We gather this morning in a sanctuary we have come to know well: The sunlight illuminating the stained glass windows. The soft glow of the polished wood that warms the feel of the room. The seats we get here early to claim so nobody else sits in our preferred places. Yes we’re in a familiar space. But in a whole new time.
Just hours into the year 5776, we are in our season of teshuva, when we take note of time and hope we make the most of it. So how cosmically wonderful it is that this coming weekend, on Shabbat Shuva, we get the season nine premiere of “Doctor Who,” one of television’s all-time great science-fiction shows.
For those of you who are new to the Whoniverse, here’s the standing-on-one-foot synopsis: The Doctor is a Time Lord from the Planet Gallifrey, the last of his species after a time war that wiped out his people. He travels in the TARDIS – which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It’s a ship that traverses space and time and contains the most powerful energy source in the universes. It got stuck in 1969 at some point so it looks like a blue British police telephone booth of the period.
The Doctor occasionally invites earthlings to be his companions, and they must live by one rule: wherever and whenever you are, you must enjoy the journey but be careful not to change a thing. Don’t interfere, because you never know what the repercussions might be. The Doctor himself flaunts that rule regularly, though, especially when someone is in danger.
He seems to have quite an affinity for Earth, and nobody’s sure why. But he looks human – or rather, as he said to one companion, we look Time Lord, since they were here first. My own theory – based on my years of Biblical study – is that the Nephilim, the fallen angels described in the book of Genesis, were actually Time Lords who came to earth looking for a new planet for their besieged people, got a little too friendly with earth girls and were called back home. But their DNA is stamped in us, which is why we now look the way we do, and not like primates walking on our knuckles.
But strictly from a Whovian perspective, there’s a lot we can learn from that Time Lord DNA that can help us to become healthier, happier, and more productive earth girls and boys. And since three is a good number in Judaism, I’ll share with you three Time Lord lessons from what may be the most perfect modern “Dr. Who” episode, which is called simply, “Blink.”
First: Don’t Blink. Don’t turn away. Don’t even blink. If you blink, you’re dead. In this episode, the mortal threat is from a species of especially adept assassins called the Weeping Angels, who hide in stone statues. They’ll sneak up on you if you’re not watching them carefully, steal your life, and remove you to another place and time with no hope of return – taking you away forever from everything you have and everyone you love. In Jewish terms, think of them as the Whovian version of Amalek, who snuck up from behind as the Israelites fled Egypt and attacked the young and the old, the sick and the weak – those who were most vulnerable.
How do you keep from being vulnerable? Ah – well, you see, the Weeping Angels have a weakness. They can’t attack if you’re looking at them. They can’t even move. In fact, they cover their eyes with their hands if you stare them down, because they can’t tolerate face-to-face contact. But while they’re covering their faces, you have to be paying attention. If you don’t – if you even so much as blink – you are in their power.
You might think that just a blink isn’t so bad; it’s just a fraction of a second, after all. But remember how the Psalmist explains why God always keeps on eye on us: “For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passes away, and does not come again.” Maybe there aren’t Weeping Angels around to steal our lives. But we shouldn’t need the threat of permanent dislocation to pay attention to the world around us when there’s so little time to enjoy it.
This morning, our very first prayer was to thank God for the gift of opening our eyes to a new day. This is one gift we cannot take for granted. If we blink – if we turn away or close our eyes – who knows what we’ll miss? A chance reunion with somebody we’ve been missing? A random smile from somebody we love? The leaves just getting that tinge of yellow and orange in the tree in the backyard that heralds the changing of the season? A slight mistake we can correct at work, which will save everybody a lot of grief?
And beyond that, what else might we miss? A child who’s being bullied. A neighbor who’s hungry. A person of a different color, or stature, or culture, or religion, who’s being mistreated just because people won’t take the time to really look at him and see the beauty in him.
The rabbis of the Talmud teach us that God uses the same stamp to make each of us. So each of us is created in the Divine Image, yet each of us is unique. It’s all too easy to miss that miracle.
Not everything we will look at is pretty, of course. Anyone who reads a paper or watches the news knows that a good bit about this world is pretty ugly – and that a lot of that ugliness comes from people not really seeing each other. But even the ugly teaches us valuable lessons.
Rabbi Pinchas once went to visit the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who had finally emerged from years living in a cave. Rabbi Pinchas took him to the baths in Tiberias to soothe the abrasions on Shimon’s skin caused by the sand. “Woe is me that I see you in such a state,” Pinchas cried out. But Shimon replied: “Happy are you that you see me thus. Had you not seen me thus, you would not have found as much learning in me.”
The Weeping Angels, eyes hidden behind their hands, have found so little learning in the world. And maybe their self-imposed ignorance is what makes them such cold-hearted, deadly assassins. So don’t be a Weeping Angel. Don’t blink. Don’t skip over something that might inspire you to do something beautiful. Don’t turn a blind eye to others’ distress. Don’t miss a thing.
Second: Time is not linear. That’s what they thought in the ancient world. But Israel and our Bible changed everyone’s notions of time by adding the cyclical: the repeating seasons highlighted by festivals and offerings and celebrations. I actually tend to think of it as a corkscrew, a combination of the linear and the cyclical since it’s always moving ahead.
It’s why we say we read the same sections of Torah each year in the annual reading cycle – because we always come to it a year older and hopefully a year wiser, with new insights and experiences.
For the Doctor, well, here’s the way he described time in “Blink”:
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”
We actually know that instinctively, right? Summer seems interminable – and then you get the ad inserts for back-to-school sales. Deadlines loom sometime in the future – until that report is due first thing Monday morning. That doctor’s appointment you made two months ago is coming up this Thursday – except it was really last Thursday? And why is there never an alarm on my smart phone to remind me of my brother’s birthday, when I’m quite sure I put it on there last year when I missed it.
If you think about time strictly in linear terms, you might have the tendency to say, oh well, what’s happened is happened, there’s no going back, because, there, I’ve missed the chance. There’s no taking back that joke that offended my students. There’s no helping that elderly woman pick up the groceries she dropped. There’s no catching my daughter’s softball game because I was still at work. There’s no chance to volunteer at the shelter that day they could have used one more hand and adopted out one more dog.
In a way, that’s true. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “time is the only aspect of existence which is completely beyond man’s control.”
Even for the Doctor, the last of the Time Lords, there are fixed points in time he cannot go back and change – and only he seems to know what they are and why they must remain. There was even an episode a couple of years ago called “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and they couldn’t even manage that.
But life is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Like the toothpaste squeezed out of a tube, you can’t put it all back in once it’s out. And yes, people might well see what an unholy mess you’ve made of it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to clean it up. There’s always another day at the shelter, another softball game, another chance to apologize to somebody you’ve offended with a thoughtless, offhand remark. You just have to want to do it. You just have to make the time to do it.
Making things right is what t’shuva is all about. Not just turning away from something you regret, but turning toward something you can be proud of. It’s what these Days of Awe are all about. And it can’t just be a one-off – Oh, okay, I did my duty, I’m done now.
T’shuva doesn’t work that way. It has to be part of that big ball of timey-wimey stuff that is your time on earth, part and parcel of who you are. The rabbis had a saying: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah. One mitzvah leads to another, one transgression leads to another. If you make a habit of one or the other, that’s the way your life will end up. That’s what you’ll be remembered for. But even somebody who’s made a habit of aveirot can turn it around.
In the Book of Chronicles, Joseph’s son Manasseh got himself in hot water by worshiping a whole pantheon of idols, and was about to be tortured:
“He turned to all the other gods he worshiped, to no avail, and finally said to himself: Well, I’ll try my father’s God. But if he doesn’t answer me, he’s as worthless as all the others. The ministering angels in heaven began shutting heaven’s windows so that Manasseh’s prayer would not be heard. They came to God, complaining: Master of the universe, a man who set up an idol in Your Temple – surely you would never accept the repentance of such a man! The Holy One replied: If I do not receive him in his repentance, I shall be barring the door to all those who would repent. God then made a little opening under the Divine Throne to hear and accept Manasseh’s prayer of forgiveness.”
Life is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Maybe you can’t undo the harm you’ve already done – even to yourself. But you can make up for it.
Third: When you save yourself, you can save the world. You really can.
The protagonist in the episode is named Sally Sparrow, whose best friends are taken by the Weeping Angels and relocated to other times and places. One, her best girlfriend, is relocated back to the 1920’s. The other is an elderly gentleman dying in a hospital bed when Sally finally finds him, and the two have just a few fleeting hours together. But The Doctor knows all of this stuff, all the timey-wimey disconnects, and Sally becomes obsessed with trying to understand how that’s possible.
Keep in mind: The Doctor may be a Time Lord, but sometimes, time gets the better of him. He had somehow gotten stuck in 1969 and, had somebody not saved him and gotten him back to the TARDIS, the whole of the planet would have been destroyed.
In a convoluted, wibbly-wobbly way, it turns out it was Sally Sparrow herself who had given the Doctor the tools he needed to get himself unstuck – thus unwittingly fulfilling the rabbinic decree that one who saves a single life, it is accounted to her as though she had saved the entire world.
Sally only understands her own role in this at the very end of the episode, after she literally has stared down the Weeping Angels and defeated them. That’s when the timey-wimey elements of her life finally start to make sense, and when she finds her purpose (and true love). That’s when she understands the power of a single human being to influence the outcome of events seemingly out of her control.
Like Sally Sparrow, we never know the impact our language and our behavior might have on any given outcome. Like Sally Sparrow, it might some day all come down to us. In the Talmud, Rav is quoted as saying that “all the set times for redemption have passed. Now, the matter solely depends on repentance and good deeds.” We can’t wait for God to turn things around. We have to commit to a better future, and then we have to work for it.
“Rabbi Hanina bar Papa once asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman to explain to him the importance of this call to God from the Book of of Lamentations: ‘You, O God, have covered yourself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through.’ Rabbi Shmuel replied: ‘Prayer is like an immersion pool, which is open for use at some times but sometimes is closed. The gates of prayer are sometimes closed and sometimes open. But repentance is like the open sea – so that whoever wishes to immerse in open waters can do so whenever he wants. So too the gates of repentance are always open.’”
That’s not to say that God will refuse to hear our prayers after the gates close at Neilah next week. It’s that, once the Days of Awe are over, the time for prayer is over and the time for action starts in earnest.
As my colleague and our friend Rabbi Richie Address wrote recently, “we do not own time; rather, we rent it. . . as we get ready to start a new year, we can be reminded how precious that time is, especially as we get older.”
Well, in the preview of this Saturday night’s season-nine premiere, The Doctor proclaims, “even for somebody two and a half thousand years old, life is short.” And each of us is given only a fraction of that.
I guarantee you that every episode of this season’s shows will be chock full of adventures and misadventures, making mistakes and making up for them, saving whole species by saving just one, and savoring time and space in all its wibbly-wobbly beauty. Here’s to a year in which each of us strives to do the same. Ken yehi ratson, be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin