The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step in the same river twice.” Why not?
I see two reasons. One, the river is ever-flowing and, hence, ever-changing. And, two . . . you, also, are always changing.
Heraclitus’ teaching came to mind the last time we visited Benjamin in Colorado. One morning, I watched the mountains. The sun was still early in the eastern sky. The night clouds had not yet burnt off. What I saw changed from moment to moment – the angle of the sun, the distinct pattern the clouds laid down on the mountain tops, the disappearing of the moon. There was a dance between all three. Light and dark in perpetual motion, revealed and hidden in unceasing interplay.
And all of this against the backdrop of mountains whose duration cannot be measured by immediate human perception and which will, easily, outlast us all.
Who we are is not fixed at birth. Even our genetic makeup responds to experience. The road we walk twists and turns with events unforeseen.
We learn. We suffer. We grow. We fail. We love. We repent.
The movement of our souls is fluid like the river, hidden and revealed like the mountains. They are not static, although our choices might bring them to stagnation.
There is no question that we will change. The only question is: will it occur as we are carried from rock to rock, thrown from shore to shore? Or will we be deliberate about it, intentional, choosing to learn and experiment and grow as only humans can?
Change: Instant or Over Time?
There is a story told in the Talmud (Talmud Bavli: Masechet Avodah Zarah 17a). “They said about Rabbi Elazar ben Durdayya that he was so promiscuous that he did not leave one prostitute in the world with whom he did not engage in sexual intercourse (!). Finally, one prostitute forces him to acknowledge the error of his ways and foresees that, for him, redemption will be impossible.
Elazar searched for help with his repentance – from the mountains and hills; heaven and earth; the sun, moon and stars – but to no avail. He concluded: “Clearly the matter depends on nothing other than myself.” He then cried loudly in repentant prayer. To which a Divine Voice replied that, in fact, the sincerity of his cry had earned him a place in the World-to-Come.
Many were troubled by this. A lifetime of sin and a moment of repentance – can one make up for the other?
Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi – the greatest rabbi of his time, perhaps of all time – wept when he heard the story. “There is one who acquires his share in the World-to-Come only after many years of toil, and there is one who acquires his share in one moment . . . Not only are penitents accepted, but they even are called ‘Rabbi’.”
The scholar Aviva Zornberg understands the words “acquires his share” to mean “comes into his own.” Some of us manage that over the course of a lifetime; for others, it can come in a single moment. Which will it be for you?
Change: Intentional Or Not?
Wisdom is the provenance of old age. We look back to see the elements of our selves that have been constant, and those which have changed. Armed with perspective, we may be intentional about how we will best use our days ahead.
How do we do that? First, through reflection. Second, through learning that fuels reflection. Third, through the deep exploration that we call soul-searching. And, finally, through t’shuva – intentional change – where it is called for.
The river that cascades; the mountains that sit silent; they have no choice but to change and their change reflects no choice.
We, on the other hand, while we may not be able to stop ourselves from changing we are capable of guiding our selves in such a way that we learn and, from that learning, grow.