October 17, 2018

The Torah of Time

A famous rabbinic principle of interpretation holds, “There is no such thing as early or late in the Torah.” 

At first glance, this is rather mysterious, because the Torah seems to tell a story that, like most stories, goes in one temporal direction. It begins with the creation of the world, continues through the birth of the Hebrew people, and follows the family tree generation after generation until the moment when Moses dies, on the verge of entering the Promised Land. 

However, looking more closely, there are indeed some confusing snags in the time-space continuum of the story. Perhaps most famously, the fact that Moses receives the five books of the Torah … midway through the second book. 

Which raises a couple of questions. How can Moses receive a story written in past tense, containing the future? And specifically, how, in the Torah’s last chapters, can Moses describe his own death? 

Of course, modern text scholars would answer that the stories are not literally true; after all, the Torah (unlike some modern media) does not pretend to be journalism. 

But that takes all the fun out of the koan-like question of linearity and time in Torah. The most creative interpretations come from the rabbis who are attached to the literal meaning of Torah, and therefore need to find poetic solutions to its paradoxes. They offer explanations: Maybe the Torah was given like a tightly furled bud, which unfolded its petals through time. Or maybe Moses did glimpse his future, and transcribed God’s words in ink until the last paragraphs, when he dipped his quill into his own tears to describe his death. Or perhaps linearity is not the only way to understand time; perhaps “there is no such thing as early or late in the Torah.” 

This idea of malleable chronology may seem to some like an ancient cop-out, but I love it. I love how it resonates with modern astrophysics and our understanding of bendable space-time, and our inner psychological realities. The truth is, we do not experience time as strictly linear. Stories contain currents and eddies of one another; our past is embedded in our present; our future is seeded in our past. So it is with Torah, which we read over and over through time, looking to the past to understand the present, and to create a better future. 

When I began studying Jewish texts at age 20, one of my teachers described the annual Torah reading as a spiral staircase that we ascend, one more round each year. We hear the same stories each year — but we are different, and so the stories are different. We chant them through the seasons, gripping onto the heavy wood handles, turning the scroll as the earth turns.

Maybe the Torah was given like a tightly furled bud, which unfolded its petals through time.

I remember being moved by a saying by the wonderfully named sage, Ben Bag-Bag. He said, about the Torah: “Turn it and turn it, for everything is contained within it.” The entire world is contained in the Torah — the entire scope of human experience. That infinite possibility is a constant; we are the variable, each year ready to understand a little bit more. 

Before my students’ bat mitzvah ceremonies, I always tell them: “I want you to know that we have not reached the limits of Torah. As you get older, you will need deeper, more complicated sources of strength and advice. You can always come back to our sacred texts. They will grow along with you.” I want them to understand the Torah will continue to be there for them as older teens and adults, in moments of trouble as well as joy, of questioning and crisis as well as celebration.

I sometimes think of time as the medium in which we humans are created: As an artist paints in oils, or a writer makes a world in fiction, we exist in time. And, like Torah, time is at once forward-moving and mysteriously circular. Each year we return to May, to August, to December; in the ancient Babylonian lunar months the Jewish calendar still keeps, we find ourselves again in Nisan, in Av, in Kislev. New moon, full moon, new moon, full moon — each month the same, but each month different. 

We are children in spring, then older children the next. We grow into adults, and springtime carries with it a bit of the taste of childhood. And if we are lucky, we will walk among the spring blossoms in our old age, too.