Albert Einstein was once was asked to explain his theory of relativity.
Einstein explained it this way, “Put your hand on a hot stove for five minutes, it feels like eternity. Spend five minutes with an attractive woman, it feels like a split second.”
Time is relative. And the way we feel time, that too is relative. Sometimes, an hour can feel like a day, while looking back on a particular period of life might feel like the blink of an eye. This invites us to consider how we use our time. Time is always a factor in how we conduct our lives. The same was true for our biblical forebears. In looking at this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, time plays a significant role. In fact, looking at two instances within this week’s portion gives us two distinct lenses through which we can better understand the lessons that time has to teach.
The first instance occurred after word reached Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, all that had happened to the Israelite people. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jethro comes to bring Moses’ wife and children to him. As the family reunites, Jethro spends some time with his son-in-law. The morning after their reunion, Jethro witnesses Moses “sitting as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening” (Exodus 18:13). To this, Jethro asks Moses, “What is this thing that you’re doing? Why do you act alone while all the people stand about you, min boker ad-erev, from morning to night” (Exodus 18:14).
This question is often cited as a biblical lesson in management and business, and the need for delegation. Jethro suggests to Moses that there are other ways to address the people’s concerns, without him having to hear all of the cases.
The important thing here is not that Moses realizes that he needs to implement a judicial system for the people, which he does. Here, Jethro serves as a spiritual harbinger. Here, he is like Mary Poppins, who comes to the Banks family in order to show the husband and father, Mr. Banks, that there is more to life than working all the time. Moses, likewise, is missing the big picture. He is wasting precious time. He is forgetting to go fly the kite. By freeing Moses of a self-imposed obligation, by freeing Moses’ time, Moses is now able to continue with his true purpose—serving as the Israelite’s spiritual leader. Jethro has freed Moses’ time in order that he can lead the people to Sinai, in order that he can receive and bring them Torah, in order that God’s revelation can be made real for all of the People of Israel, and in order that they can respond with one voice, “Naasei v’Nishmah! All that we have heard, we will do and we will come to embrace it.”
Jethro takes Moses’ time, and frees him of other burdens, in order that he might guide the Israelite community to their full spiritual potential, represented in that moment standing at Sinai.
Having done so, the Israelites arrive in the wilderness of Sinai, encamping in front of the mountain. Now the preparations for receiving Torah begin. Three months have passed since the Israelites left Egypt. As the Israelites built their camp in front of the mountain, Moses prepared the community for what they would encounter. God gave Moses specific instructions, “Go to the people, and (tell them) to purify themselves today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready on the third day, for on the third day, the Eternal God will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:10-11).
The phrase HaYom u’Machar has always stood out to me. Today and tomorrow. It’s the only instance in the entire Hebrew Bible in which that particular idiom is used. Other times biblical characters talk about “two day’s time” and the like. But “Today and tomorrow,” only appears in this instance. Moses tells the Israelites that they shall keep themselves pure, holy, sacred, for they will receive revelation in just three days time.
Holiness is not instantaneous, nor a permanent state. It is brought on willfully. The Israelites are to wash their clothes. And time, too, is a primary instrument in preparing for such moments of holiness as standing at Sinai.
The Israelites are able to use time in order to live their purpose as a sacred community. Jethro helps Moses to free up time in order to enable the Israelites to ascend to their promised place and meet their sacred purpose. Time is a significant character in this week’s Torah portion.
And it plays a significant role in our lives today. Parashat Yitro presents to us two different ways of using time. The first Jethro’s way. “What is this thing that you’re doing,” he asks because he sees a better way, a more freeing way. The first instance teaches us that we can free ourselves to rise to greater heights, to ascend—ourselves—to moments of holiness and sanctity, if only we can clear that which blocks us. Alternatively, for particular missions, we can look ahead, and know that there is work to be done in order to meet our aspirations for holiness. That is the second instance. Sometimes it takes a day or two—hayom u’machar—to really be ready for a significant moment, to be ready to stand at Sinai.
Time is a tool and an asset, and we must be careful not to squander its brevity nor linger too long in that which keeps us from the important matters. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. That was Einstein’s message in how he framed relativity. If we are wise about the time that we have, then we can linger in the moments that really matter. This week’s Torah portion challenges us to consider how we each use our time.
We each are keli qodesh, holy beings. God wants us to live out our holiness. That takes work and time. As we experience Sinai, yet again, in this week’s Torah portion, it calls to us, inviting us to consider each of us, in particular, spends our time, inhibiting or enabling spiritual, sacred living.