This is the season of our transitions and transformation. From graduations to confirmations, this time of year is ripe with an awareness of time and its meaning. It is a time of imagining the possibilities, of hope in the future and a sense of accomplishment of the past.
Every culture measures time in particular ways, but Judaism teaches us to constantly reframe it, to measure it and even to try to transcend it. There are, for example, many different interpretations of the meaning of these weeks between Passover and Shavuot. But whether one understands this period of time traditionally, as a period of semi-mourning; or of preparing for the revelation at Sinai; or of celebrating the meaning of Israeli independence; or of simply being aware of the turn from spring toward summer, there is a common theme that connects each of these interpretations: the significance of counting days and years toward something of greater significance than any particular day itself.
A life of meaning comes from an intense sense of time, in which we have the possibility of living out our deepest values. As a system, Judaism promotes a life of daily rituals and a year of holidays that reinforce numerous core values, including human equality, the supreme value of life and the communal ethics of the Torah. Daily prayer teaches the individual gratitude for the opportunities of each day, and reinforces one’s sense of responsibility for how that day should be spent.
The holidays approach time and duty on a grander scale. For example: Hanukka teaches about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance; Passover reminds us to ensure that those held captive are freed and the vulnerable are protected.
Through the rhythms of holidays and life-cycle events, values are reinforced and the individual and the community have an intense sense of the passage of time and the particular possibilities of each day, of each season, of each phase of our lives.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is probably the best-known ancient text that expresses an intensified sense of the significance of how we should understand the potential significance of each period of time:
“There is a season for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born a time to die… a time for peace and a time for war…. A time to speak and a time for silence.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
We liturgically read Ecclesiastes’s somewhat powerless sense of time and even depressed sense of its possibilities only in the fall, on Succot, when uncertainty about the autumn harvest and what the coming winter will bring prevails.
Yet on Shavuot, as we turn toward summer, we read the Book of Ruth, which begins with a sense of loss of time and a depressed sense of the lack of possibilities of the future, but suddenly surprises us with new possibilities for the future – even when it seems that there may be none.
The Book of Ruth opens as Naomi weeps over the loss of husband and sons and her lack of options, insisting that her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, return to their fathers’ homes, where they will have more possibility for the future. Yet Ruth rebels against this rational advice, and clings to her mother-in-law and insists on returning with her to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:14).
Ruth then makes a declaration of faith and commitment, which has come to characterize what it means to be part of the Jewish people: “For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).
The story of Ruth is the story of a radically different understanding of the meaning of time and the possibilities of the future. Rather than choosing the safe, rational option of returning to her father’s home, Ruth chooses to reattach herself to a people whose sense of time transcends the immediate experience of it, even in our darkest hours. She has a sense that maintaining this kind of faith in a person, in a community, and in God is, quite literally, stronger than death itself. Ruth takes risks in order to give her life a completely new meaning.
By the next season, she is indeed remarried and the mother of Obed, who will become the grandfather of King David. Her sense of time and its possibilities transcends the obvious. Ruth thus embodies the ultimate hope. It is no wonder that Judaism makes her the first ancestor of the Messiah.
Measuring our days carefully through the counting of the Omer or in the mindful celebration of new phases and opportunities of life should not only ensure that we make good use of whatever time we have, but help us each focus on the essence of what we want our lives to mean.
The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the national director of recruitment and admissions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute.