Marking Time

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31 Aug 2015

I knew a man who once told me, Time passes in the blink of an eye. When he told me, I was a young man and I could not comprehend what he was saying.

And then I blinked.

When I think of all the minutes, all the hours, all the days when it felt as if time was moving in slow motion, as if the hour, the day, the month would never end, I am astonished that those days, those months, those years have not just passed, they have flown by, leaving me to wonder, “Who is this senior citizen who greets me each morning in the mirror?”

Just three months ago – has it really been three months already!? – my yeshiva high school graduating class marked its fiftieth reunion. Fifty years! Oye, how we have all blinked. Fifty years ago, it was the classrooms of RJJ – Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef on New York’s Lower East Side– that were broken down and marked by “faded, peeling paint”.   Now, we are the ones showing our age. The lunchroom, where we enjoyed so many meals together, resembled nothing so much as “the set from the Game of Thrones”. Looking back, we have to assume that the Department of Health simply threw up its bureaucratic hands in surrender whenever it came to inspect. And the labs? Nothing less “than the prototype for the Frankenstein set!”

We noticed but were hardly deterred by our surroundings. Quite the opposite. We soldiered through our high school years together, a community in the richest sense of the word. We soaked in the shiurim, lessons, personalities and experiences and then set out to conquer the world. And while “conquest” might have been too high a bar for any of us, we all not only survived but we flourished. We proved to be successes in our fields of endeavor. RJJ taught us to adapt to all the challenges we would face, and to try our best no matter what the world dealt us. We became accomplished rabbis, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, educators, community leaders, professors, CEO’s, and mathematicians.

We graduated in 1965 and our lives’ trajectories took us in different directions; like light from a single source, we shone outward, illuminating our paths. We had little time or opportunity to look back. Our professions, our families, our lives kept us moving forward, always forward.

And then we blinked.

Returning on May 17th to this community, changed so dramatically by age and experience, knowing joy and sadness, grief and delight, was overwhelming. Returning to this community was such an emotional event; the love, the friendship, the camaraderie rushed back and filled my heart nearly to bursting. Forget the balding heads (not mine!) and the gray beards, we were all as if we were eighteen again, living in the midst of one of the most disjointed and challenging decades in American history – the 60s. We were robbed of our Camelot by an assassin’s bullet. We aimed for the moon. We marched against war and racism. Jerusalem reunited!

During the reunion, there was a slide show of the fifteen chaveirim who are no longer with us, their yearbook photographs, youthful faces and bright eyes belying the truth of their passing. Like us, they were young again, filled with life and hope, over-brimming with optimism and enthusiasm, ready to take the world by storm.

The reunion was an almost Kabbalistic experience. For a brief few hours, time was turned on its head. Fifty years had been made to vanish. We were all eighteen once again. And yet… and yet… time does not turn back on itself. The nostalgia was real. The sensation of being young once again was real. But we were not eighteen again.

Fifty years had passed. A jubilee… A Yovel.

The Torah teaches us that all slaves are to be set free during the Yovel year and all sales of land were returned to the original owner. “For the land is mine; you are only temporary residents and settlers together with me.” (Vayikra 25:23)

On Yom Kippur of the Yovel year, the shofar is to be sounded, calling our thoughts and attention to the power of that moment, a moment on which time seems to pivot. “Then you sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout the land.” (Vayikra 25:9) At the Yovel Year, the fiftieth year, at that time of introspection, we are called to be aware of many things, most powerfully of our own temporary abode in the land.

If the passing of time teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are but “temporary residents.” The river keeps flowing, the train keeps moving along that track.

We mark time, but we do not corral it.

* * *

The Midrash records a conversation between the Almighty and the angels.

“When is Rosh Hashanah, and when is Yom Kippur?” the angels ask. God is amazed by the question and responds, “Why are you asking me? Let us go down to the lower [human] court and find out. Does it not explicitly say: ‘Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the full moon for the feast day. For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.’”

By his response, God is teaching the angels that man has the knowledge and ability to meaningfully create and design his own days of celebration, his own calendar. Man has tools, methods and techniques to infuse his days with values, content and meaning. While it is true that the seasons of harvest and planting, the pilgrimages and certain holidays are set, it falls to man to use his intellect to celebrate and mark these days with fervor and meaning.

In teaching Moshe about the celebration of sacred days, God says, “These are the special times that you must celebrate as sacred holidays at their appropriate times.”

Proper celebration of God’s festivals requires the complete and full participation of man; Halachically through Kiddush Ha-Chodesh, cross examination of witnesses, announcements of the new moon to other distant communities and personally, by infusing the days with meaning, and spirit.

* * *

We can – indeed, we must – infuse our days with thought and meaning. We must account not only for the passing of time but for the way in which we move in time. But move we must.

We blink.

We cannot help but realize one day that fifty years have passed. The walls of our classrooms are gone and now it is upon the canvas of our faces that the weight of time is seen most clearly.

We can no more slow down time than hold the wind in our fists. We can try to hold our eyes open… open, open… but we cannot help it. We blink.