How a society relates to time helps define its culture. We North Americans have named our culture “The rat race,” so it’s no surprise we work hard to get away, vacation and eventually retire from it. One of our dearest resources (and commodities) is time. And to get more of it, we echo the words of playwright Anthony Newly: “Stop the world, I want to get off!”
We Jews got enmeshed in this Industrial Revolution rat race by being minority lunar partners in a majority solar world. For nearly 2,000 years, Torah and Talmud sages have insisted we balance work and leisure. It’s part of the reason we never gravitated toward solar-based calendars — not to the Romans’ Julian calendar in the 1st century BCE, nor to Europe’s Gregorian in the 18th century CE.
Neither solar calendar celebrated the rhythms and seasons of life the way our version of the pagan-based, Babylonian lunar calendar did. The Julian started pagan, but through the manipulations of emperors and popes, it became a Christian holiday calendar. By the Gregorian’s introduction, successive manipulators had re-aligned the solar calendar with industry, science, and a three-shift workday, which has begotten 24-hour media and shopping, families of two working parents, and over-scheduled children.
We continue to time-tinker today, alter our hours with Daylight Saving Time, our holidays with artificial “three-day weekends,” and even cas doubt on our own time dimension with string theory, and research into time travel — like the work of University of Washington physicist John Cramer.
So it’s good that Torah requires us — in case we needed an excuse — to disconnect from the rat race one day each week. Most of us think Shabbat deprives us of time we could use to get things done. Rather, it’s a gift of free time we’re urged to use for pausing to marvel at, and reflect upon, all we don’t notice when we’re busy; time to catch our breaths, refresh our perspectives, and humanize our schedules. The Slow Movement (slowmovement.com) and the Slow Food Movement (slowfood.com) are both ways people currently try to address our issues of “time poverty.” Both advocate changes of lifestyle pace — like what’s already built into the Jewish calendar.
The Jewish calendar includes more than 100 “time-out” days that connect to cycles of weeks, moon phases, seasons and years, and prompt us to reconnect with ourselves, our families, communities and the environment. Check this out: Four “new year” celebrations, four eight- to 10-day holidays, 12 new moons (13 every leap year), 52 Sabbaths (56 in a leap year), plus solstices, equinoxes, sowing and harvest times.
As we have come to live by electric lights, disconnect from natural cycles, and work longer, more urgent and less natural hours, we have steadily increased our levels of stress, and susceptibility to heart diseases, eating and sleep disorders, and cancers. Author Richard Luov asserts we’re suffering from “nature deficit disorder,” as he echoes Thoreau’s and Emerson’s assertions that we need connections with nature to help calm us, keep us healthy, and re-affirm our respect for all living things. Likewise, Theodore Herzl called for Jews to reconnect with their roots in the land, air and water of Israel.
Author and Israeli educator Jeremy Benstein opines that our resistance to rest in general, and Shabbat in particular, parallels our resistance to environmental values. Both call on us to reign ourselves in, conquer our impulses, and reconsider how we define “the good life,” and its material trappings. They also set up uncomfortable confrontations between:
• The natural cycles that govern life vs. our beliefs that we can manipulate time and life itself, and
• Economic development and “progress,” versus respect for and conservation of human and environmental resources.
For us to survive as a species, we must makes these areas complementary, not oppositional, and integrate them in a “triple bottom line” of human, environmental and economic imperatives. Those un-busy spaces marked in our calendar provide us the opportunities to re-imagine how we view and live in the world. And when we get clear about our intentions, we can act and create with consciousness about long-term benefits and consequences.
The key is slowing down enough to do that. What better way than taking advantage of what’s already built into our calendar — from Shabbat to Tu B’Shevat to Yom Kippur? If you can choose your own pace, not only can you handle the rate race, you can help change our culture into something we want to stick with more than escape from.