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Eternity in Disguise

We have a very strange relationship to time in our society. I once read somewhere that we use exactly the same language and metaphors to refer to time as we do to money: we save time, we waste time. We spend time, we invest time. Time is precious and must be put to good use and not squandered. It’s very interesting! Money is so concrete. Yes, there are many abstract elements in our monetary system, but by comparison, money is something based on resources in the physical world. It’s something that you could, at least theoretically, hold in your hand. Time, of course, has nothing concrete about it—but we assign it concrete status, as if the watch on your wrist actually tells you how much time you “have.” But is time, like money, something that we ever actually have at all? Strangely, the more you think about it, you realize that the answer is ‘no:’ There’s nothing material about time at all. It’s never, in fact, a commodity in our lives. And yet we all very unconsciously assume that time is ‘something’ that we can’t get through our day without. We all can sense time. We all can feel time passing—Lord knows, when we’re running late for a critical meeting or a major family event, the passage of time is agonizingly real and painful. So today I would like us to explore together this strange aspect of life known as ‘time,’ and how we as Jews, are called upon to relate to it.

In this week’s Torah reading, the life of the great matriarch, Sarah Imenu, Sarah—the wife of Abraham, the mother of the Jewish people--comes to an end. Sarah, we are told, lived to a ripe old age, 127 years old, to be exact. But the Torah expresses her age in a very unusual way. The text says, “Vayehiyu chayey Sarah me’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, shnei chayey Sarah,” And Sarah lived one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah. Why, our ancient sages asked, did the Torah refer to her years so strangely—all lengthened out like that? Why didn’t the Torah simply say that she lived to be 127 years old? The answer that our sages give us was that the Torah had to write out her age like that in order to express the fact that Sarah didn’t just live to an old age, she lived well until an old age. Rashi, the great medieval commentator says, “kulam shavim Latovah,” all her years were equal in goodness. She lived her life fully, magnificently, beautifully every year, every day, every moment of her life. In this way, she merited being the great matriarch of the Jewish people. If anyone didn’t ‘waste’ her life, it was Sarah! In enumerating her years, the Torah gives us a eulogy expressed simply by referring to the years of a human being’s life, and in this way—in defying the normal way we think about the years of a life-- the Torah is a powerful teacher to us all about how we must think about the time we have here on earth.

There’s an old story told by Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander. There was once a fellow who was so very forgetful. Indeed, his memory was so short that when he awoke each morning, he could not remember where he had laid his clothes the night before. Things got so bad for him that he could not fall asleep, so great was his nervousness about finding his things upon waking. One evening, however, he hit on a great idea. Taking a pencil and paper, he wrote down exactly where he had placed each item of clothing. Placing his notes on the nightstand, by his bed, he quickly feel asleep, confident that he would find everything just perfectly in the morning.

And indeed he did. He woke up, took the notes form this nightstand, and read off each item in turn: pants—on chair back; and there they were. He put them on. ‘Shirt—on bed post; and there it was. He put it on. Hat—on desk; and there it sat. He placed it on his head. In a few minutes the fellow was completely dressed. But suddenly a great dread came upon him.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said aloud. ‘Here are my pants, my shirt, and my cap; but where am I?’ He looked and looked and looked, but he could find himself nowhere! Reb Chanoch Henich paused for a moment and then concluded ‘And that is how it is with each of us as well.”[1]

What is this story getting at? Think about it: where am I? Where are you, indeed? I’m standing here! And you’re sitting in this chair, of course! It’s obvious, isn’t it? Or is it really that obvious? At some point, especially if I keep droning on, you may look at your watch and say ‘What time is it? When does this end, anyway? I wonder what there will be to eat when this is over?’ If you can catch yourself at that very moment, then where are you? Are you really still here? Or have you actually gotten lost in time? I don’t mean time-travelling, I mean: have you suddenly looked at your watch and mentally left this moment in favor of some other, future moment? Similarly, you could be sitting here listening to me, and suddenly you remember that you forgot to return an important email from yesterday, or you remember a fight you had with a family member last week, and you’re feeling bad about it. Again, are you really here, or are you now lost in the past? In either case, have you actually left the chair? Physically, of course not. But in every other sense—you have left this place. You’re gone. You’re missing this moment, the only moment that’s really happening!

The Sfat Emet, a wonderful commentary from the last century, derives a very powerful teaching from the opening line from this week’s Torah reading about Sarah’s years. According to the Sfat Emet, there’s an important mitzvah about time that we all are commanded to follow. In the first paragraph of the Shema, from the book of Deuteronomy (6:5), there are the words ‘v’hayu had’varim ha’eleh asher anochi metzavcha hayom al levavecha,” What does that mean literally? ‘These are the words that I command you this day upon your heart.’ The Sfat Emet suggests another way of reading this line: he says the point of the line is the phrase: asher anochi metzavcha Hayom: What I, God, command you this day. Stop there, says the Sfat Emet, and the power of all these words, of all the Torah becomes clear: What God commands upon us is ‘HaYom,’ Today! In other words, what God on high commands us to do is to be Present to what’s happening HaYom, today! That Hebrew word, HaYom, doesn’t just mean a 24 hour period the way we conventionally think of a day. HaYom means ‘right now.’ For the Sfat Emet, the one commandment that makes our True adherence to Torah possible is our adherence to HaYom, to just being Here, right now!

When that forgetful man in our story can’t find himself, it’s not that he can’t find himself in space. He can’t find himself ‘in time.’ And when it’s all said and done, each of us—you and I—we’re all that forgetful man! We can never find ourselves in time! And in our modern world, of atomic clocks and precision Swiss-timing watches, paradoxically, we’re more lost in time than ever. What time is it right now? Look at your watch. What exactly does that mean? It’s just a concept. And it’s a very stressful concept because those seconds keep ticking away. We’re always afraid of running out of time, just as we fear running out of money. But time is NOT money. Our time on earth may indeed by limited, but time actually doesn’t run out. Ever! Haven’t you noticed? There is always Now, and then Now, and then Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, Lakol Zman v’et l’chol chefetz,tachat hashamayim: et laledet v’et lamut, et lata’at, v’et la’akor natua…” For every time and for everything under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to uproot the planted.”

The great paradox at the heart of the Jewish relationship to time is that we’re really making the best of our time in this life when we question the solidity of the concept of time itself! This doesn’t mean that we’ll be forevermore late to everything, or that we’ll never again get anything done. Somehow, miraculously, when we question that solidity of time itself, things manage to get done even better than before, because we’re not stressed about time anymore. This is the essential meaning of Shabbat itself. While, all other six days of the week, we’re constantly checking our watches and mentally living in the past or in the future, Shabbat is an opportunity to put away your watch and live with no time at all. Shabbat is all about basking in the eternity that flashes in this moment. And somehow, our people have managed to survive for thousands of years even without worrying about the time for one day a week. So today, you can put away your watch. What time is it? It’s just Shabbat. Just for now, there is no past and no future. Just this! Imagine if you could live your life with that kind of freedom! How liberating that would be! This is the promise of Shabbat! Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best in his book, The Sabbath: “What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the heart? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time…There is no quality that space has with the essence of God…the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.” [2]

When we look at our watches and become stressed because we’re late, or we feel guilt because of time we have wasted—the reason why we are really feeling that pain in our souls is because at that moment, we’re in the disguise, and not in the Reality of this moment. When we lose ourselves in projected pasts or futures, we have abandoned our True Selves. We have left Eternity. We have left God! The Kotzker Rebbe once famously asked, “Where is God? Wherever you let Him in!” If we’re never Here, Now, then we can never find God!

So this is the real reason why the Torah lengthens out the years of Sarah’s life. She, together with Abraham, was a great teacher of Torah because her days, her moments, were full. She lived a life endeavoring to let God in by allowing the Present Moment to be. Perhaps it’s this quality of being Present that distinguishes all the great figures of the Bible. When God calls to Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Moses—what is their response? Hineini! The Hebrew word Hineini means: Here I am! They were NOT lost like the forgetful man in our story. When they say Hineini, they’re not telling God where they are in space. God certainly knows that! What God really means when God calls to them is: Are you Here, Now? Our Patriarachs and Matriarchs indeed were able to say yes, Hineini. And it wasn’t JUST on Shabbat. They were ready and able to say Hineini: I am Here, Now, all the moments of their lives. Sarah was able to do it one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years. We may not be able to quite be that Present yet in our lives, but this Shabbat of honoring the life of Sarah Imenu, may we indeed learn from her example. May we embrace the practice of Shabbat, and of discovering moments of seeing through the disguise of eternity, and just bask in the glow of that eternity in this very moment. May we indeed always be able to say Hineini in that eternity, and once there, may we find peace and the Presence of God.

[1] Hasidic Tales, Translated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, 2004. P. 191

[2] The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 16


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