Modern Mishpocha: On sacred time

By Rabbi Dara Lithwick

לִמְנ֣וֹת יָ֭מֵינוּ כֵּ֣ן הוֹדַ֑ע וְ֝נָבִ֗א לְבַ֣ב חָכְמָֽה׃

Make us aware enough to treasure our days; a wise heart brings vision.

(Psalm 90:12)

What day is it? How can it be Friday again? Long days, short weeks.

The last time I felt anywhere near to the way that I do now is when I had a newborn baby, back when days melded into each other between the whirr of feedings and diaper changes, bits of sleep here and there, sort of one long fog, a blur.

As I write, it has been over two months since everything changed, since we/I lost most of the anchors of my days and weeks, the routines of taking our kids to the school bus, going to work, getting coffee, going to meetings and sometimes to the gym, getting home in time for dinner, homework, bath and bedtime. The rhythm of the workweek and the weekend – Shabbat, swimming lessons, ski lessons, Torah school, laundry, groceries. Visiting family or having family visits. Celebrating birthdays and holidays. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Two months later, now, most of these anchors no longer exist and may not return for some time. For many of us, home is school and work is home, and we can only connect with and celebrate occasions and holidays with our extended families and friends through devices. (And I have so much gratitude for the amazing people who are out and about healing members of our communities and neighbourhoods in our hospitals, keeping food on store shelves and within easy access, and engaging in essential work wherever it may be.) This mush of everything under one roof, the lack of separation between our roles as parents and professionals and all in between, has proven trying. A blur. Long days, short weeks.

In Psalm 90, the Psalmist pleads to God to “make us aware enough to treasure our days” as “a wise heart brings vision.” Judaism is a tradition in time, one that raises up the holiness in the cycles of the days, weeks, months and years. As the contemporary tzaddik Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z’l wrote in his seminal classic of Jewish spirituality, The Sabbath:

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.

Indeed, in the strange reality of this pandemic I have found myself leaning ever more heavily on the rhythms of our tradition to keep me grounded and enable me to find ‘treasure’ in the long days. In the mornings when I get up, I take a bit of time to pray, and I find connection and solace in the words of the Shema. I pray for healing for those in need as I recite the Amidah. I express gratitude, and I feel hope.

At night, now as we are in the midst of the Omer, the seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot, I find meaning in the daily count as mindfulness practice as well as an opportunity to work on myself in preparation to receive Torah at Sinai for Shavuot. The Kabbalists took the fact that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days to match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world: Chesed (loving kindness), Gevurah (justice and discipline), Tiferet (harmony, compassion), Netzach (endurance), Hod (humility), Yesod (bonding), and Malchut (sovereignty, leadership). The various blends of the seven attributes are an invitation to look into all parts of ourselves to ready ourselves for Shavuot.

And, especially, Shabbat has taken on more meaning for me, and for our family, than ever before. Rabbi Heschel wrote that:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

First, like many (as I can tell from pictures on Facebook), I am now able to bake challah on Friday as I am working from home (assuming, of course, some access to flour and yeast!). When I mix the ingredients and knead the dough on Friday mornings, I find myself feeling grounded. Our kids often help with the measuring and the mixing, and we all feel the anticipation of Shabbat. Later in the day, when I braid the challah (after the first rise of the dough), I find myself beginning to unwind.

One particular bright spot of the changes that have come about due to the pandemic is that Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services have actually become more accessible to our family. By being broadcast online, we have been able to participate without fighting traffic and without sacrificing our kids’ usual bath and bed prep routine. Our kids regularly sing along, and we do not have to worry if they are running around our living room as they do so (as they are able to take in the services at their pace without risking being disruptive to anyone else).

I have found us spending Shabbat together now more as a family, no longer rushing around but rather exploring our neighbourhood and observing the beauty of some of the nature around us (such as the geese with their new goslings, and the giant snapping turtle we saw the other week). Finally, we have been intentionally marking the end of Shabbat with Havdalah, sometimes with friends online with URJ Camp George, or through singalongs with the amazing group Nefesh Mountain, and with Temple Israel’s Religious School’s Sunday morning Havdalah.

I realize how the response to the Psalmist – the ‘how’ to treasure our days, is found for me in the rhythms of our tradition. In the midst of the challenge of feeling as though time in the pandemic can be homogeneous, a blur, I am beyond grateful for the sanctuaries in time that are the hallmarks of our Judaism.

Photos: Taken by Rabbi Dara Lithwick during recent walks in her neighbourhood.