Time travel has always been an attractive theme as I imagine the possibilities of experiencing, or learning truths about some of the great and mysterious events of history. (I have a strong memory of an episode from the Twilight Zone, where modern soldiers slip back in time, to fight and die at Custer's Last Stand.) While I doubt that I will ever see a time machine, there have been moments when I have felt like I was experiencing a slip in time -- moments when the barriers between the past and the present appear to have become malleable for a brief period. But then, of course, reality intrudes and I am back in the mundane present.
I had just such an experience this summer on a raft trip down the San Juan river from Bluff to Mexican Hat, Utah. As we floated down the river we passed through lands empty of human habitation. Modernity seemed to wash away, into the midst of geological time. The lands around were largely untouched, and must have appeared much the same at the time of the Anasazi, and perhaps even the dinosaurs.
Largely in reverse chronological order we moved backwards from the present to geological strata representing a time before life existed on this planet. The trip in a way reminded me of a recent Facebook posting of a chart representing the history of the globe on a ruler. If memory serves, human history was represented by something less than a quarter of an inch. The twenty-mile raft ride was just such a ruler pointing to the primordial past, though on it human history was a bit overstated.
All the accomplishments of human history were expressed within the first six miles of the trip. Indeed, our modern world ended at the boat slip. It was a mile or so out of town, and not much more than a concrete slab. On board the raft we quickly floated away, and soon the thrum of the motor was our only connection to the 21st century. We had begun our journey into the past.
The raft trip lasted an entire day, and the sun beat down on us continuously throughout. Yet, the beauty of the empty terrain, and interesting stops mad it a quick trip indeed. During the first six miles we saw evidence of humans ancient and modern, from thousands of year old petroglyph rock art, and long abandoned pueblo cliff dwellings to modern free-range Navajo cattle. The rest of the expedition was a trip into primordial past. The highlight was a stop to view 400 million year-old crinoid fossils.
The raft ride down the San Juan, seen as a journey in time, is not unlike an archeological tel (literally hill) in Israel. These hills represent an accumulation of archeological debris, as settlements were built one on top of another (For those interested, The Source by James Michener describes a fictional tel). As you dig down you find older and older material, thus revealing the complex history of all the peoples that lived in the Promised Land.
While time travel is still, and may always be, a matter of science fiction, Einstein and modern physics have already demonstrated that time may not be quite as fixed as we often assume. One gets this same feeling in some rabbinic sources. Moses can attend the academy of Rabbi Akiva, and rabbis from different ages can converse in the Zohar and other rabbinic sources. There is a sense that Torah is timeless, and that the ongoing conversation goes backwards as well as forwards. It is perhaps for this reason that the rabbis teach “there isn’t early or late in the Torah.” Indeed this timeless conversation is reflected on the pages of most traditional Jewish texts. Nearly every text is printed in almost concentric rectangles (is that possible?), with the earliest material in the centre, and later material surrounding it.
This sense of timelessness is stressed even in the underlying grammar of biblical Hebrew. Within the T’NCH a simple ו (vav), sometimes called the reversing vav, when placed before a perfect (past) or imperfect (future) verb, reverses the tense, changing the past into the future (or visa versa).
It is interesting to note that every column in the Torah begins with the letter ו. This can serve as a reminder that the Torah is timeless and that there is always more to come. There are always new understandings to parse out as the Torah speaks in new ways to every generation of Jews. As long as these conversations continue, there will always be Torah added around the sides of the existing page.
The reversing Vav also connects with teshuvah (repentance), the goal of this High Holiday season. Our tradition teaches that if we truly repent -- including working to repair the damage we have done, and committing our selves to true change in the future – then in God’s eyes we have rewritten the past, and our souls are clean as if we never had committed the sin.