On the 28th of June 2009 physicist and astronomer Stephen Hawking held a party. Unfortunately no one turned up. Perhaps it was a rainy Cambridgeshire night, perhaps everyone else had plans, but at least in part, low attendance was a result of the fact that the party was for time travellers. Hoping, in a typically tongue-and-cheek way, to prove time travel impossible, Hawking sent the invitations in the post several weeks after the party; Of course, by then no one had turned up. Evidently no future tourists got the invite and wanted to pop back to England in 2009. You can watch a video online of the ‘party,’ which consisted of Hawking sitting by himself for hours in a beautifully appointed hall. You can also find the invitation online - of course you’re all invited (if only you can get back to 2009). The invite reads:
“You are cordially invited to a reception for Time Travellers, Hosted by Professor Stephen Hawking / To be held at The University of Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, Trinity Street, Cambridge. Location: 52º 12’ 21” N, 0º 7’ 4.7 E. Time: 12:00 UT 06/28/2009. No RSVP required.”
Professor Hawking’s time-travel reception may be a bit of a stunt, or perhaps, sometime in the distant future someone will find that invitation, hop in their spiffy time-machine, and jet back to 2009. For the time being though, that party lies in the past, behind us. Tonight, we do a bit of time travel ourselves. The prayer that gives us our purpose this evening, Kol Nidré, is a time machine of a different make. Originally, the prayer was written in the past tense; We used to abrogate and annul all of last year’s promises, not the upcoming one. The idea was to get a clean slate, beginning Yom Kippur by retroactively retracting all those assurances we had made God over the past year.
However, the rabbis, who didn’t like the practice to begin with, especially objected to placing Kol Nidré in the past tense. In halakhah, it is simply not possible to retroactively ‘take back’ a vow that has been formally made. To suggest so, on Yom Kippur of all days, was an offense to the medieval sages. Thus, in the 12th century in France, a rabbi we know as Rabbénu Tam took it upon himself to change the tense of the prayer. Under the new text, we have now gone from annulling vows we’ve already made to annulling vows we have yet to make. Isn’t this new form a bit of time travel itself? Aren’t we really saying that in the future, over the next year, whenever we may make a vow to God, we will have already cancelled it out by doing so tonight, in the past?
Believe it or not, our confusion about Kol Nidré isn’t the only example of time-travel in our tradition. Moses himself got to be a time-traveller at one point. In the Talmud [Menaḥot 29b] it tells the story that when Moses went up to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah from God, he found God sitting, cross-legged, trying to quickly tie the last few little marks onto the letters. The little decorations and diacritics on top of the letters of the Torah were delaying the moment of the Torah's delivery, so Moses asks God (as one does), ‘What are you doing tying all those little marks onto the letters?’ God explains, ‘Someday, someone is going to come along who will be able to interpret loads and loads of halakhah from every little mark and every little dot in the Torah.’ Moses, surprised, asks God to show him this man. God indulges him and they are transported about one thousand three hundred years in the future, into a classroom in which Rabbi Akiva is teaching Torah. Here’s Moses, sitting in the back row of a classroom a millennium after his own life, listening to the lesson. The Talmud tells us that Moses starts to get really sad and upset because he doesn’t understand what’s happening in the lesson. The language has changed, and most of what Rabbi Akiva’s talking about doesn’t make sense to him. Then, just as he’s about to get up and walk out, he hears Rabbi Akiva say, ‘...and this was a law that we learn from Moses when he received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.’
In that moment, Moses’ past and his future coalesce. His legacy, his influence, his future is nearly entirely unintelligible to him. Yet, he leaves with an awareness that what he’s doing (back in his present, our now distant past) has meaning and significance. So too, what we do here tonight has the same wibbly-wobbly magic to it. We don’t know the future. We don’t know what vows we’ll make, what promises we’ll offer. We don’t know whether in our desperation we may try and bargain with God, making an oath we can’t fulfill. We don’t know any of that. But what we do know, already, is that those oaths will be invalidated before the words are even spoken.
In our language, when we talk about the future, we talk about what is in front of us. The past is behind us, the future is in front of us. That of course, is a metaphor- a useful lie. Time isn’t connected to space in such a way that we face the future. But despite its inaccuracy, it informs a huge amount of how we live our lives. We imagine ourselves walking, forward into the future, leaving the past behind.
Yet this is not the only way to use the metaphor. The Aymara people, an ethnic group indigenous to the Andes mountains in South America, use the reverse. In their language, the past is ‘in front of you’ and the future is ‘behind you.’ If you were to ask an Aymara why this is, they’d tell you quite simply: because you can see the past, but the future sneaks up, as if crouching behind you, out of your vision.
The Aymara’s understanding of time makes just as much sense as ours; It just happens to feel foreign to the way we conceive of our world. Our understanding of time, leaving the past behind us, is how Kol Nidré was originally written. We retroactively annul vows we already made. Kol Nidré as it is now is more like the Aymara - we pre-emptively annul vows we have yet to make. We go to the future from what will then be the past. Like Moses, we jump ahead to see what will come of us, knowing that whatever it is has already been sorted. Like Professor Hawking’s missing party guests, we cannot return to the past, but we always face it.
Tonight, the past should be at the forefront of our vision. We should look ahead into what has already happened, making up for all we’ve already done wrong. Yet, even as we do that, we have already annulled the vows we have yet to make. We have to look toward the past and the future at the same time - like the Aymara, peering behind our shoulders at the future creeping up, even as we squarely face the past. If we do it right, we can engineer our own little bit of time travel - and who knows, maybe we’ll all see each other someday in Cambridge back in 2009.