Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Gift of the Present

Posted by Rabbi Shlomie Chein

Our sages state: If not now, when?

One may add: If not now, what?

One may conclude: If not now, naught!

We often think of the present as the link between the past and the future. i.e. there was a past, there will be a future, and in order to tie it all together, we have something called a now. We revere the past as vast and the future as infinite, yet the present is often perceived as a mere fleeting moment. We can spend endless hours studying history, and millions of dollars planning our destiny. But what time or consideration do we give the now?

This morning I said a prayer, tomorrow I will recite it again, but for now I would like to share what it means for the present.“The L-rd reigns, the L-rd reigned, the L-rd will reign forever”. The prayer is quite simple, and better yet, really short. But its format offers a deep appreciation of the now. When viewing the line of time we usually speak of the past, present and then future. The order of this prayer, however, mentions the present first, then the past and future.

From this prayer’s perspective, the present doesn’t merely link the past to the future; it creates them. First and foremost there must be a present; only then can we speak of a past or a future. Any memories you have of the past, any visions you have of the future, only exist because there is a present. If you didn’t exist in this moment, no other moment would exist in you.

The now is thus a powerful antidote to the past/future syndrome. Let’s use Jewish identity as an example. A big question amongst scholars and rabbis, global politicians and searching Jews is, what makes you Jewish? From a technical Halachic standpoint the issue depends entirely on the past. What makes you Jewish is simply your familial genealogy. If your mother is Jewish you are Jewish. From a homiletic perspective, one looks to the future. A cute (non-binding) thought has been circulating lately which maintains that one can be considered Jewish if his/her children and grandchildren are Jewish; i.e. if s/he managed to pass the torch along to the next generations.

Now, whilst both of those perspective attempt to define being Jewish, neither of them says much about living Jewish. The past and future can’t account for living Jewish. To live Jewish one must look at the present. Granted, you have a rich Jewish history, and yes, you hope to eventually contribute to the Jewish destiny; but what does your Judaism mean to you today? Aside from your parents or plans for parenting, how is your Jewishness expressed?

Thus the prayer puts it eloquently: all of G-d’s miracles of the past, and all of G-d’s promises for the future, begin with G-d’s relevance in the present. Ironically, the biggest challenge to the now is the very past and future it sustains. Often as soon as we start thinking about the importance of now, we immediately try to recall if every prior moment was lived, or if every future moment can be lived, to these standards. But that’s the problem. Those thoughts are essentially a return to the past/future perspective rather than the now! When we think of the power of now we are not supposed to think about every other now we had or will have. We are supposed to focus on the current now.

In his magnum opus, the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi describes the perfect achievement for the average Jew. This is not the level of Tzadik (sainthood) which he says is reserved for few, rather this is the level of the Beinuni (average), a state of being each and every Jew can accomplish. He describes it as a state of being in which one never did, nor will ever do, anything wrong.

At first glance this seems impossible if not contradictory. Are we really to believe that every Jew can achieve this? Do you even know of any Jew who has achieved this? Furthermore, how can something be achieved if its ends leave no room for the various stages of its means? I.e. how can someone ever overcome fault when the definition of overcoming means he never had fault?

But these questions only arise and remain in the past/future perspective. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, on the other hand, is focused on the now, and with this statement he is highlighting the power of the present. When he speaks of never did or will never do, he is not speaking of a time called the past or an era called the future; he is speaking of the wholesomeness of this moment.

His definition of perfection asks one question: In this moment, today, right now, are you beyond wrongdoing? If the past and future were to be shaped by the now, how would they look? If we were to view your entire life through the lens of now would we see a hint of past, or a likelihood of future, wrongdoing? It is so easy to abuse and neglect the now because of a stigma from the past or a concern for the future. This is because we think the now merely serves as a link to times bygone and times to come. But the now is much more than that. The prayer places the now first instead of having it get lost in the middle, to teach us that the now is the foundation for everything that was and everything that will be.

Perfect the now, says the rabbi, for if you perfect the now the past and future will mirror that perfection. After all, the latter merely exist as extensions of the former. Now, before you move on to the future leaving this article in your past, think about this: if there is truth to the adage “If not now, naught”, can you imagine the gift of a utilized present!

No comments:

Post a Comment