Life as a Passing Shadow? (Edited Transcript)
The attention given to the royal wedding last week is really thought-provoking; according to media commentators there were more than 2 billion people around the world watching the royal wedding at some point or another. Millions of people thronged the streets of London just to catch a glimpse of the procession. Why were people so fascinated with this?
The fact that this wedding has drawn such a powerful response from people all over the world shows that it has profoundly touched the human psyche. Such a response is not generated simply through celebrity marketing; this royal wedding touched a chord. Some people are cynical, scoffing at all the pomp and circumstance and saying there’s nothing to it. But in truth, there is something much more profound to it.
Torah philosophy vs. evolutionary theory
There is a human need to feel that our lives are significant, that human beings are important and that there is grandness to our existence. All the grandeur and splendour of this wedding, the carriage procession, the formality and the swarm of people, reinforces in people’s minds that human life can be grand, important and special.
We all know this intuitively but it is not so obvious, especially with the picture of human existence purported by the theory of evolution. Evolutionists claim that the world came into existence through random physical forces. Judaism believes that G-d created the world. How exactly G-d did so is open to debate and is indeed a subject of discussion among our greatest Torah scholars, but the fundamental principle is this: Hashem created the world, as we read in the Book of Genesis: Bereishit bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz, “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.”
The wickedness of the theory of evolution is that it removes G-d from the world by claiming the world came into being without a Creator. Simple, logical analysis of this claim – that this perfect, magnificent world came into being without a guiding designing force – shows this claim to be ludicrous. But leaving aside the ridiculousness of such a claim, to remove G-d from the picture is pure wickedness.
A further wickedness inherent in this theory is that it actually diminishes the importance of human existence. From the perspective of evolution, human life has no significance and is not special because, according to evolutionary theory, we are no more than a developed amoeba, a slightly more sophisticated ape. At the heart of this philosophy is the idea that human existence is random, just a freak coincidence with no designed purpose. Accordingly, there is no meaning to our existence; things which are random and chaotic have no meaning.
At the heart of Torah philosophy, however, is the idea that human existence is special, important and meaningful. Everything we do, say and think, and how we live our lives, is important because our actions are being recorded by Hashem. He has created us in His image and has given each of us a soul, a part of the Divine, as it says, “G-d created man in His image”; the Divine soul that Hashem put into each one of us shines forth.
We know that as human beings our lives do have purpose and meaning; our lives can be grand and important. Perhaps this is why the recent royal wedding generated such interest: it demonstrates what we know in our heart of hearts, namely, that our lives are meaningful, that there is something powerful about what it means to be a human being. Indeed, there is something grand and majestic about it.
“You shall be holy”
This search for meaning and living with purpose lies at the heart of another crucial value of Judaism, and that is what we call kedusha, sanctity. Last week’s portion instructed us kedoshim tihiyu, “you shall be holy.” This week’s portion, Emor, talks about the special mitzvot given to the kohanim, the priests who work in the Temple. The priests had special mitzvot which required a higher level of sanctity than an ordinary person, but in fact we all have mitzvot that call upon us to lead a life of holiness.
What does it mean to live a life of holiness? It is about understanding that life is special and that what we do makes a difference. The opposite of kedusha is chol, profane, or chilul, desecration, both of which come from the same root as the word chalul which means hollow. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, one of the great Torah scholars of Lithuania, explains that these words come from the root chalal which means emptiness. The opposite of holiness is emptiness, hollowness in the absence of meaning and purpose. Holiness means that life on earth is filled with importance and is significant, and that what we do is meaningful in the Hashem’s eyes. He gives us commandments by which to live so that we can make our lives significant and important. This is what kedusha, sanctity, is all about.
Counting the Omer
This idea of living a purposeful life relates to a very important mitzvah discussed in this week’s parsha as well: the mitzvah to count the Omer, which we are presently doing. We have just celebrated the festival of Pesach. On the second night of Pesach we started counting the Omer, as we are commanded to do in this week’s portion: U’sfartem lachem, “you shall count.” We count the 49 days of the Omer, linking Pesach to Shavuot, the festival commemorating the greatest moment in the history of civilization, the anniversary of our receiving the ultimate gift – the Torah. These seven weeks correspond to the seven weeks from when we left Egypt till we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The Sefer HaChinuch, one of the classic works explaining the rationale behind the mitzvot, says that one of the reasons for the counting of the Omer is that it is in anticipation of receiving the Torah. When we wait for something to happen, we count in anticipation. (A somewhat crude example of this – and clearly in contrast to the sanctity of counting towards the giving of the Torah – is the countdown mode the whole country was in this time last year, leading towards the World Cup.) The counting of the Omer is about our anticipation of receiving the enormous gift that G-d gave us at Mount Sinai; we count toward it, because we look forward to it.
The commentators ask why it is that we count the Omer in ascending order and not descending order. Why do we not begin at 49, and work our way down like a regular countdown when you await something?
Another question that is asked is why the counting of the Omer has to be “complete,” as the verse tells us, sheva shabtot temimot, “seven complete weeks.” In fact, many of the Halachic commentators understand the daily counting of the Omer as one long mitzvah, and therefore the law is if you miss a day in the counting of the Omer, you continue counting without a blessing, because the counting of all 49 days has to be cumulative to be properly complete.
The Dubna Maggid answers these two questions. He quotes a passage in the Talmud which comments on a verse in the Book of Psalms that says our lives are k’tzel oveir, “like a passing shadow.” The Talmud adds that the shadow being described is not the shadow of a wall or a tree but the shadow of a bird that is flying overhead. This is how fleeting life is: like the shadow a bird flying overhead casts on the ground. This is even more fleeting than a wall or a tree, which at least is stationary; the shadow of a bird overhead sweeps across the ground and is gone in a second.
The Dubna Maggid explains that each moment that passes by slips through our fingers. Our life is this very second of existence, right now; what’s gone is gone, what lies in the future hasn’t arrived yet. How, then, do we hold onto this moment?
He says there are actually two different perspectives of time, the perspective of the wicked and the perspective of the righteous. From the perspective of the wicked the past does not exist – there is only the future. From the perspective of the righteous the past does exist.
The Dubna Maggid was a master at using analogies to explain deep concepts in a clear and graphic manner. He gives the following analogy to explain these two perspectives of time: imagine two beggars going door to door and asking for money. At every door that they knock on they get a prutah, the smallest currency used in the times of the Talmud. The one beggar, as he gets his prutah goes and buys something worth a prutah and eats it, and the prutah is gone. He goes to the next door and gets another prutah, buys something, eats it and then that prutah is gone. At the end of the week he has nothing, just one prutah in his hand which he is about to squander as well. The other beggar collects them one by one and eventually he converts those prutot into the next level of currency which happens to be a zuz. He then takes that up to the next level of currency which is a dinar. He keeps on saving and converting his money into bigger currency till eventually he accumulates a significant sum of wealth. The other beggar has just the one prutah in his hand.
So too it is with life. Every second that comes is like a prutah. There are those who just spend it and there are those who accumulate. How do we accumulate time if we can’t hold onto it? Time is a passing shadow – how can we hold on to a shadow?
Accumulating good deeds
When Hashem gave us mitzvot He gave us the opportunity to accumulate good deeds. No good deed disappears; it is there for eternity. Every cent of charity that we give, every word of Torah that we learn, every mitzvah that we fulfil, every person that we greet, every bit of Shabbos that we keep – whatever we do accumulates for all time and it can never be taken away from us.
The Dubna Maggid explains that the righteous person accumulates one good deed after another and thus his valuable time accumulates because it is invested in good deeds. When a righteous person comes to the end of his life he looks back and sees an enormous wealth of good deeds. The wicked person does not live a life of mitzvot and good deeds because he is too busy pursuing pleasure. The pleasures pass; they are fleeting. To use a trivial example, when a person eats a chocolate – and this is a good psychological tool when you are trying to diet – he wants that chocolate so badly. How long is the pleasure of that chocolate going to last? Thirty seconds, sixty second, perhaps 120 seconds – and then it’s gone, as if he never ate it. What did he gain?
To a person who is in constant pursuit of pleasure the past means nothing because those pleasures are gone. The only thing that still remains is the future, the pursuit of future pleasures. And when he gets to that future pleasure, it slips through his fingers as well. He is literally chasing shadows the whole time, accumulating nothing. He is spending the coins as they come and at the end of his life he has nothing to show for it.
The Dubna Maggid says this is really what the mitzvah of the counting of the Omer is about. Counting the Omer reflects our particular approach to time, namely, that it is cumulative. We count the Omer in ascending order – one day, two days, three days, etc., and after each week concluded we count that week and the days of the next week, X number of days of the Omer, which is X number of weeks and X number of days. Thus, each day builds on the previous one, and each week builds on the previous one. We don’t just count, “today is day X of the Omer.” We actually add the days and the days accumulate into weeks, totalling the seven weeks. It is a cumulative mitzvah, and this is why it is so important that it be complete, sheva shabatot temimot, “seven complete weeks.” This completeness represents a valuing of time such that it does not just slip through our fingers.
This is also why we don’t count down, but count up, in increasing numbers. Through this mitzvah of counting the Omer Hashem gives us a particular perspective of time and our lives, and this is the ultimate preparation to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
There is a well-known story about the Chafetz Chaim who, when he was told that in America people say that time is money, responded that time is life. As we prepare to receive the Torah anew, we have to understand that at the heart of Torah philosophy is the concept that time is significant; it is our life. How we relate to our time on this earth goes to the heart of who we are. Human life is significant; it can be grand and special. Every minute we have the potential to accumulate good deeds for eternity. Life is not just random and meaningless, just a scramble for survival. It is grand and special, filled with opportunities for sanctity. This is what the mitzvah of the counting the Omer is all about: making our time meaningful.