The Rebbe of Gur & the Power of Now

Can we learn to listen to this moment, and to the new moments as the unfold before our consciousness?

Being attuned to the moment is not easy. Even Moshe, Judaism’s greatest prophet and leader, struggled with this. Ramban explained that: “Moshe didn’t see the presence of God at the burning bush right away, because he hadn’t prepared his heart for prophecy” (Commentary on Exodus 3:2). The task, then, is to prepare ourselves for the radical possibility of every moment, or we will miss them. Indeed, we have to wonder just how much we’re missing each day.  Martin Buber, citing a Yom Kippur sermon from the Rebbe of Gur, recounts the wise, guiding words of the Rebbe:

The present, this “now,” which is the moment during which we are speaking, did not exist when the world was created and will also never return. The present “now” was preceded by another “now” and will be followed by another “now.” Each “now” has its own unique divine task (Or HaGanuz, 457-458).

To achieve such a lofty goal, we should not be slaves to the past. We cannot replay our actions over and over again and expect different results. Rather, we continue to learn and evolve as people, our souls becoming more experienced with the ways of the world; with every mistake, we surely must learn something. Holding onto the subtle, yet precious, moments can be increasingly challenging for individuals committed to tradition and to relying deeply on past rituals, ideas, memories. But the religious person learns to balance listening to the past while continuing to live in the moment.

We cannot look only backward and forward. We need to be broad and look outward as well. For this reason, Jewish law requires that there are windows in the synagogue: windows looking out

One should only pray in a house which has windows, as it says, ‘And Daniel would enter his house, where there were open windows in his upper chamber facing Jerusalem; three times a day he would kneel and pray’ (Berachot 34b, quoting Daniel 6:11).

Based on this requirement, Rav Kook wrote: rav kook image 2

Prayer is an intensely introspective activity, but it should not lead us to belittle the value of being part of the world around us. If meditation and private prayer lead us to withdraw from the outside world, then we have missed prayer’s ultimate goal. The full import of prayer cannot be properly realized by those secluded in a monastery, cut off from the world. Prayer should inspire us to take action for just and worthy causes (Ein Eyah vol. I on Berachot 34b, 5:124).

Maimonides explained, even more strongly, that the greatest evils come from the spiritually blind, and if we don’t open our eyes in the world, intellectually and spiritually, that we will actually cause great harm to others (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:11).

Professor Michael Fishbane, a theologian from the University of Chicago, beautifully explains the imperative of the moment:

Perhaps this: already with the opening of eyes, the hearing of ears, and the tactility of the body—already from such inadvertent moments the world imposes itself on us. It is always already there for me, just as I become there for it. There is no gap to be crossed (between the cognizing ego and the world): there is miraculously an immediate, primordial thereness of reality. Already from the first, and with every act of sensation, the world is “there” as a field of phenomenality, as a world of claims imposing themselves with an ever-present and evident presence. These claims put one under a primary obligation: one can respond or not respond; heal or destroy; attend or neglect; consume or build up. We have that choice (Sacred Attunement, 192).

In the twenty-first century, we have more distractions than ever preventing us from cultivating the spiritual art of focus to ensure we climb to the heights of our potential. The rabbis teach that one who pauses to enjoy nature flippantly while attempting to focus on higher spiritual matters “bears guilt upon their soul” (Pirkei Avot 3:9). “Stopping to smell the roses” is not always the best prescription for a spiritually present life.

Perhaps the most profound statement that our forefathers give in the Torah is Hineini: Here I Am. No matter what comes before us, we should strive to be present to that which is in front of us, and be appreciative of the moment, ready to take action, and always seeking the most important spiritual response to any problem we encounter. The theological model to emulate, thus, is the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) as we strive to be entirely in the moment. It is our obligation to follow the halakhic model of “mitzvot tzrichot kavannah” — commandments that require presence and concentration; we emulate the Divine when we throw our full selves into our greatest life commitments.

We have a real choice to respond to the call of the moment. Ignoring it is an option, though one we should be loath to take.  The great sage Hillel famously taught, “If not now, when?” There is no time like the now to embrace life and its sacred opportunities. Hillel also suggested that the Sabbath is not the sole time where we fine-tune our spiritual presence. Rather: “Baruch Hashem yom yom” – our holy tasks are a daily endeavor (Beitzah 16).

There is no time like now to start living in the now.

Indeed, it is all we have.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America & the Forward named him one of “The Most Inspiring Rabbis in America.” .

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.