Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

I have always been fascinated by the idea of time travel in general, but as I’ve grown older I’ve also refined my sense of what specific kind of time travel it is that attracts me the most powerfully and enticingly.

I remember reading Washington Irving’s story about Rip Van Winkle when I was in high school and liking it well enough. But I can recall even back then thinking that the story wasn’t really about time travel because old Rip merely falls asleep and then awakens twenty years later. It’s a good basis for an excellent story—and, incidentally, the book in which it appears, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, is still very worth reading and regretfully under-recognized as a true classic of American literature—but it isn’t real time travel because Rip doesn’t even begin to transcend the inexorable flow of moments that prevents human beings anchored in temporal reality from visiting the past or the future. In fact he doesn’t really do anything except sleep for an exceptionally long period of time and then wake up. More to the point is that he cannot return to the past, so he’s not really visiting the future at all other than in the sense that we all visit the future by waking up in the morning on the day after we went to bed. Nor is he is any more of a time traveler than our own Choni the Circle Drawer, whose story is told in the Talmud. Choni too falls asleep and wakes up not twenty but seventy years in the future. But unlike Rip Van Winkle whose daughter eventually takes him in and allows him to resume his life, Choni ends up so distraught that he can only think to pray for death. His prayer is answered and he dies, and it is precisely regarding Choni’s doleful fate that Rava, the great Talmudic master, is heard to apply the once-famous adage, “Give me companionship or give me death!” (As far as I can tell, Patrick Henry was quoting the Roman orator Cato, not Rava, when he offered the world his version of that thought.)

Other literary versions of time travel have also struck me over the years as coming up short. Scrooge is vouchsafed a glimpse into what may well eventually be the “real” future if he fails to respond morally and decently to what he has been shown of the present, but that ends up not being what really happens. And Scrooge doesn’t get to visit the future anyway, only to see one plausible version of what may yet happen. In that sense, he’s no more a time traveler than George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in It’s a Wonderful Life, who is vouchsafed an alternate vision of a past that might have happened had he never existed but which didn’t actually happen at all. Mark Twain came a lot closer to the concept with Hank Morgan, the title character in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, who somehow ends up living back in King Arthur’s day. But even Twain could not imagine Hank commuting back and forth between the sixth and the nineteenth centuries and at the end of the book Merlin has to cast a spell on Hank that allows him to him sleep for thirteen centuries and awaken back in nineteenth century Hartford where he belongs. And so, in the end, it was H.G. Wells who finally came up with the plot device that seems to me to constitute “real” time travel when he wrote in The Time Machine about a device that enables people to travel purposefully and intentionally back and forth to different eras and then to return home at will. Almost more to the point, Wells has his unnamed protagonist move into the future, not the past, first visiting the 8028th century, and then moving a cool thirty million years hence into an even more unimaginable time yet to come. And it is that specific core idea—that the future is not non-existent, merely inaccessible to people without time machines—that attracts me the most mightily.

You have to love it. I love it. Which of us doesn’t dream of dropping into the future for a few hours to find out about what is yet to be, to learn what will become of our children and grandchildren, to see with our own eyes what their grandchildren will be like. And, because this kind of fantasy is always at least a bit self-referential, we fantasize too about travelling to the future to discover what they—our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and their grandchildren—what they will know of us, what parts of our lives on earth will survive, what our legacy will actually be when enough time has passed for all the chaff to have long since washed away so thoroughly that only the sturdiest remnants of whatever it is we have wrought in this place remain for later generations to consider. I don’t dwell on these thoughts too regularly—I have more than enough on my mind as it is most days and I’m not that big a reader of science fiction novels—but these are still the thoughts that I feel possessing me as I sit here early—too early—on Thanksgiving morning in my too cluttered study and contemplate the notion of being thankful for the gift of my life. Just as I hope is the case for all my readers, I feel thankful and grateful for all that I have. But, man, if I could just spend a few minutes in the twenty-second century and see for myself that it all works out, that my kids and future grandkids (please God) end up okay, that all the little things in life that make me crazy really are just little things that I’m being wise, not foolish, to try to ignore for as much of the time as I can—how great would that be?

It’s just a fantasy. Who knows if the future does or even can exist outside the realm of fantasy? (And, more to the philosophical point, how can the choices we feel ourselves making in life possibly be more than illusory chimeras if the future is already out there somewhere and our choices thus already part of immutable reality?) But I find myself feeling differently about the past…and more secure in my beliefs in that regard than ever.

One of the greatest of all Shoah novels, André Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just, begins with the simple observation that we see at night by the light of dead stars. I took that phrase as the title of my second novel, Light from Dead Stars, because the concept was and remains so appealing to me: when we look up at the nighttime sky, what we are seeing is not anything even remotely related to current reality but the almost immeasurably ancient past that existed when the light now arriving on earth first left the stars we imagine ourselves to be seeing in the present. So we peer into the past nightly…but, like prisoners looking out at the world through the iron bars on their cells’ windows, we still cannot go there. It exists. It’s there. It’s real, and undeniably so. But even if interstellar travel were to become possible and we somehow could watch the distant past morphing into the present as we travel light-year by light-year closer and closer to our destination, wouldn’t we still be bound by logic to meet the present, not the past, just as we finally arrive in the starport? Is that right? It sounds right to me, but what do I know? I’m a rabbi, not an astrophysicist! But when I look out at the dinner table this afternoon, a different reality will be beckoning me…and one rooted in a firm sense of how things are in real life, not in fantasy. Or at least not solely in fantasy!

As I grow older, I see that the past exists not merely as recollection but as part of ongoing reality. I look at my children, as of last Tuesday all of them in their twenties, and I understand that their earlier iterations—the babies and the toddlers and the elementary school children and the high school students—that these all exist as part of reality not “out there” in some place called The Past, but as part of ongoing reality, as part of the present. The old Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously noted that everything is in flux, that you simply cannot stand in the same river twice because no matter how carefully you are about standing in precisely the same spot, you still cannot possibly have the same water wash over your feet. The water is flowing and, with all respect to King Kohelet, will not return…just as time is ever on the march and cannot, therefore will not, return. Heraclitus was a wise man, but what if he had spied a tree instead of a river as he formulated his most famous thought? Would he possibly have been visited not by the thought that no one can stand in the same river twice, but by the fact that the tree’s inmost rings were once its outer shell…and that the inner rings are all there, all present, all fully real despite being hidden from view? Readers who daven regularly at Shelter Rock will have heard me say many times from the bimah that time itself is just a midrash invented by human beings eager to develop a framework in which adequately to describe the world, but not much more than a literary frame for analyzing action and reaction, activity and consequence, deeds contemplated and deeds accomplished and unaccomplished. Time feels real, after all, but it is still only one plausible way among many to explain how things truly are in God’s world.

As I watch my children grow—and also as I myself grow older and feel earlier versions of myself to be as real as the inner rings of any fifty-six-year-old tree in the forest—I find myself possessed of the conviction that time travel is neither possible nor impossible, that the question itself is wrongly asked and thus inevitably also wrongly answered. Indeed, the more I ponder the idea the more clear it is to me that the idea of traveling to King Arthur’s court and there altering the course of history, an idea rooted in the thought that the past is “out there” and therefore could plausibly somehow be visited, is not the right way to frame the issue at all. The past, I finally see, is not out there at all. It’s within. Within us. And within our children and grandchildren. As such, the past is real…and it is not nearly as inaccessible as I once thought. Indeed, I plan to visit it this afternoon…when I sit down at Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by my twenty, twenty-two, and twenty-five-year-old children and visit—not in the realm of fantasy, but in the context of sober reality—both with the parts of them I can see and also with the parts hidden deep within. Their futures are before them, but their pasts are not behind them but in them. And that is why there is something mystical about this meal—this lone American yontif feast among all the other festive meals of my year—when I somehow acquire the ability to look through the bark and the blea at the rings closest to the core…and to come closer to understanding what it means to be a father not in the context of history, but in the ongoing reality of a full real present that is merely the outermost patina of a rich, textured past.

By the time most of you read this, Thanksgiving will have come and gone. I hope all was well for you all and for your families. I suspect that we ourselves are going to have a lovely day. Every so often, I take the time to look carefully up into the nighttime sky to see the past as it once was. But to see the past as it still is and always will be, I plan to look into my children’s eyes this afternoon….and see the future as history and destiny meet in my very own home over an overflowing platter of roast turkey.

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