Time, the enigmatic giver, constantly surprises me with her two-facedness. The benefactress of invaluable gifts, she also possesses a callous insensitivity to human emotion. She dangles the gift of wisdom before our eager eyes, only to remind us with fragile bones that the opportunity for use recedes with every second hand sweep.
It was late afternoon, that time of day when the golden sky makes the hour ambiguous and unfulfilled responsibilities are mentally shifted to tomorrow’s agenda. The reality that there is still enough time to complete a task is buried under the waning sun. I sat with my grandma. She struggled to convey her thoughts, insights and those pearls of wisdom that almost gleam when spoken. Overcome by the progression of her disease, the words stuck in her mouth -- treasures caught in the mire of an ill-functioning machine. Wrought with frustration and fatigue, she abandoned the thought, content in its silent transmission through the blue abyss of her gentle eyes.
My lashes caught this intimate exchange and I was struck by the harsh reality that the exhibition was incommensurate with her gift of wisdom. I cried. Even in the face of my grandmother’s pleas, I could not control what had befallen me. Overwhelmed with an almost paralyzing responsibility, I begged God to grant me the insight to use time wisely before she turned her cold cheek against me too. “Why are you crying, Nessie?” my grandma questioned. “Please,” she said, “don’t cry.”
The streams ran down my cheeks with as much purpose as a river that fails to flow to the sea. I reached for a tissue, wiped the conduits of healthy vision and, using my preserved faculty of speech, told grandma I was okay. I am healthy and young, strong and agile. I can run like a deer, jump on my bed and learn the depths of Torah. My thoughts flow through my lips as freely as the river of tears. I am not old and my vessel is shiny and functioning. But I do not have wisdom to fill it.
And yet, the beholder of wisdom sits beside me with a face creased with age that once upon a time, failed to mar her milky skin. Her posture, no longer regal in its air of assertiveness, is now slumped as bones became brittle and muscle degenerated. If I could visualize her genome, it too would reveal the ravages of time. Both macroscopically, as I see her sitting beside me with a subdued vitality, and microscopically, she has deteriorated. Her vessel is no longer shiny, nor functioning. But she has wisdom to fill it.
Something about this system felt awry. Growth and deterioration are in diametric opposition just as naiveté and wisdom fail to coexist. The questions arose like an unbridled dam: Why did God only allow time to grant wisdom to those who no longer have the strength and vitality to put it into active practice? Furthermore, why not allow people to grow progressively wiser and stronger, OR progressively asinine and weaker? Why this opposition between emotional and physical growth? Why place the ultimate treasure in a broken vessel?
I can only imagine what a profound impact my grandmother could have on the world if she were not stricken with a motor-neuron degenerative disease. I can only imagine the state of the world if the wise men and women who took a lifetime to learn from their mistakes had the physical prowess to run governments, businesses, hospitals, and schools. But instead, they are confined, bed-ridden, and many, even hospitalized. Their stories crumble away on the pages of dusty history books. A flicker of insight dashes through their minds and they can only hope that the eyes of a loved one will capture it before it’s lost forever. These transient moments are their legacy. We may not have yet achieved the wisdom, but a sensitivity to what the elderly have to offer us, should incite a desire to listen and learn, to carry their fractured sentences in our shiny, youthful vessels until one day, we can make sense of them.
Careful consideration of this paradigm yields only one logical conclusion: The purpose of life is the pursuit of wisdom, insight and understanding. The attainment carries a secondary significance through the willingness of the young to probe for it in the wise. In this sense, youth is not wasted on the curious, nor is wisdom wasted on the sage. To these enlightened few, time is kind, patient and fair. But there is a caveat outside of time, a universal law not under the jurisdiction of minutes and hours, but of free will. If we choose to be messengers of a higher purpose, vehicles by which wisdom amassed is preserved by those who have not yet acquired it, we can, in a sense, trick time.
In the process of our great journeys, we rise and fall with as much certainty as waves on the shoreline. The objective is to continue traveling, to resist the temptation to yield, to continuously seek God and live in accordance with His will. The accumulation of wisdom is a key ingredient in our purposes; when time transforms vitality into weakness, the wise feel contentment in their journeys—it was certainly not for naught.
The holy Baal Shem Tov channels this theme in response to a disciple who asked him, "Why is it that there are times when a person clings to God, knowing in his soul that he is close to Him, then suddenly loses his connection and becomes distant from the Creator?" The Baal Shem Tov responded with a parable. He said, “Consider a father who is teaching his son to walk. He places the son a small distance away and stretches out his hands toward the child. Seeing the father nearby encourages the child to take his first step. Soon after, the father moves away from the child again. The child steps forward to meet him and the pattern continues as the father distances himself further and further from his son until he is able to walk on his own.”
The Baal Shem Tov continued, “The goals of the infant and the father are different. The child wants to meet the father. The father wants his son to learn to walk and must retreat as the child nears him, despite his wish to embrace his son; he knows that such an embrace would be at the expense of the child learning to walk. Just like the child, your goal is to reach God, but God’s goal is that you search for Him, refining yourself spiritually so that you may grow to be closer to him. If He allowed you to reach Him, the growth would be terminated.”
The passage of time is a prerequisite for the excavation of true wisdom. This is the way God created our reality. Just as He rejoices in our pursuit of closeness with Him, creating a system where total unity is an elusive goal, the journey to attaining wisdom and understanding serves both the means and the coveted end to those who have the insight to grasp it.
It is from the ashes of failure that greatness arises.
Time is immune to corruption. She cannot be bought, exchanged or manipulated. For this, I respect her. She is equal and honest with us all despite her insensitivity; we know what waits on the horizon. She gives us the gift of coexistence with others who have known her longer, those wise minds that spanned the Holocaust, segregation, the Jewish quota, computers, cancer research, facebook, the development of technology that could obliterate our planet’s existence. The elderly have born witness to some of mankind’s greatest successes and failures, both in the world at large and through personal experience. Wisdom is the gift of such living. It is through the descension of human behavior that the ascensions are ascertained. It is from the ashes of failure that greatness arises. And it is from the inevitable sufferings that we discover the incredible capacity of the human spirit’s resilience. Wisdom emerges when understanding meets acceptance and gives way to implementation. For most of us, this process is incomplete until we are unable to do much with the gift.
So, there my grandmother sits in her chair in a small assisted living facility. The white walls bear family photos to remind her of what life once offered before time descended upon her, framed oil paintings give a quasi-elegance and warmth to an otherwise clinical environment, a television plays game shows as an escape from the monotony, and a small breakfast table holds a placemat for one. And nearby I sit, gazing into the clear blue eyes of this wise woman, the beholder of incredible truths, the traveler, the sojourner, who with one telling gaze, imparts the gem of wisdom to guide me on my journey while time is still at bay.
In loving memory of my grandmother. Her spirit remains through the lives she transformed with her unwavering courage and wisdom.