Who in his time?

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There were two lines from the Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh haShanah that particularly spoke to me this year — “mekhalkeil chaim bechesed – Who sustains the living with lovingkindness”, and the line from Unsaneh Toqef which tells us that on Rosh haShanah it is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed… mi beqitzo umi lo beqitzo — who in their time, and who not in their time”?

Less than 24 hours before Rosh haShanah began I was at JFK Airport, at the funeral of a young man I watched grow up next door to me. “Sustains the living with kindness”? Can I see the generosity of allotting him a mere 22 years of life? “Who in their time”? How can that be the fate sealed for someone who was just beginning his life?

Why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “qeitz”, at the endpoint (from “qatzeh”, edge, c.f. Shemos 36:33)? How does it differ from saying that the “zeman”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived? Fortunately, we have a handle on that question from its use in the Torah.

Parashas Miqeitz opens “Vayhi miqeitz shenasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuq say “shenasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed later in the narrative, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” (Bereishis 47:8) as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’aqov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’aqov was, the years of his life…” (Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah – was” referring to the days.) The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

The Zohar (Pinechas 249a-b) describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” (Eg. Sukkah 52b) and in the navi, “yom Hashem” (Eg. Sukkah 52b).

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz“. And notably it’s in the feminine. A shanah is not the end of a line, it’s the means of producing further.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim (Bereishis 47:8) explains Ya’aqov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” (Ibid v. 9)

Referring to just a zeman or an eis, like referring to a yom or a shanah, cannot represent the goal of the trip. It’s the qeitz, in which both the process of shanim and the progress of yamim reach a culmination. And it was at the qeitz of shensayim yamim“. A qeitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Some die of an old age, and some die younger. Hashem supports life, meaningful existence, with lovingkindness. Each trip is exactly the right length for a person to reach their potential. But the tragic would have been dying without getting to where he was supposed to go.

I’ll miss you Buzzy!


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