Abraham’s Journey p.5

Our time experience is three-dimensional; past and future address themselves to us in the fleeting moment of the present. We live, of course, in the so-called present, but it can envelop us only if it is interlocked with the other two dimensions. The retrospective mood is one of the major motifs of our time apprehension, and so is the glance that we cast at the silent morrow, at the “not yet,” at the expected or fervently desired or hated. Retrospection, in the sense of reliving and reincarnating, and anticipation, which gives rise to a new world, constitute the central motifs of our unique time experience. We see the distances separating the ages and millennia as not so pronounced as in general history.

Modern man has learned how to conquer relatively long stretches of space and geometric distance. Ancient man did not possess this skill. Yet man today has lost completely his memory and time awareness. He has shortened the distances in space but extended the lanes in the time continuum. He is not capable of this miraculous recessional into the centuries and of the bold and grand procession into unactualized and unlived time. He is isolated in the infinitesimal fraction of the now which is, in most cases, disconnected from the before and the after. Both realms are deserted by the pragmatic, utilitarian, hedone-seeking man of today, and they form a vast wasteland. Man wanders in the present, not daring to approach the gates of these mysterious kingdoms. He lacks continuity with both his progenitors and his descendants. Man forfeits his historical memory and his great vision, and in losing these two endowments he gives away his capacity for love and devotion, his normative awareness and his idealistic stivings. In the present, usefulness and pleasure reigns supreme.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch p.5

The Beginning of Wisdom p.556

[The Children of Israel are] defined in part by remembrance of things past and in part by anticipation of things to come. They remember especially God’s promise to and covenant with Abraham. They anticipate especially the fulfillment of God’s promise and the obligation to perpetuate the memory of the covenant into future generations. Speaking more generally, we may say that the Children of Israel, by looking forward to perpetuate the merit and ways of the ancestors, choose to live with full awareness of time and with full acceptance of change and unavoidable decay. The children of the new way are enjoined to embrace the temporality of human existence because their attachment to the timelessness of God and the permanence of His promised care, which He works out in human affairs in the course of human time.

Not so in Egypt… Egypt, at least in its public and official teachings, is the place that seeks to abolish change and to make time stand still. To be sure, Egyptians have accurate measures of time and a precise calendar, but they use them to manage or to stay ahead of natural change – in the first instance, to predict and manage the flooding of the Nile. What the Egyptians seek is changelessness, agelessness, permanent presence, or eternal return and renewal. Whether one looks to the hieroglyph in which the mobile world is represented is static ideograms; or to the worship of the eternally circling but never-changing heavenly bodies or of the cyclically rising and ebbing river, with is life-giving overflows; or to the practices of denying aging through bodily adornment and defying death through mummification and preparation for reincarnation – everywhere one looks, one sees in Egypt the rejection of change and the denial of death. Ancient Egypt is poles apart from Ancient Israel.


Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom p.556

The Lonely Man of Faith p.66

Let us go further. The existential insecurity of Adam the second stems, to a great extent, also from his tragic role as a temporal being. He simply cannot pinpoint his position within the rushing stream of time. He knows of an endless past which rolled on without him. He is aware also of an endless future which will rush on with no less force long after he will cease to exist. The link between the “before” in which he was not involved and the “after” from which he will be excluded is the present moment, which vanishes before it is experienced. In fact, the whole accidental character of his being is tied up with this frightening time-consciousness. He began to exist at a certain point – the significance of which he cannot grasp – and his existence will end at another equally arbitrary point. Adam the second experiences the transience and evanescence of a “now” existence which is not warranted either by the “before” or the “after.”

Majestic man is not confronted with this time dilemma. The time with which he works and which he knows is quantified, spatialized, and measured, belonging to a cosmic coordinate system. Past and future are not two experiential realities. They just represent two horizontal directions. “Before” and “after” are understandable only within the framework of the causal sequence of events. Majestic man lives in micro-units of clock time, moving with ease from “now” to “now,” completely unaware of a “before” or an “after.” Only Adam the second, to whom time is an all-enveloping personal experience, has to cope with the tragic and paradoxical implied in it.

In the covenantal community man of faith finds deliverance from his isolation in the “now,” for the latter contains both the “before” and the “after.” Every covenantal time experience is both retrospective, reconstructing and reliving the bygone, as well as prospective, anticipating the “about to be.” In retrospect, covenantal man re-experiences the rendezvous with God in which the covenant, as a promise, hope, and vision, originated. In prospect, he beholds the full eschatological realization of this covenant, its promise, hope, and vision. Let us not forget that the covenantal community includes the “He” who addresses Himself to man not only from the “now” dimensions but also from the supposedly already vanished past, from the ashes of a dead “before” facticity as well as from the as yet unborn future, for all boundaries establishing “before,” “now,” and “after” disappear when God the Eternal speaks. Within the covenantal community not only contemporary individuals but generations are engaged in a colloquy, and each single experience of time is three-dimensional, manifesting itself in memory, actuality, and anticipatory tension. This experiential triad, translated into moral categories, results in an awesome awareness of responsibility to a great past which handed down the divine imperative to the present generation in trust and confidence and to a mute future expecting this generation to discharge its covenantal duty conscientiously and honorably. The best illustration of such a paradoxical time awareness, which involves the individual in the historic performances of the past and makes him also participate in the dramatic action of an unknown future, can be found in the Judaic masorah community. The latter represents not only a formal succession within the framework of calendaric time but the union of the three grammatical tenses in an all-embracing time experience. The masorah community cuts across the centuries, indeed millennia, of calendaric time and unites those who already played their part, delivered their message, acquired fame, and withdrew from the covenantal stage quietly and humbly with those who have not yet been given the opportunity to appear on the covenantal stage and who wait for their turn in the anonymity of the “about to be.”

Thus, the individual member of the covenantal faith community feels rooted in the past and related to the future. The “before” and the “after” are interwoven in his time experience. He is not a hitchhiker suddenly invited to get into a swiftly traveling vehicle which emerged from nowhere and from which he will be dropped into the abyss of timelessness while the vehicle will rush on into parts unknown, continually taking on new passengers and dropping the old ones. Covenantal man begins to find redemption from insecurity and to feel at home in the continuum of time and responsibility which is experienced by him in its endless totality. Me’olam ve’ad olam, from everlasting even to everlasting. He is no longer an evanescent being. He is rooted in everlasting time, in eternity itself. And so covenantal man confronts not only a transient contemporary “thou” but countless “thou” generations which advance toward him from all sides and engage him in the great colloquy in which God Himself participates with love and joy.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – The Lonely Man of Faith p.66