A Jewish Time Capsule
Never has there been so much written about a date in modern Jewish history than the secular year 2000. Rabbis of every persuasion are debating whether there should be any acknowledgment of the date to grand New Year celebrations in synagogues tonight. I’m of at least two minds about the subject. On the one hand, I cannot think too long about the meaning of the date without serious discomfort, because after all, it is a year that marks two millennia since the birth of you know who.
On the other hand, I don’t write 5760 on my checks and I don’t ever count the Jewish year I was born as the year of my birth. Furthermore, from the time I was seven, I’ve been thinking about how doddering I’d be in the year 2000.
Jews believe earthly time is not irrelevant. We are a people who have survived four millennia and we’re proud of it, and as members of a world that is suddenly awakened to the importance of an almost unimaginable date, we may have something to offer the non-Jewish world.
Several weeks ago the New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted an issue to the idea of time capsules. The paper allotted $60,000 to the building of a capsule, and they spoke with anthropologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, conservation planners, architects, and artists to discuss what such a capsule could be. Leaving aside for the moment its contents, questions of where it should be placed, in what language should the text be, on what substance, and what substance the capsule should be made of, produced lively ideas and revealed the philosophy and values of our time.
One of the fascinating things about time capsules, a concept only around 100 years old, is that most have been lost. Had they existed in 1000 c.e, one of the planners emphatically stated that it would have been created in China. China was then the world’s largest, most powerful, most technologically advanced empire. It had the best ships and amazing inventions such as gun powder, kites, paper, printing, and wheelbarrows.
Alas, China’s primacy was transient, historians say, because of its geography. No rivers flowing through it, nor mountains to divide it, made it easy to unify politically. Therefore, it lent itself to dictatorships and all you need are a few stupid emperors making dumb decisions such as the outlawing of oceangoing ships and clocks, and the country falls. Such a thought chills a country such as ours, because it hints that nothing lasts forever, despite technology and military might. I read this article during Hanukkah and thought about the little Maccabees and the mighty Assyrians. Amazing that we as a people survived without a country for over two thousand years.
The first question of where to put time capsule 2000 was simple for this group. The planners of this time capsule are all American and most live in New York. They chose the Museum of Natural History, adjacent to Central Park, as the chosen place. The thinking was that for a time capsule to survive, it needs a priesthood to serve as a stewardship, and the appropriate place to look for such a group is in the institution of museums, which preserves culture and memory. The museum therefore, will worship and take care of a time capsule and move it when the institution moves.
The next question, in what language, is interesting. Have you tried reading Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales lately? We can’t even read English written less than a thousand years ago. Yet every Shabbat morning we read Torah as it was written roughly eighteen hundred years ago! Hebrew is still the medium by which Jews read and study their tradition, and if you go on the internet, our latest medium of communication, you know that the text is alive and well, a flowing spring for fresh interpretation of meaning. So maybe the New York Times should consider Hebrew as the most enduring language for the next millennium. After all, there are a lot of Jews in New York.
No matter the language, forget about its preservation on a floppy or a compact disk. Their life span is a few decades at most. When a digital image deteriorates, it’s all gone, no gradual fading. Secondly, we can hardly read software written twenty years ago. Does anyone still have a disk drive for 5 and 1/2 inch floppies? Yet we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that documents written on animal skin, have lasted two thousand years!
The ancient world tried to build structures to last, perhaps forever, testaments of great civilizations. Tombs of the pharaohs and Greek temples are evidence of such desire. They barely remain and their societies are but faint memories. The modern world doesn’t even try. Contemporary architects build with no such grandiose intention, knowing their buildings may not last beyond a century. I see this not as evidence of a declining world but perhaps a more enlightened one. Maybe we finally understand that no physical substance lasts for all time, let alone a millennium. And while we have scrolls from the ancient world such as Qumran, what has kept them readable is not merely that their physical substance has survived.
Finally, the planners considered the substance of the time capsule. Polyethylene, a plastic, might be the way to go, but so far we don’t have data that goes beyond 75 years. Maybe stainless steel might work, but there’s no way of knowing how it will keep its contents stable. And if it’s buried, it may never be found, no matter how diligent its curators. 1000 years is a long time, and we know of few civilizations who have managed to preserve its treasures successfully.
Maya Lin, the young architect who designed the Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C., conceived a plan, not ultimately the Times’ choice, that resonates with the Jewish metaphor of trees representing the bridge between heaven and earth. She suggested ten English Ivy trees planted in Central Park at ritual intervals from the capsule. The pattern of planting in a proportional spiral used in classical architecture that is found throughout nature–in leaves and trees, the human body and the spirals in sunflowers and seashells, known as the Golden Section. Even after the trees died, their spiral root patterns would remain and lead to the capsule. Jewish tradition also depends upon roots that remain and lead to a wisdom spanning millennia.
For three thousand years, Jews have kept their sacred text, Torah. If we’d stopped with the mere preservation of our oral tradition by putting it in writing, it’s not likely we’d still be able to read it. What saved us was not the physical evidence of our civilization, but the constant reading and wrestling with the text to find ourselves within it. We became the holders, the containers of the written text. We became the time capsules for culture, ideas, and dreams of our family.
We have known, that no matter what country or ruler, each of us has obligation to teach our children this text: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your hearts. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, when you are sitting in your house, when you are walking on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.” When you are driving carpool, when you are eating breakfast, and when lie beside your beloved, and when you awaken to the new day.
We keep the written Torah in the aron ha kodesh, the holy ark, and yet we have two Torahs, the written and the oral. Where do we keep the oral Torah? What is its ark? We are the aron ha kodesh, we are the containers of our history and our future, we are the time capsules for Judaism. Like the written Torah, we need to unravel ourselves a little to enter the text and find new meanings for every generation. The struggle of preservation confronts the tension between the physical and the spiritual. The sages of the NYT suggested burying TC2000 in bedrock to protect it.
We’ve learned that not even bedrock will preserve anything forever. We call God ha tzur, the rock, because God is the ultimate bedrock, and that immortal substance can only be carried within our physically frail and temporary bodies, yet the word of God, our stone, is what will last forever as long as we keep speaking it. The most precious part of our lives can never be touched. We can touch our noses, but we cannot touch our love, our sense of what is beyond ourselves. Yet we know it, feel it, and through Torah we’ve learned a way to speak to our children 1000 years from now.
Torah is cryptic, problematic historically, not always great literature, and not always moral. Yet it lives and teaches how to live, because it births our deepest questions and dreams in its very mystery. Let our legacy to the world be a new kind of time capsule, one that is neither buried nor physical, yet one that will last at least another 1000 years. Let us show a new way to preserve the past and at the same time speak to new generations of a new day, a day without war and injustice.
The survival of a scroll is not our triumph. Rather, it’s our study of it, our belief in its vision of a perfected world one day, and our faith in Torah’s power to purify and enlighten us. Generations of time capsules have given us a document that has empowered us to be like God, active creators in repairing the world.
Each of us in the sanctuary tonight are time capsules for the ancient, ever-new Torah. Within us, the oral and written Torah become echad, one. So fill yourselves with the melody of Torah, sing its song loudly , and maybe in the coming millennium we will actually witness the dream of a world of peace, a world of plenty, and a world of love.
Ken y’hi ratzon.