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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
A man doesn't have time in his life
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
The poem, “A man in his life” by Yehuda Amichai continues but for me, these stanzas summarise the year that has just gone. There was just not enough time for us to achieve all we would wish in our lives. There is a lot of focus on households with two parents working which often involves grandparents in child-rearing and parent caring – the sandwich generation. Even when we take children out of the equation we are still a society of worker bees. Many of our retired congregants tell me, ‘I am busier than ever.’ Oh to have more time – just what we would achieve. Oh to have more time – just what would we achieve?
Now, I was hopeless at physics in schools, so forgive me if you have a far more advanced understanding of the time-space continuum than I do. As I understand it, the time-space continuum relates to a sphere over which we have a certain amount of control and one over which we have none. We can make a difference to movement but time just keeps on moving forward. In simple Goldstein language, this concept emphasises the importance of time and how we use it.
Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have expressed this thought relating to a Jewish perspective. One of the most famous and eloquent exponents was Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the last century. From the simplest of reading of Torah, he claims that Time is of more importance to Jews than Space. His reasoning is that the first thing made holy by God was the sanctification of Shabbat – Time. The renowned Chasidic Rebbe, Mecachem Mendel of Kotzk is reported to have answered a child who asked him where God was, “Whenever you let God in.” The Rebbe answers the child’s question by rephrasing the question to reflect Time not Space. In a fantastic work of fiction relating to Albert Einstein’s relationship with Time, Alan Lightman has Einstein say to his friend, “I want to understand time because I want to get close to The Old One.”
If we look at our Torah portion today, the Akedah, it also elevates the importance of time over place. Most of the experiences that Abraham has of God, as with this one today, occur in a place that it is promised God will reveal to Abraham or one which Abraham perceives for himself. In the Akedah, both are apparent. God says, ‘al ached heharim asher omar ayleckha – on one of the hills which I will point out to you.;’ but then we are not sure whether God has pointed a hill out before, ‘vayisa Avraham et aynayv vayar et hamakom mayrakhok – as he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar.’ This place, as with so many others in the book of Genesis - the book that contains the majority of the Torah’s personal God encounters – has no name. It is not known. We just have to imagine what the scene was like on the nameless and featureless hill that Abraham saw from afar. The place only becomes known because of the experience in time that occurs there. The place is usually named after the experience. The very name of the place is designed to remind one of the time.
Time is of the utmost importance to humanity, far greater than the trappings of space around us. We come from the earth and we return to the earth – each one of us equal and the time we have on earth so precious. Time is of the utmost importance to Jews – and yet, boy, as humans and especially as Jews, doesn’t it bother us that we can’t control it. Don’t you know that we control everything else in the world!
So, let me delight you this Rosh Hashanah to know that we can control time! Of course we always knew that the conspiracy theorists were right!
You just have to look in the Talmud for the proofs! In the Babylonian Talmud in the tractate concerning this time, Rosh Hashanah, a verse from Exodus is cited:
“This new moon is for you (Ex 12:2).” It is under your authority, and you are not under its authority. [That the moon is under Israel’s authority may be seen from] a story told of Rabbi Hiyya the Elder.
Once, on the night ushering in [a Wednesday preceding the day when] New Year’s Day [had to be set], the old moon was so bright that cattle drivers were able to walk three mil by its light (a sign according to bRH 20b that the new moon would not appear for at least 24 hours). When R. Hiyya saw the moon, he threw pebbles and clods of earth at it, saying, “It is tomorrow that we wish to declare you the new moon, yet you have arisen now?” Go cover yourself.” The moon vanished then and there! (bRH 25a; Tanhuma B, Bo 8).
This passage might appear obscure to us but the scenario of the light – whether it be that of the old moon or the new moon - would cause distress in all the traditional homes of our ancestors. It would mean that Yom Kippur would either fall on Sunday or Friday, a disaster for those who also needed to consider Shabbat.
A similar passage from the Palestinian Talmud (RH 1:3 57b; MTeh 81:6), draws on a similar case but ends by making explicit what a radical notion was being made: “A decree for Israel is an ordinance for the God of Jacob (Ps 81:5).” But when it is not a decree for Israel, it is not – chas v’halela; if one dare speak thus – an ordinance for the God of Jacob.
Both passages support a radical understanding of the timing of Rosh Hashanah. Although their concern may have concerned the minutiae of the law: to guard against any contravention of halakhah – Jewish Law - that might anger God or bring them bad luck; for me, it creates the possibility that one or two or my ancient forebears felt that time needed to be taken under control. The best time for Rosh Hashanah was when the people need it to be. What use is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur if all traditional adherents do is worry about how & when they are to cook, or one suspects, if they were male, if and of what quality a morsel might be prepared for them on return from Shul? For Liberal Jews and surely the underlying essence of this season, is to make time for contemplation - an attempt to understand our world and particularly ourselves.
So how, do we take time under our control?
I am not sure whether you were ready for Rosh Hashanah occurring now, at this moment in time. I certainly was not as this has been rather a hectic period for me – he says with perfect British understatement! In fact when is a good time to break into our routine? If we break into them they are not routine and for many of us, our routine is governed by our movement in space, going to one place to another and back again as time flies by.
The major key-word in the Akedah that defines Rosh Hashanah for me is, ‘hineini – here I am.’ You heard the word three times this morning each occurrence meaning something different in essence. In essence because it was not denoting a state of place but of time. In two instances, Abraham is responding to God, but God denoted by different names. The first name is Elohim – All-powerful, All-mighty – the Master, to whom Abraham has acquiesced thus far in his life…..the second name is Adonai, represented by the malakh Adonai. I imagine these voices to sound different. The voice of Elohim that spoke to Abraham is rather scary, booming, certainly urgent and demanding. It is certainly male. The voice of Adonai, is gentle, soothing, unhurried and in my mind, invariably female. Of course, the voices I imagine are my own socially conditioned constructs. What is important is what they represent. To which voice must Abraham or we listen?
The traditional view of the Akedah, held commentators across time, such as Maimonides, Kierkegaard and Leibovtiz, is that the Akedah teaches obedience to God. Abraham is just a puppet in the story. He obeys the command to offer up his son in silence and he obeys the command to refrain from doing so. He listens to both voices and in this understanding and passes the test God has set him.
However, there are those commentators, my favourite Chasidic Rebbe, the Gerer Rebbe in his book Sfat Emet, Andre Neher and Harold Kushner, who suggest that the test of the Akedah was not to see if Abraham would obey but whether he would protest. The Divine voice that comes from the malakh Adonai, is none other than the call to our conscience. According to this theory, he listens to both voices and fails the test. Why did Abraham not challenge the efficacy of sacrificing his son to God as he had challenged the justice for the people of Sodom? Why does he need the voice of malakh Adonai to be his conscience? An alternative reading again is that the malakh Adonai is Abraham’s conscience. That Abraham himself challenges the notion that this type of sacrifice is abhorrent. He calls to himself, ‘Abraham, Abraham..’ [..what are you doing? What kind of Deity would demand this of you?] In this reading, the Akedah represents the evolution of human thought.
For the past fifteen minutes, we have engaged in the kind of thought that Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, my guru who I introduced to you in my Induction sermon and again as the focus of my study at my father’s Rabbinic Siyyum to conclude his Retirement Weekend, terms: ‘spiritual thinking.’ Rabbi Hoffman suggests that:
“Spiritual thinking is the attempt to say more about the universe than science can, without saying anything that science cannot at least grant as possible and maybe even probable. It is consistent with ancient thought, but couched in the language of today. It connects us with our past, but speaks to our present. It is intellectually sophisticated, but not academically distant from what matters most to us.”
Spiritual thinking transcends time.
How easily we have spent these fifteen minutes. How easy because we have engaged in spiritual thinking. Spiritual thinking is so valuable because it is thinking about what really matters in our lives. It transcends time and allows us to consider how we use that most vital of opportunities that we have, our short span on this earth.
So how will we use the precious time that we have over this year? Will we set aside another moment such as this, for spiritual thinking? Oh how we would cherish it. So will you engage with me in spiritual thinking, even just once more over this year of 5769? Will do so because its benefit is in creating the moment, sometimes just for its own sake, sometimes because it creates a new reality in our life. Will you come and engage with Hillel and I? Will you come and give us the opportunity to hear you? Your spiritual thinking is so vital to us and we would dearly value the opportunity to hear you.
If you have accepted the importance of time and if you have accepted the importance of spiritual thinking to transcend time, get your diary out now and write down the next opportunity that you will engage with us. Over this year, may we share time, maybe even sometimes take it under our control.
A man doesn't have time in his life
Just as Yehudah Amichai challenges Ecclesiastes, let us challenge Amichai and ourselves and maybe just once prove that a Jew can control time!
© Copyright 2008 NPLS