Wednesday, Feb 1, 2023

Time Travel

In A Perfect World

If there was one thing you thought you could depend on to be stable and unchanging, it would be time. What could be more consistent than the march of the minutes… their predictable transformation into hours… the routine melding of hours into shapes we recognize: days and weeks and months?

The moon makes its monthly round, and the earth makes its yearly one. The sun rises and sets with awesome regularity. On walls and desks and bedside tables, clocks faultlessly measure the passage of time. At first glance, time seems to be the most basic of all basic building blocks. Something you can count on never to change. But is it really?

I’m not even going to talk about the oddities of Einsteinian physics, which dictates that time moves more slowly in outer space than it does here on Earth. This means that if a pair of identical twins are raised, respectively, on this planet and on a spaceship roaming the galaxy, the traveling twin would return to earth younger than the stationary one. Mind-boggling!

But let’s stick to good old Earth. Even here, our supposedly stable standards of time routinely befuddle us with one of their splendid magic tricks. I’m talking about the trick known as time zones. You can get on a plane after breakfast in New York, and land in L.A. just in time for… breakfast. Matters become even more confusing the farther you travel. In Yerushalayim, kids are coming home from school when ours are just rolling out of bed in the morning. An insomniac in the U.S. in the wee hours can schmooze with an Israeli friend during the latter’s mid-morning coffee break. And so on, with the most extreme examples involving cities and countries at the opposite ends of the globe.

All of this is the fault, so to speak, of something known as the International Dateline. This is an imaginary line on the surface of the Earth that separates one day from the next. This line follows a zigzag pattern at about the 180-degree longitude in the Pacific Ocean. The reason for the occasional zig or zag is to prevent populated areas (of which there are admittedly not that many in the Pacific Ocean) from a situation where it will be Monday on the left side of the street and Tuesday on the right side.

Halacha, however, doesn’t zigzag. The line that our chachomim have drawn to indicate the starting point for counting days runs straight down the meridian. To further complicate matters, there is more than one opinion as to the exact location of said dateline. All of which leads to some fascinating, and occasionally brain-scrambling, realities.

I know someone who is planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand. In preparation for the exotic journey, she’s been in consultation with a rabbinical expert on the International Dateline and all its halachic ramifications. Their conversation brought to light a slew of intriguing facts.

Because of the differing opinions as to the precise location of the dateline, New Zealand is subject to a very unusual Shabbos experience. In order to take into account all opinions, the traveler to that beautiful Pacific-island country must keep Shabbos for two days!

To be sure, the halachic requirements are different for each of the days. On the “regular” Shabbos, all prohibitions, both biblical and rabbinic, must be kept as they are kept anywhere else in the world. On Sunday, however, only the biblical ones need to be observed. Imagine going through your day and pausing at every turn to think: Can I turn on this light today? Can I get into this taxi? Can I buy a souvenir for my sister? Can I write a check?

The answers, to the best of my understanding, would be no, yes, yes, and no. What a very odd Shabbos experience that must be!

But there’s more. It seems that the dateline dividing one day from the next runs along Australia’s eastern shoreline. Which means that you can stand on the beach on a Friday… but take one step into the ocean, and it’s Shabbos!

We like to think of time as something abstract, but we see here that it can serve like an object in space, something you can step into the way you’d step into a different room. Anywhere on the International Dateline, you can literally walk from Friday into Shabbos with just a single step.

Personal Timelines

Life can be said to be a mirror of Time. We all have different “time zones” in our lives, and those zones will not always march in step with the zones of other people, sometimes even of those closest to us. We may live side-by-side with our neighbors, colleagues and friends, and yet be in completely different zones with regard to the times of our lives.

One person may be experiencing a period of growth and rejuvenation, while another is in the midst of a long downward slump and feeling diminished. Neighbor A could be enveloped in the joy of making a slew of simchos while Neighbor B is engaged in a prolonged period of running around to doctors in anxiety for a loved one. The four years of high school, for Student C, is a music box playing sweetly for her pleasure; for the girl who sits behind her in class, it’s a prison cell.

Miss M is celebrating her engagement, about to embark on a whole new stage in the timeline of her life, while her best friend is still saying Tehillim and waiting for the phone to ring. Mr. X is sitting on a prosperous business while the person driving in the next lane is facing bankruptcy… And so on, ad infinitum. No two people experience the times of their lives in exactly the same way at exactly the same time.

“This is the winter of our discontent.” For Richard III, maybe. For the milkmaid living on her farm just a few miles away, the cold season may be a delightful winter wonderland. While the physical seasons follow an expected pattern, our personal ones are anything but predictable. Or uniform.

To bridge the gap between our personal “zone” and someone else’s calls for sensitivity, finesse, and a bit of time travel.

It calls for taking one small step which, like the step from the Australian beach into the waters of the Pacific just a few inches away, may appear insignificant in the grand scheme of things but actually makes all the difference in the world.

One step can take us, for a few precious minutes at least, out of our own. individual timelines. Out of our all-absorbing involvement in our own affairs. Out of our limited thinking, which limits our empathy for others… and into someone else’s personal time zone, to shower them with the friendship, understanding and compassion they may need.

Things that are close to us always appear larger than things that are at a distance. Consequently, our own concerns loom very large indeed while our neighbor’s may seem miniscule by comparison. It’s all a matter of perspective.

It’s a question of taking the one small step that can bridge the sometime yawning gap between our life experience, and the life that’s being experienced by the person right next to us. And realizing that, in her time zone, life looms just as real and big and important as ours does to us!

One small step through time and space. That’s all it takes.

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