Our Fragmented Sense of Time

by Rabbi David Zaslow
September, 2003
As I think about my father’s life, the distance between 1930 and 1963 seems vast. So many stories took place within those years: the Great Depression, World War II, the 50’s, and the start of the 60’s. Yet, in an odd way, the distance in time within my own life between 1970 and 2003 doesn’t seem so vast in comparison. Historically, of course, there have been huge changes within the past three decades: the cultural changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and feminism, all the way to the technological revolution as we entered the age of personal computing and the Internet.

But I’m referring to my subjective sense about the passage of time. My father’s life seems to have passed slowly. My life seems to have passed quickly. There’s nothing “true” about what I’m saying. After all, thirty-three years is thirty-three years whether it’s 1930 to 1963 or 1970 to 2003. But it’s our personal, subjective sense of time that gives our memory its reference points. I remember when I came to Ashland in 1970. I remember when my daughter was born in 1981 and when my son was born in 1983.

Today Rachel is a college graduate working in the “old country,” in Brooklyn. Of all places, she picks Brooklyn! I was off to college in 1965 during the first major East Coast blackout. She’s out of college and in Manhattan walking back to Brooklyn during the last blackout in August. I remember leaving for college in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1965, and here I am thirty-eight years later preparing to drive my son to for his first day of college in Lewiston, Idaho.

So, what does all this temporal measuring and sentimental reminiscing have to do with the upcoming High Holidays? Everything, I suspect. Everything. After all, what is autumn all about if not for returning and remembering? If not for looking back and looking forward? If not for the most personal, personal examination of successes and missed opportunities? The High Holidays aren’t just for the big stuff, for our major sins of commission and omission. The High Holidays are not necessarily about the macro-dramas of our lives. More often, they seem to be about all the small stuff that, when collaged together, form a picture – a picture of our fragmented lives during the year that has just passed.

In autumn the leaves begin to fall, and internally we begin to fall as well. The days grow colder, and we grow colder as well. Nature returns to its Source and we return to that same Source as well. The four-step program of Jewish time follows the rhythm of nature: the public gratitude we express to Hashem on Rosh HaShanah; the private yet communal inwardness we experience during Yom Kippur; the outwardness we live during Sukkot, and the synthesis of the inner and outer during Simchat Torah. Together all four holidays form a single picture, a mirror of our lives.

By taking the time to experience all four of the high holidays we are saying, “Yes” to the Creator. “Yes, create a new person within each me. Yes, let me examine the past so that I may be present in this moment. And may my presence in this moment give me the courage and momentum I need to reach my tomorrow.” May the Holy One bless each of us with good memories and changes that are as natural as the seasons themselves.

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