By Rabbi Barbara Cohen
The Talmud says “There is no before and there is no after.” The biblical use of the Hebrew letter ‘vav’ before a verb can change the future tense to the past and the past tense to the future. The Exodus from Egypt happened to all of us. We are to understand that we were all standing at Sinai to receive the Torah. That the sandals and clothing of those wandering for 40 years in the desert did not wear out…
What is our tradition attempting to tell us in so many different ways? What are we being called to understand about the flexibility and experience of time that is built into our consciousness in myriad ways, and yet so challengingly inaccessible…down to the grammatical philosophical/linguistic cue of using a single letter that makes time reversible by its mere placement before a word of text.
You will be reading this at the beginning of summer, our precious gem of a season. Nature is glimmering around us like emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds on the water, hills undulating with every shade of green, leaves and flower petals translucent, sky filled with sun and moon, rain and stars…our summers sparkling and alive with outdoor activities, music, dance, and theater, friends and good food.
Tell the truth. How many of you are already thinking about how overbooked you’re going to be? How many guests you’ll be hosting every weekend? How you will need a vacation from your summer schedule? How quickly it will fly by and how soon Labor Day will be here? Thoughts to be pushed away as unwelcome…like ‘long lost friends’ who call to say they’ll be in the area and need a place to stay ‘for a few days.’ Of course, these pesky moments will hopefully be minimal compared to the waves of excitement for the coming feast of events.
How is it that we read and listen to so much material, Jewish and not, that encourages us not to waste our health and precious time… to live in the moment, to focus on the ‘now’, to let go of the past and its regrets and to not worry and live in anxiety about a future yet to unfold? Suggesting ways to incorporate and combine time to pray, join in worship, meditate, do yoga, tai chi, Zumba, biking, hiking, therapy, spiritual direction, explore our creativity, work on our relationships. It sounds so inviting and makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Why is it so hard to do????
We have just come through the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah and the offering of the first fruits of the season. We are called upon to count 49 days and bring daily offerings from the second day of Pesach and, on the 50th day, we mark this momentous holiday. In our spiritual imaginations, if each of us was standing at Sinai, experiencing the soul-shaking and world-changing events described in our Torah, how would it have changed us, if at all? We criticize our biblical ancestors who wavered between rebellion, awestruck gratitude, and childlike grumbling about food variety and water. What would our stance have been? Would we have spent any time speechless and overcome by wonder at what we were a part of? Or would we have moved on, quickly distracted by the thought of what comes next?
I would love to think I would have stood stock still, in a trance of timeless ‘now,’ experiencing an epiphany of the Holy One of Being, a transformational moment out of time, a transmutation of my very material nature to one of more refined substance. I can only hope…
Actually, what I just described seems to be the aspirational goal of many spiritual traditions, including some of the streams of Judaism. Our prayers, our music, chanting and singing, our meditations, and our copious and varied literature, all of it both ancient and modern, offer us potential multiple pathways to such spiritually elevated moments…and for most of us, what we experience are just moments, if we’re that lucky. It is certainly not as much about the quantity as it is about the quality and essence of the time spent in those ‘inner spaces’…away from electronic distractions and the concerns of daily life.
So, as we bask in the warmth and beauty of summer, let us also attempt to find some time out of time, some stillness in the space between breaths, some rest in the calendar of our days, and some growing awareness that the Divine Presence is in our midst if we could but slow down enough to notice. Let’s repeat together...there is no before and there is no after…there is no before and there is no after…
Rabbi Barbara Cohen is spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Great Barrington, and also a practitioner of Jewish Spiritual Direction.