When I was nine, I saved up every penny to fulfill my yearning for an electric train. Finally, I ran to the hobby store. Arriving home, I set up the circular track. My little engine, pulling two coaches and a caboose, circled endlessly, repeatedly passing the same wooden station and plastic trees I set up beside my track.
I dreamed of laying out one long straight run so that my train could explore new landscapes. But one long track would quickly take the train out of my sight. Neither straight line nor circle was ideal.
What a metaphor for life! Making each year merely a dreary replica of last year is as dissatisfying as constantly seeking the new and novel.
When my birthday comes around again, am I just returning to the same station on the track where I found myself a year ago? That can be depressing.
Conversely, when I sit down with my family for a Thanksgiving Dinner, am I at a station totally unrelated to the happy family dinner I was at last Thanksgiving? That is also rather depressing. So which is life, a circle or a straight line?
Ancient Jewish wisdom offers two powerful principles to help us answer this question.
The first principle advises that the best way to envision our lives is as a spiral. When a birthday, Thanksgiving or anniversary comes around, we are indeed in the same station that we visited twelve months ago. However we are one floor up. We annually travel up a spiral and so, as we look at the level below us, we may be at the same event, but we can point to achievements during the past twelve months.
The second principle advises us never to view ourselves as actually finishing the circle.
For instance, on the Jewish holyday Simchat Torah, the final portion of the Pentateuch is read. Once the closing words of Deuteronomy “…all the great and awesome deeds which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” are read, we do not close the scroll and pat ourselves on the back. No, we immediately roll the scroll back to the beginning and continue reading the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”
These ideas are neatly revealed when we study the Hebrew word for conclusion – SiYUM.
ס י ו ם
Reading from right to left, the word comprises four letters: SaMeCH (סמך), YuD (יוד), VaV (וו), and MeM (ממ).
Remarkably, these are the only four letters in the Hebrew alphabet whose “hidden” name equals the numerical value of their visible names.
What do I mean? Well, if English worked like this, we might find that the letter J’s full name was Jay. The J would be the visible part and the ‘ay” would be the hidden part. In addition, each letter would have a specified numerical value.
This is exactly how Hebrew works. So, the first letter, SaMeCh, has a visible letter part, the ‘S’ sound, whose numerical value is 60. The hidden components of that letter are M and CH. Their numerical values, respectively, are 40 and 20, which also add up to 60. The same concept is true for each of the remaining three letters of the Hebrew word SiYUM that means conclusion, but not true for any other letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
This teaches us that just when we are sure that we have concluded something, a closer examination will reveal that there is at least an equal amount yet to learn or to do.
For instance, I might have a wonderful marriage but that is not the end. Recognizing that I have a good marriage reminds me that I must constantly work at it. It can never be placed in a “finished” pile. The same holds true for my work, my relationships, and my finances.
Look back and see that you are not in exactly the same place you were a year ago. Now look forward and see that you have much more work ahead of you. A gift of being alive is to never be done.