Nitzavim I - THE TIME IS TODAY
ON THIS SABBATH before Rosh Hashonah, when our thoughts and prayers are centered on the good and happy life, I would like to ask a pertinent question: When do you think is the best time of life for the average person? When was the best time of your life? We generally divide life into four periods - childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. Now which of the four do you think is the best?
I know that many would consider childhood as the golden age of life.
Just consider how wonderful a period childhood is! It is full of enchantment and joy, of make-believe and loveliness. When we think of the days of our childhood, the carefree days with our parents and family, we feel a lump in our throats. Ah, for those lovely days that only a poet can adequately describe and chant about!
This sentiment was immortalized in a popular Yiddish folksong: Kiender yohren zisse kiender yohren - "years of childhood, O sweet years of childhood . . ."
But when you stop to consider for a while you may ask the question, were they really as sweet as all that? The late George Bernard Shaw is quoted as having remarked that the trouble with childhood is that it is being wasted on children.
Yes! On the surface it appears that childhood constitutes the most wonderful period in life. No worries and no cares, no disappointments and no heartaches. And yet, have you ever studied the emotions of a child when he doesn't want to go to school or do homework?
This mood was also captured in a Yiddish song entitled, Ich viel nisht gein in cheder - "I don't want to go to school..."
What happens when little Jackie is refused a second helping of ice cream, or when little Judy is not permitted to stay up until eleven o'clock to watch a mystery show on TV, or when little Donald cannot have a water gun with which to squirt the other children on the block? If we were to study the emotions of frustrated children, measure their tears and feel their heartaches when they cannot have their way, we would reach the conclusion that the years of childhood are not as rosy as we picture them.
As we grow older, we take satisfaction in the fact that we have outgrown our childishness; that our sense of values has matured; that the things we thought were so terribly important when we were nine or ten, we now find to be of trivial significance, or of no consequence at all.
Shall we say then that youth constitutes the happiest period of life? Just think of the world of promise that belongs to youth - the energy, the strength, the vitality that it possesses; the adventure and romance that it breathes; the bravery, daring and heroism of those in their early twenties or in their late teens. Statistics prove that the most dangerous missions in war are carried out best by the young. It is the young warrior who usually wins the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the war young soldiers took hand grenades, placed them in their bosom and threw themselves under enemy tanks, and were blown to bits. This is characteristic of the devotion and idealism of youth. It is no exaggeration to say that young people have it in their power to move mountains and to shape worlds. This is the positive side of the picture.
But there is also a negative aspect to the younger years. Young men and women have to face the problem of getting into college and choosing a career. Many young people in love, who would like to marry and raise families, are prevented from realizing these blessings because of financial difficulties. And in our turbulent period of history, young men have been burdened with the possibility of conscription and military training.
No, youth cannot be singled out as the happiest period of life.
Let us turn now to middle age. That period certainly deserves our consideration. Once a person has reached his middle forties, he is more or less established in life. If one has led a clean and sensible existence and has a little financial reserve on which he can draw, he can enjoy a number of comforts and pleasures, vacations and trips, which he probably could not afford earlier in life. Are they not then the finest and most enjoyable years of life?
Once again one can point to a negative aspect. It is amazing how frequently rabbis are called upon to officiate at funerals where the deceased was in the late forties or early fifties. Look into the obituary columns of the New York Times and you will see that the period of middle age is a very dangerous one. The fact is that in their desire to succeed, people in the forties and fifties overworry and overtax themselves, and pay dearly for these excesses.
A rabbi once entered the home of a middle aged wealthy man. He was smoking and coughing. "Why do you have to smoke if it makes you cough?" the rabbi asked. The man explained that after a heavy meal there is nothing like a good smoke to help settle the stomach. Later the rabbi met a poor man in the street who was also smoking and coughing, and the rabbi asked him the same question, "Why do you have to smoke if it makes you cough?" To which the poor fellow replied, "As you know I am poor and have little to eat. Smoking helps me forget about food." "See," said the rabbi, "If one would not have too much to eat, and the other too little to eat, neither of them would have to smoke and cough."
In middle-life everyone seems to be coughing. Almost everyone is bothered with something. Some are terribly spoiled by too much, and others "eat themselves up alive" because they think they have too little. No wonder that middle age is characterized as the age of Serutan, Aspirin and Nitro-glycerine pills. So you see that these years also have their drawback.
Well, you will ask, what about old age? That seems to be a wonderful period in man's life. The old are surrounded by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. It is the age when one can realize the fulfillment of one's fondest dreams and most fervent prayers. As a result of years of experience the old are wise, mellow and serene. George Santayana, at 82, said, "I have never been happier in my life than right now."
And yet we know numerous cases where the picture is not so rosy. While there are compensations in old age, there are also many shortcomings. Most of the trouble is physical in origin. The feet become sluggish, the reflexes do not respond well, and the eyes grow dim. And ah! the aches and pains! Many who reach the twilight of life are unhappy for yet another reason. They are disturbed that they cannot do things for themselves and have to depend on others to do it for them.
One old gentleman related that before he came to this country he went to see a Chassidic rabbi who was known for his wisdom and piety. The rabbi blessed him and said, "I pray to God that you will not have any trouble with houses in America." He is in this country more than 40 years and he didn't own any houses. So he couldn't comprehend the significance of the rabbi's wish. But now that he is old, he is beginning to grasp the idea. You see, his wife died and he remained penniless and alone. His six children had a meeting and decided that the best thing for their old father was to stay with each child for two months at a time. Every two months he has to pack and move from one house to another. He now has plenty of troubles with houses, and he also knows that the rabbi's good wishes for him did not come true.
An old woman related to me the other day how her son and daughter-in-law with whom she stays were frightened when the doctor informed them that she was in good health and would last for another ten to fifteen years. You see, the son and daughter-in-law want the room occupied by the mother as a TV room, and they are disappointed to have to wait from ten to fifteen years. To these people, old age is far from being a golden twilight.
Thus we have briefly analyzed the four major periods of life and found that none of them can be pointed to as being completely sweet and happy.
Let us turn to Jewish sources and see whether we can find an answer to our question. The answer of Judaism is found in the liturgy of the High Holidays. One word is repeated over and over again. The word is hayom - today.
Today let us be strong;
In the Bible, too, the accent is on hayom (Deut. 29:9; 30:19).
Did you ever stop to consider what a wonderful present God gives us every morning - the gift of a day? We go to bed at night tired and worn, and we arise in the morning invigorated and refreshed. When our eyes open, what boundless joys even the poorest of us can experience! The air, the sky, and the sea; the fragrance of flowers and the song of birds. All these things, and more, can be ours if we have the heart to appreciate them. It is we who decide what shall become of that day. We can kill it or fill it. The best time of our lives, says Judaism, is hayom - here and now. The greatest opportunity for goodness, service, and piety is today.
Says the poet -
Build a little fence of trust
Just around today.
Fill the space with loving work
And therein stay.
Look not through the sheltering bars
Upon tomorrow -
God will help you, come what may
Of joy and sorrow.