Rabbi Micah Citrin
April 25, 2014
The French Catholic priest and theologian Michael Quoist penned the following poem about time:
I went out, God. People were coming and going, walking, and running.
Everything was rushing: cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
People were rushing not to waste time.
They were rushing after time, to catch up with time, to gain time.
Good-bye sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.
I must end this letter – I haven’t time
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept, having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray but I haven’t time. You understand, God, they simply haven’t time.
The child is playing, he hasn’t time right now…later on…
They young married has his house, he has to fix it up. He hasn’t time…later on…
They are dying. Too late. They have no more time!
And so all people run after time, God.
They pass through life, running, hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic,
And they never get there. They still haven’t time.
In spite of all their efforts, they’re still short of time.
God, you must have made a mistake in your calculations.
The hours are too short, the days are too short, our lives are too short.
You who are beyond time, God, You smile to see us fighting it.
And you know what you are doing.
You make not mistakes in Your disturbances of time to people.
You give each one time to do what You want him to do.
But we must not deface time, waste time, kill time.
For time is not only a gift that you give us, but a perishable gift, a gift that does not keep.
God, I have plenty of time. I have plenty of time, all the time you gave me.
The years of my life, the days of my years, the hours of my days, they are all mine.
Mine to fill quietly, calmly but to fill completely to the brim.
I love this poem. It is one of those pieces of writing that for me, puts things back into focus; shakes me from myopic inertia and gives me perspective. This poem also reminds me of Kedoshim, our Torah portion for the week. Kedoshim is not only the heart of the book of Leviticus, it is also the heart of Torah. We find it almost exactly at the middle of the scroll, and it is also the heart Torah values expressing some of the highest ideals our tradition has to offer:
When you reap the harvest of your land, leave the corners for the poor and the stranger.
The wages of the laborer shall not remain with you until morning.
You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.
Love your neighbor as yourself. When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him, you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.
Embedded within all of these noble obligations resides an ethic of time. Like the poem, Kedoshim returns to a motif of what it means to sanctify time and honor time. I want to consider three verses in Kedoshim and what they teach us about Jewish attitudes toward time.
In the third verse of our portion, Torah calls on us to revere our mother and father and to keep Shabbat. Both of these ideas reflect significant mitzvot of Judaism. In fact it is almost an exact of rephrasing of the4th and 5th of the 10 commandments, to remember the Shabbat and to honor father and mother. In this version, however, reverence of parents precedes Shabbat. What is the relationship between these two values? The Chatam Sofer, the 18th century Hungarian rabbi, teaches us that the commandment regarding reverence of parents focuses on the origins of creation, our beginning, while the commandment around Shabbat emphasizes the ultimate goal around creation, wholeness and perfection of our world. As creations ourselves and ultimately creators, we do not get a taste of holiness until we stop and literally take a timeout. In pausing, we can appreciate our own lives, the development of our potential for goodness that we possess as a creation of God, and we can reflect on the work of our lives and its impact on our corner of the world. When we take the time to stop, we reconnect with our ultimate sense of purpose.
Among all of the ethical gems of this Torah portion, we find a very specific commandment regarding the consumption of a well-being sacrifice offered to God. The Torah says that it should be eaten on the day it was sacrificed, or the following day, but if there is anything left over on the third day, it should be consumed in fire. Some might say that the lesson is clear: Judaism finds leftover abhorrent. Actually, I believe this verse teaches us something about how time is fleeting. Like the sacrifice, there are aspects of our lives that are time sensitive, especially the things that really matter. If we miss out on them, they are gone. Children grow quickly, and childhood is fleeting. Time with an elderly relative becomes more and more precious. Kedoshim asks us to be fully present in each moment of our lives. They are opportunities for us to make our own offerings, to draw near. I am guilty of using following phrase too often when Itai or Yonah call for me in the house. “Just a minute” I might say, “I will be there in a minute.” I’m in the middle of dishes, or paying bills, or an email. But, those minutes add up. Those are minutes we don’t get back; they become consumed. We need to learn to savor moments of time that we won’t get back, the bills, emails, and dishes will remain.
You shall be holy, for I Adonai, your God am holy. This is the whole point, not only of this portion, but truly the whole Torah. And just as the 7th day was declared holy by God, our lives achieve holiness in time. The Psalmist says that 1000 days are but one in the eyes of God. Yet our days are finite, so we touch the infinite through holiness in time. The Jewish secret to holiness in time is in community. “Kedoshim t’hiyu, you plural,” shall be holy. Holiness is not found in solitude on a mountaintop. Rather, holiness in time emerges within a communal framework that connects to others who share our same values. In her book Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, Judith Schulvitz suggests that “sacred calendars were – and are – strictly communitarian. Religious time, she writes, does not satisfy individual needs. It make inexorable demands, flowing from prayer service to prayer service, from festival to festival.” To fully appreciate time and live in the holiness of time, we have to value time with others. Shabbat arrives from Friday sundown, to Saturday sundown. The secret to holiness means adjusting our clocks to something greater that our own needs, and only when we do this can we achieve that sense of holiness in time.
Michael Quoist is right. We have plenty of time, but only if we take Shabbat to stop and remember our purpose in life, only if we know what moments are precious and will not last as leftovers, and only when we commit to one another to celebrate the times of our lives together as we do this very moment.