Forget the tyranny of the clock and follow the calendar of life

September 20, 2003
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Published in The Times, 20th September 2003

There's a lovely story about time. Two elderly Jews who haven’t seen each other in fifty years, meet, slowly recognise one another, and embrace. They go back to the apartment of one of them to talk about the days long ago.

The conversation goes on for hours. Night falls. One asks the other, “Look at your watch. What time is it?” “I don’t have a watch,” says the second. “Then look at the clock.” “I don’t have a clock.” “Then how do you tell the time?” “You see that trumpet in the corner? That’s how I tell the time.” “You’re crazy,” says the first, “How can you tell the time with a trumpet?” “I’ll show you.” He picks up the trumpet, opens the window and blows a deafening blast. Thirty seconds later, an angry neighbour shouts out, “Two-thirty in the morning, and you’re playing the trumpet?” The man turns to his friend and says, “You see? That’s how you tell the time with a trumpet!”

Roughly speaking, that’s how the greatest Rabbi of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides, explained why we blow a shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which we celebrate in six days’ time.

It is, he says, God’s wake-up call, His way of asking us, “Do you know what time it is? This life I have given you, how have you used it? For yourself, or for others? To hurt or to heal? What have you done with the year you asked Me for twelve months ago? What will be your entry in the Book of Life?” We go through life, says Maimonides, for much of the time half-asleep. Day follows day in a daze. We go through the motions of waking, working, eating, relaxing, more conscious of the minutes than the years. We feel the tyranny of the clock but forget the larger calendar of a life.

As the years pass, all too often we renounce the dreams of our youth and settle for a routine which oscillates between the escape from boredom called work, and the escape from work called leisure. Sometimes it takes a jolt — a car crash, an illness, a crisis — to make us ask, Who am I and why am I here? What am I doing with my life?

It’s part of the beauty of Judaism that it asks us, on Rosh Hashanah, to ask just that question. Time is God’s greatest gift and one of the few He gives each of us on equal terms. Whether we are rich or poor, powerful or powerless, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a span of years that is all too short. For each of us (as for Moses) there will be a future we will not see, a River Jordan we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter. Therefore we have to make choices, and the most consequential is how we use our time.

Once asked, the question almost answers itself. No one ever died wishing he or she had spent more time at the office or ruing the lack of the latest mobile phone. Most of the wants we chase after are artificially contrived, and many of the things we have no time for — family meals, long walks with our children, helping strangers, saying thank you to our marriage partner and to God — are of the essence of a life well lived. Once a year we need that trumpet-call to remember time and use it to make a difference, to be a blessing, to love.