When Rav Soloveitchik was first shown a digital watch, he shook his head disapprovingly. “It might tell the time,” he said, “but it does not provide any sense of time. An analog clock offers a clear picture of how much time has passed and how far there is still to go. This watch just shows a still-shot of the time, right here, right now. One should not view life in such a static way.”
With the Senate’s passing of the “Sunshine Protection Act,” time is once again in the news. Various experts and lobby groups, including members of our Orthodox Jewish community, have added their voices to the debate over keeping summer time year-round. While Shacharit times are important to advocate for, the issue runs much deeper. It speaks to a fundamental contrast between our Jewish perspective on life and the prevailing secular worldview.
This week we read Parshat Hachodesh. The first mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael is the renewal and sanctification of each month. In days of yore, yeshiva schools couldn’t issue an annual calendar at the start of the year. The calendar was determined month by month, depending on when the moon was sighted. What was Hashem’s message when He gave us Kiddush Hachodesh as the inaugural national mitzvah?
The ancient Egyptians believed that they could rule over and control the natural order. Pharaoh presented himself as a deity, to the extent that his mastery over nature compelled him to take care of his bodily functions in secret. And the clearest example is the effort on the part of the Egyptian sorcerers to show that they, too, could manipulate nature and reproduce Moshe’s miracles.
The mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh proclaimed that mortal man cannot control nature. Our mission is to work with the ebb and flow of the Earth’s natural rhythm and elevate this world spiritually. We don’t get to decide when a month begins. We must tune in to the world’s rhythm and work with it to make the world a better place.
This human desire to rule over nature has never disappeared. In each era of history, it simply presents itself in different forms. The latest manifestation is the “Sunshine Protection Act,” which is a declaration by well-intentioned leaders that they have the ability to protect the sunshine for us. In reality, they cannot affect the sunshine whatsoever. The sun will shine regardless of government legislation.
Framing the act in such terms aims to create a dichotomy. If the proponents are pro-sunshine, then the antagonists must be pro-darkness. That’s designed to scare us. Our Sages (AZ 8a) teach that the very first night that began starting earlier had Adam bewildered and frightened. He interpreted it as some sort of punishment.
Judaism, however, has never been afraid of the dark. Each day we bless Hashem who “fashions light and creates darkness.” Both light and dark come from Heaven. We have always appreciated the advantages of both day and night hours. On the one hand, we are commanded, “Six days shall you work.” On the other hand, our Sages (Taanit 31a) teach that longer fall and winter nights offer more time to learn Torah.
The truth is, the “sunshine-protection” brigade are really engaged in sleight of hand. We live in a generation where we treat everyone with kid gloves, fearing that any divergence from consistency and stability will be unbearable. We worry that any slight change will knock our kids off course and ruin them for life. And so, we create protective bubbles around them to shield them from the insecurity of real life. The push to create an unchanging clock is yet another manifestation of this desire to keep life on an even keel.
Which is a shame. Because this world isn’t plain and simple. It’s constantly changing and dynamic. The twice annual clock adjustment is one of those remaining vestiges from a time when humans recognized that, as the seasons change, so must our personal lives. The world is alive and ever-changing.
That’s why the recent legislation sounds so foreign to our Jewish sensibilities. Ever since we received the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh, we’ve adjusted the clocks not biannually, but daily. Our system of shaot zemaniot divides each day into twelve equal parts. Occasionally, we even add an extra month as a seasonal adjustment. Why? Because we are pro-dynamism, pro-growth, pro-vitality. We don’t believe that life is fixed and static. The rhythm of the shifting seasons is a continuous reminder of our mission to constantly work on ourselves, to build and to grow.
The real dichotomy is between those who are pro-growth and those who are pro-stasis. They want us to conform to tendentious notions of when the sun should shine. But that’s not how life works. We can’t control when the sun rises and sets. Just like we can’t control all the curve balls that life throws our way.
Adam eventually understood that the world wasn’t ending. It’s just how the world works. Some days will be longer. Some will be shorter. And he made a festival to celebrate the rhythm of life and the potential for growth and vitality. Let’s continue to celebrate, and campaign for a society and a world that is pro-growth and unafraid to embrace the dynamism of life.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He grew up in Sydney, Australia, where it is summer all year round.