Let me tell you a secret: After my bar-mitzvah (the ceremonial step from childhood into adulthood for young Jewish men), I was convinced that I had learned everything Judaism had to offer. I could read Hebrew, lead the prayers; I knew Torah stories, could even offer some midrash (commentary). So, I said, my journey in Judaism is complete.
I pursued spiritual fulfillment from other traditions, and I ultimately settled into Paganism, and Wicca in particular, for about three or four years.
Then, well, then I was Jewish again. Let me explain.
I recently read David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus, a wildly imaginative and lyrical look at the intuition and origination of one of math’s most recognizable elements. I was delighted as he described the wondrous experience of seeing mathematical functions in everyday life (an experience I’m prone to myself), and I was lulled into a certain sense of dualistic comfort when he uncovered the natural yet unexpected partnership between differentiation and integration, the two processes wholly defining the calculus.
While I read today’s teaching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Berlinski’s musical prose, of the unambiguous manner in which he related unassuming but intimately connected ideas–which is, as you’ll soon see, precisely the challenge presented today.
One of my first and favorite math teachers used to say it’s not about the “x,” it’s about the “y.” I came to a similar assumption last week, whether I articulated it or not, when I began looking at the Pirkei Avot again: It’s something I learned repeatedly in my political theory course, that it doesn’t matter who tells us something or whether it’s true or wise, but that before we accept it, we consider it critically.
There’s a dent between the “I” I was before and the “I” I am now. Life batters us. Damages us. We try (and sometimes we succeed, yet sometimes we fail) to rebuild ourselves, but no matter how close to perfect our handiwork comes, we’re never quite the same as we were before. We change. Piece by piece, part by part, cell by cell, until we are all unrecognizable. But bits remains. Bits will always remain–in our appearances, perhaps, or our temperaments possibly–but in time we become someone different. Someone new.
It’s this tide going in and going out that’s the journey of our lives. Through sorrow and joy, through love and disappointment, each instant shapes us for the next. We are a function of powers beyond us, yet we cannot be differentiated–nor can we be integrated. What leads us is all that we have. There is no other relation.
Metaphor aside, where do I stand? In this moment, I am more than a man sitting before a screen, typing furiously upon a keyboard abused by his hands. Nor are you–my audience, a reader, a friend perhaps, or even a stranger–just a person behind a computer or on the other side of a tablet or e-reader. You are whole, as I am whole, and the missing pieces are not quite missing, but not yet discovered, not yet chiseled from this form we call our bodies.
I’ve come a long way, yet sometimes I fear I haven’t come at all.
I began last year by looking at the last decade. This year I’d like to continue the tradition–but with a somewhat narrower scope. Throughout this last semester’s calculus class, my friends and I would frequently ask for a moment to pause for reflection, to look back at what we’d just done to make sure we understood it properly. Just the same, I’d like to take a few moments over the next couple of days to look back over the past year and see what I did well and also where I could improve.
There’s a saying that goes “two steps forward, three steps back” and usually it implies a success followed by a greater failure that sets us back further than we began. A moment ago, as I finished writing that last paragraph, I thought of saying that it’s good to begin something new by taking a look back (which reminded me of the saying aforementioned), and together these two thoughts, so parallel in structure, made me wonder: Is it really worth looking back? Isn’t looking back just the same as taking a step forward, to take two back?
I thought about it a moment longer (the thinking mind is truly a wondrous thing, and often works much faster than we give it credit for), and I decided–like my philosophy of no regret (which I think I tried explaining once but didn’t do it justice)–that even a step back can help us take a step forward. We’re never really back where we began, no matter how many times we find ourselves in the same situation; so long as we learn from where we’ve been, it can only help us get to where we’re going next.
So why not take a look back? If only to remember, it can do us no substantial harm.
If I’m not mistaken, and my Hebrew is correct (both only possibilities–for although I think I know what I know, I don’t know for certain that what I know is known fact), al Shavuot means “On Shavuot.” This evening began the Festival of Weeks, in Hebrew known as Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. At Pesach (Passover), the Israelites were freed from Egypt, and seven weeks later (hence the name Shavuot, which literally means “weeks”), God gave the people the Torah. For nearly four thousand years, we’ve been commemorating this night, and it’s taken nearly four thousand years for me to finally be inspired by it.
You’ll understand all that in a moment. For now just let me add a little folklore, or as I might prefer to say, tradition.