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Shemini Atzeret 5779 -   How to Stop Time from Defeating Us

10/04/2018 10:06:06 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

“We have gotten used to tables, in telling time.  We reach out and take our days and weeks from them, like a buffet line.  They are well-arranged in columns and rows.  Even next year’s days may be known in advance.  Time has been foreseen and pre-prepared; we must only pick up our utensils and chow down.  

But there was a time when time knew no tables, when the year was a series of circles, and each month was not closed until a person like you or me looked up at the sky from our backyard garden and saw that glorious sliver of renewal (hit’chadshut) that was the new-born moon-month (chodesh).  He who was graced with such a vision was immediately obligated by G-d to pack up and travel to Jerusalem…  (Jorian Polis Schutz,

These are the words of my cousin, Jorian, who for the past three years, kindly and generously, sends me a calendar that he produces which is called Misaviv, meaning circular.  I am not able to do justice to this beautiful and creative calendar with my description, but in short, this Misaviv calendar is based upon the premise that the Jewish calendar is not meant to be linear, but rather, circular and cyclical.  So, for example, this calendar instead of being linear, is created in a circle with Shabbat at the center of the circle. 

By conceptualizing our calendars in this manner we are able to approach time differently.  Rather than thinking about time as a place we travel to in one direction only, this suggests that we are able to travel back and forth in time—bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh, in those days and at this time.

This is a concept that especially resonates with me on the holidays, and of all holidays on this holiday, Shemini Atzeret.  

There is a story from the Talmud that highlights this very idea.

It is especially appropriate to share this story today because today we also chant the special prayer about rain called, tefillat geshem.  This story from the Talmud is ostensibly about rain.  However, at its core the story is really not about rain, but about time.

In the period just before the destruction of the Second Temple there lived a very wealthy man named Nakdimon Ben Gurion.  He was so rich that (according to Gittin, 56a), when there was a siege of Jerusalem by the Roman army he was wealthy enough to be one of three people so rich that they would have been able to supply food to the city of Jerusalem for 21 years.

Prior to that siege the following story happened with Nakdimon (as recorded in, Taanit, 19b-20a).  

One year the pilgrims were traveling to the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem for the holiday and there was a drought and not enough water for the pilgrims to drink, so they turned to Nakdimon and asked for help.

Nakdimon approached the Roman Governor and asked him to lend him 12 springs of water to nourish the pilgrims.  Nakdimon promised to return him 12 reservoirs of water once the rain came.  The Roman responded that he would lend him the 12 springs on the condition that if he did not return the water by a certain date, that Nakdimon would have to pay 12 talents of silver (an enormous amount of money).

Nakdimon accepted the deal and the pilgrims were nourished.

However, the rain did not come.  The morning of that date where Nakdimon was required to return the water, the Roman sent a message to Nakdimon: “”Time to pay up—either water or money.”  Nakdimon sent back a message, “Adayin yesh li zeman, I still have time.  Kol hayom kulo sheli, the whole day is mine.”  At lunchtime, the Roman send the same message and Nakdimon sent back the same response. Again at mincha time, the same thing happened.  The Roman mocked Nakdimon and said: “The whole year it has not rained, and now you expect it to rain!” 

After that the Roman went to his bathhouse full of confidence.  After he entered the bath, Nakdimon entered the Beit Hamikdash and prayed to Hashem.  He said, “Master of the Universe, You well know that I did not do this for my honor, or my father’s honor, but just so that the pilgrims could have water to drink.”  Immediately the clouds darkened and the rain began to pour forth and not only were the twelve reservoirs filled but they were overflowing.

The Roman left the bathhouse and encountered Nakdimon.  He said, “I know Hashem did a miracle for you, but it is too late as the sky is dark and the day is over, so you must still give me my money.  Nakdimon returned to the Beit Hamikdash and once again prayed to Hashem.  He said, “Hashem make it known that you have beloved ones in this world.”  Immediately, the clouds separated and the sun burst forth and Nakdimon did not have to give the money to the Roman.

The Talmud implies that Nakdimon was named Nakdimon because he was one of three people for whom the sun was nikdema, or stood in its place; he was one of three people able to overcome time.

It is noteworthy that he is the only one in the Talmud who could defeat time.  The other two figures were biblical figures: Yehoshua and Moshe.

About Yehoshua it says, “vayidom yehoshua veyareach amad” (Joshua 10:13).  When Yehoshua was fighting against the five Emorite kings and he needed more time to defeat them he caused the sun to remain standing in its place.

Moshe too, according to the Talmud, was able to defeat time.  The Talmud cites different verses to prove that when Moshe battled Sichon and Og he stopped the sun in order to win the battle.

The phrase that really gets me from this story is “adayin yesh li zeman, I still have time, kol hayom kulo sheli, the whole day is mine.”

I get chills when I read that sentence because of course we know it is simply not true.

We don’t have time.  The whole day is not ours.  

I am acutely aware of this these days as in the past month I dropped off two children at their first year of college.  Boom!  Just like that, they are off.  

We definitely don’t have time.

I see the faces of ageing friends and relatives and I definitely feel like we are in a losing race against time.

Nakdimon could say, “Kol hayom kulo sheli, but it is hard for me to feel that way.”

Are we able to ever stop time?

What is the Talmud trying to tell us with these teaching about the three holy figures who were able to stop time?

Two of them—Moshe and Yehoshua—are so holy that it is hard for us to relate.  And Nakdimon was such an exceptional moment, that it is hard for us to gain insight into our lives from such a miracle.

We can’t be like Nakdimon, but we do have a partial solution.

We can never stop time, but we can linger in time.  This is the essence of what this holiday, shemini atzeret, is all about.

The Torah tells us that on the first day of sukkot we are required to bring 13 bulls as an offering in the Temple.  On the second day, 12; on the third day, 11; until on the seventh day we bring 7 bulls.  This adds up to a total of 13 bulls offered as a sacrifice on sukkot.  But then on the 8th day—on shemini atzeret—we are required to bring only one bull.

The Talmud explains that these seventy bulls correspond to the seventy nations of the world.  So why is one bull brought?  It corresponds to the Jewish people.   The Talmud compares it to a king of flesh and blood who asks his servant to prepare a large and beautiful meal.  But then on the last day he says to his lover, just prepare one small meal for the two of us (Sukkah, 55b).

That is the Talmud’s explanation of why there is one bull brought on Shemini Atzeret.  

But Rashi offers a different explanation.

Says the Torah, Bayom hashemini atzeret tehiyeh lachem, on the eighth day it shall be an azteret for you” (Bemidbar 29:35).

Rashi says that this means, “itzru latzet,” Hashem says you cannot leave, melamed she-taun linah, this teaches that the eighth day requires the pilgrims to stay an extra day in Jerusalem.

In general there is a law called linah.  This law means that after the regel one is not allowed to immediately leave but must remain the next night in Jerusaelm and can only leave the day after the festival.  U-fanitah baboker ve-halachta le-ohalekhah, and you can leave in the morning and go to your tent.  

That is a general law by festivals.  But by Shemini Atzeret we have an entire, extra day where we must stay.  Rashi tells us that it is like Hashem saying to us, “ikvu alai, stay with me one more day.”

Hashem doesn’t want us to leave.  Hashem has enjoyed having us over.  Stay just a little longer.  

This is the way I feel when my parents or in-laws visit; or when my siblings visit; or when old friends visit; or when my children come home from college.  Stay with me, just one more day.  

This is the way I feel about our holidays.  Stay with me just one more day.

This is the concept of Atzeret.  We have had the festivals since Rosh Hashanah.  Stay a little longer.  Don’t go yet.

Sometimes my friends from Israel will poke fun at me and say that we in Diaspora have it so tough because we have a three-day yontiff.  

I don’t agree with that sentiment at all.  A three-day yontiff is the closest thing we have in our lives to the messianic age.  The rest of our days we are running, but on yontiff we are lingering.  We are overwhelmingly in the moment.  We are present.

Shemini Atzeret is Hashem’s gift to us.  It helps us stop time.  It helps us to be with our friends, our parents, our children.

But its more than just being present.  It actually helps us go back in time.

I feel this way when I write letters in the Torah.  I feel that time has slowed down.  I feel that every letter takes on an eternal value.  One of the beautiful practices that has developed in the shul around the Torah is that people join me on a day of their yizkor.  They come into the office and while I write the letter they share with me stories about their loved one.  The process is slow…and beautiful.  The slowness is what makes it beautiful.  I mean how often do we get the opportunity to take 30 minutes and just tell stories about a specific person who has been gone for some time.  I feel transported back in time.  I feel so elevated when I hear these stories and I encourage all of you to reach out to me and to join me on a special date in your life and together we can center that date around the actual words of Torah.

This is exactly what yizkor is supposed to be about.  A few years ago at yizkor we said every prayer, but we said it at a brisk pace.  But then some of my friends told me that it is just too fast.  We need more time for the prayers to linger with us.  

This is what yizkor should be—an opportunity to linger with our loved ones and to bring them up to speed with our lives, to remember our best moments with them.

My cousin, Jorian, included many yahrtzeits in his Misaviv calendar.  For almost every week he marks a notable yahrtzeit.   By thinking of our calendar in a circular fashion, he writes, “We cannot resurrect our dear departed, but we can bring ourselves to a place where dialogue with their spirits is real.  Think of a yahrtzeit as a supernal landline, and the intervening years as a spiral cord that we can compress and prayerfully twirl in our hands.”

Atzeret means to stop.  But it also means to linger.  We can never defeat time.  But what we can do is not be defeated by time.  We can recognize that time is our friend.  We can use the Hebrew calendar to transport us back and forth through time. Every holiday that we celebrate, we are not just celebrating that holiday but every holiday we have ever celebrated, with everyone with whom we have every celebrated it.  We can use our calendar to not be fixed in time but to transcend time.  Time is not our enemy, but our friend.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780