2710 Genesee St.
Utica, New York 13502
Phone: (315) 724-4751 ✡ email: tbeutica@gmail.com

A Conservative Jewish Congregation Established for
the Worship of God, the Study of Torah,
and the Practice of Righteous Deeds


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Feb. 28
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A Message from Cantor Socolof

CantorI was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR, and heard a statement regarding the nature of time. The speaker posited that, just as the ocean exists, and the sand on the sea exists but the line between them is an illusion, so the past is real, and the future is real, but the present is just an illusion. 

I had to think on this for a while, because it had seemed to me that just the opposite was true: the past exists in our memory and the future in our imagination, but the present moment is the only thing we truly have.


Then I remembered what I had always considered a quirk of Hebrew grammar: there are past and future conjugations for the word „to be,‟ but no true present form. And lest you bring up God‟s statement to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14): “I am that I am,” I must point out that this is a poor translation. The Hebrew, Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh properly means “I will be that which I will be.” In fact, the only instance of the use of a present tense for that verb I could think of is in the fourth line of Adon Olam.


Let me be clear: there certainly is a present tense in Hebrew. Those who speak or write the language use it frequently. It‟s just „be‟ that is lacking. I consulted two different Hebrew-English/English-Hebrew dictionaries, and the Hebrew word offered for „be‟ in both was hayah, which is the past form of the verb.


We all know that we travel through time from the past towards the future. Except in science fiction, we cannot go back. Albert Einstein‟s model of a relativistic universe resulted in space-time; a fusion of the two. It seems odd, then that we can travel in any direction in space, but only one direction in time.


One of the attributes of God is that He is outside of time. Thus, the passage of time is a human phenomenon, not a divine one.


Why does this matter? It might help us address the question of free will and God‟s omniscience. How can God know what is going to happen if we truly have free will?


Perhaps an answer is that to God time is meaningless. God transcends time and space so that the distinctions of past, present and future, foundational to the human experience, are irrelevant. It might be likened to the difference between listening to a favorite album of music on vinyl or on digital media. On vinyl, the songs are in a set order which cannot be changed. In digital media, the listener is free to set the order of the songs as her or his whim dictates; all are equally accessible.


God‟s omniscience and our free will are not incompatible, as some argue. Making them so, however, requires thinking that is outside of much more than just the box.

appreciate that the connection may not be intuitive, so allow me to explain. The player(s) in question is (are) expressing thanks for God's beneficence in allowing the completion of that play. The giving of thanks to God for blessings is fine; as Jews we do it all of the time. As we shall see, though, it's only part of the story.

The Sh'ma is a deceptively simple verse in the Torah: Listen up, Israel: Adonai our God, Adonai is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). We have all read and recited it many times. We get that it is a statement of God's unity. But it is also a statement of God's exclusivity. There is only one God, and none other. Only God created the universe, encompassing design and execution. Consequently God, and only God, is responsible for everything. The good and the bad have the same source.

This raises some difficult questions: how can a good God cause bad things to happen? How can God countenance the suffering of innocents? In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner suggested that while God is all-knowing and all-caring, he is not all-powerful, and some things are beyond God's control. I have difficulty with a God who is not all-powerful, so Rabbi Kushner's explanation is not satisfactory.

Rather, since God is omniscient, I expect that God knows a lot I don't. Many of the things that, to us, appear bad or unjust may be just the opposite if seen from a wider perspective; a perspective that none of us is privileged to enjoy. It is the attitude of the old saying, gam zu l'tovah (this, too, is for the good). It is also the reason that we bless God upon hearing bad news, such as the passing of a loved one: Baruch atah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam, dayan ha'emet.

If God is the source of all, and if all is for the good, then we would expect a Jewish football player to thank God for the plays that are successful and the plays that are broken up. It might be unorthodox, but it would be very Jewish.

Cantor Socoloff

Contact him at uticacantor@verizon.net