The day that started as the sun set this evening is a very special day – Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. We all know this, of course; that’s why we’re all here. The sages called it Yoma, which is Aramaic for ‘the day’ because ‘the day’ is unlike any other in the Jewish year. There are so many features that set ‘the day’ apart: First, this special evening service, known by the mediaeval text with which it opens, Kol Nidrey – ‘All Vows’; then, there is the wearing of the tallit, the prayer-shawl, in the evening, to mark the fact that although punctuated by separate services, ‘the day’ is essentially one long moment, indivisible; another feature: the way in which we inhabit the synagogue for the whole day, and pray our way through five services – including the memorial prayers of Yizkor, and concluding with the unique service of N’ilah; and, finally, the defining qualities of ‘the day’: the absence of food and any of the other signs or distractions of daily life; and the focus on confession and the pursuit of forgiveness and atonement. ‘The day’ is the spiritual equivalent of a strenuous physical workout that, pushing us to the limits of endurance, leaves us feeling, both, exhausted and replenished.
And so, ‘the day’ ends; it is just one day, after all. To all intents and purposes, it is a day in and of itself; and as soon as it is over, we return to our day-to-day lives, albeit renewed and ready to embark on the New Year. But is that all there is to it? Perhaps, the exceptional nature of Yom Kippur – with all its unique characteristics – actually masks a more fundamental purpose: to teach us to live today – in the present moment – not just for one day, but every day.
But what does it really mean – to live in the present moment? Has the Jewish people ever really lived in the present? Isn’t Jewish life all about remembering the past and journeying towards the future? Aren’t we forever trying to escape the present moment, especially during times of persecution. After all, most of our remembering is centred on recalling our ancestors’ great escape from slavery. And when we think of our forbears, going right back to the patriarchs and matriarchs, weren’t they always on the move?
Intriguingly, while the Torah relates the stories of our ancestors, and their endless journeys, the Hebrew text of the Torah, and, indeed, the rest of the Bible, continually subverts the meaning of past and future. It does this quite methodically, by using the Hebrew consonant, vav, which is usually translated as ‘and’ or ‘but’, to convert verbs expressed in the future tense into the past, and vice versa.
Let me give you the most common example: Va-y’dabbeir Adonai el-Mosheh – ‘The Eternal One spoke to Moses’; how many thousands of times is that phrase repeated in the Torah? So often, that any regular attendee of Shabbat morning services probably knows the phrase – and the translation – off by heart. How disconcerting, then, to learn that without the ‘va-‘, y’dabbeir means ‘He shall speak’: Va-y’dabbeir Adonai – ‘The Eternal One spoke‘; y’dabbeir Adonai – ‘The Eternal One shall speak’. Even more bewildering, perhaps, is the way in which the meaning of a key phrase in the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) hangs on how one stresses a particular word, which begins with a ‘converting’ vav: V’ahavta eit Adonai Elohecha means ‘You shall love the Eternal One your God’, but only if you stress the last syllable; V’ahavta – stressed in the middle – eit Adonai Elohecha, means ‘You have loved the Eternal your God’; indeed, without the converting vav, the ‘v’, ahavta, means simply, ‘you have loved’. So, what’s going on? Is this how the Torah teaches us to be sophisticated about the passage of time and acknowledge that the past was the future once, and that the future will become the past?
And what of the present? There is no present tense in Hebrew; the present is either assumed in a particular context, or expressed by the use of a participle and a personal pronoun. And so, significantly, the famous text in the parashah, N’tzavim, in the Book of Deuteronomy (29:9-14), which we will be reading tomorrow morning, begins:
Atem nitzavim ha-yom, kul’chem, lifney Adonai Eloheichem.
You are standing today, all of you, before the Eternal your God
What a wonderful way of conveying the power of the moment! What could be more immediate than the image of a group of people standing in readiness ha-yom – ‘today’? And not any people, of course: the Jewish people; our people. Is that what we are doing here today? And what about tomorrow: will tomorrow also be another today?
The Sh’ma suggests an answer. We read (:6)
V’hayu ha-d’varim ha-eileh, asher Anochi m’tzav’cha ha-yom al-l’vavecha.
These words which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart.
Is this verse, like the one in N’tzavim talking about a particular today – a day that is now in the past? When we read these passages, are we engaging in the Jewish version of ‘Once upon a time…’: on a day long ago, the Eternal One addressed our ancestors? If we are, then we are missing something important because both texts were actually written in Judah, not in the wilderness, centuries after the ‘today’ moment they invoke – so, from a historical perspective ‘today’ was already ‘yesterday’. But it’s not just that both texts were composed so long after the ‘today’ they describe: if we treat them as located in a particular past, we are in danger of ignoring the purpose of both passages, which is, precisely, to make the past, present; present to the inhabitants of Judah in the 600s BCE when the Book of Deuteronomy was written, present to us here in 2010. It is in this spirit, after all, that a text from Deuteronomy (chapter 6, verses 4-9) became the Sh’ma, a key part of our liturgy. And it is in this spirit that the phrase, u’v’shochb’cha u’vkumecha – ‘when you lie down and when you rise up’ – was translated into daily liturgical practice.
V’hayu ha-d’varim ha-eileh, asher Anochi m’tzav’cha ha-yom al-l’vavecha
These words which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart.
‘Today’ is today. But that is not all: the text of the Sh’ma and the prescribed twice-daily recitation conveys the message that something momentous is happening continually: the Eternal One is addressing us everyday. But what does it mean to say that the Eternal One is addressing us every day? And how do we know? Psalm 95 – one of the Psalms set aside for reading on Shabbat – includes this intriguing suggestion (:7):
Va’anachnu am marito, v’tzon yado; ha-yom, im- b’kolo tishma’u.
We are a people God tends and a flock of His hand; today, if we listen to His voice.
Today is not, after all, an end in itself; it is an opportunity to listen: Sh’ma Yisrael! – ‘Listen Israel! Im– b’kolo tishma’u – If we listen to the voice of the Eternal – Im – If…So, what would our lives be like if, rather than, forever looking backwards and forwards, we were to fully inhabit the present – and listen out for Eternity? Maybe that’s what all that switching of tenses – future to past; past to future – is all about: a device for transporting us to the eternal present.
But as soon as I say this, another question immediately asserts itself: why would we want to fully inhabit the present? The present moment can be, after all, in real life, terrible, painful – or, simply, dull and endless in its empty torment. If we can’t think of examples from our own experience, all we have to do is turn our minds to the suffering being endured right now by the people of northern Pakistan in the aftermath of the devastating floods, or think of individuals we know, who are gravely ill, or imagine what it’s like to be living alone and housebound due to chronic disability, or think of a child constantly victimised by abuse. There are so many circumstances when all we want is for the present to be over – even when it is something as trivial as a visit to the dentist. And anyway, isn’t there something rather problematically cliché about the preoccupation with living in the present?
The last thing I want to do is rehearse a cliché. My current thoughts about the importance of living today actually began in the presence of one of our members, who is terminally ill. Visit by visit, I witness her determination to live in the face of her impending death – and not just live; enjoy her life still each day: enjoy seeing the squirrels scurrying a cross the wall outside the window of her room; enjoy the care of the carers; enjoy the visits of family and friends; enjoy reading her daily newspaper – and experience all this daily enjoyment, amid the pain and discomfort of her condition, aware, each day, that her life is almost over – and could end any day. She is an exceptional person; a special individual, with a strong character. But it would be wrong to explain away her courage and wisdom as a function of her personal qualities. She is exceptionally admirable – but she has, also, simply learnt something from her experience of life, in the same way that we can all learn from the experience of our own lives: today will pass – and sometimes, even she, hopes a particular day will pass as quickly as possible – but today is also a singular moment calling us to live now; not yesterday; not tomorrow: now.
The poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote this reflection on ‘now’ in 1862 (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson):
Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These – Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –
Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Domini’s –
‘Forever – is composed of Nows’ – and now, if lived fully and deeply, is not simply a domain of time – the present moment squeezed between past and future – it is the abode of the Eternal. As soon as we let go of yesterday and stop worrying about tomorrow, now becomes a vast universe. But can we really do this, shaped and haunted as we are by the past, driven as we feel, relentlessly, towards the future? Perhaps living now is a luxury only to be enjoyed by those who know their end is near? Our questions, doubts and fears are real; Yom Kippur is an opportunity to explore them – and even, perhaps, to exhaust them… May this special ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’ bring each one of us the nourishment and space that we need to reflect, and to inhabit this unique moment, so that when the sun sets once more, we feel ready to begin a new today. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Yom Kippur, 10th Tishri 5770 – 17th September 2010