Thursday, 03 Aug 2017

Written by Nathan Godleman

‘The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future.’[1]

Time has been on my mind this week; maybe yours, too. At synagogue last Shabbat, we entered the world of the book of Deuteronomy, with which we will complete another Torah cycle. We stood on the plains of Moab, on the other side of the Jordan, with Moses, to hear his final three speeches, beginning with a retrospective of forty years in the wilderness. Indeed, we stand more than figuratively. In Parashat Nitsavim, in a few short weeks, the opening words ‘You are standing today, all of you, before the Eternal One, your God’ are understood to apply to us here and now, along with the duties which follow. The same, too, with the revelation at Sinai, of course. The Torah transports us across time and space, back and forth – a kind of spiritual TARDIS. (Torah Time and Relative Dimension in Space?) On Monday evening, as Tisha b’Av arrived, we were invited, or commanded, to remember the destruction of Jerusalem by the Assyrians, over two thousand seven hundred years ago. Even those who chose not to fast, or to mourn the destruction of the Temple, may have marked the day somehow, remembering other events associated with the date across time, up to the recent past, or into an imagined future. The book of Lamentations, traditionally recited on Tisha b’Av, is a product of history itself. Yet, if seen to describe Jerusalem in 701 BCE, its non-specificity and immediacy give the reader far wider scope. As we travel through it, and read ourselves into it, the notion of linear time is further affected. Where are we actually located?

As a former history teacher, with an ongoing interest in genealogy, and a liking for historical novels, time is a familiar theme, I suppose. This week sent me spinning back through the decades to 1916, very close in date and identical in subject matter to the commemorations across the Channel in Ypres, marking one hundred years since the Battle of Passchendaele. For me, it does not seem like history. It is within touching distance. As the youngest son of the youngest son, my grandfather, William Godleman, served in the trenches, along with four of his brothers. By some miracle, they all survived, though none unscathed. Through my father and uncle, some of the stories, including tall ones, were passed down to me. One, only too true, was of how my grandfather went to the wash house behind the lines at Armentieres one day and woke up in a hospital bed in Newcastle, the result of a German shell landing on the building. (See the soldier marked by a cross in the photo on the LBC Facebook page.)

This week, by chance, I came across a document from the National Archives relating to his brother, Jack. My great grandfather, Solomon, had written to a military tribunal on Jack’s behalf to appeal against his conscription. The grounds, recorded in his own hand, are as pragmatic as they are moving. The owner of a horse-drawn haulage and demolition firm in Kilburn, North West London, he states ‘My men are being called up, and I should have to close down if he is taken.’ A sentence later he adds ‘I have two sons in the army; one is in France, the other in hospital wounded.’ The appeal was turned down and Solomon surrendered his son, who was yard foreman and clerk, to the Cheshire Regiment. Other papers already in my possession offer a glimpse into Jack’s future: service along the Western Front, including Ypres; gassed twice; discharged through wounds in December 1918. As with the Torah, I knew the end already, though the voice of my great grandfather, speaking once again, added much to the story. I imagine the family going in and out of the front gate of the house, still standing today – in uniform, in civilian clothes, as children, in death – and time ceases to mean very much.

The phrase ‘to have one foot in the past’ is normally given a negative value. To be ‘stuck in the past’ or ‘to live in the past’, equally so. Ironically, as in Deuteronomy, Jews seem to have both feet in the past! However, we are not standing still. We are constantly on the move. It is as if the past is carried with us. Better put, absorbed, through a Torah and festival cycle which asks us to recall, and relive, the experiences of our ancestors. We are not so much surrounded by ghosts as inhabitants of a house of memory, where each room is accessible, if not always familiar and comfortable. Or, time is like Siddhartha’s river, in Hesse’s eponymous novel, i.e. there is no time. And on the banks of the Jordan, a river doesn’t seem like a bad analogy. May we all enjoy the feeling of connectedness that the river brings: to our ancestors and their travails, to our happier memories, at least, and certainly to our loved ones, who continue to flow through and around us.

Nathan Godleman LBC rabbinic student


[1] In Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse, 1922.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.