The Tyranny of Time (Ideas #42)

We take many things for granted as if they have always been and always will be part of the human condition. One such item is our relationship to time.

Consider the tyranny created by the timepiece. The timepiece is, by far, the world's most widely disseminated machine. Think about it – just about everyone of us has a timepiece attached to our body (usually around our wrist) from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Beyond this personal instrument, most rooms we live or work in have at least one additional timepiece hanging on a wall or in some other conspicuous place. Many of us add an additional clock on our desk so that we don't have to look up at the central clock in the room, thereby saving a few seconds each time we need to know the time. This is in addition to the timepieces on our computers, telephones, dashboards – in the same way one's consciousness of G-d was once constantly reinforced by wearing tefillin all day, now our consciousness of time is constantly with us throughout our day.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has already addressed the lessons about time that can be learned from Shabbat. Correspondingly, it is perhaps part of the traditional Shabbat’s greatest appeal that so many things that require precise timing are not permissible. Still, we take our timepieces with us into what Heschel called the "Palace in Time." Even on Shabbat, we need to know what time to go to synagogue, when to gather for classes, meals, etc. On Shabbat then, our self-imposed slavery only becomes attenuated, but does not completely disappear.

It may be no coincidence that lovers of tyranny like Benito Mussolini were hailed for getting the trains to come on time. While we all get annoyed when our planes, trains, buses and the like get delayed, when Italy's trains did not run on time, it gave society a not completely negative message –  there are other things that are more important than being on time. If the conductor took extra time eating breakfast that morning or decided to walk his child to school or just to schmooze with a friend, that might be more important than a thousand commuters getting to work on time. After all, if the train was late, the commuters were also able to spend more social time with their fellow commuters waiting for the train. They might also have had time to notice something new or simply to enjoy the beautiful Italian sun. When the trains started to come on time, all of this changed.

Zman Kriyat Shema and the like notwithstanding, our sages did not make 10:20 appointments nor did they make sure not to spend more than fifteen minutes with a client. The simple reason our sages did not check the time is because this was not part of their world. For most of history, time was something defined primarily by sunset and sunrise. If something needed to be done, it would be done some time between those two markers.

Yet even as it may be cute to think of completely escaping the tyranny created by our constant awareness of time, more to the point is to learn how to liberate ourselves within our unavoidable cultural context. For better or worse, the efficiency required from most of us forces us to regularly keep track of the time.

To this end, it is worth taking an insight from the nature of idol worship. Our sages (Shabbat 105b) make a very interesting observation when they claim that someone whose temper gets out of control is like one who worships idols. They further claim that the path from such anger can easily lead to idol worship itself. The connection is not from the idols but rather from the worship. Worship means subservience to something. If you yourself decide how to worship, then you are not really worshipping. Worship means following dictates that are determined by the object of your worship – the worshipper does not engage in choice. So too, the nature of anger is to be in control of a power outside of our true selves. In such a state, we allow ourselves to follow the dictates of something besides the judgment of our intellect – thus our decisions can no longer truly be considered our own. In this way, the rabbis felt that losing our temper is like worshipping something besides G-d. The point is that anything not worthy of worship (and of course, only G-d is truly worthy of worship) must be controlled by us and not the other way around.

Since time is unworthy of worship, we must make sure that we are controlling time and that time does not control us. To this end, we must create experiences divorced from time. To put it differently, "quality time" is only such if it is not limited by time. When being with our loved ones, when being in nature or involved in other spiritual pursuits, we must not be pressured by time limits. We must allow our intellect to determine that certain phenomena are too precious to be constrained by time. Once we do that, we regain our mastery over time, even as we will often choose to be concerned with it.

In essence, this is a strategy that comes to us from our tradition. Shmittah and Shabbat allow us to maintain our consciousness of G-d's mastery over us and our land by occasionally releasing ourselves from production and property. As long as we properly observe Shabbat, working six days a week does not spoil our awareness that we do not live to work. One day of releasing ourselves from our economic identities is enough to give us proper perspective. We are able to maintain our mastery over our work and not worship it. In other words, consciousness does not need to be created by constant immediate awareness. It is enough to relate to that immediate awareness on an occasional basis.

So you are now free to check the time – as long as you can make a commitment on Shabbat and/or during the week to involve yourself in something wherein you will not check the time