David Lerner

What Time is It? Pekudei 5784

What time is it? 

I have four time-keeping devices with me now: a watch, a Fitbit, a digital clock, a wall clock. I’m working hard for an on-time arrival!

Photo credit: Rabbi David Lerner

What other times? Personal times? Communal time?

There are lots of times. It’s Shabbat. It is the Torah reading that closes out the book of Exodus. It’s the 6th of Adar 2, 5784, March 16, 2024.

For me, it’s the day before going to Israel for the second time in a couple of months in its post-10/7 reality.

On the fun side, it’s a week before Spring formally begins, two weeks before baseball’s opening day. It’s Rabbi Kling Perkins’ birthday and it’s Brooke’s Bat Mitzvah.

This week, I attended a wonderful lecture presented by Dr. Dalia Marx, a scholar and a rabbi in Israel who just published this book: From Time to Time

Photo credit: Rabbi David Lerner

She reminded the attendees that there are two ways of looking at time. There is the circle of time, as time goes around and around. 


Months, seasons, the year, and the circle of the week, which, unlike the others, does not appear in nature.

And then, there is linear time – our lives begin at a moment and end at a moment, like a line.

The universe itself is like this; beginning at its Creation, the Big Bang, and, similarly, the Torah commences with the opening of universal time.

We know from science that in billions of years, the universe will contract into nothingness, and come to an end. So, it is, like our lives, linear time.

Fortunately, it’s unlikely that any of us will have to worry about that. We do have other things to worry about…

For the Jewish people, time begins at the Exodus. The first instruction we are given is actually about time. The Israelites are presented with the commandment to observe the festival of Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, which also sets the calendar so our communal moments all take place on the same day across the world. This was a big deal thousands of years ago when communication was not as simple as it is today.

The basic message is that time is central to Judaism, and to our existence as humans as well. 

Time is our most valuable commodity.

We can never get it back.

* *

But of course, there is also sacred space. In this week’s Torah reading, we complete several Torah portions that discuss the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used in the wilderness.

It’s a reminder that we need physical things to help us appreciate holiness. As Brooke explained, clothing is also part of that.

But even within this holy place, time still plays an important role. 

We read: בְּיוֹם־הַחֹ֥דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ תָּקִ֕ים אֶת־מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ 

“On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. (Ex. 40:2)”

We learn that a year after the Exodus, this building project was completed. It was dedicated on the eighth day with a procession of celebration. 

The Torah reminds us that time has to be set aside for sacred moments. Good examples of this are this morning’s rituals of prayer and Torah reading.

Judaism prefers time over space. The Torah’s innovation was to declare that time is more important than space, which had been seen as central in the ancient world.

This is why Shabbat is everywhere in the Torah. 

Even in last week’s Torah portion, amidst all the building, we are reminded to take a break and observe Shabbat. 

It is the anchor that has preserved the Jewish people and has been picked up by much of the world, serving as a blessing to much of humanity.

The great 20th-century rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote:

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. …Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals, and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.”

The Jewish people have survived thousands of years of exile because of how we have privileged holy time over holy space. Each time the Holy Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, it felt like the end of the Jewish people, and our Jewish practices. 

We shifted from sacrifice to prayer, and prayer can be recited wherever we are. 

The seder can take place wherever we are.

Keeping kosher, learning, and acts of kindness – are all similar –  they are all portable, anchored in time, not in one place.

* * *

So, today, as we complete the reading of the book of Exodus, we can explore the interaction between sacred space and sacred time.

Photo credit: Rabbi David Lerner

The great contemporary scholar, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in her book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus: that these Torah portions present the different “realities of Shabbat and Mishkan, of a condition in which fire, [the] medium [the conduit, the tool, the basic element] of the Mishkan [s(achievement), may not be kindled on Shabbat. 

“Perhaps we may now say that these two modalities represent two ways of living time. Fire represents the urgency of productive time, lived for its objective creations, for the forms of self-knowledge that devolve from the inner heat. The work of the Mishkan, then, stands as testimony to the creative power of the people, to the many ways, (the thirty-nine ways,) of relating to the world and transforming it, in which fire is essential. 

“This work is, at [its core is], (base), a manifestation not of the kinds of objects in space that are created, but of a way of using time: purposeful, productive, often ruthless.

“As against this modality, there is Shabbat: ‘You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.’ Shabbat is virtually defined as non-fire: that is, as time not used, unproductive, the shadow opposite of the making of the Mishkan.”

So, Zornberg is telling us that perhaps the best use of time is not generative, but reflective. Shabbat removes us from building spaces, and from creating anything, and allows us a different experience of time, which in the grand scheme of things is more important.

* * *

Judaism makes a really interesting move with time. While there is natural time – the cycles of the month, we humans are given a role. A beit din, a court of rabbis declared when the month began and thus, we declare when holy time exists.

While Shabbat begins 18 minutes before sunset automatically, we are supposed to declare it, to say that we are partners with God in its sanctification. We light the Shabbat candles, lift the cup of wine, and recite Kiddush.

WE declare this is now holy time. We have a role in declaring that we are going to experience time differently.

The Torah teaches us that humans make sacred time. We can also stop. We cannot stop time. But we can pause from our process of creation and create Shabbat, a reflective time. 

With great effort, we can appreciate our most precious commodity.

I’ll speak for myself. I often don’t control my time. Things happen and I’m called upon. While this is a great privilege, it takes away time. 

Sometimes, I don’t pause.

It’s not easy for me to structure my time differently and make time for … nothing, for simply being, enjoying that which has been created.

Maybe this can be a lesson for all of us. While time marches on, we can try to determine how to use it to give ourselves this great gift. 

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.