Imagine: On Love and Lennon

By Ze’ev Maghen

One man's tirade about universal brotherhood.

“Living for today”—an extremely pervasive slogan among so many people for so many years—means, essentially, being alone in time, alone historically speaking (a feat which can obviously be achieved even while surrounded in the present by a whole soccer stadium’s worth of companions). Well, I suppose that’s fine, if that’s what you like. Living for the moment—and only for the moment—has certain genuine advantages. But I think that in the long run, you lose out big time. I mean, let’s reason from the specific to the general again: Did you ever see that Star Trek where they strap Kirk down into a big, black, padded chair, and beam this memory-erasing light at his head, such that after a few minutes he would have been emptied of all recollection? Now suppose we strapped you into that chair, and erased your entire memory—everything you did, everything you felt, everything you learned, everything you treasured, everything you daily and constantly reference. What, do you suppose, would be left?
A turnip, that’s what. “You” are the accumulation of your experiences throughout your life. Growing and living and enjoying and fulfilling is all about the interaction, combination and application of those past experiences—which constitute the greater part (if not the whole) of your consciousness—to what it is you are thinking, feeling and doing at the present instant. If all you know and all you feel is what you know and feel today—or this week, or this year—well, you aren’t going to get invited to a lot of dinner parties, I can promise you that.
But along the same lines, “you” are—or should be—even more. Why settle, after all? You have the opportunity to extend your horizons further than any normal eye can see, further than any detached intellect can perceive, further than any untouched heart can feel. You can reach beyond your individual, birth-and-death-bound walls, and palpate immortality. You can draw on, you can gorge upon, the accumulated experience, knowledge and inextinguishable fire of the manifold ascending centuries which preceded you. You can stand higher than Everest on the shoulders of a hundred generations, and thereby see light-years farther into the future than those who have grounded themselves at sea level, and cannot see past their noses in any direction. In a word: You can be HUGE.
How does one do all this? After all, you personally were born quite recently. You haven’t existed, built, climbed, fallen, lost, won, wept, rejoiced, created, learned, argued, loved and struggled for thousands of years. Nevertheless: You happen to have lucked out. As a Jew, you are a distinguished member of a nation which has done all these things, and then some. You have special eyes, eyes that can see for miles and miles. If you only will it—enough to work at it—you can extend your arms and touch the eons and the millennia, you can suck in the insights and bask in the glory and writhe in the pain and draw on the power emanating from every era and every episode and every experience of your indomitable, indestructible, obstinately everlasting people.
This is not an ability acquired solely through learning or reading (although this is a major ingredient, I hasten to emphasize); it is first and foremost a function of connection, of belonging, of powerful love. If you reach out and grasp your people’s hands—you were there. You participated in what they did, in all places at all times, you fought their battles, felt their feelings and learned their lessons. You tended flocks with Rachel, and slaved in Potiphar’s house with Joseph; you sang in the wilderness with Miriam, and toppled the walls of Jericho with Joshua; you carried first fruits to the Temple Mount, and were mesmerized by Elijah on the slopes of Carmel; you brought the house down on the Philistines with Samson, and bewailed your lost youth in the mountains with Jephthah’s daughter; you fought the chariots of Hatzor under Deborah, and danced before the ascending Ark with David; you went into exile with the prophet Jeremiah, and hung your harp and wept by the rivers of Babylon; you defied the divinity of Nebuchadnezzar with the courage and cunning of Daniel, and vanquished the might of imperial Persia with the wisdom and beauty of Esther; you sought communion with the infinite with Shim’on bar Yohai, and studied law and lore in the vineyards of Yavneh with El’azar ben Arach; you were with Judah the Maccabee at Modi’in, with the Zealots at Masada, with Akiva in the Roman torture chamber and with Bar-Kochva at Betar; you devoted your life to Tora at Sura and Pumpedita, and philosophized by the Nile in Fustat with the circle of Maimonides; you were crucified for refusing the cross in the Crusades, and were turned into ashes for your stubbornness at the autos-da-fé; you were exiled from the shores of Spain by Isabella, and chased down and raped by the hordes of Chmielniki; you went out to Safed’s fields to greet the Sabbath bride with Luria, and went in to Galicia’s huts to seek the ecstasy of the fervent Ba’al Shem Tov; you fled the Black Hundreds across Russia’s taiga, and were welcomed by Lazarus at the gates of Ellis Island; you filed into gas chambers at Bergen Belsen, and were hurled living into the flames at Matthausen and Sobibor; you parachuted into Hungary with Hanna Senesh, and fought back at Warsaw with Mordechai Anilewitz; you were shot with your family in the forests of Poland, and dug a mass grave and perished there at Babi Yar; you revived your dead language, you resurrected your sapped strength, you returned to yourself and renewed the lapsed covenant, you arose like a lion and hewed out your freedom on the plains and the mountains of your old-new land.
Throughout all this and so much more, you were there with them—and they are here with you. This is the thrust of the Passover Haggada when it exhorts: “In every generation, a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.” This is the intention of the Talmud when it whispers—based upon a strongly suggestive biblical verse—that we were all present and accounted for at the foot of Mount Sinai in the desert, over three thousand years ago. This, I would venture, is the deepest symbolic meaning and ultimate emotional motivation behind the Jewish-originated concept of the Resurrection of the Dead in the End of Days: You see, I think that in certain ways, we loved one another so damn much that we simply couldn’t bear the notion that we wouldn’t all—all of us, from every place and every Jewish generation throughout history—eventually have the opportunity and pleasure of meeting each other face-to-face, and just spending some quality time. Not to worry, crooned the rabbis of the Talmud (with the Supremes): Someday, we’ll be together....
I am a Jew, and I am tied to teleology as well as to history. I live not just “for today,” and not even just for all that has led up to today—I also live for a thousand tomorrows. I do not know what will be in ten centuries from now, but I know that Jews will be. How do I know? Because I will work for it, because I will see to it—and I believe in myself as much as I believe in my people. Yes, Jews there will be. And through them, I will be, and through them, I will touch what will be, and through them, I will create what will be. You and I are members of a unique, extended family, extended in time as well as in space, extended into the future as well as into the past. My noble ancestors will pardon me for the odious comparison, but it is like having access to a vast Internet of Existence, like being plugged-in and logged-on to forever (and believe it or not, at the highest and deepest levels, the connection is interactive). In the words of Leo Tolstoy (not that we need his approval or reinforcement, he just happens to be the world’s most talented writer, and he put this—and everything else—rather nicely):
The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He whom neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he whom neither fire nor swords nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth, he who was the first to produce the oracles of God, he who has been for so long the guardian of prophecy, the pioneer of liberty and the creator of true civilization, and who transmitted all these to the rest of the world—such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.
You need not, then, live the impoverished life of the “time hermit.” You, my sister or brother, spiritual daughter or son of Sarah and Abraham, you are blessed with the opportunity to connect with and benefit from a sprawling, boundless, spatial and temporal network, suffused with the deepest secrets of the ages, humming with the love of countless generations, a love that was always channeled directly and unhesitatingly at you.
By tying into all of this—while fiercely maintaining your own, stubborn individuality—you indeed achieve a great deal: You add innumerable new intellectual and emotional dimensions to your life, as you absorb, meltdown and refashion in your own image the fruits of untold centuries of evolving Jewish thought and churning Jewish tumult; you teach yourself the syntax and vocabulary of a timeless language, which you can use—as it were—to communicate with all that went into creating you, and all that you will one day create; you partake in a four-thousand-year-long journey of savage struggle and jubilant exultation, of unimaginable sacrifice and ineffable beauty, an adventure recently rekindled in a phoenix-like flash of incandescent splendor the likes of which human history has never seen; and eventually you burn, my brother and sister, you burn with the light and the fever and the strength and the passion of the magnificent and undying people of Israel, the bush that burns, but is never consumed.
Try getting that from bowling.

Dr. Ze’ev Maghen, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Bar-Ilan and Hebrew Universities, is the creator of the Lights in Action student network of North America.

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