THE TIME ELEMENT
Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik in his long essay And From There You Shall Seek, writes about the important issue of imitatio Dei, emulating God. Rabbi Soloveitchik feels that the attempt to imitate God gives expression to the despair that one can't bond with God. Our inability to merge with God leaves us with the alternative at least to mimic some of the Divine behavior. This allows the human being to feel free from the tyranny of causal nature, and attain metaphysical and moral freedom. But there's another problem. The Rav suggests that the basic source for this essential concept is the verse from the Song of the Sea: This is my God whom I shall imitate (Exodus 15:2). There are others, of course, but that identification with God at that moment of ecstasy when God's miraculous power was most manifest is critical. So, at the very instant that we declare our goal of copying God, we acknowledge that we can't. No human can recreate the splitting of the Sea. Therefore we acknowledge that our mimicry is real, but very limited.
This phenomenon can be seen, as well, in this week's special reading. The last of the four special Torah readings associated with the preparations for Purim and then Pesach begins as follows: This month should be to you as the head of all months (Exodus 12:20). On the technical Halachik level this verse presents us with the command to establish a lunar calendar. Actually, this mitzvah is amended later to the reality that we have lunar months, but a solar year. We reconcile the difference between the two directives by adding a thirteenth month seven times every nineteen years. But this article is not about the technical aspects of this complex mitzvah. This week we will be concerned with the spiritual ramifications of this precept.
Many commentaries see this mitzvah as developing a theoretical connection between the Jewish nation and the moon. Just as the moon waxes and wanes so, too, does the destiny of the Jewish people. Others see this material as announcing that there is a cultural divide between us and the rest of the world. There is Gentile time and there is Jewish time, and we use this device to maintain a social distinction. But, I believe, that the most significant concept is the Jewish relationship with time.
The verse declares that this time notion is lachem or to you. The Talmud uses this phrase to explain that we have the legal right to set the first of the Jewish month in ways that benefit the nation even if it's not on the exact day of the new moon's appearance. The calendar is ours to set as needed. The mystics carry this idea one step further. The members of the Jewish nation are the masters of time. Even though this doesn't exactly make us each into a Dr. Who, a Time Lord, there are two major lessons derived from this reality.
The first idea is emphasized by many Chasidic masters, and involves a pun. These authorities instruct us not to read the Hebrew word chodesh as it is written (meaning month), but as chidush, which means renewal. We are granted the power of spiritual makeover. This includes granting us the power of repentance. We can get infinite 'do overs' for our mistakes and transgressions.
It's the second idea which I find most attractive and meaningful (at least this year). When the Torah instructed us to master time, it introduced the revolutionary idea of quality time. Before that moment, time was only considered as a quantity. Humankind was obsessed with measuring time, especially years for agricultural purposes. But now the Torah is informing the nascent Jewish people that we are granted the power to establish those times when the new moon and month ceremony would take place. This means that we can sanctify time. The first of a Hebrew month is a minor festival, complete with special offerings in the holy
This brings us back to the idea of Rabbi Soloveitchik with which I began this essay. When we sanctify time we are imitating the behavior of God. At the end of Creation's first week, the Torah records: And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, for thereon He abstained from all His work that God created to do (Genesis 2:3). The Rav states that when we emulate God an interesting dichotomy is produced. On one hand we feel that we are subjugating ourselves to God, while on the other hand we feel that we are liberated from the bonds of body and earth. We must emphasize this freedom. We must learn from the mitzvah of sanctifying the months that we can do this personally with our own time. Time is such a precious commodity. We can't replace that which we've squandered. But we can conquer time, by deciding to make the most of what time we have. We are Time Lords when we make a time holy by dedicating it to study Torah or commune with God.
But the Rav also points out that we can get frustrated by our inability to really emulate God. Our power and control is so limited but then we have to remember the words of Maimonides: The prophets called God by other titles: "Slow to anger," "Abundant in kindness," "Righteous," "Just," "Perfect," "Almighty," "Powerful," and the like. They did so to inform us that these are good and just paths. A person is obligated to accustom himself to these paths and to try to resemble Him to the extent of his ability (Laws of Character Traits, 1:6). We do the best we can. Let's start by sanctifying an hour today.