It can be challenging for us to relate to the Korban, the ritual sacrifice of animals that took place in the ancient Temple so very long ago. What, if anything, can this ritual teach us today? Rabbi Meir Soloveichik tackled this subject in a recent episode of his outstanding Bible 365 podcast.
Korban, he explains, was meant to draw us close to God, but first we had to understand ourselves. We are both body and soul, an “amalgam of mortal and immortal”. Bringing sacrificial animals to the Temple and taking part in the physical end of life, albeit an animal, sensitizes us to our own mortality, “but to have a soul is to be able to respond spiritually to that very reminder.” Coming to terms with our finitude deepens our gratitude to God for the gift of life.
The High Holidays approach, bringing a frank reckoning with our own mortality. We will read the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, pondering who will leave this world and who will enter it. We will hear the shofar’s plaintive wake-up call and perceive something transcendent, hovering a breath away. We will beseech God to inscribe us for another year of life.
A provocative and insightful companion in preparing for that reckoning is Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In Temple times, the ritual of an animal’s death could jolt us into grappling with the finite limits of our lives. Burkeman forces us to confront our finitude by asking us to think of our lives in terms of a four-thousand week lifespan (if you’ve read this far, you’re probably pausing to calculate where you stand).
Like the call of the shofar, Burkeman is asking us to wake up and focus.
“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” he writes. Drawing on a wide range of philosophers, spiritual teachers, and psychologists he offers a fresh way of thinking about our limited time and how we structure our lives. What might sound like a depressing read is uplifting. Once we come to terms with the “brute fact of our finite weeks” and recognize that we all live on borrowed time, we can appreciate the miracle that we are here at all.
His concept of time management isn’t about how to pack more into a day, but how we can rethink our relationship with time and accept our limitations. A limit-embracing life stands firm against FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), “because you come to realize that missing out on something—indeed, on almost everything—is guaranteed”. That knowledge invests every choice with profound meaning. Choices are an affirmation of our values. Our precious weeks are lived, or should be, doing what matters most to us.
As I read this book, it struck me that the Hebrew language offers us a beautiful way to think about our life choices. The Hebrew noun for ‘time’ is z’man (זְמַן). Those three letters form the root for the verb l’hazmin (לְהַזְמִין), to invite. Hebrew intimately connects the concept of time with our choices on how we experience it. When we ‘invite’ deep commitments into our lives—marriage, raising a family, friendships, learning, religious observance, serving others in some way—we bring meaning and fulfillment to our z’man, our finite weeks. As for devoting our precious time toward a worthy cause whose work will not be completed in our lifetimes, Burkeman writes: “We’re all in the position of the medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we’ll never see. The cathedral is still worth building, all the same.” Or, to quote from the Talmud, “You are not expected to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from trying.”
The modern world regards time as a commodity, something we “have” or we “use”. Burkeman suggests “letting time use you–responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history” with your finite time and talents.
Let time use us? The concept simultaneously shrinks our illusion of control while expanding and deepening every possibility, from the quotidian to the lofty.
For example, perhaps “letting time use us” means giving our full, undivided attention when we interact with others. I can’t be the only one who has gotten into the dreadful habit of scrolling my phone in the checkout line and barely acknowledging the person serving me. And, while many everyday moments with our loved ones take place against a multi-tasking backdrop, and sometimes that’s unavoidable, sometimes it’s not. Poet Mary Oliver said it best: “Attention is the beginning of devotion”.
Maybe “letting time use us” means immersing ourselves more fully in Shabbat’s sacred time. One day a week when our anxious striving and furious busyness cease. A day when we don’t create, but “are at one with the world created.”
Decades ago, our rabbi gave a High Holidays sermon built around a recent news magazine story titled, “Die Broke”. Whether the story focused on people who simply lacked the funds to sustain themselves until the end or on people who purposely lived beyond their means I cannot recall. What matters is where the rabbi took it. He reframed what it means to die broke. He proposed that we should all aim to die broke, meaning we use up all our talents, our skills, our gifts, our energy, our devotion. By the end, we have given life everything we’ve got. We have given this world our all.
Perhaps that’s what it means to let time use you.
May we all be inscribed for a year of health and blessing, a year in which we give ourselves fully to the worthy and meaningful ways time seeks to use us.