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Shinewald: Making this awful moment more tolerable


“Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And yet, how much we would give for these hours to pass more quickly.

We sit, cooped up, waiting for time to pass, worrying for our loved ones and ourselves and longing for human connection. We alternate between joy and anger, between hope and despair. A new, intense mood can suddenly overtake us, displacing the last completely.

Time, it seems, has become our enemy, as much as coronavirus.

But as Heschel shows, how we spend, mark and sanctify time is core to Jewishness. It may yet be our way to keep our sanity in a moment when days blur into weeks.

What did you do last Tuesday? I have no clue and you probably don’t either. Tuesdays used to be the days where we had our team meetings at the office and where, once a month, I’d attend Ve’ahavta board meetings. But today, Tuesday is no different than Thursday or even Sunday.  Time is all the same.

Except that, I know precisely what I did Friday and Saturday. Last Friday night, our family, spread across Chicago, Toronto, Vermont and Winnipeg gathered by video to light candles and sing Shabbat songs. Grandparents saw grandchildren, cousins waved to each other and all of us smiled. It was a precious moment of pure joy, just as welcoming Shabbat should be.

We couldn’t have had the same experience on a Tuesday. Even now, when we have nothing but time, we may not have bothered.  The absence of the Shabbat ritual might have made a Tuesday video call feel artificial.

Once Shabbat ended, the online Havdalahs began, and never did the beginning of a new week seem as significant. Shuls and schools and other wonderful Jewish institutions lived their core purpose to the fullest: strengthening our community, even (or especially) in this moment of physical distancing, this time just doing so online.


It may feel like physical distancing is about time, but of course it is entirely about space.  Heschel contrasts Judaism’s approach to time with humankind’s approach to space. “The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place.” But, Heschel notes, the Torah first applies the word kadosh (holy) to time – to a day called Shabbat.

Today, Jews use time – how we mark it, how we sanctify it – to break through the spiritual void that is physical distancing.  You see this in videos of Israeli apartment dwellers singing Shabbat songs together on their balconies, in well-wishers communicating holiday greetings online and in many other ways.

I write this before Passover, before my family’s first-ever virtual seders.  The idea, preposterous a month ago, immediately lifted our spirits, giving everyone something to look forward to (and dress up for) and alleviating the fear of spending Passover alone.

For others, the very notion of an online seder is contradictory, given Judaism’s prohibitions against electricity on holy days. But even the more observant will be calling each other just before and immediately after the holy days. This, too, is a deeply Jewish expression of time.

Imagine, now in particular, if you really did treat every single day identically –  if you didn’t separate the holy and the secular, or however you describe it, by somehow marking Shabbat or Passover or anything else in our Jewish cycle. To me, days that are truly indistinguishable seem much more imprisoning than physical distancing.       

Heschel reminds us that, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.”

We may not realize it, but through marking Jewish moments in time, we all consecrate those sanctuaries in our own way and, in so doing, we make this awful moment a bit more bearable.