Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned The Time Machine in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.
Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future. But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.
It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all. And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime. And, in fact, required of us.
Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance? It is, after all,nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past. The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be. But it might well hold a deeper thought, that teshuvah involves a return to, and recalibration of, the past.
How else to understand the Talmudic teaching that sins committed intentionally are retroactively rendered by even the most elemental teshuvah (that born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuvah is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?
What a remarkable thought. Chillul Shabbos transformed into honoring of Shabbos? Eating treif into eating matzah on Pesach? Telling lashon hora into saying a dvar Torah? No, not remarkable. Stupefying.
Time is the bane of human existence. The Kli Yakar notes that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries” (Bereishis, 1:16), which lacks the expected vav, can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”
“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he explains, “is afflicted with pain.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, notes, similarly, that the term “memsheles” (ibid.), which describes those luminaries’ roles, implies “subjugation.” For, the Rosh Yeshivah explains, we are enslaved by time, unable to control it or escape its relentless progression. Our positions in space are subject to our manipulation. Not so our positions in time.
Except when it comes to teshuvah. By truly confronting our misguided actions and feeling pain for them and resolving to not repeat them, we can reach back into the past and actually change it. We are freed from the subjugation of time.
Which might well lie at the root of the larger theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashanah. Tishrei, the month of repentence, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the shofar is associated with Yovel, when slaves are released; we read from the Torah about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison, and of the breaking of what can be thought of as Sarah and Chanah’s childlessness-chains.
There happens to be an exquisite symbol of our Aseres Yemei Teshuvah ability to transcend time in the Rosh Hashanah night sky. Actually, the symbol is the absence of one.
The sun may mark the passage of days for others, but for Klal Yisrael, it is the moon to which we look to identify the months of our years. It is not only, by its perpetual renewal, a symbol of the Jewish People. It keeps time for us. It is, one might say, our clock.
And on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, it goes missing. Of all the holidays in the Jewish year, only Rosh Hashanah, which by definition occurs at the beginning of a Jewish month, sports a moonless sky.
That observation isn’t a meaningless one. “Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the passuk in Tehillim (81:4) in reference, Chazal teach us, to Rosh Hashanah. And the word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—can be read to mean “at the covering” — a reference to the moon’s absence in the Rosh Hashanah sky.
So it might not be an overreach to imagine that sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” to be a subtle reminder that time can be overcome in an entirely real way, through the Divine gift of teshuvah, and our heartfelt determination.