To master time is to be truly free
Celebrating Passover, I’ve been reminded of a very odd feature of the biblical story.
Jews read the books of Moses not just as history but as divine command. The question to which they are an answer is not, “What happened?” but rather, “How, then, shall I live?” And it’s only with the exodus that the life of commands really begins.
According to Jewish tradition, the first command the Jewish people ever received was the line in Exodus 12: “This month is to be for you the first month.” We interpret this as the command to establish a calendar, with its Sabbaths, holy days, and special seasons.
Let’s study this the way Jews do, which is by asking awkward questions. Here is the obvious question. Why was this the first command? The Israelites were still slaves in Egypt. They were longing for freedom. They were about to begin the long journey across the desert. Why did they need a command about calendars and holy days? What has a diary to do with liberty?
To this, one Jewish scholar offered a brilliant answer. What, he asked, is the difference between a free human being and a slave? We tend to think that it has to do with labour, toil, and effort. A slave works hard. A free person doesn’t. But in actuality, some free people work very hard indeed, especially those who enjoy their work.
The real difference, he said, lies in who has control over time. A free human being works long hours because at some stage, he or she has chosen to. A slave has no choice, no control over time. That, he said, is why fixing a calendar was the first command given to the Israelites. It was as if G-d was saying to them: if you are to be free, the first thing you must learn to master is time.
It’s a fascinating insight, and one that still seems to hold true. Some years ago, there was a study to discover the most stressful occupation. It turned out not to be the head of a large business, football manager, or prime minister, but rather, a bus driver. In 2011, the list was headed by airline pilots, fire-fighters, and taxi drivers. These are people always struggling with time against factors not under their control. The least stressful? Bookbinder. Binding books soothes the soul.
Without arguing the point in detail – we all think ours is the most stressful occupation – it’s an insight we often overlook. When I was studying economics in the 1960s, the received wisdom was that with automation, we would all be working 20-hour weeks, and our biggest problem would be what to do with all our leisure. In reality, the working week has grown longer, not shorter. And with emails, texts, smartphones, and the like, we can be on call 24/7. In terms of stress and control over our time, are we freer than we were, or less so? My guess is, less so.
Part of the beauty of Judaism, and surely this is so for other faiths also, is that it gently restores control over time. Three times a day, we stop what we are doing, and turn to G-d in prayer. We recover perspective. We inhale a deep breath of eternity. Nor do we rush our meals. Before eating, and afterward, we say a blessing. That, too, allows us to focus attention on simple pleasures, turning our daily bread into momentary epiphany.
Ask any time-management expert for the most important distinction, and she is likely to answer: the difference between the important and the merely urgent. Under pressure of time we tend to ignore the things that are important but not urgent. That’s why the Sabbath is a life-saver. It’s time dedicated to the things that are important but not urgent, like eating together as a family or celebrating together as a community or simply giving thanks. These are the things that flood a life with unexpected happiness. On the Sabbath – unless you are a rabbi – stress has no chance at all.
Religious ritual is a way of structuring time so that we, not employers, the market, or the media, are in control. Life needs its pauses, its chapter breaks, if the soul is to have space to breathe. Otherwise, we may not be in Egypt, but we can still be slaves.
• Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He was an international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author, and respected moral voice. The article was taken from a collection of his writing before he died.
Mother nature’s gifts
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It’s called ‘Chayei Sarah’ [The Life of Sarah], but it begins with the death of Sarah. What’s more, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called life? The answer, it seems, is that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.”
Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey which G-d had sent him and Sarah on, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that G-d was with him.
I see and feel profound meaning in this paradox. Sarah’s social status – and its impact on the future of her family and people – was so great, it only increased after her passing.
Sarah, our mother, our matriarch, the mother of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She was a role model for women of her era, as well as becoming a role model for the modern woman of the 21st century.
We can’t forget that we live in a world of duality, of light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. Sarah knew that according to well-established laws, neither side of that duality was more important than the other. In fact, they were really different degrees of the same thing – and in truth, light couldn’t exist without darkness, neither could men exist without women – and vice versa.
We often get so caught up in our own lives that we seldom pay attention to the power of mother nature. Let’s take a simple example of one mistakenly cutting oneself while preparing dinner for the family. The wound bleeds. Perhaps we run some water over it, or apply some pressure, and shortly thereafter, we leave it alone. What does mother nature do? She moves according to well-established laws, laws that are firmly in the direction of healing, and the wound begins to heal on its own. It’s only when we interfere with mother nature that things tend to go wrong. Left to her own devices, we are generally in good hands.
We should do all that we can to uplift those around us to see the same light we see, and then allow mother nature (through the womb of time) to do what she does best. Let’s not be consumed by trying to sweep the darkness out of the dark room. Let’s be like Sarah, and turn our attention to the light, reach out, and switch it on. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and pass those gifts down, l’dor vador (from generation to generation) through the generations of mothers following Sarah.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
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