Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
The Strange Face of Change
(First published on aish.com on the 23rd of May 2022).
Many years before Aristotle fathered formal logic and Plato ruminated on his cave, a Greek thinker named Heraclitus split the philosophy heavens open with a statement that, at first glance, seems quite obvious: things change.
What he actually said was slightly more poetic – "You cannot step into the same river twice." Like most things, his words have changed too, from groundbreaking philosophy to nothing more than a cliche, something we've heard in different forms many times. Of course, everything changes, time marches on, and the river's flow brings new water.
But there's a more profound understanding waiting to be drawn out. The great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, explained that you can't accept the idea, "the river is not the same", without accepting that we aren't the same. Each time we step into the river, we are different.
The river of time keeps flowing – that's the true constant – and we can try swimming against the tide, but we can never escape it. In the end, we all get swept up. Adapt or die, that's the maxim adopted by the more practical theorists. I mean the kind of person who says things like, "I'm a shark; I've got to keep moving."
And they're not wrong. Heraclitus's lesson is that stasis is literally not an option. We change whether we choose to or not. We do have some control over what direction those changes will take, but we're also fatally constrained: by how much money we have, by the laws of the land, by the very laws of physics.
Time is the ultimate constraint. No matter how much effort we put into it, whatever we do is transient. Our most outstanding achievements are like cotton candy in the rain. And somehow, the opposite is also true: whatever we do, for the brief window we exist on earth, is what we will have done. It's a paradox. Time makes things fleeting and permanent, and there's no going back.
But is that really how the world works? Heraclitus's view is traditionally contrasted with another ancient Greek philosopher, Parmenides. Parmenides held that change is an illusion, and the world is as it is, constant and unchanging.
That sounds like an excellent philosophy if your idea of a good time is kicking back on the couch. But far from The Dude, or any other master of relaxation, Parmenides emphasized that there is a single, sublime, transcendent Truth with a capital T. And we don't perceive it without serious philosophical introspection.
It may be counterintuitive, but Parmenides could hold the more radical philosophy. The Heraclitus view of change as the only constant raises some deep issues. Do we even really exist? Does our identity persist over time, or are we just, at any moment, a body with certain sensations?
But Parmenides is perhaps even more skeptical. For him, our perception of a changing world is nothing but an illusion. There is an objective reality, but it's not the world we see in front of us.
So which vision of reality is closer to reality? And why should we care? These may sound like abstract puzzles, ideas for philosophers to toy with sitting in their armchairs. But the stark choice raises a fundamental existential problem: what is the point of anything, really?
If the world is constantly changing, then nothing you do has any lasting consequence. Alternatively, everything is fixed, and nothing we do changes things. If you're just trying to make a quick buck, it's one thing. Then you've got to move; you've got to hustle. But what does it all mean? Why try in the first place?
The traditional Jewish approach appreciates that there is more to reality than the world we see before our eyes. At the same time, we understand we're in this physical plane, this world-in-flux, for a reason, even if it can be hard to wrap our heads around what that reason is.
Our sages teach: "It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it." What kind of guidance is that? After all, if we don't have to finish – and we likely won't –why start? It's almost like the practice is itself the point. Consider the ending of the Book of Books – Moses's mission is to lead his people to the Promised Land. And yet he never makes it there himself. The sense of incompletion is complete. We all have a mission we will never fully achieve. But we cannot fall into the trap of not trying anything out of the fear that we won't accomplish everything.
And maybe that isn't so mysterious when we consider the kind of work we do. We're eternal souls – Parmenidian reflections of the Divine; and we're also physical bodies, emergent beings whose Heraclitian task is to grow and change the world.
We have direct access to transcendent wisdom. And we fulfill that wisdom by chomping down on glorified crackers during Passover, waving leaves and fruit around during Sukkot, and making extra efforts to stop, think and bless before we eat products that have the right little 'Kosher' symbol on them.
The Jewish calendar is punctuated each week with Shabbat (the seventh day), each month with Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month), and throughout the year with festivals. Even our days are signposted with moments of pause and prayer (in the morning, afternoon and evening).
Jewish time is fixed; it's an eternal recurrence. Again and again, we repeat the cycle. Strangely enough, Matthew McConaughey's character in True Detective frames it quite well:
Why should I live in history? This is a world where nothing is solved. You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we've ever done, or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again. Forever.
He's right. And he's wrong.
Time is a river. And we are swept along. But each time we repeat that cycle, we aspire to attain even greater heights of transcendent service. It's the same, yet we are different...hopefully, more refined, with greater spiritual awareness; better people who treat others more thoughtfully and with kindness.
At least, that's the idea. But as material bodies, as fallible humans, we understand that sometimes we don't quite get it right. We try, and sometimes we fail, but we keep trying. And maybe that's part of what it means to be a soul in a body.”It is not for you to complete the task.” We can only try our best – and somehow, mysteriously, our best is good enough to keep us afloat in the river. Because: “we are not free to desist from it.”