An elderly friend once told me, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think” from the Guy Lombardo song. The flow of our lives is inexorable. I have been told by parents of college age or older children that young children grow up in the blink of an eye. In a similar vein, my father-in-law told my wife as he was about to walk her down the aisle to be married, “It never stops, Carol.”
Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) calls our attention to the unstoppable flow of time. There is a time for happiness and a time for grief, a time for laughter and a time for tears. The world functions in cycles. Growth is followed by death, feelings and experiences repeat themselves in our lives and across the generations. The author of Kohelet notices that there is nothing new under the sun and despairs.
For Pagan culture, this cyclical quality was the nature of the Universe. As Thomas Cahill points out in The Gift of the Jews, the Pagan world lacks a concept of progress. People and cultures are destined to remain immutable and unchanging. Life moves through a spring of growth, to a summer of strength, to a fall of decline, and finally to a winter of death. Then the cycle repeats again.
The brilliance of Abraham, the inspiration of Hashem, is to look away from these cyclical experiences and see genuine growth. For Torah, the world has a beginning and a hopeful end. History has a cyclical element but also a meaning contained within linear time. My children may grow up in the blink of an eye, but my caring and love for them during that eyeblink has meaning because “from generation to generation we will tell of Your greatness.”
Sukkot as an agricultural festival calls our attention to the inexorable flow of time by focusing us on the turn of the seasons. Another year has gone by, a new year begins. In the ancient Near East, the New Year began in the Spring at a time of rebirth. The Torah reverses that flow, giving us the New Year in the melancholy of Autumn.
Kohelet comes to teach us that our lives are bound up in the cycle of seasons. We cannot escape the time bound finite cyclical nature of our lives. We celebrate in the fall because our existence is more than that cyclical experience in nature. Human intelligence and spirituality means that our choices have lasting significance. The people we are in the process of becoming matter to Hashem. For this reason, the New Year is in the Fall, before Sukkot, to remind us that hope exists outside of nature.
At Simchat Torah we rejoice in Torah and remind ourselves of renewal. We complete our reading of the Torah in the melancholy story of Moses’ death but immediately renew ourselves in the story of Creation. Our lives come to have meaning when they are read through the lens of Torah. Hazak hazak – be strong and of good courage, for hope is found in despair, strength in weakness.
Let us this year dance and sing with Torah with eyes wide open. With eyes seeing that it is later than we think, that our days are fleeting and the world filled with cycles of birth but also of death. But eyes also open to wonder, to seeing fleeting glimpses of a purpose bound up in God and Torah that transcend the cyclical finite limits of the natural world.
Enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think!
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!
Rabbi David Booth
Please note that CyberTorah will off next week to recover from celebrating.