Timing is everything

The recent civil New Year elicited a lot of discussion in the popular press about the passage of time, as was only to be expected. In the New Year’s issue of the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote:

“The curmudgeon might say that the push to optimize every second chops the day into discrete, bounded blocks of time and drains them of possibility. It makes an assembly line of time and cheats us of opportunities for revelation or surprise. Put another way: would any of us really want to know how many days we have until we die?”

This immediately twigged for me that poignant line in Psalm 90, in which the psalmist says: “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” (JPS translation) This psalm is a meditation on mortality at the end of Moshe’s life, And here he seems to be answering Paumgarten’s question in the affirmative and saying that facing our mortality by knowing the number of our days /is/ the way to wisdom.

But to me, one of the best parts of the Torah is the way that we don’t know how long things take; the timeline is stretched and deformed by the narrative. One is occasionally offered a firm landmark–Abraham’s and Sarah’s ages at the birth of Isaac, Isaac’s age upon his marriage to Rebecca, people’s life spans as reported upon their death, and so on. But by and large, the reader has no idea how many years elapsed between one verse and the next, between one parshah and the next, between one experience and the next.

As readers, we are trapped in a linear world in which things must be written down in a certain order. We cannot read two chapters or even two verses simultaneously. Hence, the inferences that so many commentaries make from the adjacency of two sections. In Rashi’s famous question, “What is the connection between this parshah and that one?” What is Tamar’s seduction doing plunked in the middle of the Joseph narrative? Why does the tale of the worship of the golden calf appear at the end of Shmot and not directly after tne narrative of Sinai eleven chapters earlier? Why are the laws given at Sinai scattered over three books of the Torah? The Torah presents us with certain events in combination and, again in the words of Rashi, demands that we expound — Darsheini!

The answer sometimes given is “ein muqdam u-m”ukhar ba-torah”–there is neither ‘earlier’ nor ‘later’ in the Torah. In other words, don’t place too much emphasis on the order in which events are written; sometimes things are just listed out of order because not everything can be written at once. And sometimes the organizing principle is not chronological.

But this denial of linear time suggests to me that the Torah is, in some way, trying to give us a sense of the simultaneity with which God apparently experiences history (as if ‘experience’ is a verb we can apply to God!). We organize our lives every day on the basis of “first this, then that”. But God, as it were, sees everything all at once. Avraham stands with the knife over Isaac’s throat NOW; the Talmud’s editions are being burned NOW; your grandparents are getting married NOW. It is impossible for us to imagine. So, while we also have the principle of “torah dibrah bi-l”shon adam”–the Torah speaks in human language–here is one aspect in which that breaks down. In its refusal to follow linear time, the Torah speaks another language entirely.

Shabbat shalom.


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