In his book called, A Revolution in Time, David Landes writes about the impact, and I would add imperialism, even a touch of tyranny, of the household clock. “A chamber clock or watch is something very different [from the public clocks displayed on clocktowers in village squares and official buildings that were only visible when you passed by, and only heard when they chimed at intervals. The household clock, in comparison, provides] an ever visible, ever audible companion and monitor. A turning hand, specifically a minute hand (the hour hand turns so slowly as to seem still), is a measure of time used, time spent, time wasted, time lost. As such it was a prod and key to personal achievement and productivity.”
Our lives, our attitudes toward time, and thus toward how we measured, spent and filled or squandered time, changed with this new, quotidian technology of personal clocks. (And all the more so watches. For even if we could not escape the constancy of measuring ourselves against time at home, without a watch, we could hope for a brief reprieve when we were out and about.)
Today, it is almost impossible to imagine living beyond the limits of finely calibrated time. Vacations sometimes allow that - unless of course we are on tours which need to adhere to their schedule; or make appointments or reservations or other commitments that require us to be aware of the time.
Perhaps that is why childhood is so large, so endless. Perhaps it is because children tell time by the sun, by the amount of light left in the day to play outside. Or until they tire and say enough. They are never working toward a pre-determined terminal moment. Adults always measure time, wondering at the start how much time there is until the finish. I remember times as a child playing games or reading or listening to music so intently that I did not notice the passing of time, did not look at a clock to say, only fifteen more minutes until I have to stop. To fill those fifteen minutes without a sense of end, without an awareness of their limitation, made those fifteen minutes part of eternity. To be aware of counting down may make the moments more precious, true, but it also makes them tenser, and shorter.
Almost everything electronic we own today has a clock in it - both those we can see and those we can’t. Modernity is swathed in the precision of time-keeping. Technology doesn’t just create stuff. It also manufactures culture, and therefore refashions our spirits.
Shabbat and the holidays are the closest things we have today that help us erase the tyranny of timekeeping brought upon us by our brilliance in technology, and return us to the awareness of universal time. (The necessity to run services on schedule is a most unfortunate conundrum that breaks the flow and spirit of these days expansive immersion in time.)
Their imposition on the flow of our work, especially when they fall mid-week, their disruption of our daily routine, and their re-orientating our approach to the ways of timekeeping and the pace and flow of our days, may just be one of their greatest gifts.
Time, and our experience of it, are as much a part of our environment as the trees, the water and the air. While all these things are “out there,” independent of us, we experience them through the lens, stuff and attitude of our culture. True, we must choose to use our time well. Both Judaism and modernity call us to do that. But we must also learn to live it deeply, to measure it by the heavens, and not just by the clock. To imagine each moment a member of eternity and not a commodity that comes, and is then consumed.
Paradoxically enough, it is our calendar, the Jewish calendar, that today can best remind us of the timelessness of time. Tomorrow is Sukkot - when we are cast back to the Exodus, the settlement of the land of Israel, the bountiful harvest, the past celebrations of the holiday and the menu planning for our meals this coming week. Time coming together in a moment of eternity, around the dinner table, under the heavens, with the smell of fallen leaves and pine trees filling the air.
Have a joyous sukkot.