January 16, 2019

Living in the Here and Now

When the Chassidic master, Reb Yitzchak Yakov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One got his books and his notes, another his shtender, his study lectern, one his Kiddush cup, another his tallit and tefillin. When it was all distributed, there remained one humble Chassid who had not asked for anything. To him was given the Rebbe’s clock.

On his way home, the Chassid stopped at an inn. But when he discovered that he had no money to pay the innkeeper, he offered the Rebbe’s clock as payment. And so it was that the innkeeper took the clock and installed it in one of the rooms.

A year later, another one of the Rebbe’s Chassidim passed by and stayed the night at the same inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the footsteps of the restless Chassid pacing back and forth in his room. In the morning, the concerned innkeeper confronted the Chassid: “Master, why did you not sleep last night?”

“Where did you get the clock?” asked the Chassid. And the innkeeper related the story.

“I knew it,” responded the Chassid. “This clock belonged to the Seer. It is a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past — from where we’ve come. This clock ticks toward the future — toward redemption. And every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before the future can come, before redemption can be realized.”

It’s all in how we read the clock. We are the heirs and bearers of a rich, powerful and magnificent tradition. We come from a long and remarkable past. And with all we have experienced, there is a powerful temptation to look backward. To count backward. To calculate how far we have wandered from our past.

There is a difference between love of tradition and an obsessive habit of looking backward. There is a difference between reverence for the past and enslavement to the past. But this difference can become obscure because, in looking backward, there is certainty and security. Forward, there is apprehension and wonder. Forward, there is fear. And it is this dreadful fear of the present that grips so many.

It grips the child afraid to begin a new year of school. It shackles the young person afraid to commit to marriage and family. It holds the middle-ager afraid to admit that he’s not 20 anymore. It paralyzes the community obsessed with the way things used to be. It cripples the spirituality that measures our contemporary struggle for faith and wisdom against a mythical ancestry of giants and geniuses. It blinds us to all the possibilities and promises of today and tomorrow.

“Atem nizzavim hayom” — “You stand today, all of you before the Lord your God…to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you today, with its sanctions, so that He may establish you today as His people” (Deuteronomy 29:9-12). This triple reiteration of the word “today” in the opening verses of this week’s Torah reading leaps off the page, embracing us in the present. Today, we are invited to the Covenant. Today, we are invited to share God’s dreams for the world. The choice we make today is the one that counts. Today — with all its wondrous and fearful potential.

A Chassidic master asked his disciples, what is the most significant moment in all Jewish history? In all the experience of the Jewish people, what moment stands out as paramount? And the students answered: The crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of Torah on Sinai, the conquest of Jerusalem. No, taught the master, the most important moment in all Jewish history is right now. We. Here. Now. That’s the only reality.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.