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Return to a Timeless Essence

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Return to a Timless Essence

When Elazar ben Durdaia (a notorious sinner who had committed every transgression in the book) found that all his appeals for assistance  had been turned down, he said: “It all depends entirely on myself.” He placed his head between his knees and wept until his soul departed from him. A voice from heaven then announced: “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaia is destined for life in the world to come!” Hearing this, Rabbi [Judah Hanassi] wept: “There are those who acquire their world in many years, and there are those who acquire their world in a single moment.”

Talmud, Avodah Zarah 17a

In the world we inhabit, more is less and less is more. Quantitatively, the earth is but a tiny speck in a vast universe; in significance, it is the focus of G-d’s creation. Of the earth itself, inanimate matter constitutes virtually all of its mass, only a minute fraction of which are living cells. Plant life is more plentiful than animal life, and animals far more numerous than humans. Within the human being, the head, seat of man’s most sophisticated faculties, is smaller than the torso or limbs. In a word, the greater the quality, the lesser the quantity.

The same is true of man’s most precious resource: time. Quality time–time that is most optimally and fulfillingly utilized–comprises but a quantitative fraction of the time we consume. How many minutes of each day do we spend on truly meaningful things? The bulk of our hours are taken up with earning a living, sleeping, eating, and fulfilling a host of social and other obligations—worthy pursuits them all, but secondary to the purpose of our lives.

The very structure of time, as designed by its Creator, follows the “less is more” model. There are six mundane workdays, leading to a single day of spirit and tranquility. Yom Kippur–the “Shabbat of Shabbats”[1] whose twenty-six hours bring us in touch with our deepest, most essential self–occupies less than 0.3 percent of the year. Everything we do takes time, but the greater the quality of our endeavor, the less the quantity of time it consumes.

The most potent of human deeds is teshuvah—our ability to rectify and sublimate past wrongdoings by returning to the timeless, inviolable core of self which was never tainted by sin in the first place. And teshuvah is the least “time-consuming” of events: the essence of teshuvah is a single wrench of self, a single flash of regret and resolve.[2] “There are those who acquire their world in many years,” says the Talmud, building it brick by brick with the conventional tools of achievement. Then there are those who acquire their world in “a single moment”[3]—in a single, timeless instant that molds the future and redefines the past.

Based on a public letter by the Rebbe, Erev Shabbat Shuvah 5739 (October 6, 1978)[4]

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[1] Leviticus 16:31 et al.

[2]  Thus the Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) rules that “If a man betroths a woman, contingent upon the condition that he is a tzaddik (perfectly righteous individual), she is considered as possibly married to him, even if he is an utterly wicked man—for perhaps, at the moment that he betrothed her, he had a thought of teshuvah.”

[3] The Hebrew word the Talmud uses, sha’ah, is a basic term for “time unit,” and translates as both “hour” and “moment.” The word also means “turn,” implying the shift from state to state that is the elementary measure of time and the essence of teshuvah.

[4]  Likkutei Sichot, vol. XIX, pp. 593-596.

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