Going Back to the Future in Judaism

Last week it was back to the future day. Thirty years since the first movie came out, and 26 years since “Back to the Future II” when Marty and the Doc arrived on October 21, 2015, it has been both nostalgic to re-watch the movies, and fun to see what predictions came to be and which are still fantasy. Last week also happened to be the week in the annual cycle of Torah reading that we read parsha Lech L’cha, which means ‘Go Forth’ — how appropriate!

I took the opportunity last Shabbat to share some time-travel related Torah with my congregation. We Jews actually know a great deal about time travel. We don’t need a DeLorean to go on this journey.

1) Every Friday night, as we light candles and try and shift our consciousness and make space for a different way of being for one day of the week, our Rabbis taught that we were, in fact, getting a taste of the future. Shabbat is a taste of days to come – the messianic age. Back in 1989, the future consisted of flying cars, hover-boards, and self-tying shoes. The world to come that Shabbat tries to convey is one in which we experience both inner and outer peace. It is a time when we are able to live without exploiting people or resources for our own purposes. For some, it also presents us with the ultimate time travel paradox, being both a point in the future (the world to come) and a point in the past (a return to the Garden of Eden).

2) In the evening prayer, Ma’ariv Aravim, we speak of day turning to night and night turning to day. This is the natural order and flow of time that we acknowledge, bless and praise as we shift our awareness to the amazing Creation of which we are a part. But we have biblical stories and rabbinic midrashim that feature the ability to be able to stop this natural order – to stop time. In the book of Joshua 10:12-14, in the midst of battles with the Canaanite Kings, Joshua’s army defeats them with the help of an extended day:

Then spoke Joshua to the Eternal in the day when the Eternal delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still upon Gibeon; and you, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.’ And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not rush to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Eternal listened to the voice of a man; for the Eternal fought for Israel.

Likewise, there is a rabbinic midrash that, when Jacob ran away from home after stealing Esau’s birthright, God wanted him to rest the night in a very specific place. God achieved this goal by causing the sun to set early. He used a stone as a pillow and that night he had his dream of the angels ascending and descending the ladder. He received the promise that his descendants would be great in number. He placed an altar at the place of this vision. This is believed to be the eventual spot upon which the Temple in Jerusalem would be built. Whatever we make of these stories, one thing is clear. Our ancestors long ago believed that, while outside the natural order of things, it was not beyond the realm of possibility to change time.

3) We have a prayer that points to the future and a time of redemption by looking back to the past. The Mi Chamocha prayer asks us to travel back to bear witness to the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and the jubilation that came in crossing over the Sea of Reeds to safety. This story is symbolic of an inner landscape that each of us carry with us. Whatever the human condition may be at this moment in time, we carry the eternal hope that tomorrow it will be better. Mitch Albom expresses it another way in his novel, The Time-Keeper:

Time is not something you give back. The very next moment may be an answer to your prayer. To deny that is to deny the most important part of the future: Hope.

I did a little further research on the possibility of actual time travel. It appears that current theories posit the real possibility of traveling to the future. Theoretical physics would indicate that traveling at our close to the speed of light, a journey from earth into space and back again would enable the traveler to have experienced very little time passing while their friends and family would have aged quite a bit in their absence.

However, traveling back in time seems less likely and, as we have learned from the “Back to the Future” movies, and many other time-travel movies and TV shows, even if it were possible it would likely create very unstable situations. Messing with the past may change the future from which we have come, possibly creating a paradox in which we no longer exist. The only way to overcome some of these theoretical hurdles is to consider the option of multiple time lines.

While this creates fascinating dramatic possibilities in science fiction, within Judaism we have philosophical and theological wisdom that points to the truth that, in our hands at any moment in time, is the possibility of creating new time lines. We, made in the image of God, are creative beings. With each day and even each moment, a choice to act or not act, to speak or not speak, has the potential to transform the next unfolding moments of our lives, and the lives of others. This constantly shifting and transforming future is, for some, an expression of the Oneness of God itself – God as a verb, in which we are all part of its’ manifestation in each and every moment.

Our relationship to time is not always healthy. These reflections from Torah, science, and Jewish philosophy can open gateways to new dimensions of time for us as we think more deeply about how we are having the time of our lives.

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