How does one measure time? By the moment? By the hour? By the day? By the thought?
How do we mark that passage? Do we note the sun? The moon? The stars? The leaves? The rain? The snow? The pain? The joy?
Do we count the moments? The moments missed? The steps? The breaths?
We humans have a very long history of marking time. We know this because we’ve taken note of how long we’ve been marking time.
We notice patterns. We notice seasons.
We make associations. We’re certainly not the only creatures that make associations, but we are, as far as I know, the only ones that make calendars.
We mark time with holidays and anniversaries – symbolic reminders of the cycles of time and of life, of profound change, and of profound persistence. We note what carries through. We note what’s missing. What feels different? What feels the same?
It is coming up on a year since my friend lost his son. In Judaism, on the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of someone’s death is called a yahrzeit – translating from the Yiddish for year (“yar”) and time (“tzeit”). The Hebrew calendar is a lunar one, but it has extra months added in cycles so that it stays in sync with the seasons and in rough sync with the Gregorian calendar. So the lunar years and the solar years, the school years, the seasons, the Jewish, Christian, and secular holidays, maintain their temporal proximity. But not exactly.
The young man died four days before the evening of the first day of Rosh Hashanah last year, on the 25th of the Hebrew month Elul, on the 21st of September. So his yahrzeit is by definition on that same Hebrew date, the 25th of Elul, four days before the first evening of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), but this year that Hebrew date corresponds to the 11th of September. Today.
But perhaps not exactly. Because days in the Jewish calendar begin at sundown. I don’t know if he died before or after sundown. If after sundown, the Hebrew date would be the 26th of Elul, which would correspond to the evening of September 11th and the day, until sunset, of September 12th. If it happened before sundown, the 25th of Elul begins at sunset on September 10th, and goes until sunset on the 11th.
How do we measure time? From sunsets? From midnights? From a phone call or a knock on a door?
The befores. The afters.
How do we measure time? In weeks? In heartbeats? In tides? In generations? In fishing trips?
Because there is no one way to measure time, because our measurements overlap and ebb and flow, because some cycles are regular and some wildly irregular, the consistency of both the regularity and the irregularity drives us to continual, expected, and unpredicted reminders. We make associations. Only some of those associations are on our calendars.
This year, my friend’s family will have received a yahrzeit reminder for today – a day that falls, at least partially, on September 11. A day when we mark the twenty-second anniversary of the shattering terrorist attacks, this family also marks the first anniversary of their own world’s shattering. And then they will have their second Rosh Hashanah without their son and brother. And then it will be September 21, a year in our currently accepted international calendar.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year. But there are four Jewish new years, signifying different things. Rosh Hashanah is the “new year” that commemorates the creation of the world.
There were no calendars at the time of the big bang, but there is value in reminding ourselves periodically that there was a time before the universe existed. Just as we celebrate a birthday as a marker of an individual’s coming into existence, it’s nice to celebrate the existence of existence.
How do we measure time? In how old we feel? In tears? In laughs?
In Judaism, one of the most, if not the most, important tenets is that of the importance of a human life. The talmud (the text of rabinic Judaism and the basis of Jewish law) teaches that one who saves a life is considered to have saved the world. I find this thought particularly beautiful – that a human life represents a world. And the thought that I extrapolate from there, that every action of one’s existence, every moment of one’s existence, changes every connecting human, every connected world, and the “world” as a whole.
My friend has been posting on Facebook on the 21st of each month, marking the time. Naming the time. Reminding the world. Defining the before and the after of his lost world and of the time that was and is.
So many worlds. So many moments in those worlds, each affecting other worlds. How many do we save? How many do we enhance? How many do we enable to save others?
We know the most dramatic and obvious saves – the stopping of a hemorrhage, the opening of an acutely blocked coronary artery. How many do we not recognize? Being present in a time of need? Making someone laugh?
How do we measure time? In its finiteness? In its eternity? In the power of a profound or a seemingly inconsequential moment? Maybe simply sitting with someone – on a porch, by their bed, on a boat – gives them the strength to hang onto life for just a tiny bit longer, with that tiny bit longer of time enabling the growth and temporal elongation of countless other worlds.
We mark time. Birthdays, yahrzeits, seasons, memories, associations – the cyclical reminders of people’s coming into existence, the cyclical reminders of people’s exiting physical existence, both the cyclical and the seemingly random reminders of the times in between. The entire worlds of overlapping calendars, of dates that mean the world to some and nothing significant to others. The worlds of unmarked time march through as well, with their own ebbs and flows, with joy, with anguish, with fear, with hope.
I wish strength for people through the official markings of times of loss today and every day, and through the unofficial markers. Every moment of the lives and worlds that have gone by mattered and matters.
I wish everyone a New Year with sweetness, with love, with peace, with connection, with memories of the good stuff, and with curiosity and hope for the beauty of the infinite, interconnected, unique worlds that we will help unfold in the year to come. May we all appreciate the beauty, the importance, and the potential of our time together in this universal world of humanity. Shana Tova – to a good year.