Life Tip #46
Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5
In the Beatles song, “You Never Give Me Your Money,” Paul McCartney sings: “And oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go. And oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go—nowhere to go.” With these lyrics, McCartney seems to describe a situation in which all of one’s tasks are completed and one has quite literally nothing to do—nowhere to go. Because of the towering stacks of to-do lists we create for ourselves, rarely do we get to experience this feeling. Nevertheless, when it does occur, when we have crossed every item off our list, the feeling is, indeed, magical—as McCartney rightly points out.
In the same year, John Lennon wrote the song “Give Peace a Chance”—the first song Lennon would release as a solo artist, which nevertheless did come out before the Beatles had officially broken up. Lennon and McCartney were very estranged from each other at this time, rarely spending leisure time together and writing their songs separately. Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” is a rallying anti-war anthem and one of many such pro-peace songs Lennon would write in the coming years. McCartney, though presumably equally as opposed to war as was Lennon, did not write as many—or any, so far as I am aware—pro-peace anthems. He did, however, write “and oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.” Might it be that McCartney and Lennon, the former writing about the completion of all tasks, the latter about world peace, were conveying the same message?
If we were to ask the Hebrew language this question, she would respond with a resounding “Yes.” Many folks who do not speak Hebrew nevertheless do know the Hebrew word for “peace”—it is Shalom. Conveniently, and not coincidentally, Shalom is also the word for Hello and Goodbye. There are various theories as to why Shalom should mean both peace and “Hello” or “Goodbye.” One I have heard is that, in ancient times, when someone approached another, it was important to convey that his or her intentions were friendly, as in, I come in peace. However, Shalom links to other important words in Hebrew as well. The word for “to pay” in Hebrew is lishalem. And the word for “to complete” in Hebrew is lihashlim. What might link to pay, to complete, and peace? Already, we seem to be veering far, far away from automatized notions of peace from the 1960s as in “peace and love, man” or “give peace a chance, man” spoken with the first and second fingers raised up. Indeed, the ancient Hebrews had a far different conception of peace than we did in the sixties or than we do today. And the Hebrew language bears this out. If you go to a café in Tel Aviv and order an Israeli salad, you immediately place yourself into a debt vis-à-vis the café. You are munching on cucumbers and tomatoes which, in a sense, have been temporarily and graciously loaned out to you. In serving you this Israeli salad, the café has upset the balance and even harmony which had existed between the two of you—presumptuously hoisting itself up as kingly creditor and denigrating you to the role of slavish debtor. When the check comes, however, and you pay your debt, the previous equilibrium is restored. Hence why the word for “to pay”—lishalem—has the same root as the word Shalom. Paying one’s debt brings about “peace”—that is, payingreestablishes symmetry, harmony, and equilibrium. Our modern notion of “peace” still incorporates the ancient conception. When we call for a war to cease, we intuitively recognize that war is fundamentally disharmonious. War is the absence of agreements and fairness, in which both sides believe they have complete license to take from the enemy what was not originally theirs—whether it be land, booty, body, and even life itself. In a sense, war is that ordering of an Israeli salad at the Tel Aviv café taken to its most hideous extreme. I would surmise, however, that our modern notion of peace has also added an array of garnishments to the ancient conception—peace as doveishness for its own sake, peace as pity, peace as gentleness—which the ancient Hebrews would have thought had little if anything to do with Shalom. The Hebrew word for “to complete”—lihashlim—further buttresses this principle that peace, under its original definition, relates less to non-violence and pacifism than to a settling of debts—a completion of a transaction.
It is a truism that, when we are in financial debt, we are not fully “at peace.” The stress we experience here stems from the fact that we have spent far more money than we actually have. We know that we owe somebody money which we may not ever have to pay them—for, presumably, if we had the money already, we would pay the creditor back. The creditor punishes us for this “privilege” we have been granted usually by charging interest on the loan. On that sweet day in which we can pay off our debts, we feel an overwhelming sense of “peace” because the transaction has at last been completed. For once, we enjoy that magic feeling of having “nowhere to go.”
If only the crippling internal discord we feel from indebtedness occurred exclusively in the sphere of finance. In fact, we are capable of spending “more than we have” in an array of other spheres as well. We can over-eat, eating more calories than our bodies need for energy and effectively placing ourselves “in debt” to our bodies. This indebtedness manifests itself in the form of weight gain; the extra fat which has accumulated all over our person are outstanding bills which we have yet—yet—to payback. The amount of indebtedness we have incurred—the amount of weight we have gained—will determine to what extent our bodies have become “war zones”—places of unrest, disharmony, and collision.
We can be in debt to sleep. We have taken more energy from our bodies than our internal battery can generate. When we steal energy from our bodies without paying that energy back through sleep, our cells become less like pleasant meadows for happy doves to coo and more like battlegrounds where pugnacious hawks scour.
We may also be in debt with regard to time. Time. We underestimate how transactional time can be, how indebting ourselves to time can be just as reckless and taxing as indebting ourselves to money. Indeed, whoever coined the phrase “time is money” was well-aware of how “borrowing” from time can be just as damaging as borrowing money. In fact, time is an even more strict overlord than is money. To buy a home, study at a university, purchase clothing, or pick up food at the supermarket, a certain amount of money is required. If we spend more than we have, we are in debt; we are incomplete, indebted, and figuratively if not literally at war. Money, however, is to some extent artificial. No one ever dropped dead on the spot after declaring bankruptcy, and many of the best things in life really are “free.” Time, by contrast, cannot be cheated. It waits for no man. The closest we can come to cheating time is to subject ourselves to rushing, hurrying, scrambling. Rushing is nothing less than paying off a “time debt.” We are forced to rush when we have not given ourselves the time necessary to complete a task, analogous to purchasing an item with money which is not yet ours. Time is actually remarkably predictable. When I record The Schrift every week, it always takes me about 1.75 hours. If I start recording at 10:15, I will finish at noon. There is some variability week-to-week, but it is not as though one week takes fifteen minutes and the next takes five hours. If I have, say, a phone call at noon, I know that if I start recording The Schrift at 10:30 instead of 10:15, I will not make it—I will not complete the episode on time. Of course, I could always “rush.” If I rush, I might still complete the episode “on time,” but it will not be a peaceful, even-keeled, and balanced recording session; instead, it will be frenzied, sloppy, and combative.
But even rushing can only take us so far. The fastest mile time in world history occurred in 1999 by the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. He came in at 3:43.13. If we have to catch a train at 4 p.m. and we live one mile away, it would be more or less impossible for us to catch that train if we leave the house at 3:57 p.m., no matter how much we rush—that is, sprint. The human animal simply cannot run that quickly. To miss that train because we left the house too late would be the equivalent of declaring bankruptcy with regard to time. The clock has ticked, and those minutes cannot be “earned” back. And if we leave after 4 p.m., we have an even more vivid example of a metaphorical bill we will never be able to pay since we cannot travel backward in time.
Just as every product tends to cost a certain amount of money, every task—every task—requires a certain amount of time. Whatever we do takes a highly specific amount of time, even just the few seconds it is taking me to write these words. Nothing, nothing takes no time. This principle is embedded into German culture. The Germans are known for being on time, punctual, prompt. (Here, the Swiss are even more obsessive about punctuality. A well-known saying goes that whoever thinks Germans are punctual has never met someone from Switzerland.) Here, the Germans stand in contrast to other peoples, who are known for being late, tardy, behind schedule. Israelis, for example, at least in my experience, are notorious latecomers, often showing up for coffee dates up to thirty minutes late. Germans, in my experience, never do that. In this sense, Israelis operate on a time-deficit budget whereas Germans function with a time surplus. Israelis leave too late for coffee, refusing to pay the full time bill which they owe. Germans leave their homes either early or “on time,” thereby remaining at peace with the ticking clock. The Israelis who say “Shalom” upon their late arrival may not realize how much irony they have packed into this greeting.
As with all things, there are several reasons—or at least theories—why Germans are so punctual. Until the nineteenth century, there was no “Germany” but rather the “German lands.” These were a collection of hundreds of city-states, each with its own dialect, laws, ruler, and flag. Moreover, each of these cities still had its own clock. Travelers across the German lands had to continually adjust their clocks based on the city in which they found themselves. Gradually, throughout the nineteenth century, Germany became more unified and interconnected due to the invention of the railroad, the rise in German nationalism, and factory-based labor. Crucial to the success of this coordination was the clock. Germany, which embraced unification during this era, was seemingly eager to incorporate all accompaniments to this nascent political project. In short, to worship punctuality, to bow down before the clock, to think in terms of minutes became evidence of one’s patriotism and one’s welcoming of the New Germany.
An additional reason was Prussia. Germany did not unify in 1871 because all of the principalities got together and decided to form a union. This was not a democratic unification as it was, say, when the thirteen American colonies decided to form the United States of America. Rather, German unification was coerced—mandated—by Prussia after Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Prussia, in a sense the “conqueror” of the German lands, let its culture extend far and wide over Germany. And this was a military culture. The Prussians were disciplined, regimented, Spartan, stern—in short, they were always on time. Today, Germany is no longer ruled by Prussia—in fact, there is no Prussia at all anymore—but its culture lives on all throughout the Bundesrepublik.
In the haftarah reading to the Parsha of Re-eh, Isaiah states the following cryptic lines: “And all of your children shall be educated about God and great will be their peace” (54:13). With this line, Isaiah connects knowledge of God and Judaism with peace. Read quickly, this line appears to be rather cliché and simplistic. It contains these spiritual buzzwords we like to throw around: peace, knowledge, God, and so forth. Anyone can sound like Buddha or Hillel by just mouthing some amalgamation of these buzzwords. But, in fact, Isaiah is making a rather sophisticated point here. It is not so obvious that knowledge of God should bring about peace. If the line read that we should educate children of God and they will be successful or relaxed or joyful, that would make more sense; it is no secret that knowledge leads to success, and one could rather quickly formulate an argument as to why knowledge of God leads to relaxation or joy. Yet, if we consider the word “peace” not as “peace” but as Shalom, we may better discover what Isaiah might have been getting at. If we do not educate ourselves as to God—and here we should consider replacing the word God with Being or Existence—we are again, in a sense, overspending. Our minds attempt to understand what it means to live and to be without the appropriate tools—the appropriate education—to hope to formulate any helpful answer to this question. Each moment which we should be understanding is, instead, thrown away in pathetic grasping. These questions weigh on us like overdue bills piling up. Interestingly, Isaiah also stresses not that we educate ourselves as to God but rather our children. This detail suggests that it is only in our formative childhood years where we can really equip ourselves to understand the workings of the universe such that we are not grasping in the darkness for answers all our lives. In any case, if we are “late” to answer these questions, we will be even less at peace—less complete—than if we are late to pay our debts or to show up for coffee at four.
Many of us are extremely fastidious about budgeting money. We know exactly how much money we need to earn, save, and spend to get the product we want. We call this tactic budgeting. In fact, budgeting can be applied to pretty much all facets of life. If, we want to learn a foreign language, we need to calculate the cost—not just the price of lessons but the number of hours it will take to retrain the neurons of the mind. If we wish to lose weight, we need only budget out the calories and macronutrients we consume. And if we wish to learn the ways of the Torah, we need to slowly begin paying our way back to Shalom—to the profound inner peace when, even spiritually, we can luxuriate in that magic feeling of having nowhere to go.