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Holidays and Time Management

Emor 5776/21 May 2016

May 23, 2016

Reading this morning’s parshah reminds me of an essay Adam Gopnik wrote years ago about his three-year-old daughter, Olivia, and her imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli.[1] Everything seems typical enough until Gopnik notices something unusual about Olivia’s relationship with Charlie:

The most peculiarly local thing about Olivia’s imaginary playmate is this: he is always too busy to play with her. She holds her toy cell phone up to her ear, and we hear her talk into it: “Ravioli? It’s Olivia… Come and play? O.K. Call me. Bye.” Then she snaps it shut, and shakes her head. “I always get his machine,” she says.[2]

Things take an even more bizarre turn one day when Gopnik realizes that “Laurie,” a newer character in Olivia’s imaginary landscape, is actually Charlie Ravioli’s assistant; the imaginary friend had become so busy he could no longer decline Olivia’s invitations personally, instead relying on his “people.” Gopnik begins to see in Ravioli a funhouse-mirror reflection of his own life: the acquaintances that you always bump into on your way to or from somewhere, the people you mean to catch up with but somehow never find the time. “Why,” Gopnik asks,

Are grownups in New York so busy, and so obsessed with the language of busyness that it dominates their conversation? Why are New Yorkers always bumping into Charlie Ravioli and grabbing lunch, instead of sitting down with him and exchanging intimacies, as friends should, as people do in Paris and Rome?[3] 

In other words, why do we seem to have so little time — so much less than in years past, so much less than we need? Where has our time gone?

Time, in all its broad strokes and particular qualities, courses through chapter 23 of Leviticus, the festival calendar. Our parshah defines, characterizes, and describes time, commanding us to mark and sanctify the seasons of the year. Here we find what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as a key Jewish innovation in human thought: the notion that holiness should relate primarily to time, rather than space.[4] Although Judaism maintains a concept of sacred space, such as the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, as well as sacred objects like a Torah scroll, holy objects serve as a secondary feature; the primary indicator of sanctity rests with time.

The outline of sacred time we read this morning begins, logically, with Shabbat — the original sacred moment, coded into Creation itself, the essential paradigm for all other sacred moments.[5] At the same time, our parshah draws one critical distinction between Shabbat and all other sacred days. Where Shabbat occurs on a fixed schedule, every seven days without fail, the festivals are assigned to individual dates in specific months, and depend on the Jewish community to establish a calendar and declare the beginning of each month. Without the community establishing the cycle of months and days, the precise date of each festival might not come to pass.[6] In ancient times, the Great Sanhedrin would hear testimony each month in order to establish Rosh Hodesh, the minor festival marking the beginning of each month. If testimony arrived late, or could not be sufficiently verified, Rosh Hodesh — and, consequently, any major festivals falling in that month — would be delayed. The court also needed to decide, based on their own judgment, which years should become leap years. As each decision piled on the next, the Sages directly influenced the timing of Jewish holidays throughout the year. Even the fixed calendar we use today, which spares us the month-to-month deliberations, still reflects human discretion over the timing of festivals. Each time we recite kiddush on a holiday according to that calendar, we establish the sanctity of those days; our participation in the communal calendar serves as an ongoing endorsement of its validity.

The language of our parshah reveals the mechanism by which we invest these days with sanctity. The chart below shows that three terms dominate the festival calendar:











מקרא קודש

Mikra Kodesh

sacred occasions



fixed times



v.1-2, 4, 23, 26, 33,

37-38, 44


















Sefirat Ha-Omer


ספירת העמר






Rosh HaShanah





ראש השנה

Yom Kippur





יום כפור


v.34-35, 39-43






Shmini Atzeret

v.36, 39




שמיני עצרת








The most common term, מקרא קודש, used eleven times, indicates those days whose sanctity depends on the assembled Jewish people declaring them holy.[7] Close behind, used ten times each, are various forms of the wordsשבת, meaning “sabbath” or “rest,” and מלאכה, “work.” Read together, these three terms indicate that we invest the sacred days with holiness through our refraining from work — specifically, מלאכה, which Rabbi Shai Held recently defined as “work that changes the world for the better.” Ordinarily, the Torah assumes, we engage in מלאכה in order to develop, improve, and advance human society. Periodically — every seven days, as well as a few other times throughout the year — God commands us to step back from our usual ways and stop making things better; instead, for a little while, we must let things be.

While the step back from work on these holidays might once have appeared arbitrary, emerging insights of neuroscience and psychology suggest that there may be a deeper wisdom in the close connection between Shabbat and festivals, holiness, and a rest from creative labor. In a recent interview, internet pioneer Tiffany Shlain talked about the need to disconnect in order to create. If you’ve ever noticed that you’ll suddenly have a brilliant idea while showering or washing dishes, here’s the reason why: our brains have a “default mode network” that drives creativity and develops new understandings from the information and concepts we have already learned, and when we allow our minds to wander the default mode network kicks in. On the other hand, when we engage in focused, task-oriented thinking — composing an email, or watching a video — the default mode network turns off and undermines our ability to create. Rather than thinking of rest in contrast to our everyday work, we now know that time to unplug serves as an integral part of the creative process.[8]

While Shabbat comes every week no matter what, the festivals up the ante by requiring us to make them מקראי קודש, “sacred occasions” made holy through our participation. As with all mitzvot, we must ask why God would bother to require this of us. Surely God could make holy whatever God wanted to be holy, without recourse to human action; if God insists thatwe must make the festivals holy, it must have some purpose for our benefit. In this case, we need a framework within which we can learn how to disconnect from everyday life, how to relinquish the constructive world ofמלאכה in order to replenish our wellsprings of creativity. As Tiffany Shlain explained,

When you’re turning off the technology, you are slowing down time. You’re slowing down your mind. And most people that I run into, [when I ask,] “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m so busy.” That’s everybody’s response. I don’t want that to be your response. Tell me something interesting.

When was the last time someone asked after your well-being and you responded, “I’m so busy?” Welcome to the world of Charlie Ravioli, the imaginary friend who is too busy to play.

We live in an age defined by urgency. Most of us have become desensitized, but we can easily identify the pervasive urgency if we look for it. Here’s an experiment: after Shabbat, count the first ten things in your immediate environment that beep, ring, flash, or vibrate, and see how long it takes to get to ten. “Urgent things act on us,” Stephen Covey writes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others. They’re usually right in front of us… But so often they are unimportant!”[9] The festivals, which require us to sanctify them by abstaining from מלאכה, from constructive labor, challenge us to think about what things are important — rooted in our most essential values — and not just what is urgent.[10] 

The great Sage Hillel taught, “Do not say, I will study when I have the time, for you may never have the time.”[11] Hillel referred specifically to Torah study, but his advice could just as easily apply to any area of life. How many of us have things we would like to do, if only we could find the time? No one ever “finds” the time for anything; we need to make time for the things we value. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on our parshah, writes that “A person’s freedom is marked by his right to use his time as he sees fit. One who can call his time his own is truly free. One whose time is controlled by another is his slave.”[12] The Jewish holidays, each of which relates back to a different aspect of our liberation from Egypt, emphasize this idea of freedom. Our setting aside time to rest, to step outside the flow of everyday time and experience a spiritual dimension, plays an essential role in our humanity. As Gopnik observes,

The crowding of our space has been reinforced by a crowding of our time, and the only way to protect ourselves is to build structures of perpetual deferral: I’ll see you next week, let’s talk soon. We build rhetorical baffles around our lives to keep the crowding out, only to find that we have let nobody we love in.[13] 

Here lies the challenge: in a world of always-on, always-connected, can we summon the will to step back? Not to renounce modern life and technology, but to strike a balance between the urgent demands of our world and the existential human need to create and connect. As Covey concludes, “‘Time management’ is really a misnomer – the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves.”[14] This morning’s festival calendar, with its demand that we sanctify the holidays, reminds us that as free people we bear the responsibility of determining how we will spend our time. The human drive to create, develop, build, advance — מלאכה — brings with it the need to rest, pause, and reflect. The מקראי קודש, the days that become holy through our sanctification, as well as the weekly Shabbat that serves as the conceptual foundation, help us develop the capacity to step back in order to continue moving forward.

[1]        Adam Gopnik, “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” The New Yorker, 30 Sept. 2002, 80-84.

[2]        Gopnik, “Ravioli,” 80.

[3]        Gopnik, “Ravioli,” 81.

[4]        Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951 [repr. 2000]), 79.

[5]        Cf. Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 262

[6]        Ramban and Ralbag, Lev. 23:2; Heschel, Sabbath, 82.

[7]        Ramban, Lev. 23:2; cf. Levine, JPS Torah Commentary, Lev. 23:2.

[8]        Tiffany Shlain, “Growing Up the Internet,” interview by Krista Tippett, On Being, 31 March 2016.

[9]        Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Fireside, 1989), 150-151.

[10]        Cf. Covey, Seven Habits, 150-156.

[11]        Pirkei Avot 2.4 [Siddur edition 2.5], tr. Jonathan Sacks.

[12]        Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash (tr. Daniel Haberman), Lev. 23:1.

[13]        Gopnik, “Ravioli,” 83.

[14]        Covey, Seven Habits, 150.

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