By Rabbi Jonathan Hughes
And God said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years. And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.” And it was so.” Genesis 1:14-15.
The Torah teaches here that the sun and the moon have two distinct functions. The first is to differentiate between different times and seasons, a kind of celestial luach (calendar). The second is to illuminate the planet. Rashi understands that these two purposes are listed in order of importance.
The revered pre-war thinker, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, questions the order. Indeed, one could argue that the effect of the sun’s radiance is eminently more significant than the cycles of day and night and the lunar phases. After all, days, months and seasons can be effortlessly calculated today by any standard computer, without the aid of any shifting luminaries!
Moreover, there are certain parts of the world that experience 24-hour periods of sunlight, yet life goes on. Rabbi Wasserman answers that the Torah’s sequence testifies to the value of time.
Dramatic sunsets and the nocturnal emergence of the moon and stars are designed to remind us that our time is ephemeral. Each moment of life comes and goes, never to return. Ensuring our appreciation of time’s fleeting, precious nature is even more crucial than our ability to see the world. Indeed, the word for time in Hebrew is zman. It is closely related to the word zimun, meaning invite.
Every moment of our lives, therefore, is an invitation – an opportunity to experience something tremendous. There is an account of a certain rabbi who never wasted a second. Every moment was utilised for acts of kindness and good deeds.
When he died, visitors noticed that all the clocks in his house had suddenly stopped. It was as if the clocks were proclaiming that their owner had squeezed every drop of opportunity out of his allotted portion of history. In this world of tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, as the Bard would say, we are challenged to maximise our spiritual productivity until the last syllable of recorded time.
• Jonathan Hughes is rabbi of Richmond Synagogue