Cast Oneself Into the Future

In C.K. Williams’ gorgeous poem, “Time: 1976,” he speaks of the ways in which our present selves make future memories of the past. Read that again. “Time for my break,” he writes, “I’m walking from my study down the long hallway towards the living room…and with no warning I’m taken with a feeling that against all logic I recognize to be regret, as violent and rending a regret as anything I’ve ever felt, and I understand immediately, that all of this familiar beating and blurring, the quickening breath, the gathering despair, almost painful all, has to do with the moment I’m in, and my mind, racing to keep order, thrusts this way and that and finally casts itself, my breath along with it, into the future.”

Since childhood, I have always experienced July 4th as the beginning of the end of summer. Already the anticipation — time’s unbridled freedom; the season’s fertile heat; the long days and mysterious nights — gives way to an introspection that has me looking ahead in preparation for what’s next. And right now, without baseball, it’s even more intense.

Our tradition knows this feeling, too. With the anticipatory “three weeks” of reflection leading to Tisha B’Av and our commemoration of Jerusalem’s ancient destruction, our calendar structures our time in such a way that in the midst of growth, there is a knowledge of tearing down; as we bask in sunshine, there are darkening clouds; after a quickening summer storm, the ground is strewn with fallen twigs and leaves; proving that even in the present, we are always transitioning. And with the pandemic, it’s even more intense.

In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, in anticipation of the cycle of readings winding down, in the last two months of the Jewish year, reading a volume that the sages and scholars of Jewish civilization agree is fundamentally a recounting of the entire Jewish narrative in the prior four books. The rabbis frame the book as Moses’ ethical will, one long final oration before he passes on, leaving with the people his accumulated wisdom from a lifetime of serving his God and his people. Read that way, Moses uses the closing months of summer to look back, to take stock, to begin, in the present, with one foot planted firmly in the past and the other in the future.

The awe-inspiring maneuverability of the human mind is a thing to behold. As Jews, I dare say, it’s our own “face that launched a thousand ships.” The making of memory is our Homeric epic journey. Introspection and reflection and taking responsibility for our deeds is the wind in our sails. The twin goals of renewal and the walk down a corrected path, point us toward a future that always, year after year, carries the potential for redemption.

This year, in a moment like no other, we have so much reflecting to do. And our hearts ache for connection, for community, for the rays of hope we see in the faces of those we encounter during the High Holy Days. Alas, a global pandemic has restricted our physical nearness but we Jews are a stubborn lot!

At JCP, we are readying our Early Childhood Center and Hebrew School Project for a meticulously planned re-opening. Rabbi Deena and I are laying the foundations for being together ourselves and virtually broadcasting to our community a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience, that will aspire to engage, inspire and comfort each of you with the music and wisdom of our tradition, so that individually and collectively we may return. Return to a greater sense of self and return to deeper and more meaningful connection to one another, to our neighbors, to our fellow citizens, who are all feeling the pain and dislocation of the present while hungering for healing, for kindness, for justice and peace.

Rabbi Deena, Rachel Mintz, Erin Beser and I have each experienced this yearning and hunger for connectedness all summer long. We have seen children’s eyes light up with learning; knocked our heads and souls up against confounding and inspiring texts in our adult learning; and felt, almost improbably, the warmth of one another’s humanity, virtually, at baby namings and brises, at weddings and funerals.

We can record with Zoom and relive these occasions and while our current culture plays and replays, posts and reposts, one cannot imagine the absolute horror and embarrassment of such mass sharing and viewing of our own lives, in the beginning of this season of introspection. The Jewish tradition grabs us by the hand and moves us inward, toward our own souls, our own conscience, our God. In this way, the face that launched a thousand ships becomes the thousand souls cast toward the One, the Source of Life, of Kindness and Peace.

In the enclosed video, Rabbi Deena and I invite you to begin to prepare and to join us in September as we greet the Jewish New Year. “Already?!  It’s not even August!” We know, we know. But as they say, there is no time like the present to look back on the past and step into the future, together.  

In another poem, C.K. Williams writes of sitting in a garden when, “on my hand beside me on the bench, something, I thought somebody else’s hand, alighted: I flinched it off, and saw — sorrow! — a warbler, grey, black, yellow, in flight already away. It stopped near me in a shrub, though, and waited, as though unstartled, as though unafraid, as though to tell me my reflex of fear was no failure, that if I believed I had lost something, I was wrong, because nothing can be lost, of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves. Then it was gone, its branch springing back empty: still oak, though, still rose, still world.”

Wishing you continued good health, good thinking, and good doing.

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