I hear and say it all the time these days: the world is so different now, nothing is the same, it all feels so unreal, so surreal, so theoretical. Time and space are collapsing.
Gertrude Stein’s phrase, “There is no there there,” was originally her description of her experience revisiting the site of her family home as an adult and finding it had been torn down. It has come to mean much more over the years: everything from a half-horse town to a person who seems more substantive than they are. At this point it feels universal, like it describes everything.
These days, there is no there anywhere.
I imagine this might feel like a whiff of what it was like after the Temple was destroyed. Our center of our communal and religious life is barely available to us; it is virtually unrecognizable. Torah scrolls across the world sit lonely in their Arks, fallow, unread, longed for. Shabbat is virtual or solitary. Community interaction is flattened and packed into boxes on the screen. Weddings are postponed or pared down to the bone. Families mourn in isolation.
Rabbi Harold Kushner’s teaching, “Jews don’t pray for, Jews pray with,” is one I return to often; it is a touchstone of my religious life. I am deeply moved by the very experience of sitting in synagogue in a community at prayer. I love the sound of voices going in and out or raising up together in song. I love the swaying. I love wrapping myself — and on rare, blessed occasions, my children — in a tallit. I love the feeling of being in a group of people united in hope and longing. Even if we are all hoping or longing for different things, each navigating our own idiosyncrasies of desire and need, we do it together and that, to me, feels holy. The vertical and the lateral entwine, filling the expanse.
In pandemic time, it feels unsettling to think of praying with. Just when I need it most, my prayer life has shriveled to almost nothing. When I pray with others on a screen, I unwittingly become a spectator. My longing is mine alone and has no place to go. When I pray alone, the isolation is unbearable.
My world is at once tiny and unfathomable. The predictable physical space is accompanied by an inner space of such uncertainty and churn that it is sometimes hard to remember who I am or why I am here.
The Hebrew word עולם (olam) carries meanings of both time and space. It means world, and it means forever. It is all over the sacred texts, in phrases that conjure a beginningless, endless expanse:
וחסד יי מעולם ועד עולם
And Gd’s love is from forever to forever (Psalm 103)
אתה הוא עד שלא נברא העולם
It was you who existed before the world’s creation (liturgy)
I have always been fascinated by the time/space one-two punch in עולם: in my imagination, the ancient Hebrews perceived a relationship between time and space that we moderns have a harder time accessing. They knew, I tell myself, that the things that are eternal are beyond easy categories. The sense we nowadays have, of time and space being two different things, is a construct. A wise friend once said to me, “Time is a dream.”
All the more so now. The days run together; the weeks fly; the months disappear, bringing May before we remember even to change the calendar page to April. It’s rushing by and going impossibly slowly all at the same (yeah) time. It feels like endless expanse, and like we’re all running out of time.
The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches that the wise and the foolish, the kind and the wicked, the joyful and the morose all come in time to the same end. The entirety of human experience is laid out in a book-length menu; we will at some point end up dining on each item. There is no implication that good behavior carries a reward, nor that bad behavior will be punished. We are told that a person’s ability to enjoy the pleasures at hand is a gift from Gd.
ביום טובה היה בטוב וביום רעה ראה
In good days, dwell in the good; and in bad days, reflect. (Kohelet 7:14)
In this time period that feels both stretched and contracted, both eternal and ephemeral, time seems to fill every corner of the expanse and yet seems impossibly, terrifyingly short.
The present moment is all we have; let us meet it with all the joy we can muster.
We are alive, and that is blessing enough.