why, absolutely, sometimes we need to hit the play button,
but there are times in our lives when
we just need to push pause.

Way back in 1170, about 850 years ago,
the great philosopher and rabbi, Maimonides,
back in a time that was much slower than ours,
had a few ideas on slowing down. He wrote:
“Prayer without intention, without inwardness, without kavannah—
is no prayer at all…”
In fact, don’t pray, he said, if your thoughts are wandering and unfocused,
if your mind is caught on other things.
Wait until you’re more ‘with it’.
For instance, he explains, if you go for a trip and then return,
you should wait three full days to pray
to give your mind the time to rest and be calm.
(Mishneh Torah, Tefillah 4:6)

For Maimonides,
we cannot do our best thinking until we have slowed down.
For him, one of the benefits of pausing is a clear mind,
and an opportunity to better focus and connect on a deeper level.

Take a moment right now and connect with your breath. Breathe.
Maybe let your eyes focus on something in the room you are in.
What do you first notice? (Pause)
What does slowing down give you? (Pause)

For me during this pandemic, slowing down has meant:
wrapping myself in tallit and tefillin to meditate and pray,
sitting by the water’s edge,
placing my bare feet on the grass,
taking a moment before eating
to consider where the food came from,
playing hockey in the street with my kids,
spending Shabbat in nature with our family,
and even on the (many) busy days as a rabbi,
trying not to go from one meeting to the next,
pausing even if briefly between meetings
to take in the moment.
This has slowed down my nervous system enough
to bring me some perspective that
this crazy time we are living in:
,גם זה יעבור
‘this too shall pass.’

Take a moment to consider,
and maybe even write in the chat box:
*What have you been doing to slow down in these times?
Or what might you do over this season of holidays
to push the pause button?*

Slowing down helps the psyche and soul,
but it also benefits the outside world.
Have you noticed any changes to our Vermont nature
in these past months?
For months after the pandemic struck,
it was rare to see a car driving on the road.
This was unsettling, not great for the economy,
but also healthy for us as we have slowed down the virus,
and also healthy for mother nature in many ways,
as it slowed climate change.

Did you know that as streets in March emptied of traffic
and flights were cut
fossil-fuel-caused air pollution fell by 30% within days?
From LA to China to Italy—hazy skies cleared.
These days, all LA sees is climate-caused hazy skies
from the forests burning, as the fires rage through California,
may they be spared speedily and soon.

We can heal ourselves from this pandemic
if we would just slow down.
So, too, earth can heal herself,
if we give her the space to do so.

Slowing down has not been entirely easy to say the least!
This is certainly true if you are at home on our own,
or, hypothetically speaking here,
under one roof with three children ages 9 and under.

Sometimes slowing down is harder than speeding up,
particularly in modern history.
Our world has been growing faster and faster
since the Industrial Revolution,
where we are now at the point that
we can fit in the palm of our hands
a smartphone that is 120 million times faster
than the car-sized computer that sent Apollo 11 to the moon and back.
120 million times!

Tonight and through these holidays,
it is wondrous technology that will allow us to connect,
just as it has with family across geographic divides
during these pandemic times.

Yet, as we “progress” as a society,
surely, there are ways in which we have missed the mark,
and that we must account for at this season.
When scientists say that by 2050,
the oceans could have more plastic in them than fish,
at about 1000 million tons,
you know something is wrong.
And that may be the least of our problems by then.

This season of holidays affords us the opportunity
to slow down enough to consider our impact
on others and the world.
To notice how fast we are moving as a society—
bombarded by fast-moving information
at a rate we were not built to digest, while, not surprisingly,
making some pretty terrible decisions for us and the planet.

Many of us in Vermont were drawn here
because of the slower lifestyle, the less developed land,
and the opportunity to spend more time communing with nature.
Intuitively, we know the benefits of slowing down
for us and our world.
Still, we could slow down more, even.
And that slower-paced lifestyle we’ve grown to love,
we might teach our city-folk friends the benefits—
for ourselves and for this planet.

So, how will you spend these holy-slow days at this season?
Maybe get outside, spend time in nature,
connect with your breath…
maybe cook some recipes from scratch.

My bubbie’s life in Montreal was a slice
of an old, slower world from a distant time.
To this day, I cannot stomach gefilte fish from a gelatinous jar.
It is an entirely different food group
from the gefilte fish my bubbie made.

May we begin this year by slowing down,
listening to the lessons of our ancestors,
and the blessings of the earth,
as we build a healthier future together.