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VaYelech: Deuteronomy 31:1 – 30

“Giving up the Future”


Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am, today, a hundred and twenty years old. I am no longer able to go forth and enter. And the Eternal has said to me, ‘You are not to cross this Jordan.’” [Deut.31:1-2]

One morning, the local news conversation on NPR revolved around the expansion of the transit system around Lake Washington. Bellevue, the broadcaster mentioned, was scheduled to get a fully completed light-rail system in 30 years. I would be hovering past my 80th birthday then, and it dawned on me in that moment that I might never see Bellevue’s finished light-rail. I was listening to folks talking about something that could happen beyond my lifetime. I pictured people hopping off and onto the Bellevue light-rail, going about their lives, without me. It felt like a line had been drawn in the ether of the radio waves beyond which my life no longer existed. I was “not to cross this Jordan.”

Like Moses who is given the opportunity, atop mount Nebo, to look from afar at the Promised Land he will never enter, so are we only able to hear about the Promised Land of the future. This is most disturbing to us because we have been conditioned since childhood to live for the future. It monopolizes our thoughts and actions.

I was recently reading through an old journal book. In the three or four weeks following surviving a heart attack, I wrote time after time that I was unable to conjure up any thought about the days, weeks or months ahead. Bizarrely, my imagination was unable to project itself into the future or make any plan. At first, I thought there was something wrong with my brain. But, I surmised, it was probably due to my focus being sharply narrowed to the process of recovering, to going through the morning, and then through the evening, day by day. The line drawn in time, in this case, wasn’t 30 years into the future, it was just 30 seconds ahead and then 30 seconds after that, and 30 seconds after that. Yet, whatever the cause, I couldn’t worry about it because worrying implies imagining a negative future outcome, and I couldn’t think of the future. Paradoxically, I didn’t miss the future either. Life felt more peaceful without it. There was no fear, nothing wanting, nothing lacking, nothing I needed to withhold, anticipate, or negotiate. Time felt bigger. It flowed by undisturbed. My body was moving toward healing and I knew that, eventually, this state would end and that I would re-enter the stream of future-oriented time, but how and when were not my concern. It wasn’t that I was more “in” the present, it felt like I was “of” the present. My thoughts felt this way too. They were not “about” the moment, they were “of” the moment. They arose as the moment.

In the instant that God told him he was to die before crossing the Jordan, Moses stepped out of time and became one with each moment, one with the now. Through Moses’ story, Torah is inviting us to give up the future, to let go of our involvement with the future, of our identification with that, in us, which is always planning for the future, that which falsely believes it is in charge of life. “Hevel havalim! – Illusion of illusions!” [Ecc. 1:2]

There is a line drawn in time somewhere in front of us beyond which we no longer exist, a Jordan we cannot cross. It is there to remind us that now is all we ever have. Don’t miss it!