Our Spiritual To-Do List

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 Sermon | September 29, 2019 – 1 Tishrei 5780

Somewhere in our house, Kirk and I have a small stack of legal paper with two weeks’ worth of to-do lists from the lead-up to our wedding. Each day, we had a number of tasks to complete to ensure that everything went smoothly and at the end of each of those days, we’d cross off the things we’d accomplished and add the ones that were still left to be completed onto the next day’s list. Mostly, we saved them as sentimental souvenirs, but I think we also saved them because Kirk loves to-do lists. I, however, do not. I manage only to create a to-do list when I’m working against a clock, like the lead up to Shabbat and need to ensure that everything is done before Shabbat begins. In my daily life, however, I rarely use to-do lists. For those of you who love to-do lists, like Kirk does, you know that the most gratifying thing is crossing items off the list. The first item on all of my father-in-law’s to-do lists was always “Make list,” that way, he could start by crossing something off right away.

There’s another kind of to-do list, though, that I want to explore with you on this eve of 5780. For those of you who do love to-do lists, I’ll warn you that you might not like this one. You don’t get to cross anything off. The to-do list I’m talking about is a spiritual to-do list and I’d like to suggest that as we enter 5780 together, you not only think about the things you need to get done, but more importantly the things you need to keep doing.

When I was at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis last spring, one of my colleagues, while leading us in worship, pointed to a prayer that appears in our morning liturgy, Eilu D’varim, and shared that this prayer is our spiritual to-do list. Let’s take a look at it for a moment. It’s on page 115 in your machzor.

These are the things of which a person eats their fruit in this world, but the principal remains for them in the world to come. This is what they are:  honoring our parents, acting with kindness and loyalty, eagerly pursuing Jewish learning at all times, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, rejoicing with couples under the chuppah, caring for the dead and mourners, delving deeply into prayer, and making peace among human beings. And the study of Torah—this is the cornerstone.

When we pray these words in our morning worship, the reality is that these words are not directed at God. They are directed at us. The Sages put them into the prayer book to fulfill the blessing that precedes them, the blessing for study. These words come from the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat. “Conventional wisdom would tell us that we recite these selections of Torah study so that the blessings we recited will not have been in vain.”[1] But these words are not for God. They are our spiritual to-do list. This prayer, which my colleague Rabbi Evan Moffic calls the happiness prayer, reveals truths and practices. We are called to bring its teachings into our daily lives. It’s not just a prayer that we say, but one that we are meant to live. Its magic, teaches Rabbi Moffic, is in how we use it to change our lives.[2]

Eilu D’varim begins with a statement of purpose, using a financial metaphor. “Our actions represent an investment of our time. The interest on this investment is our happiness.”[3] “Good deed doers earn interest on their investment of beneficence ‘in this world,’ and enjoy the principal ‘in the world to come.’”[4] Some believe the world to come is the afterlife; others believe it is later in this life. Either way, the principal never diminishes. Essentially, for performing these deeds, there is benefit both now and later. “Their value is infinite, and their impact long-lasting.”[5]

Eilu D’varim was written by our Sages during some of Judaism’s darkest times. It is a 2000-year-old to-do list from the Mishnah, the earliest collection of Jewish law. This prayer, “brings attention to the struggles, actions, and experiences that ultimately bring joy and meaning to our lives.”[6] The tasks of Eilu D’varim are not only the right things to do, but they also make our lives better. Let’s explore these tasks together.

Honoring our Parents

The first task on this to-do list that the Sages gave us is kibud av va-eim, honoring our parents. Many of us are fortunate to have had loving parents who cared for us every step of the way. Others among us, though, have had more difficult relationships with their parents, relationships that were harmful if not dangerous. Kibud av va-eim is not about love. The word kavod means honor, but it also bears the meaning of weighty or heavy. Eilu D’varim doesn’t say that we have to love our parents, but it does call us to honor them, but God doesn’t demand the impossible. The responsibility to honor our parents shouldn’t become a burden. It shouldn’t weigh us down. But I think that kibud av va-eim is about more than just honoring our parents. On the spiritual to-do list that we’ve been given, we are called not only to honor those who gave us life or who raised us, but all of those who came before us who made the lives that we lead possible. What would it look like for you make honoring the people who laid the foundation of your life a task on your spiritual to-do list?

Acting with Kindness

One day in seventh grade, my classmates started hurling pennies at me across the school cafeteria, waiting to see if the Jew would pick up the pennies. My language arts teacher, Diane Kasiski, picked up her lunch tray and came to sit down next to me. She told me about being the only Polish kid in her school growing up and the teasing to which was subjected. She couldn’t stop my peers, but she could make me feel less alone.  The Sages teach us that engaging in g’milut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, earn us reward not only in this life, but in the life to come. “One Jewish commentary on the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden says their exile was a positive development in human history because it gave us the opportunity to practice kindness. In the Garden everything was provided for us. Outside it we needed to help one another.”[7] In Hebrew, there are two words for kindness, rachamim and chesed. Rachamim is mercy. It is related to the Hebrew word rechem, womb. This type of kindness is driven by unconditional love. Chesed, on the other hand, is conditional. G’milut chasadim implies reciprocity. When we extend kindness, we receive it. Being kind invokes understanding another person’s needs, engaging with their vulnerability, which makes us confront our own. The Sages tell us that Torah begins and ends with kindness. At its beginning, God clothes Adam and Eve. At its end, God buries Moses. What would it look like for us to begin and end each day with kindness?

Eagerly Pursuing Jewish Learning

My grandmother was a lifelong learner. She was a voracious reader throughout her life, engaged in continuing education classes in her senior years. Education was one of her highest priorities, so much so that she helped to fund my college education. I can still hear her saying, “A day that goes by without learning is a day wasted.” The Sages knew this, too. In the spiritual to-do list of Eilu D’varim, they call us to pursue learning at all times. The text of Eilu D’varim actually says to visit the house of study morning and evening. What it implies is as often as possible. Don’t relegate learning to the young. “Learning in adulthood differs from education in school because of the motivation. For adults, the primary motive is not grades. It is growth.”[8] “In 1938, researchers began a study of 268 Harvard University students. The research continued for eighty years, focusing on participants’ achievements and life satisfaction.”[9] Dr. George Vaillant, who directed the study for 30 years, discovered that the happiest people were what he called keepers of the meaning, who passed their wisdom on to those who came later. How many days do you let pass between your learning? When was the last time you came to Torah Study, an adult learning class in the Jewish community, or read a book of Jewish importance?

Welcoming Guests

Kirk and I bought our house five years ago and in the years that we’ve had it, we’ve made some small improvements, but there’s something that we keep coming back to, something we’ve tried to figure out if we can do. We want a front porch, a sunroom on the front of the house, or small patio in the alcove between our garage and the house. It didn’t occur to me until I began studying Eilu D’varim why this might be so important to us. More people today spend time in their backyard then on a front porch, where casual conversation with neighbors and passersby can happen. The Sages call us to be front porch people. They teach us to practice hachnasat orchim, the virtue of welcoming guests. Episcopal priest Lauren F. Winner teaches, “We are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also invite them into our lives. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are.” The Sages in Talmud, “decreed that every home needed to have a door on each of its four sides so guests would have no hassle coming in. Their concern was not for the decor inside the home. It was not for the landscaping or the architecture of the home. Their concern was that a homeowner should not make it too difficult for people to visit.”[10] But, “hospitality is not only inviting neighbors over for dinner. It is extending ourselves for the benefit of others.”[11] At the vigil for Pittsburgh last fall, right here in this sanctuary, I invited people to turn to a stranger nearby and make a date for coffee, brunch, or a cocktail in the coming months. I heard numerous stories of new friendships formed out of that charge. What would it look like for you to welcome others into your life and invite yourself into theirs? Is there someone sitting nearby you whom you do not know? One of our spiritual tasks is to foster those connections. It nurtures others and it nurtures us.

Visiting the Sick

I still remember one of the first nursing home visits I made when I was a student rabbi in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. I went to see Ruthe Schaitkin, a beloved member of the congregation who was living with dementia. I had never before visited someone living with dementia and had no idea what to expect. I sat down next to Ruthe on a bench in the hallway. She was in her wheelchair. I introduced myself to her and we began to have a conversation. I asked Ruthe how she was doing, if her family had come to see her lately, and what she’d been up to recently. She would begin to answer my questions, but each of her responses would trail off into gibberish. She wasn’t able to form complete sentences anymore and I had no idea how to handle it. All I knew about visiting people in hospitals or nursing homes involved engaging them in conversation and here was a woman, whom I did not really know, who couldn’t have a conversation with me. I was shaken. It took some time to learn that just being with her was all that Ruthe needed from me.

Unless you are a healthcare worker or clergy, you probably think it’s challenging to visit someone in the hospital. In fact, it’s challenging for the rest of us, too. “A hospital reminds us of our vulnerabilities.”[12] We distance ourselves from the sick and dying and this hurts not only them, but us as well. This doesn’t come from a lack of concern, but rather from the fear that many of us have about illness. We think we don’t know what to say or do. But the virtue of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, which the Sages put on this spiritual to-do list, is just about one thing:  presence. In fact, the word bikur is related to the word boker, morning. By being a presence in the life of those who are suffering, we bring hope and brightness to them. One of the most challenging responsibilities of my role as rabbi is keeping up with all of the people who need bikur cholim, a visit, a phone call, a comforting presence. We have a dedicated Caring Committee who is present for mourners and organizes care for people recovering from surgery or illness, but we can always use more help. I could use help from you in calling, visiting, and checking in on the people among us who need the presence of loving community. If you would consider calling or visiting people in our community who are ill or struggling, please call me in the coming weeks. I’d love to help you learn how to engage in bikur cholim.

Rejoicing with Wedding Couples

One of my favorite traditions in a Jewish wedding is lifting the wedding couple up in chairs and dancing around them. There is this unbridled joy, even amidst a little bit of fear about being dropped, on the faces of brides and grooms floating above the crowd as their friends, family, and community. I sort of take it as my personal responsibility at wedding receptions to fulfill the virtue of hachnasat kalah to help lift those chairs. It brings me joy. Hachnasat kalah, rejoicing with the wedding couple, extends beyond just newlyweds. Hachnasat kalah inspires us to be a part of the joyful moments of others, whatever they may be. “Celebrating life’s sacred moments – our own and those of others – is part of the recipe for a happy, fulfilling life.”[13] Scientists describe something called mirror neurons, a part of our biology that replicates the emotions of those around us. By engaging in others’ joy, we feel joy, too. Would you be willing to foster your own joy by participating in the joy of others? When we send out a notice about a baby naming during our Shabbat worship, announce an upcoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or a prenuptial blessing for a wedding couple, would you consider showing up to celebrate with them? Your joy may well be bound up in theirs.

Caring for the Dead and Mourners

The Hebrew word for funeral is levayah, to accompany. Literally, our responsibility is to accompany the casket to the grave, but it is much more than this. It is about comforting mourners, too. Jewish tradition says that our mourning prayers help the deceased to complete their journey to whatever comes after this world. By participating in mourning rituals, we continue to accompany the dead. We all, I hope, have what Rabbi Evan Moffic calls two o’clock in the morning friends, the people we could call at 2:00 am who would drop everything to be with us. We can’t be two o’clock in the morning friends for everyone, but Jewish tradition calls us not only to comfort our own close friends, but anyone experiencing loss in our community. I remember well when I was interning with Rabbi Joel Soffin at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey, where I grew up, before I went off to rabbinical school. There was a death in the congregation, someone who lacked family either nearby or all together. I wondered who would show up to honor her memory. Some members of the congregation said to me, “We will be her family. We’ll be there.” I truly hope that you’ll consider showing up to funerals and shiva minyanim not only when you knew the deceased or are close with the mourners, but especially when you don’t. Few things are sadder for me than a poorly attended funeral or shiva minyan. What would it look like for you to put on your spiritual to-do list for 5780 showing up to comfort mourners, even those you do not know?

Delving Deeply into Prayer

Worship and prayer are loaded words. Prayer is more, though, than a series of words directed at a Being whom we might not even be sure is there. It’s more than asking for something. “Prayer is not a magic combination of life insurance and magic. It is not a simple way to solve our problems.”[14] What prayer is is admitting that we can’t get through life alone, the highs or the lows. “Prayer is less about asking for what we want than it is about figuring out what we should want.”[15] There’s a great example given about viewing a person on a boat that is tied to the shore. The person pulls the rope and to the untrained eye, it might appear that they are pulling the shore to them. This is how we often think about prayer, that our words and meditations will somehow pull God towards us. In reality, prayer is not about moving God towards us, but rather moving us towards God. Prayers may ask God to do things, but more importantly they ask God to change us. What would it look like for you to develop a daily prayer practice? Consider the traditional prayers upon waking up or before going to sleep, develop prayers of your own that offer praise and gratitude, not only ones that ask for something. What if your spiritual to-do list included not only coming to High Holy Day worship in 5780, but joining us for holidays and Shabbat throughout the year?

Making Peace

We live in a world in need of peace and the task of pursuing it and creating it can seem overwhelming, especially in these days. When I was in high school, I decided to form an organization. I called it TEWP, T-E-W-P, an acronym for the phrase, “To ensure world peace.” My thought at the time was that if I could get enough people to join my newly formed organization, together we could make world peace a reality. I made membership cards and solicited my friends to join. I was a weird kid. There were no by-laws, no organizing structure, but I felt that I had to do something. What I realized was that I aimed too high. Yes, world peace is a lofty goal, but we can, and must, begin smaller. “Peace begins in our hearts, in our relationships, in our families, and in our communities.”[16] We can create peace every day. We may not, alone, solve world peace, but we can make a difference to one person. It’s the starfish story. You know the one. The old man walking along the beach throwing starfish back into the water. A skeptic challenges him saying, “Do you see how many starfish are washed up on shore on this beach? Do you know how many beaches there are in the world? What difference does it make?” The old man responds, as he throws a starfish back in the ocean, “Well, it made a difference to that one.” What can you do to make a difference for one person? What can you do to make peace?

Study of Torah

We know that physical fitness is important. Spiritual fitness is, too. But just as not all exercise works for every person, not all of these tasks on our spiritual to-do list will work for all of us, or for each of us at all times. “We can’t dedicate our mornings to kindness, our afternoons to Torah study, and our evenings to prayer. We can’t properly mourn every death in the world and celebrate with every married couples. We need to focus. We need to discern.”[17] The way that we discern what tasks we can actually accomplish is to engage in learning more about them, to figure out which ones we can handle, at which ones we can excel, and which ones are not the right ones for us right now.

Social psychology scholar Barbara Fredrickson teaches, “Religious practices help people find positive meaning in life, which elicits positive emotions, which in turn broadens the mind and increases personal resources, lending to improved health and well-being.” I want you to consider Eilu D’varim as your spiritual to-do list because each of you is created in God’s image. What does this mean? “It means that the spark of divinity is within you.”[18] We each have a purpose and that purpose is to do God’s work in the world. Eilu D’varim is a guide in our doing that work. We are, “made in God’s image (b’tzelem Elohim in Hebrew), shaped to be God’s agent on this earth, to be God’s partner in shepherding it, repairing it, loving it. Becoming God’s image and doing God’s work is the ultimate purpose of [our lives].”[19] We all know President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech and its most famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” but do you know what he said after that? “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking [God’s] blessing and [God’s] help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

In the Talmud, the Rabbi Chama son of Rabbi Chanina asks how it’s possible to follow in the Divine presence.[20] His answer to his own question tells us that we are called to follow in God’s footsteps. In the Garden of Eden, God clothed Adam and Eve. We, too, are called to provide for people’s basic needs. With no one else in the world to do it, God celebrated with Adam and Eve as they were wed. We, too, are called to celebrate with others. When Abraham was recovering from his circumcision, God sent divine messengers to visit him. We, too, are called to visit the sick. God provided sustenance for the Israelites in the wilderness. We, too, are called to feed the hungry. God was present with Isaac when his father, Abraham, died. We, too, are called to comfort mourners. When Moses died, it was God who buried him. We, too, are called to accompany the dead to their final resting place on earth. “Imitate God’s acts of good and you join forces with the Divine to create a better world.

“So as we celebrate a new year together, let’s also find time to reevaluate the lists of our lives.”[21] Shanah tovah u’metukah. May you have a happy, sweet, and productive new year.


[1] Jack Abramowitz, Eilu D’varim:  Part I – The Mishnah in Peah, Orthodox Union, https://www.ou.org/torah/tefillah/tefillah-on-ou/eilu-devarim-part-i-the-mishna-in-peah/.

[2] Evan Moffic, The Happiness Prayer:  Ancient Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today, New York:  Center Street, 2017, p. 1.

[3] Moffic, p. 4.

[4] Joel Hoffman, I Have a Little List, https://blog.joelmhoffman.com/2008/09/22/i-have-a-little-list/, September 22, 2008.

[5] Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 115.

[6] Moffic, p. 19.

[7] Moffic, p. 39.

[8] Moffic, p. 55.

[9] Moffic, p. 59

[10] Moffic, p. 70.

[11] Moffic, p. 84.

[12] Moffic, p. 43.

[13] Moffic, p. 105.

[14] Moffic, p. 136.

[15] Moffic, p. 137.

[16] Moffic, p. 151.

[17] Moffic, p. 170.

[18] Ron Wolfson, God’s To-Do List:  103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth, Woodstock, VT:  Jewish Lights, 2014, p. 1.

[19] Wolfson, p. 3.

[20] Sotah 14a.

[21] Hoffman.

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