All of us live with the delusion of permanence.
When we get into our new car and take a deep whiff of the fresh leather, the all too certain fact that we will be taking it into the mechanic every two to three thousand miles after it hits 100,000 is just not on our radar.
Groggy, rubbing our eyes, we look in the mirror in sheer disbelief that our hairline has receded yet further.
An acquaintance that got laid off during her company’s merger is a real shame, but something like that “could never happen to me,” we tell ourselves. For most of us, even the possibility does not enter our minds in the first place for us to wave it off as impossible. We feel invincible. Unconsciously, our minds assume that whatever our situation is will continue to be so indefinitely.
With all of these things and many others like them, if we were to hold our gaze for a bit longer than just the present, we would be able to watch them deteriorate in front of our eyes.
Ironically, however, the things that are actually permanent — in fact, eternal — we tend to visualize as fleeting puffs of spiritual smoke.
What you accomplished when you really stretched yourself to do a favor for a friend — you probably remember as not much more than a momentary high you felt afterwards.
Morality, life-wisdom, values — all of them belong to the cloudy world of cartoon thought balloons that float wistfully above our heads. Nice for cocktail conversation, but not “real.” The “real world” is the dog-eat-dog, nitty gritty, physical world.
And spirituality, well, is just “spirit,” like the wind that blows one day with its inspiration and stops the next…
A few years ago, just days before Sukkot, I watched my 75-year-old study partner well up with tears as we read together the last line of the volume of Talmud we’ve been racing to finish in time for his 75th birthday. It was an absolutely awesome sight.
Short and grey with a tired face, worn with hardship, Moishe, or “Rav Moishe” as he is affectionately called by many, was speechless. Raised in the Soviet Union, displaced for many years in Germany, and landing most recently in Philadelphia, Moishe never had the opportunity to properly learn how to read Hebrew, let alone study Talmud. He communicates to me in a cholent of Russian, Yiddish and German, with some English peppered throughout. Although, somehow, we understand each other more than one would expect.
Often, during our morning learning sessions, Rav Moishe would reach across the table, put his heavy hand on mine, and say to me, “Yakov, you have to take advantage of time. I am an old man. I wish I started earlier. Now, I do best I can.” And he does. He wakes up at 4:30am every morning, and then, learns Torah and prays straight through to 10am. However, I don’t think he ever fully imagined that he would be able to finish a whole volume of Talmud. As a relatively “young man” myself, with still, “all the time in the world,” this thought didn’t hit me fully until today.
Everyone who was around was almost instantly filled with the electric excitement of the moment. We hugged and congratulated Rav Moishe on his tremendous accomplishment. He literally could not say a word. I ran out after him to congratulate him one last time as he walked out of the yeshiva in disbelief at what he had just succeeded in doing. He looked at me with watery eyes, and unable to say anything, he proceeded to walk home, alone with his thoughts.
The arrow of life with all its bumps brings with it the slow deterioration of the physical husk that covers the inner substance of things. Most of us, cling to that husk like our lives depend on it. We’ll hire the best plastic surgeon to reverse the effects of time. We try our best to prevent it from fading because we feel that if it fades, we fade with it.
We identify ourselves with the physical image of ourselves and our possessions. We’re strong because our bodies our strong. We’re sleek because our car is sleek. We’re wealthy because our bank account is.
Life is designed, and very wisely so (if we may add), to allow for everything physical to worsen and attenuate with time. This itself would sadden us, and it certainly does if we’re at all human. However, what we discover is that as that husk fades, a great light within reveals itself for those who look for it — for those who seek permanence amidst the transience like Rav Moishe. As we grow older, we discover with so much more clarity those things that get better with age: wisdom, empathy, kindness, appreciation for every moment…we don’t fade as the husk fades — just the opposite: we can find ourselves so much more easily.
After we’ve gotten our new lease on life on Yom Kippur, with our priorities reinvigorated, we are asked to do one last thing. Bottle that clarity and perspective in your heart. Take it with you for the rest of the year. How?
Bring down the roof that gives you the false sense of security, and dwell under the thin, tree-branch roof of the sukka for a full 7 days. In it, together with those you love most, you will appreciate the physical and spiritual blessings you have been given with more vibrancy than ever. The physical things because you will be poignantly aware that you will not have them forever. And with newfound contrast, you will rejoice in the spiritual blessings in your life that never fade, only get brighter.
It is for this reason that this, more than any other period, is called “Zman Simchateinu” “the time of our joy.” It should be a time overflowing with happiness, appreciation of the important things we have, and celebration for all of us.
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