Many years ago, when we were on the brink of leaving for a sabbatical year in Israel, I explained to my then 3Â½ -year-old daughter that we would be away for a year. I told her we were going to Israel, where she would find kosher ice cream, kosher candy, and Mickey Mouse swings in the playgrounds. Her excitement was palpable, but was also laced with some concern when she asked how old she would be when we returned. I told her she would be 4Â½. “But Mommy,” she said, “then I will be older than all my friends in Teaneck!”
I have found that lately my perception of time is not far off from that of my young daughter many years ago. I have heard this said before, but now I am experiencing it. It seems like time is flying by. I never have enough of it. Perhaps because I work crazy hours, time has become a precious commodity for me. Or perhaps it is my age. Summers that once stretched lovingly before me now seem to be a short few weeks. I tell the younger teachers in my school to cherish every minute with their children, for it all passes so quickly. The AP Calculus teacher tells me that is has to do with relativity and how many years we have lived.
Time in the Jewish world is interesting. We consecrate time: kiddushat z’man. That “holy time” is meant to separate us from the rest of our day to day lives. We usually live in the past or the future – who has time to live in the present? But on Shabbos or the Yomim Tovim, we are supposed to pause and concentrate on that day, a gift of living in the here and now – very special, if you think about it.
My brother-in-law died at the beginning of the summer. He was my husband’s only and younger brother, someone I knew for more than 40 years. That he was a contemporary – and, again, a younger brother – does give one pause. His illness meant that time had run out. Suddenly. I find myself thinking that time for any one person is not forever – somber thoughts, but truly reality.
And yet I have also come to realize, as I commemorate my father’s yahrzeit, that memories can trump time. I have always thought of my father as older than me – of course, for he was my father. But I am now older than he was when he died. And with this realization, time has collapsed for me for the concept of past, present, and future. They have merged as I remember the relationship I had with him and the impact he had and continues to have on my life.
Rav Soloveichik, in his famous essay “Halachik Man,” speaks of merging time. He speaks of the ba’al teshuva, someone who is newly observant – and we are all ba’alei teshuva this time of year – who takes his vision of the future, of who he wants to be, and brings it into the present and the past. “The future imprints its stamp on the past and determines its image.” By changing his deeds and his frame of mind, based on his vision of the future, by doing teshuva, repentance, a person actually changes the past, for our Rabbis tell us that when you do teshuva, your sins are turned into virtuous acts. You literally change the past. So the meaning of past, present, and future changes. Says the Rav, “we neither perceive the past as ‘no more’ nor the future as ‘not yet’ nor the present as a ‘fleeting moment.’ Rather … the past is joined to the future and both are reflected in the present.” And man is able to do this because, says the Rav, God gave man a piece of Himself. God gave man the capability of creativity to perfect the imperfect world that He created.
Rosh HaShanah is upon us. As every year, it will be a time for me, as for everyone, to reflect and introspect. I will bring the memories of those no longer with me into focus to understand what I learned from their lives and how to incorporate those meaningful relationships, what is still alive from the past, into my life as I think of where I want to go in the next year. I will merge time so that what I want to do and who I want to be this year, that part of the future that is accessible to me, can soften the loss of the past and grasp the mystery of the future. And as every year, I will try to focus on the things that are important to me: Torah study, family, friends, helping my students and colleagues, a good book, power walking, a trip to Israel. Time is running out – but then again, it is never too late.