Eternity in an Instant
(First published on Aish.com)
When we appreciate that we have a literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the person we will forever be - that we have one chance to do and thus become - then we can understand that to live a finite life, even as our souls transcend physical reality, is the greatest gift of all.
Philosophy is concerned with the big questions. At least, that’s many people’s understanding of the practice of wisdom. But in an era of professionalization and hyper-specialization, your neighborhood philosophy professor is as likely to ask how many grains of sand make up a heap as they are to be pondering the good, the beautiful and the true.
Of course, some questions have been confronted by all societies at all times. Like, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ and ‘how do we face the bitter reality of death?’ And the problem is, our answer to the second question can raise some thorny issues with the first.
Take the pithy and consoling formulation of Epicurus. That ancient Greek philosopher, the founder of the school of Epicureanism, pointed out that death is nothing to us as “when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not”. In other words, when we are alive, we are clearly not dead, so what’s the problem? And when we are dead - well, there is no living, conscious I to worry about it.
Contrary to popular use of the word, Epicureanism is not the philosophy of knowing what wine to pair with your brisket, but an ethos that sees the goal of life to be the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. For Epicurus, you only get one shot at life and you want to enjoy it as much as possible.
However, that approach raises some uncomfortable questions. If life is transient - “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”, in Vladmir Nabokov’s phrasing - then what is the point of … anything, really?
Even the most hedonistic, heedless approach to living has to recognise that ultimately there is no purpose to any of it.
Alternatively, you might live a life of duty, sacrifice and kindness. But in the very long run, everyone you help will cease to exist. No amount of saintliness will prevent the heat death of the universe.
So why even bother? One traditional consolation has been religious faith. Death is not the end. There is more to life than we can apprehend with our mortal senses alone. There is a plan and purpose, even if we can’t make sense of it with our electron microscopes and deep space telescopes.
Contemporary Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund has another approach - one seemingly at odds with a religious perspective. Far from rendering life meaningless, he insists, transience is precisely what gives our life meaning in the first place. Life is fragile and rare, and that is why we value it so dearly. Indeed, Hagglund insists, the very “finitude of flourishing is an essential part of why we are devoted to making flourishing actual and keeping it alive.” We cherish the gift of life, and we do everything we can to safeguard our lives - our own and others - and make them as full and rich and good and interesting as possible, because we know that life is an all-too-brief moment of opportunity.
It’s a provocative idea that raises questions about the meaning and purpose of a religious life.
Many religions are preoccupied by a concern for the great beyond. Whether you will be saved or damned. If your ultimate destination is Heaven or Hell. Or whether your next reincarnation will be favorable. Or how to escape the cycle of samsara.
But when last did you hear a rabbi give a sermon about the fate of your immortal soul? It is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought that we are not just material bodies. Yet we don’t really spend much time talking about the fate of our Neshama. Pits of sulfur and demons with pitchforks just aren’t part of the everyday Jewish lexicon.
Even talk of the Messianic redemption, another central tenet of Jewish belief, is a kind of utopian vision of transforming the world we currently live in into a holier, more wondrous place.
Jewishness can often feel like a strange mix. On the one hand, Orthodox Jewish practice is almost a caricature of a religion. Ours is a faith where the rabbis have strong opinions about the correct way to tie your shoelaces. At the same time, there are plenty of people who would have no qualms about wolfing down a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur who nonetheless strongly identify as Jewish and feel deeply connected to the Jewish community at large.
And then there’s the question of how and when to fulfill Jewish law. Even - perhaps especially - the most exacting observer of the halacha, normative Jewish religious practice, would break those laws to preserve a human life.
Of course, in doing so they would be respecting the halacha, which holds that saving a life is more important than just about any other law. But why would that be? Life is temporary; halacha was given to us by the Creator of all, who transcends mere time and space. Why should we ever let worldly concerns get in the way of enacting eternal principles?
One of the classic reference points for thinking about this world and the next comes from Pirkei Avot - a collection of the sages’ ethical-spiritual reflections. In chapter 4, Rabbi Yaakov says “this world is like a waiting room before the world to come; prepare yourself in the waiting room, so that you may enter the banquet hall.”
At first reading, it sounds like he’s saying that this life really is just all about the fancy gala to come. We have plenty to do while we’re waiting around for the next world, but it’s all really a prelude to the main event.
Immediately after, however, Rabbi Yaakov says the following: “More precious is one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the world to come; and more precious is one hour of the tranquility of the world to come than all the life of this world.”
How do we interpret those words? Maimonides connects them to King Solomon’s observation in Ecclesiastes that “there is no action, no reasoning, no knowledge, no wisdom in the grave to where you are going." You have a short time on this earth - make every moment count!
But how do you make each moment count? By making sure you keep doing all the right things and avoid sinning so you go to heaven and bypass the fiery depths of hell? You’d surely still prefer the moment when all that do-gooding and sin avoidance is behind you and you can enjoy your hard-earned reward.
If we think of life as one of those game show contests where you have to grab as much cash as you can get your hands on in the money booth, then you’d prefer to skip the rigamarole and receive a nice big bag of money.
But what if the doing is the point? When we recognise that each individual life is a precious, fragile jewel, and we appreciate that we are given a literally once-a-lifetime opportunity to become the person we will forever be - that we have one chance to do and thus become - then we can understand that that to live, and to live a finite life, even as our souls transcend physical reality, is a unique gift.
Hagglund writes that “the prospect of our death opens the question of what we ought to do with our finite time - and thereby makes it possible to lead our lives in the first place - but it does not offer any answer to the question.”
Jewish tradition offers a way of living, and opens our eyes to an existence beyond this life, but it shares the appreciation that there is nothing like the here and now - like the life we are living at this very moment.