Friday, May 10, 2013

Don't live in the moment! Presentism, Eternalism and Yom haMeyuchas (Derashah, Bamidbar 5773)

I was asked to speak this Shabbos, and I've come up with the following draft text. [You may recognize the first idea from this 2009 post.]


Good Yom Tov, Chag Sameach! 
Today, the second day of Sivan, has a special name, Yom haMeyuchas. People often use the term "yichus" to describe special family connections, but "yichus", literally, means "association", or "relationship".  The second day of Sivan is called Yom haMeyuchas  because it has good associates: Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month, a day of special status, and tomorrow is the first day of the biblical preparation period before the Torah was given at Sinai. That makes today Yom haMeyuchas, a day with illustrious associates.

The idea that a day can enjoy special status due to its neighbours is not exclusive to the second day of Sivan; the Talmud[1] lists several special days when we don't fast or we don't offer tearful eulogies, because those precede or follow key celebrations. The days themselves lack celebratory characteristics, but the status of their aristocratic neighbours offers reflected glory.

In truth, the concept of Reflected Glory is not necessarily a good thing. Look at our entire world, which appears to live in Yom haMeyuchas mode in a most unhealthy way. We clamour for autographs from benchwarming ballplayers, we drop the names of former classmates who have gone on to greatness, we talk about great-uncles and third-cousins who have just published a hit novel or who appear in a new movie, we go to great lengths to see and be seen. [Case in point: My Facebook post here.]

But there is also a benefit to hanging around in good company: choose good friends, and they will influence you positively. This is not the pursuit of reflected glory; rather, it is the pursuit of personal glory, through glorious role models.[2]

[Derashah Mechanics note: I omitted the following paragraph when I spoke. It is on point, but keeping this in adds too much weight to the point about glorious role models, and I really want to spend the listeners' attention span on the point coming next, not this one.] This week, in the weekly cycle of Pirkei Avos, we learn the sixth chapter, and the story of Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma, who was offered great wealth to move away from his circle of talmidei chachamim and become a scholar in residence in a city bereft of scholarship. Rather than embrace the opportunity with pioneering spirit, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma committed himself to remain in the residence of sages from whom he could learn. Of course there is value in outreach, and the tension between seeking good associates and creating community independently is a good topic for discussion, but Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma made a clear statement that being meyuchas, having good associates and role models, was central for him.

So perhaps this simple idea is the message of Yom haMeyuchas: Associate with positive role models. But it is also possible that Yom haMeyuchas has another message for us, a deeper message.

Presentism[3] is a school of philosophy found in some early Christian thinkers[4] and among Buddhists,[5] and even put to use by some Jews. According to Presentism, the past isn't real, and the future isn't real either; at any given moment, the people alive, the objects in existence, are the only things that are real.

Presentism is important in abstract philosophy in addressing questions like how objects change and in calculating how many dimensions the universe has, but I would like to borrow it from its context for a concrete application: Believing in presentism allows me to declare that no matter who I was yesterday or the day before, I am someone new today, and I will be someone new yet again tomorrow. The past is empowered with neither veto nor vote over my identity; חדשים לבקרים, each morning I become a new person.

This Presentist philosophy can be spiritually healthy; it can encourage us to break with old habits, to re-set dysfunctional relationships, to power our way out of a rut and chart a new course. Think of the inspiring example of R' Elazar ben Durdaya, and the way Rebbe noted that a single moment can change one's world.[6] There is a certain reassurance that comes from dislodging the moment from the timestream. It is not for naught that Jewish tradition has preserved, in various forms, the adage, העבר אין והעתיד עדיין וההווה כהרף עין – דאגה מניין? – The past is nothing, the future has yet to come, the present is the blink of an eye – so why worry? [For possible sources of this adage, see] Indeed, there is much to be said for Presentism - and on another day I might give a derashah praising it.

But Presentism is of limited use because it is an illusion; of course yesterday impacts today, and of course today impacts tomorrow! And so we turn to a different philosophy, which matches what we experience in our own lives.

Eternalism, the opposite of Presentism, is this philosophy. Eternalism argues that Time is a continuity, each moment equally real. The past is real, the future is real; they are just far away at the moment.

In the practical world, Eternalism makes significant sense. As Rav Kook noted,[7] everything that I do today is a product of my experiences in the past. There is always an influence from yesterday to today. In a sense, what I do today passes judgment on what I experienced in the past; if I do something good today, that shows that my past was positive. Moving forward, what I do tomorrow will pass judgment upon that which I did today. And so on.

So let's return to Yom haMeyuchas. As the Jew approaches Har Sinai and prepares to receive the Torah, it is tempting to apply Presentism. Yesterday I was a human being like any other, a Noachide, and then, on the second day of Sivan, Gd tells me, "You shall be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation,[8]" and I become something new, a Jew, with a covenant and a set of expectations.[9] It’s an instantaneous change, from Bnei Noach to Bnei Torah, from slaves of human beings to freely serving worshippers of the Divine, and perhaps the people we once were, pre-Torah, have no influence upon the people we are after we enter the brit.

Yom haMeyuchas, though, teaches us that the second day of Sivan is not only the day when Gd tells us we are holy. It is also the day after Rosh Chodesh, when we arrived at Sinai. It is also the day before the period of intense preparation to receive the Torah. This day exists in an influential chronological context.

The same is true for the nation. The Jews who leave Egypt were formed by three patriarchs and four matriarchs who bequeathed to them a legacy of courage and faith and love and fire. They descend from siblings who quarreled and spouses who persevered and slaves who refused to be beaten down but instead embraced their beliefs and called upon Gd. This nation is Meyuchas! They have so much to draw on.

_________ and __________, at the end of a recent day the sun set and the stars came out and you turned from 12 to 13, but the past twelve years of your existence, the many generations who preceded you on this planet, were not erased. You are Meyuchas, you have great ancestors, a loving family, great teachers, good friends, and twelve years of life and education. You are Meyuchas to each other, as twins, too! The teenage years are a period of reinvention, as they should be, but draw on your past as you shape your future.

And the same is true for all of us, us Meyuchasim – not only in terms of learning from our past, but also in terms of planning our future. And more: The moves we make today - speaking a kind word or offering a listening ear, picking up a sefer, giving tzedakah, pausing to think before saying a berachah, thinking about davening instead of turning to talk to a friend - all of these are not only about today, but also about tomorrow. Today is not the only Yom haMeyuchas, the only day influenced by its neighbours! Tomorrow will also be a Yom haMeyuchas, for today will be its influence. Who do we want to be tomorrow, and what are we doing today in order to get there?

Chag Sameach! Happy Yom haMeyuchas – and may our every day be a Yom haMeyuchas, too.

Yom haMeyuchas Sameach!

[1] Taanit 17b-18b
[2] Cf. Avot 4:14, 4:15, and 6:9, as well as R' Elazar ben Arach in Shabbat 147b.
[6] Avodah Zarah 17a
[7] Orot haTeshuvah
[8] Shemot 19:4-6
[9] Shabbat 86b-87a, within both points of view


  1. Re: "העבר אין ... דאגה מניין"
    Was that Rebbe Nachman miBreslov's line? The only good analysis of its origins that I was able to find (here) last time I wondered whether that (the philosophy and its phrasing) had legitimate Torah origins didn't even mention him (even as one a person it's traditionally [mis]attributed to).

  2. Thanks for calling me on that, D. I did say "reportedly" because I remembered it attributed to him, but I have now replaced that with a link to a page offering various sources.

  3. The point of living in the present is to not become obsessed or overwhelmed by thoughts of the past or future. Regrets and worry can be overdone. To consider the past and future in a healthy way is something else.

  4. Shalom RosenfeldMay 10, 2013 at 9:16 AM


    RHS, in the context of the modern State of Israel's inability to separate itself from its ancient past (despite some secularists' wishes otherwise), quoted RYBS as being opposed to the "he-avar ayin" saying.

  5. Bob-
    When I gave this derashah, I noted that on another day I could as easily give a derashah promoting Presentism. Both approaches have something to offer.

    Yes, I thought I remembered hearing that.

  6. "Both approaches have something to offer."

    That's because the right approach often depends on the person and his situation.

    There's lots of good advice out there pointing in different directions. Out of the cloud of advice, the person, with the right introspection and guidance, has to pick out what he needs.