“Life goes by so fast,” we often hear, with a mixed tone of bewilderment and disappointment.
Indeed, it seems that life is always eluding us. This is also evident in the way our society relates to education and age-development. When children graduate from school, they are convinced that life is still way ahead of them. “We first have to graduate high school, go to college, get a degree and a well-paying job for life to really begin,” they conclude. However, when those goals are finally achieved, many lead themselves to believe that life has still not really begun, and they impatiently wait to reach the years after their retirement to begin to explore and enjoy all that they have always wanted. In the words of my dear mentor (and world scholar) Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “We devote so much time to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ [of the stages of life] that we no longer have time to experience the thing itself. When we are in the ‘before’ stage, we think about what will be; in the ‘after’ stage, we think about how things were. Either way, there is nothing to make us hold on to the present.”
A chronicle has it that the disciples of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Rebbe of Kotzk (1787-1859), were approached by a famed Jewish philanthropist shortly after the Rebbe’s passing. The philanthropist had been greatly helped by the Rebbe of Kotzk, and he wanted to repay the favor and contribute a large monetary sum in the Rebbe’s loving memory.
“What did the Rebbe cherish most?” the philanthropist asked the Rebbe’s disciples. “I would like to donate a large monetary sum toward that which he cherished the most.”
To his amazement, the disciples unanimously responded: “Our Rebbe did not have any specific person or item that he cherished most.”
The philanthropist refused to believe them and he insisted, “But every human being has something that he holds dear to his heart. The Rebbe too must have had a person, a matter, an item, an idea that he cherished most!”
“You don’t understand,” the disciples explained. “Our Rebbe lived his life to its fullest potential. He did not have anything in particular that he cherished most, because he handled every moment, every person, every matter and every idea as if they were the most important thing in his life, at the time of his interaction with them.”
This week’s Torah portion speaks of the cloud of G-d “covering the Tabernacle” and guiding the Jews in the desert during their many journeys (Numbers 9:17). Why did G-d create a cloud to bestow His glory and serve as a GPS? Wouldn’t a bird, for example, be enough? What is the message of the cloud?
Clouds impede the sight of man. They don’t allow us to see beyond the present tense. Here lies the lesson from this cloud of glory: If we wish to live life fully, and build saintly tabernacles in its every instance, we too must learn to live within a cloud that blocks the illusions of the future, and fully cherishes each minute of our lives.
This does not mean that preparing for the phases of life is unnecessary or unimportant. But we ought to focus entirely on the creation of our personal tabernacles in every step we take, in every move we make, in every moment we shape.
Only then will life really begin.
Rabbi Pinchas Allouche is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefillah.