D’var Torah for Shabbat Hachodesh: How Do We Think About Our Time?


This week is Shabbat Hachodesh, which means that it is the last Shabbat before the Hebrew month of Nissan, which is the month of Passover. On this Shabbat, apart from our regular cycle of Torah reading, we read from the 12th chapter of Exodus which begins:

God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, saying, “This month will be for you the beginning of the months. It will be the first for you of the months of the year.”

One of the most insightful interpretations of this verse comes from Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian rabbi from the 16th century. He writes:

From here on, the months will be your time to do as you wish, but during the years of bondage, the months were not your time since you had to labor for others and do as they wished. This is the first month that’s yours of all of the months to come. It is the beginning of your situation of freedom.

Sforno asks why the verse uses the language of “for you.” Aren’t the months the same for everyone? Other rabbis would give different interpretations. Some referenced the way that Jews would count their months and years according to the moon, and other nations would count their time according to the sun. According to this argument, the verse acknowledges that Jewish time runs on a slightly different schedule…whether that means starting an event late because of schmoozing or having holidays seemingly fall at the most inconvenient time.

While this interpretation speaks to that feeling of disconnect between our Jewish and secular calendars, there are other cultures that use a lunar calendar. Sforno’s comment is so insightful because it acknowledges that dividing and labelling time is ultimately arbitrary. What matters more is the way this division is able to change our perception.

For Sforno, the liberation from slavery needed to begin with a mental shift. By doing something as simple as counting their own time, the Israelites created the perception that they were in control of their own time. The first steps towards freedom will be the mental steps where we can imagine ourselves as free.

As we settle into the self-isolation that will help to slow the spread of infection we are having to redefine how we are spending our time. On the one hand, it may seem like we have more flexibility in the way we organize endless hours at home, but the desire to maintain a sense of normalcy creates ever more claims on structuring time. For those now working from home, how do we remain productive? How do we turn work off when we’re using the same couch to veg in front of the TV? How do we balance the needs of kids who are suddenly expected to isolate themselves at home?

We are undergoing the strangest social experience that we could ever imagine. Our perception towards time, relationships, and productivity will change. As we begin, we must shift our own perspectives to understand the best way to exist in this bizarre world. While nothing about this experience will feel liberating, it is an opportunity for us to look and redefine our time. As we’re stuck at home, what conversation and activities feel valuable? What makes some of the hours feel endless? What’s the project that you’ll finally find the time to do?

On some level, this will be a less productive and more stressful period of time. Pretending it can be otherwise leads to unreachable expectations (as well as this incredible rant about distance learning from a woman in Israel). By embodying Sforno’s interpretation, I hope that we can free ourselves from some of the expectations that caused endless stress even before this crisis took hold, and while it is best to keep to some sort of normal schedule, we can all find a place to forgive ourselves if we end up spending one full day in pajamas watching tv.

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