Time is something we deal with every single day of our lives. But what is it? It is so familiar that we don’t think much of it even though we are constantly looking at our watches and are very conscious of time. But if we take a step back to understand time properly, we can transform the way we look at life.
The Chafetz Chaim once asked someone who had travelled to America what people in America say, and the traveller answered that in America, people say “time is money”; the Chafetz Chaim responded, “time is life”. Time is all that life is – the minutes, the hours, the 120 years we have on this earth, please G-d. Life is what we make of time, and so if we understand time, we will understand life.
Counting the omer
We are now involved in the mitzvah of counting the omer, Sefirat Ha’omer. We start counting the omer from the second day of Pesach, all through the 49 days leading up to Shavuot. We count not only the days – “today is the first day of the omer”, “today is the second day of the omer” – but the weeks as well. We say: “Today is the seventh day, which is one week of the omer,” totalling seven complete weeks linking Pesach to Shavuot.
What is the meaning behind this mitzvah?
The Sefer Hachinuch explains that we count in anticipation of Shavuot, the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah. We left Egypt on Pesach and journeyed through the desert to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks later. The counting between Pesach and Shavuot represents how the whole purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was so that we would have the privilege and merit of receiving G-d’s Torah at Mount Sinai. By counting, we demonstrate our anticipation and appreciation of the Torah, our special gift from G-d.
But there is another dimension to this mitzvah: it is about the counting of time. By understanding Judaism’s philosophy of time, we can understand Judaism’s philosophy of life and the significance of the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’omer.
How we relate to time reflects our attitude toward life
The Dubna Maggid, who was famous throughout Eastern Europe for his ability to explain the deepest philosophical teachings in the most practical, concrete way, looks at Sefirat Ha’omer from a philosophical point of view. What is interesting about this mitzvah is that, according to many opinions, it is one continuous mitzvah comprising 49 parts; hence if we miss a day, although we continue to count, we do so without a blessing. It’s still important to continue counting even without the blessing, but ideally we should try to remember to count every day so that we can complete the mitzvah in its entirety. Why is the counting of the omer cumulative? Furthermore, why do we count the weeks as well – “today is fifteen days, which is two weeks and one day of the omer” – and not just the days?
The Dubna Maggid explains that our relationship with time, how we relate to the past and to the future, reflects who we are and whether we are following the path of Torah and righteousness or not. Some people view the whole purpose of life as merely the pursuit of pleasure; time on this earth is limited and so their attitude is: “Let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” For such people, says the Dubna Maggid, the past is an enemy and the future is a friend because the pleasures enjoyed in the past are gone; one can’t get them back and so only the future holds promise. As a simple example, the chocolate bars you had yesterday are gone. You can’t enjoy them now. The past is an enemy; you wish you hadn’t eaten all those chocolates because you can’t enjoy them now. It’s actually painful to think about the past because it’s gone. But if someone were to offer you chocolate now, you would want it. Thus, the future is promising while the past is an enemy.
As a person ages, the past becomes longer and the future becomes shorter. For the righteous, however, it’s different. When the purpose of life is not just self-gratification but doing mitzvahs and good deeds, we are able to transcend time because good deeds are eternal. We take them with us to Olam Haba, the World to Come, and they stand us in good stead forever. When we can look back with satisfaction on all that we have done in life then the past is indeed a friend. The future is uncertain because we have to continue doing good deeds throughout life, but time passing need not make us feel anxious. It all depends on our attitude: if our purpose in life is purely the pursuit of pleasure, then the past is going to provoke anxiety. But if our purpose in life is pursuing good deeds, we can look back on the past with a sense of accomplishment.
The Dubna Maggid quotes the verse in Tehillim, which says: “In Your eyes, G-d, a thousand years is like a bygone yesterday.” Obviously, from G-d’s perspective, time has no meaning, He is above time. But the Dubna Maggid explains that throughout Tanach the number 1 000 always symbolises maximum numeracy. Thus the verse is saying that even a thousand years, once they’ve already passed, are just a bygone yesterday. If our whole focus is self-gratification, even if life were a thousand years long it would still not be enough; it would feel like one day that has passed and wouldn’t bring us one more moment of joy. Hence a person looking back on life might despair, because it’s gone. But a person living a life of good deeds has no reason to despair.
The Dubna Maggid says further that there is another major difference between the pleasure-oriented approach to time and the Torah-oriented approach. He explains these two ways of relating to time using the following analogy: there are two paupers going begging from door to door. The one, as soon as he gets a coin, spends it. He goes to the next door, gets another coin and spends it as well. At the end of the day, at the end of the week, he has nothing saved, just one coin in his hand. The other pauper collects from door to door but doesn’t spend the money immediately. He starts to save and after a week he has a number of coins which he then converts into a more valuable currency. At the end of the month he has a substantial amount of money which he invests in something with long-term value.
Slowly, he begins to build his financial future. After a few years he has something substantial to show for all his efforts while the first pauper still has only one coin in his hand.
This analogy explains the two approaches to time. If our goal in life is solely self-gratification, then our approach to time is to focus only on the moment; and then, before we know it, it’s gone. However, if our goal in life is doing mitzvahs and good deeds, then time has a cumulative effect. The past has great value upon which we build all the time, adding more and more building blocks of good deeds. When we leave this earth and our souls return to Hashem, those who have lived a life of selfish pursuits return to Hashem empty-handed. They have spent all their coins, they have wasted their time. However the righteous who have spent a lifetime accumulating deeds of eternal value return to Hashem with all their good deeds and mitzvahs.
Thus we see that our approach to time is really how we approach life. The Dubna Maggid explains another verse in Tehillim which says that the days of a person’s life are k’tzel oveir, “like a passing shadow.” The Midrash on this verse says that k’tzel oveir, a passing shadow, is referring to the shadow of a bird as it flies overhead. The shadow just flits across the ground and is gone. This, says the Midrash, is life – a passing shadow. The Dubna Maggid explains that if one lives for the here and now, for the immediate gratification and self-centred pursuits, then life is indeed like a passing shadow – the past is gone, the future is unknown and the present is but a mere split second. But if one lives a life of Torah, mitzvahs and accumulating good deeds then life has eternal value.
What is even more amazing is that the Torah allows us to accumulate good deeds even retroactively. If a person truly repents he or she can change the sins of the past into good deeds, as long as there is sincere regret and resolve not to sin again. This is the tremendous power that Hashem has given us over time: by repenting we can actually reverse the past and transform our losses into gains.
The counting of the omer teaches us not only how to count time but how to make time count. When we count the omer, we say, “today is day one,” “today is day two,” and so forth. We have to count all 49 days to fulfil the mitzvah properly. We don’t just look at each day by itself; rather, it is a cumulative mitzvah, with each day building on the previous one.
Not only do the days build on each other but we count them in weeks as well, representing that our days and our deeds are not disjointed but are building on each other all the time. The days turn into weeks and the weeks accumulate to seven complete weeks, all as one unified whole. This is the Torah’s philosophy of time. If we live a life of Torah and mitzvahs then we are able to view our lives as a cumulative whole rather than as fragmented parts. It is within our hands to make life meaningful, and if we do so, time is not an enemy. Time is a friend, the past is a friend and everything we do becomes meaningful.
Now we can understand why the counting of the omer is a necessary prerequisite to Shavuot. Before we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on the festival of Shavuot we have to gain an understanding of time because time is life. We have to develop our fundamental philosophy of what the purpose of life is, and to develop the proper perspective on time. Ultimately, how we relate to time is how we relate to life itself.