It is quite exciting to tell ourselves, “This year is a new chance.”
“This year will reveal an improved version of ourselves. Just wait and see how our marriages, families and businesses thrive. It’s an opportunity for a new beginning.”
I’m all for looking ahead and upgrading our game. But let’s not be too quick to bury the past.
Imagine telling our kids, “Guess what! We’re going to Disneyland in three years’ time!” Or, “Guess what, Honey! We’re being transferred to Paris for two years; our flight’s this afternoon.” Both scenarios are equally ludicrous. It is also as absurd to fire an under-performing employee and give him twenty-four months’ notice as it is to tell him that he must be out and off the premises within an hour. What time is right?
How long should you spend psyching yourself up to propose marriage to your girlfriend? A week? A month? An hour?
Which is right? “We’re offering you the job and would like to hear back from you with your decision in _____.” Well, how long? We’d like to hear back from you in twenty minutes? Silly! We’d like to hear back from you before the end of next year? Ridiculous! What time is right?
As usual, ancient Jewish wisdom points us in the right direction. See these verses:
On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place…
And on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast…
…let us go…three days’ journey into the wilderness, so we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.
And be ready by the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down…
And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal dress…
Joshua commanded the officers…saying, prepare provisions for within three days
you shall cross over this Jordan…
I have confined myself to only a few of the many Scriptural references to three days. Is it not peculiar that all these events and many others in the Bible involved a time span of three days? Why not five days? Why not four days? Coincidence? Of course not. It’s a lesson.
Let’s not tumble into the trap of simplistic thinking. Of course Scripture is not suggesting that three days is the right time frame for all the scenarios I described. Instead, it is teaching the lesson of the number 3 – past, present and future.
Like all numbers, the number three in Torah nomenclature possesses its own special significance. It alludes to how humans experience time. We are aware of the past, we understand something called the future, and we live the present. It is always in the context of these three parts of time that we should evaluate our lives and our experiences.
When we wonder whether something will be fun, we are really asking whether it will make the present pleasurable. One of the reasons a car accident can be so horrifying is the realization of how its consequences might affect the future. I recently saw an interview with a man sentenced to one hundred and fifty years behind bars. He said that what made life intolerable was not the thought of dying in prison, but that of losing connection with his children and grandchildren. In his case, having a past with deep and rich relationships made the present more unendurable.
Through the preponderance of three-day time spans, Scripture is telling us that we always need to take into account our past, our present and our future. Whether it is Abraham confronting the reality of sacrificing his son or the Israelites preparing to meet God at Mt Sinai, people need to give themselves enough time to integrate the experiences of the past with the approaching future into something they can absorb in the present.
In our own lives, when large decisions or changes loom, the three-day metaphor tells us that the right amount of time needs to be enough time to acknowledge where we are coming from and assimilate that with where we are while moving decisively into the future. Taking too little time leaves us reeling while taking too much time dulls us. Ignoring any of the three points of past, present and future leads us down faulty paths. By all means, ring in the new. But don’t make the mistake of ignoring the old.