The Time We Have

We knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. This week more of our beloved Jewish summer camps announced that they would not be open this summer. For those of us who used to wear “camp is life, the rest is just details” t-shirts, for those of us who know the feeling of living for summer camp and of excitedly counting down the days until camp begins, this was devastating news. Missing school is one thing; but a summer without camp friends and the freedom and independence thdownloadat come with being away from home deprives us of a special and irreplaceable joy. 

This week, writing in the Forward, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue asked the same question Langston Hughes asked in his well-known poem, “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred?” While Hughes was writing about the experience of being African American in this country, Rabbi Cosgrove is talking about the young people who are missing not only camp, but proms, graduations, playoffs, internships, and more. He writes: “It is a suffocating thought to consider the number of young dreams deferred — a thought made even heavier with such an uncertain road ahead. Nobody knows what campus life will look like in the fall. Like ships lined-up waiting to find safe harbor – our children suffer from an anticipatory grief contemplating the losses still yet to come.” And what can we do to comfort them?

Rather than immediately explaining to them the silver lining of a summer at home or telling them “it could be far worse” (they know this)  — neither of which is comforting to hear when we are feeling intense disappointment — Rabbi Cosgrove teaches us to affirm what our young people are feeling, and give them space to talk, cry, and hug. Rather than worrying about what we should say to cheer them up, we can simply listen.

This week’s Torah portion offers us a teaching that I have found helpful. On this Shabbat we begin B’midbar, the book that recounts the Israelites’ wandering and struggling in the wilderness. The portion opens with God’s instruction to Moses to take a census of the people by male heads of clans. “Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe b’midbar Sinai b’ohel moed b’echad lahodesh hasheni bashanah hasheinit l’tzaitam m’eretz mitzrayim laymor —  God spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness in the Tent of  Meeting on the first day of the second month in the second year following the exodus from Egypt….” (1:1)

We might ask, as our Sages asked, why the Torah is so precise about specifying the time here. Does it matter if the census took place on the first day of the second month or on the second day of the third month? There’s an interesting answer here. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, each day of drudgery was exactly the same. Nothing differentiated the days of the week from one another. There was no Shabbat — no rest and respite — nothing to look forward to, and nothing meaningful to occupy their time. Above all, the Israelites had no control over their time. They were treated like animals, or inanimate tools; the days of their lives were completely determined by those who controlled them.

 The Birkat David, an 18th century rabbi from Galicia, teaches that the Torah is explicit about time here in our portion because something profound has changed. After the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, time took on importance and meaning for them. Now the Israelites have a festival marking their freedom from slavery — Pesach; they have Shabbat, a time to rest from their labor; they have sacred times set aside to share with God and the community. Time, once a burden, now becomes a gift — an opportunity to imbue life with purpose and beauty.

 The Birkat David writes that this opening verse is so specific – -the first day of the second month in the second year — to teach a lesson that applies to us, as well. Each day matters. Each day, we are capable of greatness. “Each moment,” he writes, “is an opportunity to acquire a sense of fulfillment and knowledge of God. In each moment we can learn another chapter of Torah, perform a mitzvah, work to strengthen a positive quality in ourselves, [and] do a good deed.” 

I love this way of looking at time, viewing each moment as a precious opportunity to do something positive for ourselves or others. The Birkat David is teaching us to live with kavanah, with intention, never taking the gift of time for granted, never squandering the days and moments of our lives. I hear his teaching as a gentle reminder not to focus on my disappointment at joyous events that have been cancelled or postponed, but to turn my attention instead to a wonderful spiritual challenge: how can I use the time I have in full recognition of its value? 

Seen in this way, each loving deed we perform to care for ourselves or someone else — no matter how simple — becomes a way of treasuring time. Performed with intention and a sense of positive purpose, all these mundane acts take on meaning: sweeping the floor; cleaning out a closet; cooking a pot of soup; connecting with a friend or loved one; playing with our child; taking a restorative walk; taking a hot shower and putting on clean clothes; reading something that will instruct or inspire us; lifting our spirits by listening to good music; gathering with our Beth El community to nourish our soul. All of these moments become nisim b’chol yom — miracles of everyday life; miracles of resilience and strength, the determination to make good use of the time we are granted.

“Teach us to number our days,” says the psalmist, “that we may get ourselves a heart of wisdom” [Ps.90:12]. Perhaps the greatest wisdom comes from realizing that our time on this earth is finite. May all of us cherish our days and appreciate the time we have. And may we continue to keep track of time as a sign of our freedom — whether Shabbat, Memorial Day, or the summer. Marking time, making days and moments special and distinct from each other, is a precious gift that makes life much richer. Shabbat Shalom.

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