The battle to beat time is a relentless one.
I remember as a child, reading a book called “Cheaper by the Dozen” in which the father of a large family, an efficiency expert by profession, spends his days devising ways to help businesses save time. After all, every work-hour shaved off the industrial process represents that much more money earned. In similar fashion, he designs a kitchen for his wife in which every single step, from counter to stove to refrigerator and back again, is taken into account in an effort to spare her unnecessary labor and to win her that all-important commodity: time.
Recently, while traveling, I saw examples of humanity’s old and ongoing quest crop up everywhere. On a big screen in a bus terminal, I watched a middle-aged fellow smear some special cream under his eyes to magically remove the baggy skin that comes with age. Drugstore counters, are filled with lotions and potions whose sole purpose is to try to turn back the clock. And on a sign outside a food emporium, I was fascinated by the words: “Breakfast served 24 hours a day.” Imagine that! When you step into that diner, you can pretend that it’s morning all day long. The hours never actually pass at all. Take that, Father Time!
Sadly, as we know, it’s a losing battle. All living things are created with a built-in expiration date, one which is preceded by a process of gradual decay. Corporeal matter is like a block of ice subject to the merciless rays of the sun. Sooner or later, first a thawing, then a melting, and then a general disintegration will set in. The sun in our analogy is, of course, our old friend Father Time.
This is a game that’s rigged from the outset to produce only one winner. Why, then, is so much of humanity fixated on the desire to beat Time at his own game? I suppose it’s because of our inbuilt instinct for self-preservation. We want to live. We can’t imagine not living. And so, we spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to outdo, outlast or otherwise outwit Time. But Time always wins.
…That is, Time always wins the battle against corporeal matter. When it comes to matters of the spirit, it’s a whole different story.
In a perfect world, Time would relinquish its steely grip on our lives. We, and not that old curmudgeon, would emerge the winner. But Hashem, in His wisdom, saw fit to establish a world in which we have to fight to beat the clock. It serves as an inducement to accomplish. A reminder of how fleeting our days are. A motive to fix our sights upward, toward eternity.
So Time serves a purpose. It’s part of the inbuilt motivation we were given to accomplish our mission in this world. And, as such, not a bad thing at all.
Nevertheless, there are three things in this world that are not subject to the ravages of Time.
One of them is dreams.
In our dream-lives, we may find ourselves gamboling about in the house we lived in when we were very small children. In fact, in our dreams we may be very small children, though with a strangely adult point of view. We can be sitting in classrooms we haven’t seen in decades, or having long, fascinating conversations with individuals long forgotten. People and places from the past reappear nightly in our dreams, because dreams are not subject to Time’s authority. The kingdom of dreams is an autonomous one, with rules and by-laws all of its own.
In our dreams, we can go back and fix up a damaging or disturbing situation, dangling unresolved somewhere in the dim tunnels of our past life. We can understand things that eluded us the first time around, in the real world. For a few short hours each night, we live unrestricted by the chains of that grim warden that oversees our waking hours. We are time-travelers. We are unbound.
Another thing unfettered by Time is the neshoma. Our souls are forever young… or forever old… or forever whatever it is that they are. Because they are part of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the soul does not age the way the body does. Like Him, they are essentially outside of Time.
That’s why it is possible to do teshuva for our wrongdoing. Through repentance, we can not only repair our sins, but actually reverse Time so that it is as if they never occurred!
Our neshomos wait patiently all through our lives, attached to our corporeal selves but not a part of them. They feel the benefits of our mitzvos and suffer the blow of our aveiros, r”l. When we go through the process of atonement that wipes the slate clean, our souls are waiting at the other end, as radiant and vibrant as ever. Our hair may turn gray and our waistlines disappear, but our true essence, our neshomah, is still going strong. What a comforting thought!
Lastly, there is one other thing that remains, that is only minimally affected by Time. That is, our relationships. Old friends don’t know from Time. Get together with your longtime buddies and the years simply fall away. That’s because the essential personality, the aspect of each that made you friends in the first place, remains unchanged. This is a matter of the spirit. And so, that part lasts.
As we all know, to a parent a child is always a child. I have a friend whose mother lived in a tiny apartment adjoining hers until her mother passed away at a ripe old age. Though my friend was a grown woman with grown children of her own, her mother never failed to worry whenever she was late coming home. She still freely handed out the motherly advice and admonitions she’d begun when her daughter was a little girl.
Old sibling rivalries and other family patterns, too, seem invulnerable to the passage of the years. Some things never change…
All of which teaches us a very important lesson.
The most crucial lessons in life tend to be those that we already know. Truths so familiar that we hardly see them anymore. Truths such as the ephemeral nature of physicality and the enduring quality of the spirit. Distracted by the body’s insistent and clamorous demands, we can easily lose sight of the truths which, in the end, will keep us alive.
The more we concentrate on the spirit, the more alive we will ultimately be. Why put all your eggs in a basket that is doomed not to last, when you can throw in your lot with something that endures forever? Our generation’s obsession with physical youth and beauty is yet another notch in the yetzer hara’s ever-widening belt. It blinds us to the simple fact that we’re focusing on the wrong thing.
We can’t control our dreams, but we can feed our neshomos and nurture our relationships. We can focus on the parts of life that are enduring rather than fleeting and transitory. We can invest the bulk of our energies in the kinds of things that stand the test of Time.
It’s fine to try to minimize and slow down the effects of aging. It’s okay to try to look and dress our best. But none of those things are the ticket to immortality.
And, after all, don’t we all want to live forever?