For much of our lives, the function of Shabbat and holidays, the recurring rhythms of Jewish time, functioned in our lives as a measuring device - a yardstick or a barometer. We went to work, we went to school, we took trips, we saw friends. Jewish time was a departure from those new and varying experiences - we came to the same place, and said the same words. The rituals of regularity allow us to reflect on the ups and downs of our exciting daily existence.
The past six months has been a total reversal of this paradigm. We now go nearly nowhere. We do very little. The past six months has not been denoted by new experiences. It has been about hunkering down; about the mundane day to day necessitated by reducing our exposure to others. New and unfamiliar has been replaced by repetitive and regular.
Our lives are all suspended in a state of lost wandering where we spend so much of our time looking forward to the quote “end of quarantine” and when we can quote “get back to normal”. Everyday in our homes is a kind of mundane sameness. I think I’ll see what’s on Netflix. Let me bake something. I’ll read the latest headlines in the newspaper. Whoops that was a bad decision; now I’ll need to stress-eat most of that cake I just baked. Oh hey look, I’m on another zoom call. Is this one morning prayer or the class I’m taking or my kids piano lesson or an actual work meeting. Maybe when that’s over I’ll take a walk. Maybe I’ll walk around the block clockwise today instead of counterclockwise - that’ll be a switch. And so on and so on, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
For me, the only exciting variation to the past few months, other than a camping trip with my kids to West Virginia in June and perhaps binging ‘Tiger King’ back in April, is prayer in a virtual synagogue, like this. Synagogue is no longer the marker of the week that allows me to rest and ponder the meaning of the experiences I just had the past six days - synagogue is the experience itself. Heschel once called Shabbat ‘a palace in time’, but during Quarantine, the week is the palace, and shabbat is the day of venturing out into the fields to see what is new with the world. Shabbat and holidays are not a respite from experience, it is the experience itself.
There is a temptation, then, for all of us to look beyond the current moment, and to crave the time in the future when we have all been vaccinated and can take off our masks and get on an airplane safely again.
My parents and my in-laws keep calling and looking forward to when we can fly to California or Israel so they can see their grandchildren in person again. Everytime my kids is a favorite Disney song, they ask if we can go to Disneyland when this is all over. Me? I just want to sit at the local soccer bar with a cold beer and Arsenal Football Club on the TV, quietly watching as they once again blow a 2-1 lead at the death and slump once again back into 5th place.
But all of this conceiving of the experience as a ‘temporary pause’ is possibly counter-productive. All of this yearning for things to come rather than what is now is detrimental to our sense of being. Time passes for all of us - when the pandemic is over, we will be a year older. And if we had spent that time lamenting over what we could have been doing if not for Covid-19, we will have wasted that time. To paraphrase a quote of the great musician Thom Yorke - we’re not living, we’re just killing time.
Perhaps you could be spending this year writing the great American novel, but that’s not really what I mean by all of this. I mean to say that we ought to re-experience this time on a different wavelength. It’s slower. It’s more introspective. There’s more time to ponder and reflect.
We all know the expression that time flies when you’re having fun, and we have all felt the sense of time contracting when we want it last and conversely the hands of the clock dragging at a snails pace when we were doing something tedious and dull. Time feels relative. I’m not a theoretical physicist, but I know enough to understand the Cliffs Notes version of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. One of the principles is the following: Einstein's theory of special relativity says that time slows down or speeds up depending on how fast you move relative to something else. Approaching the speed of light, a person inside a spaceship would age much slower than his twin at home. Also, under Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravity can bend time. While Covid has not produced literal effects upon the gravity of the earth, it has demonstrated a degree of relativity regarding time - all the days are not the same. These newer, slower days must be conceived of differently than our previous “normal” days. We must find new understandings in order to establish meaning for our days, rather than just hope to endure them.
I’ve spent the past 9 months teaching myself new things - for me. I’ve been praying more, and meditating more, and doing more yoga. I learned to make a pretty good mojito. And I’m reading a lot more Hassidut - a certain type of Jewish literature that attempts to make every text of the Torah personally meaningful. For a traditional commentator, the story of Joseph being thrown in an empty well elicits questions of what the well was like, or how long he was down there. For the Hasidim, the question is about what our experiences of emptiness are like, and how we can fill that space.
In one of the Torah portions from this past summer, Shofetim, in the book of Deuteronomy, one of the disciples of the originator of Hassidut, the Baal Shem Tov, takes apart the opening verse ‘Shofetim v’shotrim titan lecha’. The rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, known as the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, says the following:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for you -
L’cha - to you, to yourself. Before you judge yourself, say something nice about yourself.
And, with the same measure of merit that you assess yourself, do the same for others. Don’t be lenient about yourself and strict with others. Forgive and be lenient with yourself, and be sure that with others, you are not splitting hairs and requiring from them what you are not requiring from yourself. “B’Chol Sh’arecha - In all your gates” - In all your assessments and measures of yourself.
This kind of approach to text is about constant, rigorous personal examination. It asks the reader to be introspective about their ways and their thoughts. It works nicely for quarantine in that - if I am only going to have limited face-to-face human interactions in a given day, I can use my textual introspections to make each of those interactions deeper, and perhaps a little more ethical and kind.
Deuteronomy 20:5-7, has a more explicit link to this topic of how we conceive of our time ; in we learn the following:
5) Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it.
6) Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it.
7) Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.”
The question our Torah poses to these warriors is the same as the question my children ask about Disneyland: is there someplace else you’d rather be? Except to some degree, the question is the inverse of our situation. The soldiers are told: before you is a great adventure, a dangerous experience, a mighty battle. But perhaps you have unfinished business at home. Therefore, return and finish that business. Settle your affairs.
We are in the inverse situation. We are not permitted to sally forth from our homes, except us essential workers or to pick up the groceries or the take-out. We must remain home. And therefore we ought to make use of it. To settle our affairs. To find ways of making the time meaningful through books or podcasts, through reconnecting with friends or becoming closer with our over the fence or across the street neighbors. We might be caring for children or older relatives full-time or trying to manage digital distance learning or home schooling, but we must also make time for ourselves, to make the most of this slow time in a way so that we come out of things having gained something from the experience. We do not get the time back at the end of this pandemic. The year will not have waited for us.
The paradox of this, on this day, is that under the guidance of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the various medical experts with whom they have consulted, we had to shorten up our services. This is for two reasons; first, that for those watching on Zoom at home, we have learned of the concept of ‘Zoom fatigue’ - that at a certain point, more becomes less, the eyes glaze over, and no matter how brilliant my sermon or how beautiful the congregational melody or how timeless the traditions of our synagogue and our faith, you lose the trees for the forest. In the words of the Talmud, you try and grasp too much, and you grasp nothing. The second reason is that the odds of the transmission of airborne illness increases with duration, so while I, a layperson might openly ask ‘really? A 3 hour service is actually more dangerous than a service that’s an hour and a half? The answer coming from doctors is “yes, rabbi, it really is.” I suspect that, for some of you, me dialing back my long winded High Holiday soliloquies is actually a relief. But if a majority of you feel cheated, please let Doris know, and I will make sure to give a series of 45 minute long sermons next year after we all get a vaccine. Nonetheless the point still stands - we seize this special time by elevating it, even if, this year, there is less to elevate.
One of the more stirring prayers of the High Holidays is of course the Unetanah Tokef, a piyyut composed likely sometime in the 8th century, the earliest version of which was found in the famous Cairo Geniza by Solomon Schechter. Towards the end of the liturgical poem one finds a series of stirring images that are borrowed from various verses from the Tanakh. The text reads
This text gives us a three-fold reflection on the meaning of time and taking stock of time during this quiet interlude of quarantine and travel restriction. First, it reminds us that time is previous, “like a passing shadow, a fading cloud”, which is not coming back.
But second, this piyyut is a juxtaposition of the fragility of humans and the dearness of our lives. All of the images presented, the pottery and the flower and the vanishing dream, neither last long nor are paragons of strength and virility. There is a more intense and terrifying refrain for Unetaneh Tokef, the famous ‘who shall live and who shall die’ section, which contains in it the emmanently relevant section for this year ‘who by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague’, but I like this section better. It subtly reminds us that our mortality, like a bit of pottery, is easily broken unless we take care to protect it.
And third, the whole point of all of these poetic references to mortality is to contrast it with the Holy One, Blessed Be, The sovereign living God, ever-present. To consider our own mortality for a moment is valuable, but to grant ourselves a moment to contemplate a Divine being with no beginning and no end, and no illness or fragility, and no death at all, gives us all a moment to reflect on the awesome concept of God in a world where we sometimes get lost in irrelevant silliness. Which brings us right back to the whole point of Rosh Hashanah, and this sermon, that we might in the words of the Psalms (Psalm 90:12)
Teach us to number our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.
As we go into Hebrew Year 5781, Let us meet the year head on and with purpose. Let us make it a stirring wind rather than a fleeting breeze, and a lush pasture rather than some withered grass. Let us use our time in these slow days to get more out of life, rather than wait to experience it when quarantine ends, when it will also inevitably speed up and give us less time to reflect.