Forget the Clock, Follow the Calendar of Life, By Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

There is a lovely story about time, it goes as follows: two elderly Jews who haven’t seen each other in fifty years, meet, slowly recognize one another, and embrace. They go back to the apartment of one of them to talk about the days long ago.

The conversation goes on for hours. Night falls. One asks the other, “Look at your watch. What time is it?” “I don’t have a watch,” says the second.

“Then look at the clock.”

“I don’t have a clock.”

“Then how do you tell the time?”

“You see that trumpet in the corner? That’s how I tell the time.”

“You’re crazy,” says the first, “How can you tell the time with a trumpet?”

“I’ll show you.”

He picks up the trumpet, opens the window and blows a deafening blast. Thirty seconds later, an angry neighbor shouts out, “Two-thirty in the morning, and you’re playing the trumpet?” The man turns to his friend and says, “You see? That’s how you tell the time with a trumpet!” Roughly speaking, that’s how the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides, explained why we blow a shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which we celebrate in six days’ time.

It is, he says, God’s wake-up call, His way of asking us, “Do you know what time it is? This life I have given you, how have you used it? For yourself, or for others? To hurt or to heal? What have you done with the year you asked Me for twelve months ago? What will be your entry in the Book of Life?” We go through life, says Maimonides, for much of the time half-asleep. Day follows day in a daze. We go through the motions of waking, working, eating, relaxing, more conscious of the minutes than the years. We feel the tyranny of the clock but forget the larger calendar of a life.

As the years pass, all too often we renounce the dreams of our youth and settle for a routine which oscillates between the escape from boredom called work, and the escape from work called leisure. Sometimes it takes a jolt — a car crash, an illness, a crisis — to make us ask, who am I and why am I here? What am I doing with my life?

It’s part of the beauty of Judaism that it asks us, on Rosh Hashanah, to ask just that question. Time is God’s greatest gift and one of the few He gives each of us on equal terms. Whether we are rich or poor, powerful or powerless, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a span of years that is all too short. For each of us (as for Moses) there will be a future we will not see, a River Jordan we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter. Therefore, we have to make choices, and the most consequential is how we use our time.

Once asked, the question almost answers itself. No one ever died wishing he or she had spent more time at the office or ruing the lack of the latest mobile phone. Most of the wants we chase after are artificially contrived, and many of the things we have no time for — family meals, long walks with our children, helping strangers, saying thank you to our marriage partner and to God — are of the essence of a life well lived.

Once a year we need that trumpet-call to remember time and use it to make a difference, to be a blessing, to love.


An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.

Since stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – a position he served for 22 years between 1991 and 2013 – Rabbi Sacks has held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University and King’s College London. In addition to his writing and lecturing, he currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Rabbi Sacks has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s