09/04/2012 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8: Our Precarious Lives

As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses has given a series of orations, urging faithfulness to God and God's commandments. Knowing that he will not complete the journey, Moses now prescribes a dramatic ritual to be enacted after the people cross the Jordan River, including the pronouncement of an extended series of blessings and curses.

The blessings promise lavish material well-being, abundant fertility and respect from enemy nations. The curses, far greater in number, include bone-chilling descriptions of abject misery, economic depression, terror and hopelessness, madness and depravity.

Some of the descriptions are almost too painful to read, such as the image of tender-hearted mothers so desperately hungry that they consume their own newborn babies.

In the synagogue, these horrific passages, meant to literally instill the fear of God, are read in a rapid stage whisper, as if to spare the congregation the anguish of taking in such dreadful imagery. Studying these words, I recoil in pain, as from a fire, instinctively trying to avoid being singed by the frightful descriptions. The only comfort is that I can quickly take a step back, reading them as the Torah's dramatic metaphors for the dis-ease that results from distance from the Divine.

But then comes a very different image. "The life you face will be precarious; you will be in terror night and day, not believing you will survive. In the morning you will say, 'If only it were evening,' and in the evening you will say, 'If only it were morning,' from the fear in your heart and the sights that your eyes see" (Deuteronomy 28:66-7, translation my own).

The words transport me from threatened punishments in the mythic past to my own day, to my own life. The fact that life is precarious and uncertain is no myth, but literal truth. During this sacred month of Elul, preceding the High Holy Day season (see for example, Gift of Elul), with its focus on issues of human mortality, I am especially aware that life is contingent and uncertain. We never know how the next phone call will change everything. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. We are only spared the terror of this reality because we are able to deny its harsh truth much of the time.

"In the morning, you will say, 'If only it were evening,' and in the evening, 'If only it were morning.'" The verse presents this as a description of abject terror, in which the present moment is so utterly unbearable that one can only wish to be in another time than now.

If the truth be told, what percentage of our lives do we live in this state? How many minutes or hours of the day are spent frantically hurrying from one moment to the next, trying to bargain with the clock and the calendar? "No it can't be 5 already!" "Oh no! What am I going to do? It's 8:25!" "The summer's over already? What happened to all the things I was supposed to get done?"

What portion of our days do we live embattled with time, trying to imagine that we are someplace other than here, in the future or in the past? It takes herculean effort to recognize the illusion that we can control time and space, wishing ourselves into some other place and some other time. How often do we go through a day, a week, a month, without stopping to savor precisely where we are, in just this moment?

The ancient rabbis found in the Torah itself a simple and potent antidote to the accursed time-embattled lives we live. They take the words, "This day," in the verse, "This day the Lord your God commands you to observe all these statutes and laws" (Deuteronomy 26:16), to suggest that, "Each day should be like new in your eyes."

"This day," our eyes should be open enough and attentive enough to see what is new and beautiful in every day, what is refreshing and wondrous in each moment. When we relate to time with this kind of awe-filled attitude, time actually expands. Rather than racing against the clock and calendar, we remember that time is a gift, not a curse that oppresses us.

In this teaching we can find a basic instruction for the spiritual life. When the doctor says, "You have only days to live," it is tragic and terrifying. But truly, we always have only this day and only this moment to live, for, despite our habits of mind, right here and right now is the only time and place in which we can live. Living squarely in this moment, there need be no fear, only gratitude at the wonder of life and the gifts we have been given.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.