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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
April 14, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

One of the first distinctions a child learns to make is between self and other. It's not surprising that, immersed in the internal world of the womb, a fetus doesn't have a sense of where one body leaves off and the other begins. But once pushed into independence, a child spends years honing that first lesson: there is something that is me, and there is a whole lot that is not me.

So it is more than a little ironic that so many societies and cultures including Judaism spend plenty of energy trying to persuade this individuated individual that he or she is actually part of a larger whole, that we are all interconnected, that, as we say, kol yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh, "all of Israel is mixed up with each other."

One of the first distinctions God makes in creating the world is between one day and the next. This word which is the focus of this teaching is "yom." It means "day" and it is almost the very first thing that God creates, certainly the first distinction that becomes a regular part of the creative process. But what is a day?

You have a functional definition in your head immediately 24 hours, a full rotation of the earth, a square on the calendar. But when does that day begin and end? Does it begin at the moment we have constructed to measure it midnight? Does it begin when we awaken, get to work, say the evening prayer, watch the sun set or rise? And if the answer to that question isn't arbitrary (as our clocks are we made up those measurements and now treat them as if they were revealed), then we are forced back to the dilemma faced by the newborn child and the newly creating God: where does one leave off and the next begin?

Perhaps that is why Hebrew uses the word to mean both "day" and "time." By "time," I don't mean the hour of the day (that word is "sha'ah') and I don't mean the particular moment or season (that word is "z'man"). I mean time like the ocean of existence in which we float the kind that marches on, that flows like a river, that Jim Croce wanted to put in a bottle. The mixing of the very particular kind of yom and the very general time of yom is just like the mixing of the very particular kind of me the individual and the very general kind of me the generic human being.

One day flows into another seamlessly, and though each has its distinctions, each has its identical qualities with all the ones before and all the ones after. When we say "yom," particularly in this prayer, and particularly in the context of the blessings of our lives, we acknowledge an essential aspect about ourselves as well. We flow seamlessly from our ancestors and into our descendants, though we never lose our individuality. We live in the moment, and we live for eternity. We seize the day, and we inhabit all of time.

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