“Do you know how long the kids’ summer vacation is? Eleven unstructured weeks! What are we going to do?” This refrain can be heard by panicked mothers coast to coast. Innately we sense that so much ‘time off’ is unproductive for our children and ourselves. Aside from the logistical challenges of such a vacation, what is it about all that unstructured time that sends us into a tizzy?
Three Dimensions of Time
Time can be experienced in different ways. If you’re making a simchah, you relish every moment of anticipation. Your steps are lighter and the usual annoyances of daily life glide right over you. You wonder how the rest of the world doesn’t notice you’re living on a different plane.
Unfortunately, in times of difficulty, we experience the opposite. Every moment is weighty and the simplest things are burdensome. Days stretch into each other, with nothing uplifting to break the monotony. You wonder how other people are oblivious to your pain.
Our Sages have given names to these different textures in time. The times of distress are called yamin rabim — many days. As the Torah testifies at the height of the Egyptian exile: “And it was during those many days, that … they sighed from the work.” (Shemos 2:23) Especially frustrating in these situations is the lack of progress. More time doesn’t get you any further. The particulars of each moment get lost in the seemingly random multiplicity of time and we feel that the future will not be any more significant than the past.
Days of connectedness and meaning are called yimei olam, literally days that touch eternity, as we sense that we are marching through time on our way to something greater. Our days have definition and form. Positive feelings are highlighted by significant events, giving this time punctuation and distinction.
The bridge between these two dimensions is called yamim achadim, but a few days. We see this in Yaakov’s statement that the seven years he worked for Lavan for the privilege of marrying Rachel, “seemed but a few days because of his love for her” (Bereishis 29:20). The properties ingrained in this time are hope and yearning. The goal comes into focus, even if we are still far from attaining it. The tempo picks up, and our actions start to take on more import. You know that you have shifted into yamim achadim when you start visualizing a more meaningful future.
Frozen in Time
Yamin rabim, situations in which we feel stuck, nonproductive, and despairing, can often occur in marriage. A couple is mired in the same arguments that keep surfacing, the same differences of opinion and perspectives.
As one man described his marriage, “I guess this is my lot in life.” In other words, he relates to his marriage as yamim rabim. A drain of his time and energies and no hope to prevail and transcend his present reality.
What is the loss inherent in this attitude?
The hallmark of the Torah perception of time is our belief in the possibility of real change and renewal. We see individuals who have reinvented themselves, perhaps going from a secular lifestyle to a Torah-observant one. We observe our history and note that from the embers of destruction our people have experienced rebirth.
This is in contrast to the repetitive cycle of the physical world. In nature, everything is doomed to a cycle of repetition, from cold to warm, birth to death, energy to matter, and back again. As Chazal tell us: “There is nothing new under the sun.” This characterizes the physical world, but not the world of the soul. Although the outside world may be governed by cycles from which there is no escape, we don’t have to be. The predictability of nature is meant to give us a context of stability so that we can function, but it is not meant to define or confine us.
So how do we pull ourselves out of this repetitive experience that feels like it goes nowhere? To the extent that we tap into a higher spiritual dimension, time takes on form. Our lifestyle is replete with markers in time: Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, Yamim Tovim are filling stations along the way. These are all springboards that help us reevaluate the status quo and move onward.
It is our task to pull ourselves out of the rut of yamim rabim and to elevate ourselves to a higher manifestation of time. When we fill our days with thoughts, feelings, and actions that represent the higher calling of a Torah-based life, this transforms the mundane to the exalted. This acknowledgement, that the things I do, feel, and think move me forward and create significant ripples in the cosmos, is the first step in moving out of a feeling of futility. That moves us to yamim achadim, working for a purpose — a higher goal.
Interestingly, the way to get to a brighter future is not to look too far forward. Take it one day at a time. I may be overwhelmed by what needs to happen this year or even this week, but I can handle thinking: What does my Creator want from me today? How would He want me to respond to this situation? This gives meaning to my day and allows me to set realistic goals. Then, each day can build on the previous one.
Recently my grandchildren caught three toads. They put them in a carton, and we all watched them jump. They never got high enough to get out of their prison. However, to our surprise, we soon observed them piggybacking on each other with the smallest guy on the bottom. Soon the big guy was out, able to get on with his toad’s life. Such are the days of our lives. Each one is meant to build on the one before, helping to catapult us out of our limitations. As Dovid HaMelech says, “Day by day He loads on us”; we ask the One Above to help pile up our days, so that each one adds another elevated layer to our existence.
When we accept that due to the infinite nature of the neshamah inside of us, true renewal is possible, this will take us out of the natural cycle that dooms us to repetition. Once we see our life as part of a larger plan, then we are on our way to yimei olam. The days after Yetziyas Mitzrayim were called yimei olam as they crystallized for us that both the slavery and the redemption were part of Hashem’s grand plan for human history. Once I understand this, I can come to see any moment as a catalyst to develop myself as a contributing member of our destiny. This makes my life is purposeful.
In a tribute to her mother, a woman writes that in her younger years, she did not view her mother as accomplished. Only years later did she realize that when her mother kept the atmosphere in the home happy even when her husband was out of work, and that when she responded to the derision of her wealthy sister-in-law with kindness, these were true accomplishments.
Moving oneself from the depths of futility characterized by yamim rabim, upwards to yamim achadim and ultimately to yimei olam, is some of the hardest work in a person’s life.
Sometimes we need to seek outside guidance to help redirect our efforts. And we always need to daven. When helping couples, I often have to ask a wife to show gratitude to an unappreciative husband, or a husband to express his deepest desires to a wife who has not shown interest in years. To the extent that the effort is accompanied by a genuine internal shift, then it’s remarkably effective. The only real way to change a situation is to grow ourselves.
The battleground for change is inside of us and the potential for growth is huge. Whether or not others give us credit, our Creator is cognizant of every tiny step forward.
Once the internal work is defined, and the goal is illuminated, you have moved from yamin rabim to yamin achadim. May we merit to make this shift, and to reap the benefits of living in yemei olam — a life of true happiness.