Space, Time, and Teshuvah

Rabbi Yosi Gordon is a teacher in the Twin Cities and has been teaching for 54 years. He currently teaches at the Talmud Torah of St. Paul and the Minneapolis Talmud Torah. He is also the University of Minnesota Hillel Rabbi.

I didn’t quite understand it, but last week I read with interest about the neutrino that may have broken the speed-of-light barrier. If it really did, somehow that makes Einstein’s theories a bit incorrect. Okay. But it also, somehow, opens the theoretical door to time travel. Hmmm.

I learned that quantum physics opens that door as well. When you fire some subatomic particles at a target, they go obediently to that target. But when you put a certain kind of double-slit filter between the particles and their target, they suddenly adjust their course, before they reach the filter, and create a wave pattern on the target screen. Yes, it’s as if those tiny particles somehow knew that they would soon encounter the filter and thus altered their course in order to create that wave pattern.

That is time moving backwards, and that is more than a bit unnerving for us laypersons.

The Rabbis of old, of course, knew nothing of this.

They were terrible scientists. But they did some serious thinking about time, about past and future.

We live in time. Unlike our animal friends (probably), we understand that there is a past and a future. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz points out that time and space generate different motions. In space, I can go right and left, up and down, backwards and forwards. In time, I seem to move inexorably forward. I cannot deviate from my course. I can’t speed it up or slow it down. I am passive in the progress of time; I am a victim of time. Time propels me forward, from my birth to my death. I can often adjust what may happen along the way, but I cannot adjust the way itself.

Where is the past, and where is the future? Is the past behind me, and the future ahead? So it seems, from the way we speak. But we also say, “These things happened before,” i.e., in the past. And, “I’ll do that afterwards,” meaning, in the future. Which way do we face when we stand in time flow of time?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, taught us that Judaism sanctifies time, not space. We bless God for bringing us laz’man hazeh, to this time. We praise God for sanctifying the Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, all other holidays. Our prayers and celebrations are limited only by time; we can pray and celebrate wherever we wish.

But time is terrifying. We move helplessly toward our end, and time dominates us, enslaves us, ruthlessly and immutably. So we respond in two ways: we segment time, and we sanctify time.

We segment time by chopping it into workable pieces. We assign those pieces to this or to that. We call that “time management.” (As if we actually could!) That way, it doesn’t always overwhelm us. We create the illusion that we are really in charge of time.

And we sanctify time. Sacred time, so wrote Mircea Eliade, is recoverable. On Pesah, we see ourselves has having gone forth from Egypt. On Rosh Hashanah, we pray, “Today is the birthing of the world.” Once a year we observe our own birthdays. Sacred time can be accessed at any moment. It does not move inexorably forward, leaving us in its wake.

And here we stand at a seam in time, when the old year gives way to the new, and we understand that the past is not past. The Rabbinic phenomenology of time, discussed by Rabbi David Hartman in his wonderful essay, “On Teshuvah in the Talmud, Maimonides and Soloveitchik,” is that the past can always be changed. It need not subjugate us or dominate our lives. It need not determine our futures. The very concept of teshuvah stands in contradiction to the perception of time as unidirectional.

Teshuvah is often translated at atonement, i.e., repentance for sins of commission and sins of omission. But that is kapparah. Teshuvah is, quite literally, return. In the Rabbinic vision, it is no less than a return to time past, a return that can readjust the past in order to change the future. We might even say, “The past isn’t what it used to be.”

The Scripture says: (Psalsms 69) As for me, my prayer for You, Adonai, at this propitious time… Rabbi Hanina bar Papa asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman, “What does [that verse] mean?” He said to him, “The gates of prayer are open at times and locked at other times, but the gates of teshuvah are always open.” Deuteronomy Rabba 2:12.

The times for prayer are limited; there are no limits to the times for teshuvah. Certainly Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are appropriate times, but not the exclusive times, for teshuvah. By engaging in teshuvah, one breaks open those gates, those guardians of past and future, and opens time as if it were space, to the freedom of our motion.

And Hurna said: What nation is like this nation? It is the custom among men that, if the ruler says, “The trial is today!” and the criminals say, “The trial shall be tomorrow!”—to whom do you listen? Surely, to the ruler. With regard to God, however, this is not the case. If the (earthly) court declares, “Today is Rosh Hashannah,” God then says to the attendant angels, “Set up the court, let the defense attorneys arise, let the prosecuting attorneys arise, because my children have declared that today is Rosh Hashannah.” If the (earthly) court deliberates and decides to postpone it to the next day, God says to the ministering angels, “Remove the court, let the defense attorneys leave, let the prosecuting attorneys leave, because my children decided to postpone it to tomorrow.” What is the reason for this? (Psalsms 81) For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob.—If it is not a law for Israel, then, as it were, it is not a ruling of the God of Jacob. Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanna 7b.

What we are reading is an old Rabbinic joke. Everyone knows the Romans do it right: the ruler says, “Jump!” and we jump. The ruler says, “Try!” and the trial begins. What a crazy world we Jews live in! We, the criminals, set the date for the Day of Judgment. We write our own calendar; we determine when we are tried. We can move it forward or backward; time is ours to change.

Just as we control the time of judgment, we can control time through teshuvah. We can truly move back and liberate ourselves from the crushing dominance of the past. The past has no dominion over us. Ontologically, not only psychologically, the past is ours to change.

There are those who view this season as a time when we are helpless victims of divine judgment, and that is indeed a theme of the day. (“All that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep.” from Unetaneh Tokef, a central prayer each morning of the Holy Days). Yet there is a dialectic: this is the day of extraordinary human empowerment. We can truly take control of time. We can challenge the authority of the past; we can break its shackles. We are not its slaves.

That is why, in the kiddush, we call Rosh Hashanah “a time of remembrance of the exodus from Egypt.”

Teshuvah is a radical denial of enslavement to the past, of the determinism of the past. We can step back into that stream, correct the wrongs we have done to others, and the wrongs others have done to us.

We can repair our relationship with others and with God.

We can begin anew.

Today is the birthing of the world.

(Photo: Ontario Wanderer)