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What Time Is It? What Day Is It!?

04/14/2020 01:00:03 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

What Time Is It? What Day Is It?

I do not know about you, but keeping track of time is hard during this period of self quarantining and social distancing.  Giving up on our daily routine of having to get to school or work on time, scheduled times at the gym and the like have decayed our internal clock.

There is no doubt that our relationship with time, in terms of how we experience past, present and future is undergoing a change.  

From the perspective of Jewish life, the timing of this phenomenon is very odd. We are in a period of time when keeping track of time is at the center of our religious consciousness. This is our time to be the most time sensitive.

For starters, the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as they were preparing to leave Egypt is the commandment to keep track of time by creating the Jewish Calendar. 

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

Our sages understood this Mitzvah not only as a specific directive to maintain a calendar, but as to be masters of our time.

The words of the Sforno here are right to the point. 

מכאן ואילך יהיו החדשים שלכם, לעשות בהם כרצונכם

“from now on these months will be yours, to do with as you like.” 

The depth of this statement are very powerful in the context in which the commandment was given, Egyptian Slavery. As the Sforno continues: 

אבל בימי השעבוד לא היו ימיכם שלכם, אבל היו לעבודת אחרים ורצונם, לפיכך ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה. כי בו התחיל מציאותכם הבחיריי:

“This is by way of contrast to the years when you were enslaved when you had no control over your time or timetable at all. While you were enslaved, your days, hours, minutes even, were always at the beck and call of your taskmasters.”

These days, keeping track of our time takes on different importance in that it can help us cope with our new reality. When the Israelites were given control of their own time it signaled to them that they were free, masters of their own fate.  The Israelites were granted their time awareness, we mustn't give ours up.

Rabbi Solovitchik calls the present moment our, “most precious possession...every moment is valuable, each second precious”.

During this period when time seems to slip away, when we look at our watch and can’t believe it is so late, when we lose our rhythm, maintaining a regular schedule and routine is very important. 

Arthur Kleinman writes movingly, in the context of caring for his wife who was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease,  about ritual and maintaining a schedule can lead toward growth even during the most difficult time. 

“William James, the great philosopher and psychologist, observed that people are collections of habits but that we can rid ourselves of those that don’t serve us well. He counseled us not to “sit all day in a moping posture, sigh and reply to everything with a dismal voice....The threat of feeling vulnerable and defeated is ever-present, but I know that I can manage it by organizing my day around highly ritualized activities and giving myself over to them.” See here for his schedule.

Perhaps we can try his suggestions and see if they have a positive impact.

Our focus on time during this period of the year is also highlighted by the Mitzvah to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, the day we received the Torah. (Lev. 23:15)

וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete:

The Sefer HaChinuch in explaining the reason for the Mitzvah starts by noting the centrality of the Torah and that we were redeemed from Egypt in order to receive the Torah. He uses powerful slavery imagery to highlight this feeling

“And because of this - that it is [the] essence of Israel, and because of it were they redeemed and went up to all of the greatness to which they rose - we were commanded to tally from the morrow of the holiday of Pesach until the day of the giving of the Torah; to show about ourselves the great desire [we have] for the the honored day, which our hearts yearn [for] like 'a slave seeks shade' and always tallies when will come the yearned time that he goes out to freedom.”

We count to indicate that we are really looking forward to getting the Torah. Rabbi Soloveitchik highlights the importance of anticipation. 

“This time awareness or experience has three basic component parts. First, retrospective...Second, the time experience includes exploration of close examination of things yet unborn and events not yet in existence. This means the anticipatory experience of events not yet in being. Third is appreciation or evaluation of the present moment as one;s most precious possession…

One must go from things and events that were and are no longer, toward that which will be real someday, even though it is not real yet - from reminiscing to anticipating. In a word, to live in time means to be committed unborn future.

Jews can see the future.

This lesson too, offers direction and comfort during this difficult time. For many of us, not only has Coronavirus damaged our sense of time, it has also robbed us of things we were looking forward to. I found this advice meaningful in this regard.

“One protective factor for people with depression is having something to look forward to.... Maybe before the coronavirus crisis, there was a birthday party to attend, a big project at work or other events you were looking forward to enjoying. Now, those things may be postponed….Make specific goals. Focusing on goals gives you a semblance of something to look forward to doing. You might read 30 pages of a book, write in a journal each day or organize the garage. You could reach out to two people for phone or video calls daily. If you could use some people to talk to, you might want to try Well Connected, a free service that gathers small groups of older adults on the phone for weekly talks, based on common interests.”

There is a redemptive quality to time.

The holiday of our freedom is the holiday of our mastery over time. The period of our redemption marks our ability to look forward to the future. From the depths of slavery we were taught these very important lessons.

This is our current opportunity. Bnei Yisrael was asked to recalibrate its relationship with time by being given specific commandments related to time consciousness.  We are being asked to do the same during this pandemic. Maintaining routine and setting goals are our Mitzvot of the day. 

We must cherish every moment and make each part of the day matter and count even as we work to set goals and anticipate happy occasions to come.

May these last days of Pesach, the season of our redemption bring a new appreciation of time - past, present and future.

Tue, January 19 2021 6 Shevat 5781