August 13, 1998
Does Anyone Know What Time It Is?
By Rabbi Ed Feinstein
In the office, I have a fast computer with e-mail and a modem, a fax machine, a cell phone and a pager. At home, a microwave/convection oven, dishwasher, washer/dryer, trash compactor, cordless phones and answering machine. All designed to save me time. So where's all that time? Why don't I feel like I have more time?
Time, as we know it, was invented only in the last century. A century ago, most people got up and went to bed with the sun, and measured their day by the factory whistle or the town clock. Arriving 20 minutes one way or the other didn't much matter. Time was local. Two o'clock in San Francisco had no relation to 2 o'clock in New York. All that changed with the railroad. Trains run on schedules. And schedules demand standardized time. An act of Congress divided the country into "time zones," and time was made uniform. The concept of an "appointment" was invented only in 1880. So was the concept "you're late." The advent of radio brought uniform time into the home as families rushed to finish dinner to hear their favorite program. Relative to human evolution, 50 years is a remarkably short period. But in the 50 years from 1880 through 1930, our sense of time was completely overturned.
And it has turned again. A friend who works as a business lawyer describes his stress: Once, a contract or letter or proposal came in the mail. You thought about it, drafted your response, and sent it off. Total turnaround: about a week. Then came express mail. The proposal comes FedEx by 10:30 a.m., and the response is expected the next day. Then came fax: The response is expected by day's end. Then came e-mail. Now the response is expected instantaneously.
Just yesterday, I called a fellow whose voice mail has voice mail. There's no break. No retreat. We carry cell phones so that we can be reached anywhere, at any time. Call-waiting breaks into whatever conversation we're having to bring us another.
We live in what writer Michael Ventura describes as "the age of interruption." There is a mismatch between "inner time" -- our personal sense of the rhythms of time -- and "outer time" -- the regimented time society imposes upon us. What happens to human beings when the rhythm of life speeds up so drastically? The faster we go, the more empty we feel. The more we "get done," the less it seems we've accomplished. The more contacts we make, the more shallow we become.
"Hurry up!" I shout at my son. "Stop playing! Put your shoes on. Let's go!" And then something shocks me into awareness: Is this really what I want? To stop playing? To slam the child into my adult rhythms? To hurry his childhood?
Deuter-onomy's pre-eminent verb is shema, "listen." "If you will listen to these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. He will favor you and bless you and multiply you.... You will be blessed above all other peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:12-14).
We are commanded to listen. But listening takes time. It takes patience and concentration. Perhaps that's why we affix a mezuzah to the door of the home. The mezuzah contains a text. Its first word is shema -- listen. You're coming home to a spouse, to a family -- listen! Listen to what is said and what is unsaid. Listen to the echoes and resonances of each word. You love your family? Take the time to listen.
The voice of God fills the world. It is we who have lost the ability to take the time and listen. We who can't quiet the rush of e-mail and CNN factoids, who can't turn off call-waiting or hush the cell phone long enough to hear the echoes of the eternal in each moment. "Give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." Amen.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
READ A PREVIOUS WEEK'S TORAH PORTION