Many of you may remember the 1951 Walt Disney film version of Alice in Wonderland, and the character of the white rabbit, with his famous quotation – I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date! Those lines stay in our minds not only because they rhyme, but also because they reflect the way we understand time in our lives. We are moving from one point in time to another. There is a past, a present, and a future – time is, as we would say, linear, moving along a line. We look at our watches and count the seconds, minutes, hours, and years. We have appointments and we feel we have to be ‘on time,’ and if we aren’t we are ‘late’ because the right time has passed, and we feel we can’t recover it. In the Jewish community, we even have ‘Jewish time’ and what we mean by that is something starts consistently late, but the premise of Jewish time is that there is a proper time to start the thing in the first place.
But it wasn’t always that way. Many ancient cultures did not understand time as moving in a single direction. Instead, time was cyclical to them – that is to say, it moved in a circle, through one cycle after another. The year, for example, is a series of seasons – spring, summer, fall winter – and that cycle repeats over and over again. The day works the same way – there is dawn, mid-day, dusk, night, and it never changes. Ancient cultures even understood human life as a cycle – birth, growth, maturity, and death, and then it happens all over again. Time isn’t linear in this model, it is a loop, repeating itself again and again, and not moving forward to a point in the future, to a destination or goal.
Judaism was certainly familiar with this notion of cyclical time. Our holidays are based on the cycle of the seasons. Think of these words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes – “the generations come and go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and then goes on to rise again. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full, and the waters of the streams return again. What has been will be again, there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:4-9) This is a classic statement of cyclical time – ultimately nothing ever changes, it just goes on and on. The seasons come and go each year. The sun sets, rises, sets again. The moon waxes and wanes, again and again. And many of the rituals in Judaism are designed to mark that kind of time, cyclical time – we daven shaharit, minhah, ma’ariv, again and again. The holiday cycle repeats, marking each season as it comes and goes. Rosh Hodesh marks the beginning of the moon cycle.
But at a certain point, fairly early on in its history, Judaism also became invested in another kind of time, linear time, the sense of time moving in a single direction that we are familiar with today. The Hebrew Bible may be the first document in recorded human history to describe time in this kind of way. There is a journey in the Bible, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is the slavery in Egypt, the middle is the wandering in the wilderness, and the end? Entry into the Promised Land. When you begin to see time in this way, you begin also to have a sense of history. There is a past – you can study it, learn from it, understand it – but – you don’t have to repeat it! In fact you can actually leave it behind – you can make choices about how you live your life. You can change and move forward, and you have some control over your own fate and destiny.
The three pilgrimage festivals actually reflect both senses of time, the cyclical and the linear. They do mark and celebrate the seasons of the year. Pesah is about the spring, the rebirth of the world. Shavuot is the bringing of the first fruits, and Sukkot is a fall festival marking the harvest. This natural cycle recurs again and again and again, year in and year out, and the festivals are just markers, acknowledging the power of the unending cycle. But at the same time the festivals mark historical memories, and together they move through time in a linear way. Pesah is the Exodus, Shavuot the giving of the Torah, and Sukkot the dessert wandering. This is linear time, historical time, moving from one point to the next to the next. Even the Haggadah itself is based on a sense of linear time – we start in the past – we WERE slaves in Egypt. But by the end of the evening we are looking towards the future – next year in Jerusalem!
Toward the end of the second seder we began another annual ritual, the counting of the omer. Lets review for a moment how this ritual works and what it is about – it is biblically ordained; you must count 7 x 7 days, making a total of 49, which brings you from Passover to Shavuot. The counting happens at night, and each night you say a blessing before counting. And what happens if you forget to count one night?
About this question there actually was a debate – surprise! – about 1200 years ago, between two well known rabbis. One said that if you forget one night, you are done. You can’t continue. This rabbi viewed the process as one extended unit, one single commandment, and if one part of that unit isn’t right, the entire unit is invalid. This is very similar to the way Jewish law understands a Torah scroll – if one letter is defective, the entire Torah is considered unusable. But the other rabbi saw each day of the counting as a separate mitzvah, a separate commandment. So if you miss one day, if you make a mistake, or forget, or fall asleep before you’ve counted, its just one day. The next day is distinct, and you can just begin counting again, picking up where you left off.
The debate was decided by making a compromise between the two positions on the final law as we practice it today. Which is what? If you miss, you do continue with the counting the next night. But you do so without saying the blessing. It was a way of acknowledging both positions, of saying that the counting of the omer is a unit, 49 days together, but it is also a day by day process, something that happens in distinct units of time.
In this way the omer counting, like the festivals, also represents both senses of time, cyclical and linear. If each day is its own mitzvah, then the ritual is cyclical – the days are not connected, not moving in a direction from one to the next, it is just one day after another after another, each day the same. But if you understand the 49 days together, as one unit, then you are moving through time in a linear way, from Passover to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai. Each day is connected to the one before it, and each day must happen to get you to the next day day, because that way you are one day closer to your destination.
The truth is we need a sense of both kinds of time in our lives. We need to know that we are moving forward, that important destinations are within our grasp, that we can reach our goals and make progress in our lives. At the same time it is comforting to know that some things are eternal, unchanging. To know that the sun will come up each morning, or that Passover will come around each year connects us to something that is greater than we are. Judaism enables us to celebrate both senses of time, reminding us that as we move through our lives, day by day in a constantly changing world, we can be connected to ancient ideals and values, and a sense of the eternal that grounds us and brings meaning into our lives.