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Putting Boundaries on Time

Rabbi Dan Smokler | Parshat Bo


Rabbi Dan Smokler is a 1996 Bronfman alum. He is the Chief Innovation Officer at the Schusterman International Center for Hillel International.

We live in a cultural moment where time can feel wholly undifferentiated.  The power of new technology makes it possible to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime.   

Work is conducted at day or at night, as easily in transit as in bed.  Even in-between moments – waiting in line, commuting to work, running errands – can become time for listening to music, taking in a lecture, or making a conference call.  The notion made popular by rail workers a century ago that a good day was composed of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will” seems quaint and unimaginable today.  Even the slogan about “a work life balance” that plagues professionals seems off the mark.  Our time is a churn of work and “life,” of entertainment and learning, of shopping and giving, happening all the time, everywhere.
Usually when we use technology to break down the boundaries of time we do not do it thoughtfully.  We answer calls when it might be best to not, we plug in when quiet might be more called for, or turn our downtime into work time.  The technology is so dazzling that it tramples our best intentions.
We might not be the first generation to live in poorly structured time.  The Israelite slaves described in the Torah portion labored under the worst of conditions with no control over their schedule.  Time for them was probably also undifferentiated.  To be enslaved is be always on call, able to be worked and exploited, forever.  Time can never really be organized if it is never yours to organize.         
Perhaps that is why the first commandment given to the freed slaves reads simply,
“This month shall be for you the first of all months,” which came to mean, “make a calendar, sanctify each month.” Apparently the first discipline God demands of the newly liberated slaves is not something as lofty as loving the widow and the orphan, but something much more basic: organize your time.
We are not slaves today by any measure, and we can determine the calendar far more accurately than our ancestors, but the Jewish practice of ordering time might be a spiritual discipline that could serve us well.  In his work Shem MiShmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926), the second Rebbe of Sochatchov, offers some thoughts that might give us insight into how to reclaim a bit of this practice for ourselves.
He draws a distinction between the spiritual orientation of shabbat and that of the new moon, rosh chodesh.  He explains that the restfulness, the menucha, of shabbat is experienced in direct proportion to the spiritual “work” an individual puts in the week before.  A week of mitzvot, of study, of giving of oneself to others creates a deep sense of rest and fulfillment on shabbat.  A week of self-seeking and indulgence leads to a shabbat of anxiety.  Shabbat is often described as a day of unplugging.  The Sochatchover would say this is half true.  Shabbat is indeed for unplugging, but the “or kedushat shabbat”--the ethereal holiness of shabbat--comes from what we put in before.  Shabbat is a call to live more fully so we can enjoy more deeply.
By contrast, the diminishing moon that heralds a new month challenges one to realize that time is slipping away.  A person becomes filled with regret knowing that a month is gone and will not quickly return.  Thus new months become linked conceptually with regret, repentance and self-improvement.   A new moon is not a call to live more fully as a weekday-shabbat cycle is, but a periodic moment to realize that the time to change things, to act differently, to make life better is rapidly slipping away.  Says the Sochatchover, “If one does not seize the moment now [at the a new moon] the opportunity is lost.”
To the Sochatchover’s two orientations to time we might add a third: the notion of living zmanim.  All around my neighborhood of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, signs are posted conspicuously in countless stores announcing the proper time to light shabbat candles and to say the morning shema prayer.  One effect of these guidelines is that they break the day into manageable moments of sanctity.  The task for one block of time is to light candles, the task of another is to say the shema.  This is an approach to time that is extraordinarily concrete, asking the practitioner to perform a specific disciplined task at regular intervals.  These could be the classical commandments associated with zmanim, but it need not be restricted to these practices alone.  What if there were regular disciplines of learning, of good deeds, of mindfulness that were practiced daily in their proper zman?  This might lead to a different relationship with time.
Each of these consciously constructed relationships with time—whether on the scale of a week, a month, or a day—responds deeply and mindfully to God’s first charge to the Jewish people: “This month shall be for you the first of all months.”
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