If you have ever studied physics – or taken a ride on a New York subway – then you are familiar with Newton’s First Law, the law of inertia, first published in 1687. Newton dramatically altered our understanding of physics when he wrote: “An object at rest remains at rest and an object in motion remains in motion at a constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.” Newton’s First Law explains why, when you are on a subway, you feel that you are standing still – because you are moving at the same speed as the subway car in which you are standing. When the subway stops, however, you fall forward; the braking subway is the unbalanced force that prompts your body to jerk forward at the speed the train was going, unless, of course, you were smart enough to be holding onto the metal pole. So, too, when the subway starts up again, it is the force of the subway’s forward momentum that yanks you backwards from your resting stance. Even if one doesn’t fully understand Newton’s law, because of our experience on subways, cars, planes, elevators, moving walkways, and otherwise, we get the basic gist of why things stay still if still, keep moving if moving, and everything that happens when an inert object is acted upon by another force. The law of inertia is an elegantly stated principle explaining how things move and don’t move in the physical universe.
I will be the first to admit that science has never been my thing. I doubt that I have referred to the laws of physics more than a handful of times over the years. But metaphysics, that branch of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and all other aspects of reality – well, that is more up my alley. I am reminded of the line from the movie “Annie Hall” when Alvy Singer recalls being thrown out of college for cheating on a metaphysics exam because he looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to him. This morning, my question is not about physics, about going from point A to point B in space. My question is about metaphysics, about going from point A to point B in time – from today to tomorrow to the day after that and the effects that journey forward has on us, the passengers in this temporal subway of life in which we travel.
Let me state it a bit more simply. In this world there are very few things we can be sure of; the passage of time is one of them. As the proverb says: Time and tide wait for no one. Yesterday is followed by today, which will be followed by tomorrow. We may not physically move – we may spend the week in our pajamas, at home, and on the couch – but the moving walkway of time, that will move forward and there is no stopping it. We know, because we now know our Newton, that in the spatial universe, an object in motion remains in motion. But what about in the temporal universe? If the subway of time is constantly moving forward – what are the laws about us – the folk who live in the midst of the inexorable tug of time?
Here, to continue the language of Newton, the power of inertia cannot be overstated. As human beings, we get it that tomorrow will be different than today; the fact that time passes is neither interesting nor debatable. But as human beings we don’t move at the same pace as time. Or, to be more precise, we do, but we deny that we do. We tell ourselves that the pace of time passing is not uniform for everyone, that our particular lives are not subject to it, or that we can somehow manipulate it, slow it, or stop it. These weeks are the weeks of graduations. Mazel tov to all the graduates and their parents – myself included. We look at our kids in their caps and gowns, in their prom dresses and tuxes, and we marvel at the passage of time, commenting on how fast it all went. We linger in the moment, wishing it would stay, playing back the montage of memories again and again. And then, feeling the pull of time tugging us forward, we dig our heels into our present. We know that this time next year, next month, next week, things will be different; it is unavoidable. But the power of inertia is so strong, so overwhelming. “I like it here.” “I know my surroundings.” “I know these people and these people know me.” It is not just at graduation; at every stage in life, there is a human tendency to live in avoidance of the one thing we cannot avoid: the future.
Our inertia expresses itself many ways. When faced with the unknown, we become inflexible, intractable, and intransigent. We avoid making consequential decisions about our circumstances, believing that somehow we are exempt from a universal law. It is not rocket science; it is human nature. It is natural to fear the future. Tomorrow is so complicated and so risky; there are more unknowns than knowns about what the future will bring. It is disorienting, disconcerting, and sometimes downright distressing to imagine living in a world different from the one we are presently experiencing, and so we do the one thing we can do – we dig in. We take shelter in inertia. We tell ourselves that the ground is not shifting from beneath us. We perseverate on the past; we try to prolong the present; we refuse to prepare for the future. We refuse to get on that subway, elevator, or whatever it is that will take us to a new place. We would rather do anything and everything except the one thing we should be doing: take the necessary steps forward to greet the future in strength.
This tendency toward inertia in the face of the unavoidable passage of time is, I believe, the root cause of ancient Israel’s failure to complete their wilderness wanderings. With the drama of the Exodus, Mount Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle behind them, the Israelites are en route to their hoped for Promised Land. Our Torah reading begins full of hope, with a census being taken in anticipation and preparation for all that is to come. But in the weeks ahead, we know what will happen; we know the bottom will fall out. First, the Israelites complain about the manna, the food provided to them by God. Then, Miriam and Aaron criticize both Moses’s choice of spouse and his leadership. Soon thereafter, twelve spies are sent to scout out the land, and ten of them return with reports that the land cannot be conquered. Immediately after that, Korach and his followers lead an open rebellion against Moses. Finally, Moses’s frustration bursts forth and he strikes the rock, resulting in he himself being barred from entering the Land.
This book, B’midbar, meaning “in the desert,” is far more than a travelogue though a physical wilderness; it records a temporal and spiritual journey as well. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were locked into a cycle in which time seemed to stand still. One day melted into the next, one year into the next, one generation into the next. The desert is new territory: Egypt is past, but the future is yet to be written. Once the thrill of liberation and Mount Sinai had subsided, I imagine the prospect of an unknown future was altogether daunting for the Israelites. The complaints about Moses, the gripes about the manna, the report of the spies – all are expressions of fear, all assertions of inertia, of a people’s decision to spurn the future promised to them. And as they dig in, tricks of memory begin to emerge. The Israelites long for a return to Egypt, creating alternative memories of their past, recalling not the taskmasters and harsh labors, but the plentiful fish, the cucumbers and melons, and all the things that, whether or not they ever actually existed, are now remembered as more desirable than their present desert drudgery. To paraphrase Bible scholar Dr. Adriane Leveen: It was because of Israel’s failure to grab hold of God’s plans that their present became colonized by memories of their Egyptian past – altogether obstructing their future. (Memory and Tradition, p. 84) A process of self-doubt, self-deception and self-sabotage that will eventually, we know, result in the entire generation of the Exodus, save Joshua and Caleb, being barred from entering the Promised Land.
The failure of the desert generation rings true for us not just because it is a narrative about our biblical predecessors, but because it is a window into our shared human condition dating back to the very beginning. When Adam and Eve left the Garden, when Noah disembarked from the Ark, when Jacob fled his father’s house, when Rachel and Leah fled theirs, or when Joseph was forced out of his – all our patriarchs and matriarchs faced the anxiety of meeting an unknown future. Some of them – like Lot’s wife who turned back and was turned to salt and the wilderness generation about whom we read today – faced catastrophic fates due to their inability to transcend their inertia. Only one of them – Abraham – set out with certainty to a new land and new future sight unseen, probably why he is the aspirational but not necessarily attainable paradigm and founding father for our faith. But most of them – like Jacob, like Rebecca, like Ruth, like Esther, like Jonah, like most of us – harbor doubts and hesitation along the way. They experience midnight wrestling matches of one kind of another. Even Moses wavers at the burning bush, which is why God, when asked for the divine name – answers Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be that which I will be. God was telling a self-doubting Moses, and by extension all of us, that the spark of the divine within every human is rendered most evident when we are willing to become something we presently are not. It is human to be scared; it is human be let our anxiety regarding the future prompt us to long for an irretrievable past. What is heroic is our willingness to step onto that moving walkway and meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
In the spirit of the season, I recall the story of a university alumna who was invited back to campus years after graduation and given the chance to meet the university president. As she was introduced to the now elderly president, she took him aside and said, “Sir, I will be forever grateful to you for the words you said to me on my graduation day as you handed me my diploma. Over the course of my life there have been ups and there have been downs, and, thank God, things have turned out well for me. But in the dark moments, it was the wisdom you shared with me that graduation day as you gave me my diploma that has sustained me throughout.”
The university president was at a loss. He turned to the woman saying, “I am humbled by your kindness, but I have presided over decades of graduations handing out more diplomas to more people than I can count. I don’t remember. Please tell me – what was it that I said to you?”
The woman looked at him and replied, “You said: ‘Keep moving.’”
Friends, if there is a headline to our moment it is that the landscape is changing beneath us and we have to keep moving. As a synagogue we are planning for the future during a time when none of us really know what to expect. All of us have been humbled by the last two years. We are all hoping for the best and scenario planning for all that we don’t know. As citizens, we see the tectonic shifts in our social, economic, environmental, and political realities, most of the indicators getting worse, not better, and none of them particularly clear. And those of us who are parents sense the anxiety our children feel thinking about their futures. I feel it myself. I feel I am standing on the subway platform, my daughter gripping my hand and I gripping hers as we wait for the train to come, sharing panic and knowing that this train, unlike the others that have come before, she will be getting on without me. We watch the subway clock count down the minutes. Our pulses quicken and our stomachs turn at the knowledge that she is meant to step off the platform, onto the train, and into the unknown. But it is so nice here! I know what is here and there is far more about the future that I don’t know, that we all don’t know.
But what we do know is this. Time is moving forward, and we must keep pace with it. We all face a choice. We can move forward, anticipate and plan as best we can, realizing a shared future for us, our families, and community, or we can freeze up, stay tethered to imagined bygone days, and hold fast to a reality whose time has passed. Given that choice, given the divine spark bequeathed to us by our Creator, we loosen our grip, we whisper to ourselves and to each other: “I will be what I will be. We will be what we will be.” She takes a step off the platform and onto the train, just as she has bravely done before, greeting the future in strength, en route to reaching her Promised Land.
Leveen, Adriane. Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)