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Mentor, guide, cheerleader or motivator, Rabbi Daniel Cohen possesses a unique blend of authenticity, wisdom and spiritual insight for contemporary society.

The Timely Man’s Mindful Message

The Timely Man’s Mindful Message

Almost a year ago to the day, I was driving in New Jersey on my way to a funeral. It was the 10 Days of Repentance. As I was navigating the roads, I diverted my attention to my phone and did not see a car moving into the lane.  I missed an accident, thank God, by a hairbreadth and said a prayer of thanks to God as I contemplated, God forbid,  the tragic consequences of an accident at sixty miles an hour. A momentary decision, one split second leading to devastating consequences.  

I was guilty of distracted driving, an American epidemic. People continue doing it because as risky as it is most people will reply when asked, “But I have never been in a crash.”

In my mind, the pervasiveness of distracted driving is endemic of a deeper and broader issue in our personal lives, our families and communities. It is not simply that we are guilty of distracted driving but of distracted living. Distracted  living is when we miss out on much of life because we are not paying attention.

The effects may not be as immediate, God forbid, as a car crash but are as invasive as it erodes our relationships with God, our family members, and friends.

Believe it or not, we acknowledge this reality three times at the very beginning of Kol Nidrei.  We repeat the phrase, ViNislach, asking God for forgiveness for the nation of Israel for sheggagot, notably not for deliberate transgressions but for those actions we did unknowingly. It is striking but not surprising that mindlessness is the focus of our forgiveness at the beginning of the holiday. Distracted Living is an underlying challenge in all our lives.

It’s not easy. We live in a generation that has many distractions. Even when we try to be focused on the day—today—we’re affected by CPA—not certified public accounting but a syndrome I call “continuous partial attention.” We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything—multitasking, surfing the Web, answering our cell phones—yet in the end, we gain nothing.

Most of us do not deliberately sin. We stumble because we are not paying attention. When we eat food, we forget to bless. When we forget to make a bracha it leads to ingratitude, a sense of entitlement and diminishes our relationship with God. When we pray, we focus on the clock, how fast can I say with the words, all the while our mind is wandering and we end up missing out on a conversation with the Almighty. Our bodies are here but heads often elsewhere.

Mindlessness creeps into our interpersonal relationships and can be destructive. Communication and listening are foundations of a marriage and the parent child relationship. When we pretend to listen or do not even focus on the other but are on our phones, distracted the relationships decay. With friends, as well, we may hear the words, “You did not call, I never heard from you”, common refrains in a world of busyness, that erode a friendship. It is small actions that cement an enduring relationship.

Distracted living is the product of allowing time to fly by without a sacred sense of the infinite potential within every day. We are all designed for spiritual greatness but when we are too bombarded by outside noise we fail to heed the small still voice within all of us.

Yom Kippur is a stirring reminder to lead a life of mindfulness and the deep awareness that we are always standing before God. The image of the Kohen Gadol in the holy of holies and the intense service of the day is intended to awaken within us God’s ever presence in our lives.

I would argue though that it is not the Kohen Gadol who offers the strongest support to mindful living but a mysterious man whose role is central to the Yom Kippur service.  His name is the Ish Iti, a timely man.

Who is he and what is his role?

The Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur the day begins with a service in which two identical goats are chosen. At the entrance to the Temple, lots are drawn to determine the fate of the goats. One would be offered to God and another sent to the wilderness to die. One goat is taken in to the desert by an Ish Iti, literally a timely man, a mystery man who assumes custody of the goat to lead it to it final destination in the desert. The Talmud explains that so central was his role in the process of communal atonement that a series of way stations were set along the way along his route to give him the option of breaking his fast that he may retain his strength. According to Biblical Law, any Israelite may serve as the Ish Iti.

 

Who was he? How was he chosen? Rashi offers the following poignant approach. He states that this timely man was a person who was muchan lekach miyom etmol, prepared for the task from the previous day. At face value this means that he was appointed from the day before. However, the Sages suggest it means much more.

 

This man must possess a singular character trait of inestimable value for any person on the road to Teshuva, the road to spiritual renewal.  What was it? He lived his life with the deepest awareness that each day possesses eternal value as it lays the foundation for tomorrow.

 

Consider for a moment how different our lives would be if we were conditioned to realize that the seeds of our future are in the actions we do today?  We would not live in a blur but fully present. In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “The reason that the world is far from G-d, and does not seek to come close to Him is only because people lack yishuv ha-da'as -- a calm, settled mind. All that a person has in the world is this one day and this one hour in which he stands.” Be mindful of the moment before you right now.

 

Essential to the process of Teshuva is increased awareness of the ultimate impact of our deeds If we could perceive the potential within every moment, word or action, we would be so much more careful in how we act today.  We would live more mindfully and in the present.

 

Each Yom Kippur we confront our regrets. If only I had been more aware. If only I had been aware how my words or actions might have made an impact.  If only I would have known. The Ish Iti, serves as a potent reminder that in 25 hours from now, the world, our world begins anew. God willing, we will lead our lives with fewer regrets and harnessing more moments for growth and impact.


The Ish Iti, the timely man, is everyman and an essential model for all of us to lead life with minimal distractions and maximum purpose. He achieves this through three strategies, ones we can all emulate. Finding meditative moments. Being happy with our lot. Seizing opportunities for impact all the time.  

First, the Ish Iti is not afraid of silence.  Many people are.  A University of Virginia study published in July 2014 put hundreds of people in an empty, quiet room alone for 15 minutes. Most participants found it insufferable—25 percent of women and 67 percent of men opted to endure painful electric shocks rather than pass the time without any stimulation.  

The Ish Iti understands that silence can be a powerful tool for leading a spiritual life.

 

A story is told about a farmer who misplaced a valuable watch somewhere in his barn. He asked everyone to search up and down to find his precious heirloom. Unfortunately, despite hours spent looking for the timepiece, it was nowhere to be found. Later in the day, a young boy announced to the farmer with great joy that he had found the watch. Astonished, the farmer asked the boy how he was able to find it even though so many others had searched high and low without finding it. The boy responded, “Well, once the barn was quiet, I put my head to the ground and heard the watch ticking.” We may only hear our inner voice when we turn off the outside world.

 

The Ish Iti  recognizes the sounds that can be heard in the silence. Proof positive of this was a law suit a few years ago against British composer Mike Batt for including the song, "A One Minute Silence," on his album by late American composer John Cage, whose 1952 composition "4'33"" was totally silent. Most interesting was a comment of Batt who said, "Mine is a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds."

Listen to the words of one reviewer of the 4”33

4'33" is a gentle reminder to embrace your surroundings, to be present. If you treat every sound as you would music, you just might hear something unexpected, something beautiful. At its core, 4'33" isn’t about listening to nothing. It’s about listening to everything.

 I would add, the Ish Iti beckons us to create moments of silence in the soul.  We need to find the courage to liberate ourselves daily from the tyranny of technology, the mobile phone, the laptop and all the other electronic intruders.  At lunches or dinners during the week, make sure all phones are away from the table so everyone can be fully present. Remember that God is in every breath we breathe. Inhale the heady air of existence, and feel the joy of being

Secondly, The Ish Iti challenges us to be happy with our lot. Ethics of Our Fathers, teaches He who is wealthy is happy with his portion. Happiness in life is not generated by chasing after other people’s lot.  There is a phenomenon called FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. It is reflective of our time.

 

One of the most tantalizing reasons we live in a frazzled way is because we think we might miss something. Did I miss a call or a text? What is someone else doing that I could be doing? We chase after someone else dreams and forget our own.

Yet the Ish Iti lives his life understanding that God asks him not to be someone else  but to be the best he can be with his God Given talents and potential. When we live our lives this way, it generates the deepest of joys. It is no wonder Yom Kippur is called one of the happiest days of the year.

A story with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his father in law Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the previous Rebbe illustrates this point.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s was scheduled to travel from Leningrad to Moscow on secret business concerning his underground network. The journey was fraught with peril, especially because his movements were closely monitored by the communist authorities.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson reported the following when when he entered his father in law’s room shortly before his departure, “I found him sitting in a state of utter calm, as if nothing urgent were on the horizon. When I expressed my amazement, the Rebbe explained: “You cannot add time to the day, but you can utilize the time you do have ‘successfully.’” When one is fully engaged in the moment—not distracted by that which came before, or that which will come after—then he is truly living and is able to utilize life’s potential to its fullest.”

 Finally, The Ish Iti seizes opportunities for impact and growth every day. When we lead our lives with such mindfulness, we will not only limit our inadvertent transgressions and regret but we will be motivated to transform fleeting encounters into eternal ones. We never know the impact of one Tefillah, one hello, on act of kindness, a listening ear, one amen, to shake the world.

One of the lessons of Rosh Hashanah and the festivals is that G-d is present everywhere and in every moment and situation, and that his kingship extends over all. In the words of the Tikkuney Zohar, “Les asar panui miney … There is no place devoid of Him.” An offshoot of this idea is that we may connect to G-d wherever we are and in every moment of our lives.

I want to conclude by sharing the words my father told me after he gave me his blessing on Erev Yom Kippur. In our struggle against mindlessness, his simple wishes for me are a worthy goal for all us as we embark on a new year. He told me not to study the prayers on Yom Kippur  but let them penetrate my heart and then he offered the following wish:

May you grow in your role as an Oved Hashem, a servant of God, may you realize your Divine potential and be a better person this year than last.  His words offer deep clarity about our sacred missions.

I hope that this year, we all lead our lives awakened to the Divine in very hour, person and place or May we open our hearts to be mindful and fully present in each moment. May Hashem bless us with a year of health, joy, growth and touching eternity each and every day of our lives.  

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