September 22, 2017 | This Too Shall Pass (Rosh HaShanah 5778)
King Solomon was trying to humble his wisest servant so he asked him to perform a seemingly impossible task: to find something that did not exist. He requested a magic ring—one that, if a sad man wore it, he would become happy and if a happy man wore it, he would become sad. The servant took the challenge, searched high and low in the land, but on the night before he was supposed to report back to the King, he still had nothing. Then the idea came to him: He went to the local jeweler and had 3 words inscribed on a plain gold ring: Gam ze ya’avor. This, too, shall pass.
King Solomon was delighted at such a phrase because it was true whether someone was happy or sad, in all times and situations. He saw when he was meloncholy, the ring would comfort him and remind him of sunnier days ahead. When he was at the height of contentment, the ring would humble him and remind him of life’s fleeting nature. Legend has it he never took it off and could be heard saying to himself “Gam ze ya’avor. This, too, shall pass.”
In modern times, the phrase Gam ze ya’avor was made popular by Abraham Lincoln who used it often in his speeches (in the English translation) to challenge and inspire his listeners. This phrase is timeless and it’s meaning rich. It should resonate for each of us. Every individual knows melancholy and joy. And each of us knows how quickly things can change.
For the most part, we don’t use the phrase, “This too shall pass” when we’re in a good place; we use it in times of difficulty and darkness. It is reassuring and comforting, with its promise of an end to troubles. Distressing times in life can be overwhelming and suffocating. Sometimes just living feels like a burden and the stress always seems to come when we feel least able to carry it. Professional challenges, maintaining a home, difficult children, aging parents, dealing with illness and death—whatever it is—we take a deep breath and remember in times like these, there have always been times like these. This too shall pass. It isn’t the first hurdle and it won’t be the last.
But I’d argue it’s just as important to take a page from King Solomon and invoke this phrase when things are going well. Solomon also used the phrase to chasten himself in times of pride and contentment. It is this scenario that I’d like to focus on today.
There’s a rabbi I know who tells brides and grooms Gam ze ya’avor on their wedding night. His reasoning is that only if they understand that the event will pass quickly will they truly be able to savor it. And so it is precisely at the times in our life when we are intoxicated to be alive that we should force ourselves to remember that the moment is transitory. When we have a swagger in our step, when we count our blessings, when we feel the magnificence of life stretching out around us, that’s when we should say Gam ze ya’avor. When the people we love are healthy, when we have a way to make a living, when our children and grandchildren are thriving and our marriages are strong, that’s when we should say Gam ze ya’avor. We can never feel regretful or let down or wish to turn back the clock if we enjoy the present moment and truly live in it.
But we don’t. We allow countless obstacles to stand in our way, coloring life as if it were short and so very pressured. But life is only short if we make it so. The great philosopher Seneca said, life is long if we know how to live it. And knowing how to live it doesn’t mean fighting the universal truth that time passes. It means we must feel in our core what we know in our heads…time rushes past, it cannot be stopped or slowed down or repeated. People, like time, have a way of disappearing from our lives before we are ready, but we can appreciate them while they’re in front of us. We can embrace our blessings right now.
In his monumental twelve-volume Study of History, Arnold Toynbee concludes that what led to the decline of civilizations is that once they reached the pinnacle of their success, once they no longer had to struggle to survive, they began to corrode from the inside. It is the same with us. We become inebriated with prosperity and blessing and have no impetus to savor the moment.
Judaism demands more of us. Especially at this time of year. It is not religion’s only purpose to help us cope with adversity, lift us out of grief, and give us hope when we need it. Judaism teaches us what to do in our moments of triumph and blessing as well as despair. Judaism’s noble challenge is to give us something to aim for when we don’t have to fight to survive.
It sounds vague and abstract—even cliché— to say ‘live in the moment.’ So let’s get concrete. I propose three things to help us embrace the idea of “Gam ze ya’avor” – This too shall pass—as a theme for the coming year. Three ways to answer the question, “How can we really maximize the moment?”
1. Show up in life.
2. Face our fears.
3. Adjust our perspective.
The popular adage is that half of life is showing up, but our tradition teaches that it is so much more. One of the great corrosions of community, family life, and friendships is our inability to fully show up in life. Our greatest challenge is to be present and aware, both in our own endeavors and those of the people we love.
There are two things that keep us from being able to do this. The first is age old: and that is the illusion that time and life will wait for us. We just don’t take time seriously. The second barrier, though, is newer – it is technology and the way it has changed the way we communicate.
It is not, and never has been, human nature to live in the moment even though we know that moment is going to pass. We are simply not hardwired for it. Our default setting is to believe that there will always be five more minutes or another opportunity or a second chance. The human condition predisposes us to notice and treasure things only when we’re about to lose them or worse, have lost them already.
We act as if it is just too difficult to be somewhere both physically and mentally at the same time. We are always planning and thinking ahead rather than experiencing and enjoying the reality at hand. Why is it we are so willing to trade the present for the future? We miss out on what’s happening around us because our head is somewhere else. And what takes us out of the moment most greedily? Our technology—our phones, ipads, and laptops—and our inability to put them down for long or turn away.
I missed the first steps of my third child because I was fidgeting with my phone hoping to catch the whole thing on video. Then a text message popped up that distracted me. Sometimes I feel I have lost control of my accessibility and availability. In being available for everyone all the time, I am ultimately not fully available to the people right in front of me.
Letting life get away from me like this is not living Jewishly. Everything in Judaism pushes us to live in the moment, to understand what distinguishes each moment from the others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel characterized Judaism as a religion aimed at the sanctification of time. There are no two hours alike. Each moment has a significance attached to it. He points to Jewish ritual as “architecture of time.” And it’s true: we wake up each day and recite the morning blessings thanking God for waking us up again. We say a blessing before we eat so we can be mindful of the miracle of food. Everything is about thoughtfulness and cognizance, asking us to think and not merely act. The Torah says that “Abraham was old and he came with his days.” We take this to mean that Abraham grew daily and got as much out of each day as possible. How can we grow old with our days? How can we show up more?
First, we must re-program ourselves and not allow technology to dictate the terms of our life and snatch away our focus. We know life is about relationships. That is why Judaism focuses so much on how we treat each other and how we are to live together. In this new year, our family is going to try a technology black out night. Just one night a week. See how it feels. No screens for any of us. In doing so, I’m hoping to provide an example to our children of what it can mean to have actual face time.
Our kids are still very young—three under the age of six—and they have a lot to teach on this subject of showing up. No one shows up in life like little kids do. They live fully in every moment. That is why they won’t get out of the pool, won’t stop playing to go to sleep, must immediately put that new toy together, must hear the story again and again. They have the innate ability to cherish every second. We can learn from them and keep that childlike engagement in the present moment. Imagine the results of channeling our inner child…if we could be more curious, imaginative, creative, energetic, resilient. If we succeed, the quality of our moments, with our kids and with others, will be so greatly enhanced. Can we let our children and grandchildren—at least while they’re young—live like children in a more unplugged and personal environment? Isn’t it worth a try to live like that ourselves? We must show up in life. Because Gam ze ya’avor. This, too, shall pass.
My days here in the office involve mostly talking to and counseling adults. One of the top things that people come to speak to me about is fear. Fear is at the heart of many scenarios I hear. We fear change, we fear loneliness, we fear for people we love, we fear what others think, we fear being insignificant, we fear something terrible happening in the world, and on and on.
Jews are famous for worrying, but to let fear dominate the mood of our culture is tragic. Some say that fear is motivating. It certainly can be, but it is ultimately unproductive. And it stands in the way of understanding Gam ze ya’avor in the literal sense. Fear is time consuming. How much of our life do we occupy with fear and anxiety and procrastination? How often do we allow fear to rob us of the moment?
To be afraid is to suffer. In the short term, our worries are uncomfortable and incapacitating. Fearing something gives it power over us. The long-term effects of fear are worse. We have goals and dreams, but cannot realize them because we fear risk and change. Dealing with fear robs us of living—it makes us less forthcoming, less adventurous, less buoyant, and ultimately less alive. We stay in jobs that don’t challenge us because we’re afraid we’re not qualified to do something else. We can’t celebrate a success because we worry we’ll fail tomorrow. We don’t travel to see the world because we’re afraid of what might happen to us on the way. We don’t open ourselves to people because we fear being hurt. This isn’t living. And I cannot believe that is what God intended for us.
Will Durant, in his classic opus, The Story of Civilization, lists in the very first paragraph of 11 volumes, the conditions for civilization. He says that progress begins where chaos and insecurity end: “For when fear is overcome,” he writes, “curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.” It is a condition of society that fear be overcome. Personal greatness begins where submission to angst ends.
I do not mean to minimize the causes of concern in our society, community, and families. They are real and they are many. But Judaism gives us resources to confront what threatens and unnerves us. We are a lot more resilient than we think. If Jewish history tells us anything, it’s that our worst day is never our last. You do not, I’m certain, need me to enumerate the times we have teetered on the brink and lived to see a better day.
Military history give us some inspirational stories. David bested Goliath. With a slingshot. George Washington bested the British with a handful of troops at the Delaware River in 1776. Five hundred Israelis bested 80,000 Egyptians at the Suez Canal on Yom Kippur in 1973. The arc of history is bent toward people who aren’t afraid. America and Israel exist because of the courage and audacity of their people. These are extreme examples, yes, but they should inspire us to go against the grain of anxiety and procrastination; to face our own fears and remember Solomon’s inscription: This too shall pass. You may not be as scared tomorrow.
And second, though I know we don’t always speak comfortably or publicly about faith, might we be able to banish fear by acknowledging and connecting to a higher power? I’ll speak very personally; that helps me feel less alone. There is a beautiful tale in Judaism about a man just after his death, sitting with God reviewing his life. And his life is displayed by the image of footprints on the beach. And God says, “See—two sets of footprints, I was always walking with you.” The man says, “But look at all the times there is only one set. I suffered, I walked alone. Where were you then?” And God says, “My child, those were the times I was carrying you.”
Our tradition teaches that we are connected to something higher and eternal. Over and over God says to the Israelites, “Do not fear for I am with you.” We are never alone. Real security in life comes from many things: lasting friendships, a meaningful family life, a connected community, a big picture purpose. Can we search for the things in our life that secure us and think twice before giving our precious moments over to worry and fear? Our potential can only be achieved when we are willing to face our fears. Gam ze y’avor—we are not going to be here forever—do we really want to let fear dominate our lives?
My third and final suggestion as a framework to help us live in the moment is to adjust or control our perspective. My high school soccer coach used to say, “Attitude is everything” and at the time I found it so lame as to be meaningless. But I realize now it was just shorthand, as cliché’s often are, for a very deep and important truth. Life is perspective. Life is your opinion of your life. Montaigne, the great French philosopher, said, “A man is not hurt so much by what happens, as by his opinion of what happens.” Outlook as much as reality defines us.
How much time do we waste on realities that don’t exist? The real gift of being educated and experienced is not that we’ve learned how to think, but that we have the choice of what to think about. We have the power to choose healthy perspectives, ones that maximize our ability to enjoy life. Things that are boring, frustrating, and irritating can be reframed. We shouldn’t let impatience or resentment ruin the moments of right now, which we will never get back. The choice of how we view things is our greatest asset in taking full advantage of time.
Similarly, we have the choice of how we handle and view our emotions. The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the hard-wiring of human beings. They encourage us not to default to the first—and often the most extreme—emotional reactions. We too easily become victims of our own anger, envy, and guilt—and lose the ability to separate out what really matters and what doesn’t, what should bother us and what shouldn’t.
When we don’t control strong negative emotions, they control us. Instead of “This too shall pass” we sit in our anger or irritation, our refusal to forgive, insisting, “This too WON’T pass.” We all know the way angry or jealous thoughts become all consuming. How could anyone possessed by such feelings possibly notice or enjoy what is going on around them? Working through and letting go of these emotions is better for US, not only for the ones we hold grudges against. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells a story of a woman who carried around a hot poker for her ex husband for ten years. He said to her, “What’s the point? You haven’t thrown it at him; all you’ve done is burn your hand.”
Controlling our perspective is just as important as controlling our behavior. Anger can be transformed to understanding and the opportunity to repair a relationship. Jealousy can be replaced with a realization that the hand of fortune is the same as misfortune. Everyone’s life has success and tsurris.
Life is a mindset. Remember Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” No matter what happens to us, we can reframe our experiences and thus, our experience. Things can mean the end of the world to us, or we can deal with them and move on. People will irritate us and hurt us, so we can do what General Eisenhower famously boasted: and that’s not spend one second thinking about people we don’t like. Life is opinion and our opinion is up to us.
The passage of time is inevitable, yes. But we can slow it down. Be inside it rather than bystanders. Talk rather than text. Appreciate rather than begrudge. Be braver than our fears. Let bitterness pass but not our blessings. Nothing keeps time. We only keep up with it, if we are able.
No matter what 5777 brought for us, it is time to throw a hook into our future and bring about 5778. Decide what it is in life that we want and how we are going to get it. Gam ze ya’avor is a balm for us, absolutely. But it is also a dictate that we stand at attention before God with the full understanding that time is our greatest gift. This rabbi in front of you inscribed Gam ze ya’avor on one of her own rings; not to mimic King Solomon, but to remember his resourceful and thoughtful servant who rose to the occasion and had his finger very much on the pulse on life. We are encouraged not to be consumed with the reality that life passes by but to consume ourselves in the moments right in front of us. It is time—right now— to bend history to our making by standing firmly and mindfully in the present. We must match time’s swiftness with our speed in using it wisely.
My wish for us as a community is that we show up, find the courage to face down fear, and have the mental discipline to control our thoughts. May we be heard saying to ourselves, “Gam ze ya’avor.” Whether you’re in your hardest moment or your sweetest: This, too shall pass.
- Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man in Search of Meaning
- Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Face Your Fear
- David Foster Wallace, This is Water
- Dava Sobel, Longitude
Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)