A reminder contains the power to make us feel as though we are transported from one time and place to another. But how do we know when we need a reminder to bring us to the present moment, immerse us in the past, or ensure that we think ahead?
I am a planner, always thinking about what comes next. Ever productive, I pay the price of living in a fairly constant state of unrest. Even my Jewish practice has evolved into a set of regular reminders to linger in the current moment, fighting my inner nature. As I bless the food I am about to eat, I am reminded to honor the cycle of life and death. Sounding the shofar each morning during the month of Elul focuses my attention on time and the subtle shifts in the rhythm of life, as does counting the days during the omer — a period of seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. These practices — reminders amidst my perpetual forward momentum — help me to take notice so that my life doesn’t fly by devoid of purpose and meaning. As the psalmist writes, “Teach me to number my days so that I may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12)
We pass by a mezuzah as we transition from one space — through a doorpost — to another. In one instant, that tiny symbol housing the words of the Sh’ma transports us back to Sinai, brings us an awareness of the present moment of transition, and instructs us to carry our ethics and values with us as we navigate our world. It is the ultimate reminder.
With such a focus in my ritual life on paying attention to the moment, it strikes me as ironic that in my role as a parent, I often feel my purpose is to pull my children out of their natural state of living in the present, to teach them the art of focusing on the next thing, the next challenge, the next day on the calendar. Reminders hang throughout our house: A note taped to a doorknob reminds one child to bring his homework to school; a calendar on the wall calls at us to remember upcoming plans. Generally, children live gleefully in the moment and, if we allow it, they pull us into that place where the most important thing we do is whatever we are doing right then. How do we reconcile these pulls? What are we doing to our children that will cause them, over time, to seek out yoga poses, mindful meditation, or a Jewish healing practice to slow them down?
Some reminders are a rope, mooring us to the present. Other reminders pull us toward the future or ground us in the past. Memory can be a deeply weighted reminder, and each corner of Judaism recalls something that is at the core of our tradition and values.
Essentially, reminders are built into every moment of the day. The V’ahavta prayer, which sits scrolled up in the mezuzah, instructs us to live the words of the Sh’ma from the moment we rise in the morning to the moment we lie down at night. Some prayers acknowledge the specificity of the moment we’re in, such as the Shehechiyanu prayer. Other liturgies, like retelling the story of the Exodus in the Passover haggadah, compel us to think about our past. Still others ask us to envision an ideal future, such as the hope of peace in Oseh Shalom. These reminders are embedded in our texts, our liturgy, our sacred objects, and even such ritual foods as challah and matzah.
These ritual reminders help us understand that time is fluid, and our past, present, and future are deeply connected. The present moment is intricately linked to our histories and it informs our vision of the future.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, and co-editor, with Rabbi D’vorah Rose, of Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.