Recently, as part of the month-long prompt driven December Writing Challenge on THWACK, one of the prompts addressed the feeling of disconnection many of us are experiencing with regard to time. The lead writer said,
We’ve all experienced the feeling of staring into the distance, while your mind is busy processing, working out which day of the week it is.
What followed in both the main article and the comments, was a dissection of why we have felt this way during the pandemic, and what we can do to regain a sense of temporal anchoring, to enable us to move through our day not only knowing where we are (and even who we are) but also when we are.
And—perhaps because it’s Chanukah as I write this—I was reminded of a beloved story circulating in my community around this time each year. The story is called “God & Mrs. Cooperman,” written by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, and is part of his anthology “The Shul Without a Clock.” If you are interested, you can read it here: http://www.edibletorah.com/2009/12/17/my-favorite-chanukah-story/
Fully appreciating the story would require me to delve into the particularities of orthodox Jewish prayers and the variations in those prayers throughout the day and week, and even across the months and seasons of the year. So, for those who are short on time, inclination, or both, I’ll summarize:
- Jews say different prayers depending on what time of day it is; or what day of the week it is.
- This difference is especially noticeable between the sabbath (Shabbat) and the rest of the week.
- Some prayers are phrased differently depending on if it’s “the rainy season” (from fall through winter) or “the dry season (spring and summer).
- There are special additions for the start of a new month and on particular holidays.
- Rather than re-printing each service over and over again with differences, the service is written out once, and the variations are given as parenthetical or boxed-in sections—with instructions like “only read this on the new month” or “insert these words between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
With all this in mind, the main character of the story is sweet, kind, simple Mrs. Cooperman, who cannot bear to skip a single word in the prayer book and so she reads it straight through—additions and variations all jumbled together. She knows she is doing it, but each time it’s pointed out to her, she replies, “I ask you, what is so terrible if I do say it? If it isn’t Rosh Hodesh [the celebration for the new month] today, soon it will be. So it really makes no difference.”
The twist of the story comes when it’s revealed how every few years, there comes a single day when we do, actually, say (almost) everything. We read all the prayers straight through. And the narrator of the story dubs this event a “Mrs. Cooperman Shabbat”
But the point I’m driving to is the observation near the end of the story:
“It occurs to me that in our restless society, […] the picture of a Mrs. Cooperman lovingly whispering every word of prayer is a striking counterpoint. Yes, her davening was halakhically out of joint. Certainly God is addressed differently on a Shabbat-Hanukah than on a normative Shabbat. Granted, our relationship to God is different on Pesach than it is on Rosh Hodesh, and we may not arrogate our transient moods the right to transform different approaches to God into one happy mishmash of words […] But when Mrs. Cooperman appeared before her Maker Who is not constrained by the mortal boundaries and limitations of clocks and calendars, and for Whom Time is an indivisible entity, I like to think that perhaps He did not look with disfavor upon the seamless, timeless universe of His loyal servant Mrs. Cooperman.”
This last line, above all, runs through my mind these days—that as disorienting as we may find these last few months and their lack of structure, perhaps the lesson we can take with us is how time is a construct we have built up to a point where it’s importance is over-emphasized.
By being asked (and, to a point, forced) to let go of “before” and “later,” we have the opportunity to learn to focus on more on the only moment of true importance: