Reform Judaism magazine - World's Largest Circulated Jewish Magazine 1st Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

Two notions of time. Two ways to understand our lives and our deaths.

by Terry Bookman

We live with two notions of time: one modern, the other ancient. Modern time is linear. It represents the world as a series of events moving progressively from a beginning toward an end.

Ancient time is cyclical. It follows a regular, predictable cycle. Events once lived are reenacted each and every cycle. There is no beginning and no end--only the cycle of time with its lessons to be learned and relearned.

The Torah's calendar is cyclical. The weekly Shabbat cycle is cyclical--six days of creative involvement with the world and one day in which we cease from creating in order to "re-soul" ourselves. The annual growing cycle is cyclical, too--the planting, tending, and harvesting of crops, marked by sacred convocation and offerings to God.

Birth, growth, maturity, and decay parallel our own lives. Each year, as we relive the cycle of life through nature and our holy days, we connect with our individual journeys. In a sense, we come to understand what our lives are all about, even as we prepare for our own physical demise through aging and death. Death, we realize, is not the end, because the cycle of life will continue--next spring, or with the birth of the next child, or with the continued existence of our souls. In cyclical time there is no beginning and no end, only beginnings and endings followed by new beginnings....

Both the linear and cyclical notions of time can teach us profound lessons about what it means to live--and just as important, what it means to die.

Living in linear time reminds us of the fragility of each life, the preciousness of each day. Once gone, a day can never be repeated. And once gone, our loved ones will not return. This awareness calls on us to make the most of our limited time on earth. To love with "all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all of our might."

But living in cyclical time teaches us the opposite message. We and all of life are connected. And the ones we love are never really gone. In ways that we may never totally comprehend, the life force, the neshama, our souls live on--perhaps with God who breathed life into us at birth, perhaps as part of the wide universe we inhabit, or perhaps waiting for us in what some call heaven. In these ways, no one and no thing is ever really lost to us. Through us and with us they (and we) live on and on, for eternity.

Two notions of time. Two ways to understand our lives and our deaths.


Union for Reform Judaism.