Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Power of Now

Tomorrow is too late.

Every year, as I ready myself for Neilah, the final prayer of Yom Kippur, I reread a paragraph written by the sainted Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. In it he reminds us that the Neilah prayer is the last prayer of the High Holiday season, the last few precious moments available to us to change our ways and our destiny. Rabbi Kagan reminds us of Hillel’s famous saying “if not now, when”. Neilah is a spiritual “bottom of the ninth”, and we better be ready for our turn at bat. We need to wake up and grasp the power of now.

But in many ways, every day is Yom Kippur. The power of now applies every day. Unfortunately, we usually overlook this.

Procrastination is based on the illusion of immortality. It’s easy to put things off for later when you expect to have time later. For a procrastinator, the answer to “if not now, when?” is: tomorrow, or the day after. Hillel, however, wants to remind us of a tragic fact: there might not be a tomorrow.

Too often we let things fester, for no reason at all. I remember a grudge I held in 11th grade against a roommate. We had had a trivial falling out in September, a falling out that festered to the point that we didn’t speak for the entire school year. Only in June, after having spent the entire year in the shackles of a speechless resentment, did we finally make up, having virtually forgotten why we fighting in the first place.

My adolescent grudge is a familiar experience for many, and not just for adolescents either. Too many mature adults hold grudges, breaking off communication with those closest to them. Usually, in the back of their minds they figure they’ll make up in the future. But as time goes on, it gets harder and harder to reconcile. And sometimes, it really is too late. Every Rabbi has seen the tears of guilt at funerals, when mourners realize they have left too much unsaid; they figured they still had time. In reality, when a grudge is disrupting a relationship, every day is Yom Kippur. We have to seize the power of now, because tomorrow may be too late.

When I was younger, I was troubled by the enormous emphasis we place during the high holidays on “who will live and who will die”. All of this talk about death seemed to be morose and pessimistic. But in actuality, this emphasis is deeply life affirming; we need to recognize that now is the time, that we must live deeply and completely, today; we cannot wait until tomorrow. Our inevitable deaths remind us not to procrastinate away precious opportunities.

These precious opportunities can be mundane, like calling your mother. There’s an anecdote told about a South Central Bell commercial featuring the legendary college football coach Bear Bryant. It was meant to be a humorous commercial, and the gruff football coach was supposed to look at the camera and say: “have you called your mama today?”. Coach Bryant, whose mother had passed away many years earlier, instead said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” This ad libbed ad touched everyone.

Coach Bryant and Rabbi Kagan are both teaching us the same lesson; the importance of the power of now. And on Yom Kippur, and every other day of the year, tomorrow may just be too late.

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