A time to keep and a time to cast away

By Naftali Brawer, December 23, 2013

A while back I visited the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre to see the Light Show exhibit, displaying the work of some two dozen artists who explore how light can transform space and alter perception.

The most arresting work was a display called Model for a Timeless Garden, by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. It consists of 27 fountains, spewing water through various shaped spouts, all arranged in a pitch-black room illuminated only by the rapid flash of strobe lighting. The effect is mesmerising.

Whereas the naked eye would ordinarily only detect the stream of water, the strobe lighting enables one to see pearl-like droplets of liquid, frozen in midair along the trajectory. The apparent singular unbroken arc that spurts out of a water fountain is actually an illusion. In reality the arc is composed of tiny singular droplets of water, each in their own unique shape that follow each other along the trajectory too rapidly to be detected by the naked eye.

This extraordinary exhibit provided me with a new perspective on the passage of time and how our interpretation of it influences our behaviours.

One of the unresolved questions about time relates to its movement. We tend to experience time as a singular flow as though it were in perpetual motion. But what if this were not so? What if time advanced in a series of minute frames, so that instead of a singular flow it is actually a composition of indiscernible instants? This highly theoretical question has dogged philosophers and physicists, yet its answer also has a practical impact on the way we live, in particular on the way we view our past actions and the role they play in determining the present or future.

The second century sage Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, who was caught up in the Hadrianic persecutions, was sentenced to death for teaching Torah publicly.

The Talmud tells us that his execution was particularly gruesome: “Straightaway they took hold of him, wrapt him in the Scroll of the Law, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. They then brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should not expire quickly. [....] “ The Executioner then said to him, ‘Rabbi, if I raise the flame and take away the tufts of wool from over thy heart, will thou cause me to enter into the life to come?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. [....] He thereupon raised the flame and removed the tufts of wool from over his heart, and his soul departed speedily. The Executioner then jumped and threw himself into the fire. And a bat-kol [heavenly voice] exclaimed: R. Hanina ben Teradyon and the Executioner have been assigned to the world to come. When Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi heard it he wept and said: ‘One may acquire eternal life in a single hour, another after many years’”.

How is it possible for a Roman executioner, responsible for untold human suffering, to acquire, in the space of a single moment, a place in heaven alongside the sainted Rabbi Hanina? If time were a continuum it would not be possible to dislocate one pious moment from the flow of an impious past. Yet the Talmud asserts otherwise.

The present stands apart from the past. Each new moment brings with it fresh opportunity. Perhaps Rabbi ha-Nasi wept in the knowledge that too few are able to grasp this extraordinary truth and take advantage of it.

Maimonides makes a similar point in his Laws of Repentance (chapter 2:4) where he advises a penitent to change his name “as though to say I am a different person and not at all the same individual who committed those sinful acts.”

Maimonides might be using poetic licence although from the broader context in which this passage appears it seems that Maimonides was of the firm view that a person can completely disengage from his past and that it does not necessarily have to have any bearing on his present.

This segmental approach to time has implications not just for severing the present from the past but also for isolating it from the future.

The bible tells how after Abraham banished Hagar and their son Ishmael the mother and child wandered in the dessert disoriented: “God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is’”.

Rashi, in his commentary on this passage cites the following Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 53:14): “Where he is” says Rabbi Simon: at that moment [when Ishmael’s life hung in the balance] the heavenly angels assumed a prosecutorial stance towards him and said: ‘Master of the Universe, this individual [if allowed to live] will give rise to descendants who will persecute your children [how can you allow him to live?!]’ God responded: ‘What is his status now? Innocent or guilty?’ ‘Innocent’, answered the angels. Said God: ‘I will only judge a person based on where they stand at present.’”

This Midrash raises both ethical and philosophical questions about the nature of time, human culpability and the imperative to intervene to prevent future suffering. A strikingly similar idea is the basis of Steven Spielberg’s futuristic film, Minority Report, in which criminals are arrested and detained seconds before they commit the actual crime, leading to a crime-free society. Despite the strong temptation to alleviate future suffering God insists that Ishmael be judged solely in the present. Time appears to be comprised of tiny frames, like the trajectory of pearl-like droplets jetting out of a fountain. It looks like a solidified mass, but in actuality it consists of disconnected particles. Each moment stands on its own.

This idea might go some way to explain a remarkable ruling made years ago by Rabbi Chaim Hodakov, the chief of staff of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was asked by a young Lubavitch emissary, who had established a Shabbat service in a predominantly non-observant neighbourhood, if he were permitted to call up to the Torah a man who violated the Shabbat by driving to synagogue.

“When the individual is sitting in the synagogue during the Torah reading, is he shomer Shabbat (observing Shabbat) or is he mechalel Shabbat (violating Shabbat)?” he asked rhetorically. He then proceeded to answer his own question: “Of course, he is shomer Shabbat. Ah, but you say he drove to synagogue? That was in the past. You are concerned because he will drive back home after the service? That is in the future, and it hasn’t happened yet. Now, he is in synagogue and so at this moment he is entitled to be called up to the Torah.”

Before you dismiss this as a cute, but intellectually dishonest, way of getting around a thorny problem, reflect on the Talmud’s account of Rabbi Hanina’s executioner. If a vile executioner can single out a pure unadulterated moment in his otherwise torrid life, then certainly a Jew who bothers to come to synagogue, no matter how he got there, can do the same.

As for the future? Think about the Midrash concerning Ishmael. If God Himself refuses to hold Ishmael to account for events that have not yet unfolded, even when He is certain that such events will occur, who are we then to pass judgment on a Jew sitting in shul when we cannot be absolutely certain about how he will get home? Is it not at least possible that the warm welcome received, combined with the honour of being called to the Torah, might give this otherwise non-observant Jew cause to reflect on how he might become more observant? Maybe even to the extent of leaving his car and walking home?

We tend to subject ourselves and others to the notion of time as a continuous flow. Perhaps because that is how we experience it. And yet time perceived in this way is harsh and unforgiving. It forces one to continuously drag along the past and at the same time be wedded to a predictable future.

Jewish sources offer a different perspective, one that allows us to break down time, at least conceptually, into distinct frames. For those who have the insight and courage to grasp one such frame and hold the moment in awareness the singular moment can be life changing.

Jewish wisdom enables us to appreciate the passage of time, to detect in its steady rhythm a sense of closure and renewal, while discovering the greatest possibilities in the slight space between, in the here and now. Each passing moment calls out to us urgently, asking who we are and what we might become.

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is chief executive of the Spiritual Capital Foundation

Last updated: 12:49pm, December 23 2013