The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
Archaeologists believe that people began marking time more than 20,000 years ago. Every great culture of the world created its own calendar and its own method, from Babylonians to Mayans, from Aztecs to ancient Israelites.
Human beings learned to count not only the passage of years and months, but eventually days and minutes and seconds. Today we no longer rely on the moon and sun and stars to mark the passage of time, but rather on sophisticated and ubiquitous “smart” technology.
And although we can now count time down to a millisecond, we still cannot control time. We cannot speed it up or slow it down (as much as we may try). Still, we often speak about time as if it were changeable, as if it could pass at different rates. Time flies when you’re having fun. The day just flew by. Time stood still.
The Torah recognizes, however, that although all time is the same quantitatively, it vastly differs qualitatively from one moment to the next.
In this week’s Torah portion, God delineates and describes holy times and introduces rituals to mark these specific times as unique and sanctified. God speaks to the Israelites (through Moses) saying, “These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. These are the set times of the Eternal, the sacred occasions of which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time.”
God then outlines the holy days and specific dates of each: Passover, on the 15th day of the first month; the Day of Atonement, on the 10th day of the seventh month; and five days later, the Feast of Booths, lasting seven days.
Inherent in these prescriptions to observe our holy days is the demarcation and differentiation of time. There are times that are ordinary and routine, and then there are times that are sacred and profound.
Yes, each day still contains 24 hours, and each hour is 60 minutes, but some of these hours and minutes are set aside, unique, each with its own rituals, prayers, observances and (of course) foods.
And these holy days animate our lives and elevate our souls.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted, “When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.” And it was time that was the very first thing in all of Torah to be called holy, kadosh. Only later did God proclaim human beings and places sacred.
That the flow of time is punctuated by holy moments and days set aside for God, community and ritual must have been a revolutionary idea for the ancient Israelites, so used to life as slaves to a cruel master. Without these holy days and holy times, we too would be like slaves — slaves to the clock and slaves to time.
Instead, we find our humanity by elevating time and stepping back from our inboxes and to-do lists.
Today, we find ourselves in the midst of the 49-day period outlined in this week’s parashah. God instructs us to count seven days for seven weeks until the final day, which corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot.
On each day from Passover through Shavuot, we count each day. We count each day on the journey toward Shavuot, toward the liberation, wisdom and revelation of Shavuot. We count so that we can learn to savor each moment, to not live in the future or past, but rather to focus on the now.
Years ago, Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” reminded us: “We are always hurrying time along by looking forward to things tomorrow instead of enjoying today. In March, I was looking forward to the beginning of April because I like April. But I was so busy looking forward to April that I forgot to enjoy March, and first thing I knew March had passed and I hardly noticed it. The days we need more of are the days that drag, so slow down, don’t plan, savor every moment.”
I have spent too many moments over the course of my 26 years in the rabbinate sitting with grieving families, crying over the loss of someone who has died too young, too soon. Inevitably, it is the memory of times spent together — those simple moments of love and laughter and tenderness — that remain and which carry us through the darkness of heartache and loss.
Psalm 90 states: “The span of our life is three score years and ten , or given strength, four score . But the best of those years have trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily and we are in darkness. Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”