A passerby in a town square notices a worker raising a clock high above eye level. She asks, “Are you doing this to increase its visibility?” Actually not. The worker replies, “It’s in order to place it beyond arms reach.”
People had been in the habit of moving the clock’s arms to agree with their watches. If somebody’s watch said 8:02 when the clock said 8:00, they’d move it forward two minutes. The next person would come by and adjust it backward 4 minutes. It quickly got to a point that nobody could trust that the clock kept true time. After it was raised much higher, people began instead to adjust their watches to the clock.
Standards exist and are necessary. Some today seek to upend our sense of right and wrong based on what they experience. The risk, then, as Schapiro and Morson clarify in their important book, is that things like lying and even murder might be less wrong because, from a descriptive standpoint, they are quite common.
It’s interesting that our opening parable is about time. The two time-bound words that the Torah is uneasy about are never and immediately. Both of these impulses are embraced by ten of the Spies in this week’s portion of Torah. Initially, they shrink away from their mission to inhabit the Promised Land (Num. 13:31-32). Later, realizing their wrong, they rush into an ill-fated, costly battle (Num. 14:40-44).
There is also a fascinating time-sensitivity about the functionality of the portion’s final passage, which today concludes the Shema prayer. The first part pertains to daylight, when looking upon the fringe-knots on our garments remind us of the commandments. The last part is for after nightfall. It’s when we encounter the only mention of the Exodus at night, when God self-identifies as our redeemer, the source of our free will. The paragraph holds a recipe for human flourishing: tether yourself to sacred habits by day, and retain the larger plot of your people’s story by night. In other words, in your daily doings, wear your Judaism handsomely. In darker times, take the Exodus story as personally as God does in the final verse (Num. 15:41).
When time comes for standards to evolve, some prefer to say never while others insist upon saying immediately. In pursuit of norms that remain both firm and flexible, may we ever-recall that it’s the changes that come more gradually, that last.