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A Time For Every Purpose

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes offers a different way to think about time — not as a unit of measurement, but as shifting periods of emotion and action.

I don’t know about you, but COVID has warped my sense of time. Days go on forever. Years fly by without the usual array of events to punctuate the time. And I know I’m not alone. 

“The virus has created its own clock, and in coronatime, there is less demarcation between a day and a week, a weekday and a weekend, the morning and night, the present and the recent past,” the journalist Arielle Pardes has observed

“2020 is a unique leap year,” the economics researcher David Wessel joked on Twitter. “It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March and 5 years in April.” 

Time has just gotten weirder.

Claudia Hammond, in a book written almost a decade ago, said that our perceptions of time are formed by “memory, concentration, emotion and the sense we have that time somehow is rooted in space.” Time, she writes, plays all kinds of tricks on us. If you’ve ever sat in a boring class and watched the clock get to the end of the hour, you know what she means. Sitting in the same room with an exciting teacher and engaging subject, time marches quickly on the very same clock.

This Shabbat, which falls in the middle of the weeklong festival of Sukkot, we read the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew). For many readers, the book is a downer, filled with pessimistic adages about work, money, joy and death. Millennia before we knew what we now know about depression, ennui and existentialism, the author of Ecclesiastes was struggling with how to make sense of it all. I’ve always loved Kohelet since it gives space for individuals to read their own worries, concerns and anxieties within the framework of a sacred text.

One of the best-known passages in the book is also among the most famous disquisitions about time. Pete Seeger made it into the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which was popularized by The Byrds and has been sung and adapted by many others since its first appearance in 1959.

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing,
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.

What Kohelet offers here is a different way to think about time — not as a unit of measurement, but as shifting periods of emotion and action. Time isn’t measured in a chronological fashion, but by different seasons demarcated by events and the range of emotions they trigger. We recall births and deaths, injuries and healing, and occasions filled with tears or laughter. Sometimes we have to negotiate one extreme or another as we situate ourselves.

In Sacred and Profane, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes that there are two ways to experience time: quantitatively (as the clock ticks) or qualitatively (as a measure of “pure quality, creativity, and accomplishment”). The person with a quantitative orientation regards all time as equal units. The person who thinks of time as qualitative sees that every moment can be infused with newness, adventure and productivity. 

“One may live an entire life span quantitatively, not having lived a moment qualitatively,” writes Soloveitchik. “And, contrariwise, one may have lived a moment quantitatively and have lived through an eternity qualitatively.”

Kohelet reflects the qualitative experience of time. To me, the comfort of the book is that when we find ourselves in one of the negative cycles that Kohelet mentions — as we so often have during these past 18 months — they will not last. We cycle in and out of life’s dramas. Wars eventuate in peace, even if it seems to take forever. What has been uprooted may one day flourish. We wail, but even in the midst of our tears, we know that one day, we will also dance.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Sep. 25, 2021. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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