Monday, May 27, 2024

Save the Date



Imagine that you’re a bear. On a certain crisp morning, you amble toward a certain river and position yourself at a certain spot on the riverbank. Not a great deal of thought goes into either the timing or the positioning; it’s all been pre-programmed into your genetic makeup. Like your parents before you, and their parents before them, you stand ready to catch salmon as they come flying across this very bend in the river on their own pre-programmed trek to their annual spawning grounds.

Waiting, you feel the icy water lap around your legs and the current rush swiftly past. Flash! You catch sight of a salmon. Out goes your arm, swiping that fish right out of its flight path and into your waiting mouth. As you stand there catching your lunch, you don’t think about yesterday or plan for tomorrow. In your conscious mind there is no past, no future. Every second in that river is an endless now.

Compare this state of being to that of a typical person on any given day. As I prepare today’s dinner, every decision about the meal has been consciously made, every step planned, each ingredient prepared. Not only that, but while stirring this dish or peeling that vegetable, my mind may roam freely into the past or the future. I can remember other meals once enjoyed with family or friends. I can be making plans for tomorrow, or next week, or next year.

Human beings have a different relationship with time than do animals. That’s because our relationship is a conscious one, rather than purely instinctive. The ramifications of this relationship are complex and extend far. Mankind is fiercely possessive about time. We’re always trying to catch it, mark it, pin it down.

As far back as antiquity, people learned to capture and memorialize great events in time: a military triumph, a treaty, a dynasty. From modest piles of rock to soaring arches and pyramids, man-made structures were erected to stand testimony. As society developed, we moved on to written documents and hand-held trophies, but the concept is the same. We crave something tangible to conquer intangible time.

Souvenirs play the same role. Why hold onto an item that once meant something to you at a certain point in your life? Do you really need that boxful of old concert tickets, outdated invitations, or dried flowers? We save such mementos for one reason only: to capture a moment in time and hold onto it forever. We want something more solid than mere memory. We want to put time on a leash and tame it.

Making plans for the future is a different way of trying to tame time. When we make a notation on our calendars or say, “save the date,” we are trying to put our personal stamp on that elusive commodity. To put a tiny bit of it in a box and slip it into our pocket.


Spiral Staircase

The Torah is filled with reminders not to forget the past. We are meant to walk through our todays with yesterday as our constant guide and companion. On our other side is our second companion, the future. A Jew lives in all three dimensions, all the time.

We are not free-floating creatures, flitting through space. Nor, bearlike, do we exist mindlessly in the moment. Being sentient beings means carrying around a consciousness not only of where we are right now, but also where we come from and where we’re going. All the time.

I once heard the Jewish calendar described as a kind of spiral staircase. The various yomim tovim repeat themselves on a yearly loop, with each iteration taking place (it is to be hoped) at a slightly higher level than the year before. When Hashem commands us to commemorate a certain time of the year, He is awarding us a high accolade. Acknowledging, as it were, that we are human beings capable of so much more than the instinctual creatures around us.

We are capable of holding all three dimensions in our hands, all at the same time. And of navigating the curve of that spiritual staircase with more aplomb with each repetition.


Mastery Over Time

A slave, by virtue of his position, is hardly better off than one of those pre-programmed bears standing in the river to catch salmon. That’s because his place in life does not allow for free thought, creativity, or initiative. He is subservient to another will than his own.

In removing us from our Egyptian oppression, Hashem also lifted us out of the mindlessness of slavery. He helped us step out of the river of time and into a position of mastery over it. By marking the date on which we were set free, we not only capture time… we put it to work for us.

The Maharal discusses how every portion of the year has its unique attribute. When we celebrate the festival associated with that time of year, we tap into that attribute and have extra potential to grow spiritually in that area. Spring is a time of rebirth, which makes it the appropriate season to commemorate the holiday on which our people were reborn… from the degradation of slavery into a renewed and enhanced humanhood.

Animals passively allow the years to carry them along. For them, the yearly calendar is nothing but an amorphous stream of nows, each with its instinctive imperative: hunt, eat, reproduce, raise the next generation, die. The past has no hold on such a creature because it is unable to remember a time before, or to access its messages.

Unfortunately, when a human being allows himself to fall into an animal-like existence, he comes to view life in a similarly simplistic way. He can scarcely see past his next meal or his next vacation. He lives for his little pleasures and does his best to avoid pain. The larger context of his life is lost in the smallness of the way he lives it.

But we humans are capable of remembering. We can make active use of time. And, by doing so, expand our consciousness to embrace life in its largest sense.

We use time when we connect with the unique attributes of each festival in a way that elevates and transforms us. The bear who stepped into the rushing river is exactly the same bear that will step out of it. But the man or woman who sits down to a Pesach Seder this year will hopefully be different from the person who stands up again at its end.

That will happen if he taps into that aspect of himself which raises him above those who live purely on instinct. The part that renders him G-d-like. The part that is always growing and changing.

The part that is ever reaching… not for the next meal, but for a reflection of himself in the stars.







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