Ki Tissa: Time and Change

Time and change are inseparable as a logical truth, but not a spiritual one.  

Time, it is said, “keeps everything happening all at once.” It would be a sad beach getaway if you could go on vacation and come home from vacation simultaneously. All change that happens in the world takes time as well. Even moving your lips into a smile takes a second. Logically this makes sense. Time and change are linked.  

Once, we used this logical connection between time and change to measure both. The ancient sailors would look upon the stars and how they shifted to discern where they were and what season was unfolding. Similarly, in ancient Israel, there were special emissaries who were “moon watchers” whose duty was to gaze nightly at the sky to understand when the month begins and ends. Also in the ancient world, scholars figured out how to chart the daily progress of the sun using a sundial. Seasons, months and days were measured, but what changed in the world around them led Aristotle to pen, “time does not exist without change.” And the moon watchers were so esteemed that if a new moon was spotted in the sky, they were permitted to desecrate the Sabbath to report it. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:5) Thousands of years ago, the words “time” and “change” were synonyms.  

Today the watch and the phone have replaced the sundial and the sextant. The world’s most accurate clock operates by trapping a single charged ion of aluminum at sub zero temperatures, and is able to measure a quadrillionth of a second. As technology refines the measurement of time to ever more precise slivers of existence, the logical coupling of time and change holds strong. But not the spiritual connection. 

That’s because, as strong as our technology is, we humans don’t really have a sense of time, only of change. Whether it’s an atomic clock or an ancient sundial, we’ve always needed tools to tell us that time is passing. All of us have had the experience of losing track of time; whether it’s in a good book, or in the presence of our love, we don’t feel time passing. We only feel change happening. Look at photos of ten years ago and feel that strange sensation of seeing what has changed. Maybe your hair was darker or the kids were smaller. Maybe there’s a person in the photo who’s not in your life anymore. Maybe there’s someone in your arms now who wasn’t alive in that photo. What you are feeling inside yourself at this moment is change, not time.  

Which is another reason why the pandemic is so scary, because every day feels like every other. Nearly a year into quarantine, with hundreds of days of life melting away, what feels difficult is not the quantity of those hours, but the lack of their quality. How many hugs missed? How many tears of joy withheld? How many shiva houses empty of community? The pain of the pandemic is not in the length of time, but in the quality of what has or has not changed in life. Logically time and change are synonyms; spiritually however, they are antonyms. 

At the center of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, the play of time and change bubbles to the surface. In the last conversation God has with Moses on Mt. Sinai before handing him the Tablets of The Law, God reminds Moses that, “The Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, creating it as a covenant for all time. It shall be as a sign for all time between Me and Israel. For in six days the LORD created heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, God ceased and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:16-17

The Sabbath has been described as Judaism’s greatest gift to the world. Judaism gave the idea that life is not fully lived unless the rhythm of our lives includes a beat drop. It’s the brief rest between the pulsations that gives the music its energy and its verve. As the great philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Shabbat is a palace in time.” As we read in the verse above, Shabbat is a day that stands within the context of a week but echoes through eternity. It is a timeless day embedded in the cadence of life.  

More than anything, Shabbat severs the logic that time and change are inseparable. You can see this from the parallel use of the word “to create” in Hebrew. Jews must create Shabbat just as God created the world. Thus, the Sabbath is a reflection of the Divine in our lives. It’s the one day where what matters most is not our bank account or GPA. Not what car we drive or shoes we wear. The Sabbath is not about getting ahead because of the feeling of falling behind. Instead, it is the day when we live as God’s partner and mirror, reflecting to the world God’s desire to be judged by how much we love, and not how much we make.  

By creating a day in time and allowing the day to wash over us, we free ourselves from our ambition to change the world, so that we can fill ourselves with the expectation that we can change the world. When we separate time and change as spiritual categories we make space to reflect on the past and dream of the future. A day without change is a day where change becomes the greatest possibility. 

Shabbat Shalom

One comment

  • I was in the process of writing my observation about parsha re: time. I believed that “kaach or kayach” meant energy or strength or endurance. My observation of your parsha was to be; your slant on time as related to the Shabat brought me new understanding about the day. It was beautiful and meaningful. I was feeling that it would take overwhelming energy and internal resources to do more than understanding the shabbat but bring me to feel the day as you do. Of course, I UNDERSTAND but can only relish the day the way you do. I KNOW that your long past of study and involvement brings this to you. I AM touched by learning from your contribution in spite of my ignorance.
    May I request your translation of the word I seek?

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