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To master time is to be truly free


Celebrating Passover, as we’ve just been doing – today is the last day – I’ve been reminded of a very odd feature of the biblical story.

Jews read the books of Moses not just as history but as divine command. The question to which they are an answer is not, “What happened?” but rather, “How then shall I live?” And it’s only with the exodus that the life of the commands really begins.

According to Jewish tradition, the first command the Jewish people ever received was the line in Exodus 12: “This month is to be for you the first month.” We interpret this as the command to establish a calendar, with its Sabbaths and holy days and special seasons.

Let’s study this the way Jews do, which is by asking awkward questions. Here is the obvious question. Why was this the first command? The Israelites were still slaves in Egypt. They were longing for freedom. They were about to begin the long journey across the desert. Why did they need a command about calendars and holy days? What has a diary to do with liberty?

To this one Jewish scholar offered a brilliant answer. What, he asked, is the difference between a free human being and a slave? We tend to think that it has to do with labour, toil, effort. A slave works hard. A free person does not. But in actuality, some free people work very hard indeed, especially those who enjoy their work.

The real difference, he said, lies in who has control over time. A free human being works long hours because at some stage he or she has chosen to. A slave has no choice, no control over time. That, he said, is why fixing a calendar was the first command given to the Israelites. It was as if God was saying to them: if you are to be free, the first thing you must learn to master is time.

It’s a fascinating insight, and one that still seems to hold true. Some years ago there was a study to discover the most stressful occupation. It turned out not to be the head of a large business, football manager or Prime Minister, but rather: bus driver. In 2011 the list was headed by airline pilots, fire-fighters and taxi drivers. These are people always struggling with time against factors not under their control. The least stressful? Bookbinder. Binding books soothes the soul.

Without arguing the point in detail – we all think ours is the most stressful occupation – it is an insight we often overlook. When I was studying economics in the 1960s, the received wisdom was that with automation, we would all be working twenty-hour weeks and our biggest problem would be what to do with all our leisure. In reality, the working week has grown longer, not shorter. And with emails, texts, smartphones and the like, we can be on call 24/7. In terms of stress and control over our time, are we freer than we were, or less so? My guess is, less so.

Part of the beauty of Judaism, and surely this is so for other faiths also, is that it gently restores control over time. Three times a day we stop what we are doing and turn to God in prayer. We recover perspective. We inhale a deep breath of eternity. Nor do we rush our meals. Before eating, and afterward, we say a blessing. That too allows us to focus attention on simple pleasures, turning our daily bread into momentary epiphany.

Ask any time-management expert for the most important distinction, and she is likely to answer: the difference between the important and the merely urgent. Under pressure of time we tend to ignore the things that are important but not urgent. That is why the Sabbath is a life-saver. It’s time dedicated to the things that are important but not urgent, like eating together as a family, or celebrating together as a community, or simply giving thanks. These are the things that flood a life with unexpected happiness. On the Sabbath – unless you are a rabbi – stress has no chance at all.

Religious ritual is a way of structuring time so that we, not employers, the market or the media, are in control. Life needs its pauses, its chapter breaks, if the soul is to have space to breathe. Otherwise, we may not be in Egypt but we can still be slaves.

(First published in The Times)