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 temporality?
Following the death of his close Italian friend Michele Besso, Albert Einstein addressed Besso’s sister in a moving letter, writing:
Michele 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:
The 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 their sleep.
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.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and Human Condition (Jersey City, NJ, 2003), pg. 17. See, as well, R. Ezra Bick’s similar description of Emet, according to R. Yisshak Hutner z”l, in In His Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot (New Milford, CT, 2010), pg. 67-9.
For more on R. Soloveitchik’s concept of teshuvah, see, e.g., R. Yitzhak Blau’s “Creative Repentance: On Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Concept of Teshuvah,” Tradition 28:2, pg. 11-18, and Eliezer Goldman’s “Repentance and Time in the Philosophy of Rabbi Soloveitchik” in Emunah BiZemanim Mishtanim, ed. Avi Sagi (Jersualem, IS, 1996), pg. 175-89.