It is hard to write about time without descending into punning. For instance, it would be easy to begin this essay with the statement that “man has been thinking and writing about time since time immemorial.” It would also be true to assert that “it’s about time” this subject received the attention it deserves. However, all of this would only dilute the importance of a vast extremely important topic.
I am reminded of Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s classic mohel story of the somewhat modern parents who gave their newborn son a traditional Jewish name. However, then they added the secular appellation of “Justin,” which elicited puzzlement followed by laughter. You see, the young man’s last name was Time.
So perhaps this article is also just in time, or perhaps it is just a bit too late.
A new book by the artist and writer Jenny Odell is entitled “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.” Recently reviewed in both The New York Times Sunday Book Review (April 16, 2023) and Time Magazine (March 27/April 3 2023), the author wrote most of the book during the Covid-19 epidemic. Her central theme is that “it wasn’t long after the pandemic began that people around the world began to notice that something weird was going on. As the rhythms of daily life changed, some people’s days seemed to run together; others felt that theirs stretched on indefinitely” (Time Magazine). The reviewer Lily Rothman concluded that Odell had hit onto something important which resonated with a world that had been changed, although no one could yet tell if it was for better or worse. The New York Times, in a review by Tatiana Schlossberg, cited a favorite source, from an American Indian, Daniel R. Wildcat, “a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma,” that “Indigenous thinkers not only acknowledge contingency and human’s lack of control in the world; they also see it as empowering and humbling, not something frightening.”
As we noted in this newspaper throughout Covid, sometimes it is painfully clear that Hashem is rearranging the molecules of His world. People don’t work in the same way anymore, if they work at all. Some people have much more time on their hands than before; others are frightened beyond their worst nightmares by this basic fact. Both the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov were known to correct people who pronounced the era beginning in 1948 as starting the period of geulah. They explained that we had indeed entered into a new era, but it was, as defined earlier by Rav Elchonon Wasserman, Ikvesa D’Meshicha, the period of difficulty, suffering and challenge before the actual redemption. In any case, sometimes it becomes obvious even to those who have no Torah knowledge that serious changes seem to be happening. These books and reviews are merely simanim – indicators – that the Master of the Universe wants us to make changes, just as He has demonstrated that He has brought about modification in what most people thought were the immutable realties of daily life.
As has already been pointed out in this newspaper, the days just after Pesach are most appropriate to explore this subject. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (first maamar in Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach), taught that the creation known as time is inexorably entwined in the central mitzvah of Pesach, that of matzah. This is the only mitzvah that can be just seconds away from the prohibition of the day, chometz. In fact, as the Vilna Gaon points out, the letters of these two words are almost identical, and the only letters that differ – the hey and the ches – are just a tiny bit of ink apart. The rosh yeshiva explains that the middah of zerizus – often defined as alacrity – represents our avoidance of excess use of the dimension of time.
So what’s so bad about time? The answer, according to the Gaon (siddur commentary on Boruch She’amar) is that although time is so ethereal that it is almost spiritual, it is also actually a physical force in the universe. Therefore, as the Maharal (Gevuros Hashem, Chapter 36) explains, a mitzvah must be done with zerizus so that it is not pulled into temporal time, which destroyed its connection to infinite and eternal time, known as nitzchiyus. This is the secret and mystery of leaving Mitzrayim in a state of chipazon, reaching for eternity even as we rid ourselves of the burden of limited and “tainted” human time.
To understand this and the era into which we appear to be entering, we must explore another seminal set of maamarim (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah 14:7;27). Rav Hutner cites the teaching of the Gaon (see Mishnah, Ediyos 2:9) that whereas golus, exile, is defined by the Torah in terms of time (400 years of exile), geulah, redemption, is defined by generations, meaning human beings (the fourth generation shall return). The reason for this dichotomy is that man and time are natural opponents and often even enemies. He proves this from many sources, but suffice it to say that time generally represents the cyclical repetitious power of something that merely returns but adds no sense of freshness or renewal.
However, the first mitzvah in the Torah, that of Kiddush Hachodesh, relates not to shanah, which bespeaks of something annual and repetitive, but of chodesh, which allows the changing and renascence of time with human beings making the changes. In simpler words, Kiddush Hachodesh allows us to fight off the ravages of time and the inability to be different than before. It makes us emulate the moon, not the sun, wherein each month the moon disappears and then reappears as does a newborn, fresh, innocent and pristine human being.
Rav Hutner demonstrates that the incredible power of this renewal allows even the solar year to be invigorated with this power of chiddush. This is proven by the wording of the Korban Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah, which avoids the usual wording of Vehikravtem, an offering, and speaks of Va’asisem, “You shall recreate yourselves” (Yalkut Shimoni 782). It is noteworthy that Rav Hutner in these maamorim also quotes from the words of Chazal (Shemos Rabbah 15:21; Vayikra Rabbah 27:4) that “the time will come when Hakadosh Boruch Hu will renew His world.” I have no doubt that these words mean many different things, but perhaps we are entering a world where everyone is beginning to recognize that man can control his own sense of time and not be ruled by arbitrary societal norms.
In my own small world, I see people every day who are spending more time in the bais medrash learning Torah. The old so-called rules of the workday are practically all gone. People can work almost anytime and anyplace. This has allowed people who never considered Eretz Yisroel as an option to work in chutz la’aretz and daven daily at the Kosel. But even more importantly, many of the old work requirements which carried so many nisyonos and challenges are no longer necessary. Although the ubiquitous laptop carries its own tests, it also allows more learning and family time in an atmosphere of kedusha. The opportunities for defilement have created their own platforms for Torah and avodah. Indeed, Hakadosh Boruch Hu is recreating His world before our very eyes and all we need to do is to choose well.
Finally, I am sure that over Yom Tov, in many if not all Jewish homes, the name of the Sar HaTorah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, was mentioned many times. As we repeated his Torah and read his biography, we could not help but be moved and amazed by what a human being can accomplish. As Rav Hutner often repeats in these maamorim, Hashem gave human beings and particularly Klal Yisroel the power of memshalah. In its most elemental of meanings, this implies the ability to triumph over what appear to be the given natural forces of the world. Since we all just lived through and hopefully experienced Krias Yam Suf, it should have given us the inspiration and spiritual strength to take the new paths Hashem has opened for us and make each day of Sefirah count for us even as we count them, helping to bring about the geulah sheleimah bimeheirah.