Songs reflect emotion. Melody speaks volumes about the culture and thinking of a community.
In that spirit, America sings about yesterday (even if the lyricists aren’t always American). “Yesterday, when I was young, the taste of life was sweet, as rain upon my tongue.” And America sings about tomorrow. “The sun will come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.”
We sing about yesterday and tomorrow but not today. And yet, today — hayom — is a central theme of the High Holy Day season we are completing. The Torah portion of Nitzavim is read before Rosh HaShanah. It begins with the words “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem” — You stand today (hayom) before the Lord your God). And the Musaf additional service on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur concludes with the recitation of a prayer whose lines begin — over and over — with the word “hayom.”
Why, in Jewish tradition, is so much emphasis placed on today?
We are so absorbed in memories of the past and concerns about the future that the moment, itself inherently fleeting, is rarely experienced. It’s for this reason that I always tell celebrants at a lifecycle event — who seem to always be awaiting the next moment, anxious or excited about the way it will unfold — to remember to stay in the moment; to be in the moment; to appreciate it completely.
The Talmud records the ancient story of Alexander the Great, when he requests the secret to life from the Sages of Israel. Their response? Imagine that every moment you live is your last. [Tamid 42a] Their intention, I believe, was not to advocate living a burdened life, ever fearful of death. Rather, it was to teach that every moment should be made a quality moment, as if it were one’s last.
As the popular adage goes: “The past is history, the future is a mystery. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.” It reminds us to hold on. Hold on tight to every moment. Hayom.
But if we were to stop here, our thought would be incomplete. This is because we can never hold on for eternity. Time moves on. Nothing lasts forever.
For one thing, it’s futile to hold on to being young as we all grow older. And though there is beauty in youthfulness, there is also beauty in aging. We must learn to age gracefully. When we’re 70 we should not dress and act like we’re 20.
It’s also futile to hold on to our children. Though we teach them values, they must be free to choose their own path, flying their own route with the wings we gave them. Our challenge is to love them unconditionally.
And it’s futile to hold on to our professions without acknowledging that one day we must step back. The greatest test of success can be seen in how well we foster transition of responsibility and control to the next generation.
But how can one hold on while also letting go? Feeling the presence of God may be the pathway to realizing this challenge. When taking into account that God created the world, it follows that everything in it is infinitely precious. And so we ought to hold it, embrace it, warmly and tightly. And yet, when we also acknowledge how everything ultimately belongs to God, it is easier to let go — these beautiful things do not belong to us. While we are blessed to enjoy them for a limited time, we know they are on loan.
Spirituality is not escaping from this world. Quite the contrary: it is being fully conscious of the moment while feeling the presence of God, who allows the experience to unfold.
The High Holidays are days of celebration, of hayom. We would all be wise to think back on this past year, to recall an experience of special meaning. To embrace it with open arms.
That moment for me was the passing of my father just a few months ago. My father was raised in the town of Oświęcim, which later became the notorious Auschwitz death camp. As a product of the Old Country, my father expressed his love through action rather than words. For example, I used to pick my parents up at the airport when they flew to America from Israel after they made aliyah. One time my father called at the last moment to say their arrival had been moved up by 24 hours. I insisted I couldn’t change my schedule on such short notice. “You became a hotshot rabbi,” my father responded, “and don’t have time for your parents?” “I love you deeply,” I protested, “but it’s difficult to alter plans at the last moment.” I’ll never forget my father’s response: “Don’t love me so much. Just pick me up at the airport.”
My hayom moment for this year found me sitting with my wonderful siblings around my father’s bed as he passed from this world. Breathing heavily in those final days, saying our names individually, he mouthed with deep emotion what I believe were his final words: “I love you.”
Even as we held him tight, he was slipping away. And when I saw my father just a moment after he died, I broke out in uncontrollable tears — I did not want to let him go. It has taken me weeks to live the message of embracing with open arms — of holding on to the moment while also recognizing that, as Abba died, he was “placed in God’s trust.”
I keep recalling words I often heard from my father, paraphrasing a comment made by the Ibn Ezra: “A person is concerned about the loss of money and not the loss of days. Money can be replenished; days cannot.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, who recently retired as senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, is now rabbi-in-residence at the synagogue.