TIME IS ONE of those concepts that we take for granted because it just seems so obvious. The sun goes up, and the sun goes down. The hour hand goes around and around and before you know it that day is over again…and again…and again. You race to your three o’clock appointment confident that they will be there because your three o’clock is their three o’clock too. Time just seems so absolute.
But, of course, it’s not. As Einstein made famous, time is relative. The more boring the relative, the slower time goes. He didn’t exactly put it that way, because he did show how if a person could travel at the speed of light (faster than the downturn on a wild roller coaster ride), time would stop for them. And I have mentioned in the past that time is really just the measure of nitzotzei kedushah, the holy sparks returning to their source above.
I mentioned to someone not long ago that humans have no present. What we call the present is just the future becoming the past, because, for us, time does not stand still. It’s just that, fortunately, things take long enough to change significantly that it gives us a sense of time moving very slowly, or even as if it stops sometimes.
The opposite is true for God. He has no past and He has no future. The future is only potential yet to be realized, and the past is something that once was and is no more other than a memory. Both imply change, and God is unchanging. He already is everything He will ever be and He will always be what He has always been, all of which is infinite. Since time is by definition “the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues,” it cannot exist for God.
That is the true definition of the present. It has to be infinite and it has to be eternal or it will be subject to change and will become the future becoming the past. We’ve borrowed the term to give meaning to our world of change by allowing it to represent an area of existence that we call the here-and-now.
It’s like looking out the side window of a car at the telephone poles that seem to pass seconds after each other and at a very fast speed. But if you look at the upcoming poles through the front window, they will seem to approach slower, but only because you will be aware of them longer in advance of their passing. The rate of change seems slower because we have given ourselves a longer window of time to be conscious of the reality of the poles, creating the illusion that time has slowed down for us.
THIS IS WHY there can be no change in Olam HaBa. We are told that this world is the one in which we can earn reward in the World-to-Come, which can be increased or decreased. But once a person dies, that’s it. You cannot change your position in the World-to-Come—FOREVER. There are some questions to ask and answer about this, like doing meritorious acts in memory of the departed to elevate their souls, but not here. The point, basically, is the point.
It’s because it is an eternal world. There is no future or past in the World-to-Come, just being forever. There can be no change there. What does that mean? Don’t ask me. My entire (conscious) experience is one of change. Like everyone else I know, I am subject to the future becoming the past without stopping to allow me to properly experience the present. It’s all just words and concepts that I kind of relate to. You can’t get your head around something that is totally outside your experience.
This is a problem for most people. They live with the illusion of the present as if time stands still. They will tell you that they know it does not. But we all act as if it does, some more than others, which is that time tends to get the better of us, leaving us short, leaving us behind, and leaving us with regret that we didn’t live better, if not in the present, then certainly in the future.
There is an exception to all of this, and when you know what it is, you will appreciate what a gift it is. It’s Shabbos.
We’re told that Shabbos is one-sixtieth of the World-to-Come (Brochos 57b), which sounds like just a nice way of saying that Shabbos is an other-worldly day of rest. After all, how can a day in this world of change be anything like the next world of no change? How can the eternal enter the reality of the transient? Well, how does your eternal soul get tucked into your transient body?
The answer to both questions is, that it’s a miracle. Or, at least that’s what we call something that goes against our knowledge of how the world seems to work. But as Rebi Chanina told his daughter:
Once on a Friday night, he noticed that his daughter was sad and he asked her, “My daughter, why are you sad?”
She answered, “My oil container got mixed up with my vinegar container and I lit Shabbos candles with it.”
He told her, “My daughter, Why should this trouble you? He Who had commanded the oil to burn will also command the vinegar to burn!” (Ta’anis 25a)
It’s Torah Hashkofah 101. The real miracle of life is nature, which is just miracles that happen regularly and consistently. Whether we’re talking about the sun rising and setting each day with calculated accuracy, or the splitting of the sea for millions of people to cross on dry land, it’s all God’s will at the moment it happens. The only difference between Friday and Shabbos, as we will learn from Yemos HaMoshiach onward, is how much God decides to reveal Himself in Creation. On Friday it’s just enough to make us aware Shabbos is coming. On Shabbos, it’s enough to feel His Presence and present, giving Shabbos an air of Olam HaBa. Time may not stand still on Shabbos, but it comes the closest it can in the world we live in. What an incredible gift.
AND NOT JUST Shabbos, but anything Shabbos-like. Yomim Tovim, for example, and as we saw at the end of last week’s parsha, are Shabbos-like. And, for example, as we see in this week’s parsha, Shmittah. It is called a Shabbos for the land but is really a Shabbos for the Jewish people.
True, agriculturists point out that it is good for the land to go fallow around once in seven years. And there is no reason why the mitzvah should not be technically helpful. If anything, God made the land that way so that Shmittah would provide us with an additional benefit for keeping it.
But mitzvos are not for the sake of satisfying the laws of Physics, or any other science for that matter. They are for one specific reason, and that is to allow us to come closer to God, to increase our attachment to Him. We keep Shmittah for the same reason we keep Shabbos: to maintain an attachment to the eternity of the present by staying tethered to World-to-Come-type events and realities.
There is a reason why Sefer Zerayim is also called Sefer Emunah—Book of Faith. Agriculture is a time-bound reality. It builds on the past for the sake of the future. We invest time and money by planting seeds that we hope and trust will one day result in life-sustaining food. We have no way of guaranteeing it because so many factors remain beyond our control, so we remain concerned about them. It makes living in the present so much more difficult.
To circumvent that problem, man created synthetic foods that are independent of the God factors, such as rain and good soil. But God controls much more than just the ground and the clouds. He controls everything, and if He wants synthetic food to fail us, it will…and already has on many occasions.
Enter Shmittah. Like Shabbos itself, Shmittah is an opportunity, one in seven years, to not just separate from the daily world, but from this period of history altogether. It is an authentic taste of the Messianic Era, which the Gemora speaks about somewhat at the end of Maseches Kesuvos. That’s when we won’t have to farm the land like we do now, or process what we grow. The only focus in Yemos HaMoshiach will be on healing from all the damage done by this stage of history during which time flew, and the Sitra Achra in cahoots with our yetzer hara made sure we squandered it.
Do you know why mindfulness became a thing? Because this world makes people dwell in the past and worry about the future. It makes us overlook the things we can control and use to our benefit and obsess about the things we cannot control and which waste our time and energy.
So some clever people picked up on this. They spoke and wrote against it, giving it a catchy name like mindfulness and living in the moment. And they might have been on to something big, bigger than what it became in terms of making money, had they not left out the most important source of present there is, God Himself.
Shmittah comes along and says, don’t worry about the past, and don’t worry about the future. Just be in the year itself and trust that everything you need will be taken care of by God. Go learn Torah and go do mitzvos that you can’t the other six years because you’re too involved in cultivating the future. Attach yourselves to Me, God says, and live with the eternity of Shabbos an entire year,
BUT IT’S NOT just the mitzvah of Shmittah. This is why Shmittah does not apply outside of Eretz Yisroel. That’s why the verse says specifically in the parsha about Shmittah:
I am God, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you. (Vayikra 25:38)
How so? Because every year of produce in Eretz Yisroel is miraculous, a result of direct Hashgochah Pratis, as the Torah will later say:
For, the land you are about to possess is not like Egypt from where you came, and in which, if you sowed seeds, you had to bring water to them as you would for a garden of green herbs. The land you are about to possess has mountains and deep valleys and is watered by rain from the sky—a land which God, your God, cares for, God, your God pays attention to continuously the entire year. (Devarim 11:11-12)
Shmittah is not the only time that this is true. This is true all the time in Eretz Yisroel. Shmittah is necessary for us to be able to see it so that we can recall it every other year. It’s the time that God shows up in full view, so to speak, to take credit for all the success we ever have while living on the land.
How many powers over how many years tried how many times to make this land grow for them, and failed each time? There was no “Green Line” before the Jews returned to an empty and barren land and made it grow. There was just a bunch of nomads living off whatever they could wherever they settled down. That’s why the British, on their way out in the 1940s, had to falsify documents to make it look as if Arabs had pre-dated the Jews.
So when Dovid HaMelech was forced into temporary exile, he complained about being told to go and serve idols. The Gemora questions this and concludes that he had meant that by leaving the borders of Eretz Yisroel, he was forced to leave the direct Hashgochah Pratis as well (Kesuvos 110b). Ya’akov Avinu, worried about this as well, coaxed God to go with him to Padan Aram and protect him from exile. So, when he saw that God was leaving some 20 years later, he ran ahead of Him by leaving first and quickly.
Likewise, the Kli Yakar explains in Parashas Vayigash, that Ya’akov was afraid to go down to Egypt for the same reason. So God promised him that He would go down before Ya’akov and not leave until Ya’akov did first. Ya’akov would never have to worry about being in Chutz L’Aretz without any reality of Eretz Yisroel.
And because Eretz Yisroel is so imbued with godliness, it has its own level of Shabbos and present. People who make both the physical and mental move to Eretz Yisroel often talk about a different quality of time in Eretz HaKodesh. It’s because the land is on a higher spiritual plane, as the Gemora hints by calling it the highest of all lands. No matter where you come from in the Diaspora, it is always called aliyah—going up.
The higher one rises in the sefiros, the close to the Source of God’s light—and the reality of the present—they become. So, to fight against this, the Sitra Achra uses modern technology to bring the rest of the world to Eretz Yisroel. It pipes in the profane to the Holy Land, and by becoming a recipient of it, a person manages to undo the spiritual and mental advantage of living in God’s land.
But as Tuv HaAretz explains, even still, it is always only superficial. You can just turn it off and cut it out. In Chutz L’Aretz, you can try to, but it is still all around and hard to escape. But shut the door on the outside world in Eretz Yisroel, and the vacuum is filled with kedushah. All of a sudden, it becomes easy to live in and enjoy the present, which is just a technical way of describing a closer relationship with the Eternal One.