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When the Clocks Stopped

06/25/2020 08:51:46 AM


Rabbi Ron Segal

An episode of the URJ podcast Stories We Tell featured a story, told by Rabbi Marc Katz, titled “When the Clocks Stop”.

There was once a town in Eastern Europe where, for some strange reason, all of the clocks stopped working one day. Old, new, wooden, metal, plain, beautiful…it mattered not. At 12:57 pm one day, every clock in town stopped, and people started to panic, wondering what was going on. Everyone began working their hardest to try and fix their clocks. People tried winding them to see if that would make a difference. They opened the clocks up to see if something was wrong with the gearing, and they took the clocks apart and put them back together. They even tried shaking the clocks to see if that would do it, but everything they tried was met with futility. Not a single clock changed its time, and not a single person in the town was able to come up with a solution as to how to fix the clocks. The clocks remained stopped.

Even without the help of clocks, though, time of course moved forward. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. Seasons passed as each spring turned to summer, to fall, to winter. And in time, all of the clocks began to rust.  

After several years, though, a special visitor came to town - a clock maker. She knew everything it was possible to know about clocks: how they were made, how they functioned, how to repair them. Elated, the townspeople realized they finally had an opportunity to get their clocks repaired, and so they rushed to see the clock maker with clocks in hand, imploring her to please fix their clocks so they would start running again.

The clock maker started to make her way down the line of people, from one person to the next. She approached the first in line, opened up the clock, but then sighed. She looked to the owner and said, “I am so sorry, but I cannot fix your clock. It has rusted over the years and, unfortunately, there is nothing I can do.” She moved onto the next person and looked at the clock, and sighed again. “I am sorry, but I cannot fix your clock either. It, too, has rusted over the years.” The clock maker made her way down the line, and with each subsequent clock, she grew more dejected for having to inform each owner that due to the rust there was nothing she could do.

Finally, she came to the last person in line. But as she took this clock in hand and opened it, she smiled broadly. Looking up she said, “I can fix your clock! Unlike the others, yours is not rusted.” All the townspeople turned to the owner of this clock and asked incredulously, “How is it that all of our clocks are rusted, but yours somehow remained OK?!” The owner smiled gently and replied simply, “Over the course of time, your clocks rusted because they stayed in exactly the same place; they never changed. However, every single day we continued to wind our clock, always maintaining hope that someone might come to town who could help. Even when it seemed completely futile, as if no one would ever come, we never gave up hope. 

When I heard this story told last week, I was struck by a few timely messages. Most obvious is the way this story speaks to the reality we have confronted over the past three months as a result of the coronavirus. When the shelter in place orders were given near the end of March, it is almost as if clocks stopped completely. Time itself seemed almost inconsequential as hours and days blurred into one another. It has been inspiring to see, though, how many have fought off the despair of isolation and maintained a sense of hopeful optimism regarding the end of this pandemic. And sure enough, congregants will see in a few weeks’ time that Shabbat services will once again be led from the bima in our sanctuary, a hopeful sign that we will emerge from this chapter. This is undoubtedly a message to remember during any difficult or dark period of time in our lives or world. Even when things seem futile, Judaism challenges us to remain hostages to hope and to recognize that present realities will change.

But this story is unquestionably far more than one about a hopeful attitude. Of even greater significance is the critical lesson it reinforces concerning the necessity to take definitive actions for hope to be realized. Without winding the clock each day… without actively protesting, and reaching out to elected officials in support of critical legislation, and speaking out in the face of injustice speaking up for the downtrodden, and being willing to examine our own biases and taking steps to change, and… and…, then what begins as hope can easily transform to rust, far more difficult to fix. Our society reflects individual attitudes, systemic injustice, and an untenable status quo which have seemingly rusted in place. But friends, this is a moment when the hope of repair – of a desperately needed tikkun – has been kindled and concept of a just, compassionate, and equitable world are once again imaginable. As such, if we are not doing so already, it is time to “wind the clocks” and actively work to help the repair and restored moral order that we seek come to fruition.

Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780