Thoughts on Yom Kippur 2018
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We neither perceive the past as “no more” nor the future as “not yet” nor the present as a “fleeting moment.” Rather past, present, future merge and blend together…The past is joined to the future and both are reflected in the present. (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik)
Teshuva sensitizes us to the full significance of time…To be a Jew is to live poised between past and future: the past and future of our individual lives, of our ancient but still young people and of humanity as a whole. (R. Jonathan Sacks)
HaRambam famously articulated the underlying
message of the sounds of the shofar in his Hilkhot Teshuvah (3:4):
It has a deep meaning, as if saying “Awake, awake, sleepers
from your sleep…and examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your
Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the vanities of the
time and go astray the whole year…improve your ways and works.
A careful analysis of his precise wording
reveals a seemingly unbalanced contrast between “truth” and “vanities of the
time.” HaRambam curiously described our engagements with falsity within the
context of “time.” What lies at the root of this connection between folly and
Following the death of his close Italian
friend Michele Besso, Albert Einstein addressed Besso’s sister in a moving
has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like
us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past,
present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.”
Einstein referred to the unity of time,
a scientific principle which then provided him with psychological solace.
Unsurprisingly, the concept has significant religious and philosophical
ramifications, as well.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l discussed
this concept in several contexts. He wrote:
past is not gone; it is still here. The future is not only anticipated, it is
already here, and the present connects the future and the past…All three
dimensions of time merge into one experience, into one awareness.
R. Soloveitchik understood the underpinnings
of teshuvah within this context. He explained that we repent sins
committed in the past by redefining them in their continued existence in the
present. Past experiences represent the “early chapters” of our ever-evolving
book of life – “The infinite past enters into the present moment.”
The nature of those experiences is continuously transformed by later decisions
in the gradual processes of our lives.
Beyond our conceptual understanding of teshuvah,
however, embracing this understanding of time has broader applications. In
Alan Lightman’s best-selling novel Einstein’s Dreams, he imagined a
world where there are two times: mechanical time and body time.
People who live by mechanical time have exact schedules: they wake up at seven
every morning, eat lunch at noon and dinner at six. “When their stomachs growl,
they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose
themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it
will be time to go home.” Those who live by body time, in contrast, don’t keep
clocks. They eat when they are hungry and go to work whenever they wake up from
Lightman traced these two perspectives
regarding time to the two different words for time in ancient Greece: chronos
and kairos. Whereas chronos
is measured by quantity, kairos is determined by quality. Chronos is
“the relentless time that marches on in the external world, oblivious to the
lives of human beings,” while kairos is “time created by events.” When a
significant event occurs, it occupies a great deal of kairos. When
insignificant, its kairos is inexistent.
We all strive for more kairos in our
lives. We dread the ticking clock that accompanies our everyday routines and
yearn for those elusive moments of meaning. A proper understanding of time is
the key to achieving this feat. Envisioning the broader narrative of our lives
by realizing that each experience builds upon the past while connecting to the
future imbues even our seemingly petty activities with a particular
significance. It is through that prism that we understand their role as a
necessary step in the long-stretching process of our lives of meaning.
R. Soloveitchik developed this concept with
the alternative terminology of philosopher Henri Bergson, distinguishing
between quantitative time and qualitative time. He lamented the
people stuck in quantitative, dead time: “They measure time by the clock and by
the calendar. For them there is no merger of the past and the future. The
present itself is a lost moment.” Individuals who live in qualitative time, in
contrast, “measure time not by length-extensio, but by pure quality, creativity
and accomplishment.” The decision of how to view time is “up to man himself,”
R. Soloveitchik remarked, adding that it is “the highest criterion by which
man, life, and actions should be judged.”
R. Eliyahu Barukh Finkel z”l, one of
my rabbis at Yeshivat Mir, suggested that by mentioning “time” in the context
of our pursuit of false vanities HaRambam hinted at the underlying flaw of
those actions. Unlike acts of meaning, which eternally persist in the realm of
“qualitative time,” vane endeavors are confined by the minutes, hours or days
that they consume.
Indeed, it is fitting that the shofar – which represents both past (ma’amad
Har Sinai) and future (yemot ha-mashiah)
– arouses us from our slumber in time-boundedness, and awakens us to the world
of eternal time of quality.