On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon my kids and I went to the Field Museum. While we have been there before and seen the dinosaur bones and the dioramas of mammoths and mastadons, on this occasion we went into the exhibit called “Evolving Planet.” In vivid form, the exhibit took us through the major geological periods of earth’s development, from the formation of the planet through its cooling, to the emergence of the first life forms, and through the hundreds of millions of years of development of oragnisms, up to the present day.
I don’t know what was different about this visit to a natural history museum. I’ve been to many before. But somehow during this visit I felt in a profound way just how tiny and insignificant our lives are. When you think about the history of the earth in terms of six billion years, or even just (!) the 250 million years since the dinosaurs roamed the planet, and you consider that what we know of human civilization is only a few thousand years old, it puts whatever accomplishments or failures you’ve had into perspective.
Time has enormous power to contextualize. “To everything there is a season,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Viewed against the vast expanse of the existence of the universe, our lives can indeed seem insignificant. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as Kohelet also says. What is the point of each of these discreet moments, if ultimately no one will remember us?
And yet Parshat Emor which we read this week reminds us that time can and does maintain significance, if we are willing to acknowledge it. “These are the festivals of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times.” (Lev. 23:4) The Rabbis learn from this verse a key element that distinguishes Shabbat from the other holidays: While Shabbat is God’s, and happens every seven days of its own accord, the festivals are dependent on the proclamation of the new moon by the Rabbinic court. That is, the power to set the time of the festivals resides in human hands, within limits set by God.
Marking time is the first act of Jewish life. “This shall be the first of the months,” God tells Moses and Aaron in Egypt (Ex. 12:2). Before the Exodus can happen, God requires a human action–marking time. The festivals depend on our proclamation and recognition, to such an extent that the Talmud records that one year, when the Rabbinic court proclaimed Rosh Hashanah a day later than the angels expected it, God told the angels to come back tomorrow in order to hear the prayers of the Jewish people.
However small our lives may seem, however insignificant our actions appear in the grand course of universal history, the Torah reminds us of the uniqueness, the immense power of our creation in God’s image. We have the power to order our world, to mark time and to make moments of significance, moments of meaning. And that reality is just as powerful and real as the billions of years of history that have come before us.