It’s a bit of a schlep from our home in Baltimore to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where my wife is on staff and our three daughters go to summer camp, but, come road work or stormy weather, I’m almost never late for Shabbat services when I drive up on weekends. That’s because the camp is on Chicago time; the extra hour makes it possible for the campers to stay up late on Friday night. At the celebration of the end of summer, the director, Rabbi Joel Seltzer, brings out a big clock and pushes the hands forward. It’s a jolting reminder that the camp has existed for eight weeks in its own surreal realm, serenely out of step with the surrounding world.
Let’s do the time warp again. In fact, we’re already doing it, during this period of suspended Jewish animation when school has already begun but the High Holy Days are still weeks away. As Hamlet put it, “the time is out of joint,” meaning that the Danish political system needed to be reset like a dislocated shoulder. Anyone who has traveled across time zones knows the feeling. Every time I fly back to New York from Tel Aviv, I feel so jet lagged that I understand in a new way the Spanish medieval poet Judah Halevi’s lament, “My heart is in the East, but I am in the uttermost West,” except that it is my body that is here while my mind feels as if it is still lodged in the Middle East.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism has been a religion of time rather than space. But how flexible is that sense of time? As Judith Shulevitz points out in “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” the very first passage of the Talmud is about fixing the proper hour for Jews to say the Shema, the central credo of Judaism. “To the rabbis,” Shulevitz writes, “time is irreversible. Either you do them at the appointed time or you don’t do them at all.”
Not so these days for many non-Orthodox Jews who light Shabbat candles when they are ready to sit down for dinner, even if it has already been dark for hours. Or for those who celebrate holidays when it is convenient for the family to gather rather than when the holiday falls on the calendar, pushing weekday Rosh HaShanah dinners and seders to the weekend. Children may receive Chanukah gifts at Thanksgiving or Christmas, whether or not the Jewish festival occurs in conjunction with those holidays. Time gets reshuffled like a deck of cards, with the secular and sacred all mixed together.
One of my favorite passages in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” comes when the Christian narrator (based to some extent on Proust, who had a Jewish mother but was raised in his father’s Christian faith) describes his prim and proper aunt’s insistence on having lunch an hour early on Saturdays, so that her maid can spend the afternoon shopping for food. His aunt, he writes, “had so thoroughly acquired the habit of this weekly exception to her general habits, that she clung to it as much as to the rest.”
As a result, the entire family experienced the day in a different and more appealing way, as they found themselves enjoying “premature endives, a gratuitous omelette, an unmerited beefsteak.” Indeed, the narrator reflects, “the recurrence of this asymmetrical Saturday was one of those minor events, intra-mural, localized, almost civic, which in uneventful lives and stable orders of society, create a kind of national tie.” Sounds like Shabbat to me.
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, once observed that the Jewish New Year is a “time from which all time is renewed.” One wonders what he thought of Jewish songwriter Rob Hyman’s chart-topping song, “Time After Time,” which Hyman wrote with Cyndi Lauper, who recorded it in 1984. “If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me/Time after time. If you fall, I will catch you; I will be waiting/Time after time.”
We always get another chance. But the song reminds us that there is also a time that comes after time. And a time that comes before. It is in the midst of that ceaseless rewinding and fast-forwarding that we live out our lives, playing with time, perhaps even trying to bend it to our will, even as it always seems to snap back in the end. If, as is written in Kohelet (traditionally ascribed to King Solomon), “there is a time for every purpose under heaven,” is that time fixed by us or by our God? n
Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College, where he serves as Hillel Director. He is the author, most recently, of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”