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The Importance of Sanctifying Time

What is time? Where did it come from? Why do we have time? Why do we care about time? What is the importance of sanctifying time? This week’s parsha, Parashat Emor, sheds some light on these questions.

Modern physics confirms what our great rabbis knew long ago from philosophic principles and investigation. Time was created. Time came into existence with the creation of matter. Time did not precede creation as erroneously thought by many and thus God’s existence is unrelated to time. (Rambam: Guide for the Perplexed, Book 2, Chapter 30) Time is simply a way to measure the distance between 2 physical points of matter.

Human beings are part of the physical world, but we are created with a unique capacity. We can recognize the passage of time and reconcile our existence within its framework. Knowing how to make the best use of time is extremely beneficial to accomplishing our purpose as a human being. It is precisely because of this fact that our Torah addresses the issue of time and how we are to use it. We are not surprised, then, to discover that our Torah devotes various portions to the topic of time.

The Torah begins with creation of the universe. Part of the purpose in relating this introductory chapter is to delineate for mankind basic units of time, “God said, ‘let there be luminaries in the sky to separate between day and night, for seasons and days and years.’” A celestial timepiece for man implanted in the heavens is part and parcel of creation.

Time-conscious people look back at time passed, look forward to the future all while aware and living in the present. Such people then have a way to measure their growth, progress, and accomplishments. The basic units, days and weeks, are for physical production and creativity as man is commanded, “fill up the earth, conquer it, rule over it… and develop it and to protect it.” (Bereisheit 1:23 and 2:15).

Later in the Torah, in Parashat בא, we come across the very first mitzvah given to the newly established nation of Israel, while yet slaves in Egypt. Interestingly, it is to keep a calendar by marking each new month as it comes. Soon to be liberated, the Hebrews will be accountable for their own time. Slaves don’t have that advantage, luxury, and responsibility. By virtue of being a slave, every activity is mapped out and timed by the master. The scope of planning for one’s activities takes on a broader dimension, an entire month. This week’s parsha, Emor, contains another portion devoted to time. It contains a section, specifically chapter 23, that is known as “Parashat Ha’Moadot.”

Parshat Ha’Moadot lists and describes all of our special times, both weekly and seasonal. Observing these specific times places on our consciousness an additional dimension, the awareness of certain metaphysical ideas. These ideas, in turn, bring elevation and sanctity to our existence.

The most fundamental idea, the one most people grapple with is the reality of a Creator of the universe. If there is a Creator, then perhaps there are things in His universe that we can and cannot do. After all, it is His universe. We are just one of the created beings that inhabit it. The recognition of this idea is so significant for us that on every seventh unit of a week, we must make a complete and total break from any physical creativity or productivity that we engage in otherwise. This cessation from work sets the stage for us to have the appropriate recognition and affirmation of the truth that there is a Creator of the universe. We accomplish this through meaningful prayer, study and enjoying on Shabbat the fruits of our other 6 days of labor.

The first seasonal holiday of the Jewish calendar is Pesach. On it, we give recognition that the Creator of the universe relates to mankind and in particular to one entire nation, the nation of Israel. This Yom Tov brings to our mind’s eye not only the concept of God’s divine providence over the people of Israel, but it attests to God the creator as well. Only God, the creator of the universe, could build into the fabric of the universe the miraculous events that took place in Egypt in expediting our redemption.

The time between Pesach and Shavuot is singled out. We are to mark these successive days as one ascending a ladder to retrieve a precious article high above. Freedom alone is not enough. The 49 days intervening between Pesach and Shavuot was the time used by our ancestors after their liberation and is designated to be used by us as well today to reflect each these days on how we are lacking as human beings without a manual for life. This count culminates on the 50th day from Pesach with Shavuot. This designated day celebrates that the God of the universe didn’t abandon man to his own devices. Rather, He did bestow upon mankind, through His nation of Israel, the Torah. This is the Creator’s guiding manual for the way humans should live to maximize their God-given potential. Think of it as any manual you get when you purchase an appliance or car. The manufacturer wants you to get the most out of your acquisition. Our manufacturer did the same for us. Shavuot is the day to reflect on this incredible event by recommitting ourselves to accept and abide by the Torah just as our ancestors did on that wondrous day.

Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is the time that the Creator set aside for all mankind, not just Jews, for personal introspection and to make positive change in our behavior. It is a time when God is concerned for the welfare of each individual. Only a creature endowed with time-consciousness has the ability to reflect on past behaviors and then formulate a plan in the present to make the necessary corrective changes in behavior and thinking for the future.

Despite the moniker, “self-made man,” there is no such thing. Every human being is really a dependent creature. Yet because we are in pursuit of physical productivity and amassing acquisitions we get caught up in this realm and forget our true nature. When we leave the comforts and security of our homes to live in a Succah ( to eat and sleep there at night and day) and look up at the stars in the sky, we immediately reflect on our frailty and the smallness of our stature in the vast expanding cosmos. The season of Sukkot spans seven or eight days. It is designed to bring to our consciousness the dirty little truth that our existence, sustenance, and security are ultimately due to the Creator of heavens and earth.

Finally, the Jewish holiday season ends with Shemini Atzeret. On this holiday, other than its special holiday sacrifice, there is no specific command to perform. It is as the Talmud says, “a day just for the Jewish people to celebrate alone with God.” If we have used our time wisely, we have investigated our past and made a commitment to improving. We have made it, so to speak. This seasonal process laid out by the Torah allows us one day in which we can celebrate our present status “alone with God,” and just to enjoy that special relationship.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan