Immediately following the section recounting Sarah’s death and burial the Torah states: “And Abraham grew old, coming into days, and God blessed Abraham with everything” (Genesis 24:1). The Sages teach that the Hebrew word for “old” (zaken) means not only aged but also wise. The mystically inclined understand the enigmatic phrase, “coming into days,” as alluding to the new state of consciousness Abraham achieved in the process of burying Sarah and acquiring his first portion of the Land of Israel. This new level of wisdom was bound up with attaining an understanding of how to be the master of time and not its slave: how to “come into days.”
The root word for the Hebrew word for “world” (olam) means “to hide.” Paradoxically, the world both reveals and conceals God within nature. On a most profound level, the cycles of time and nature are patterned on the needs and interior worlds of human beings, who in turn mirror their Divine Creator. By observing the cycles of time and nature indirectly, as revealed in the Torah, as well as by experiencing them directly, humanity connects to a more spiritual Divine flow and attains a more spiritual perception of time and reality.
Divine time flows in a series of cycles. When we understand these, we can enter Divine time. The most fundamental of these cycles is the cycle of seven, manifested at the very beginning, in the six days of creation and the culminating Shabbat. This cycle underlies all Jewish cycles of time and the number seven is subsequently reflected in a wide range of ritual as well.
By aligning ourselves with the Jewish calendar, based on the monthly renewal of the moon and the Jewish holidays – which themselves correspond to nature and the agricultural cycles of the Land of Israel – we open ourselves to realizing the cyclical and allegorical framework constructing our lives. By studying the changes of nature and the seasons, we become privy to fundamental lessons of spiritual and emotional growth.
As slaves to time, who are not in tune with the secrets of cycles, we perceive time as linear, a cold and impersonal force constantly beyond our control. As we begin to understand the secrets of time and the cycles, we begin to realize the circularity of time and experience its constant renewal and repetition. When we become masters of time we come to realize that time may be envisioned as a four-dimensional spiral – always returning to the same place, but on a higher plane, during each succeeding revolution. In this analogy, past, present, and future flow through the same vertical coordinate on the spiral, always meeting at a moment in the eternal present.
Jewish tradition teaches that for God, past, present, and future all occur simultaneously. Significantly, the four letters comprising God’s four-letter name also comprise the Hebrew words for past (hayah), present (hoveh), and future (yiheyeh). God, who creates and continuously renews the world and time, is simultaneously “in the world” and “above the world.” Thus, when a human being comes nearer to God he or she is able to experience time on an increasingly Divine level.
This secret of time is alluded to in our verse: “And Abraham was old, coming into days, and God blessed Abraham with everything.” “Coming into days” alludes to Abraham’s mastery of time. Such mastery allowed him to experience this world and the World to Come concurrently. Only by experiencing Sarah’s burial and subsequently connecting to her by transcending time and space was Abraham able to attain this level; this experience, according to the mystical reading of the Torah, the sod, enabled Abraham to have one foot in this world and one foot in the World to Come.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in his classic Likutei Moharan (Torah 61, Section II) explains that human beings have difficulty comprehending how God can be “above time” because of their relatively limited awareness and intellect. However, the more human beings expand their consciousness, the more time is nullified for them. For example, in a dream state the conscious mind is no longer in control and the pure power of imagination takes charge. In fifteen minutes of dreaming, years can appear to have gone by. For those who have attained an even higher intellectual level, longer periods of time can register as only fifteen minutes; for them time has been nullified even more. This process continues ad infinitum; as the intellect achieves ever greater clarity, the power of imagination increases in tandem and time is increasingly nullified. For this reason, one who masters time can accomplish in a relatively brief period what it would take others much longer to accomplish, if they even succeeded at all. Rebbe Nachman in fact translates the term “World to Come” as “the world that is always coming.” By expanding consciousness and connecting to a more Divine experience of time and cycles we increasingly free ourselves from the tyranny of time and learn to employ its inherent Divine power to transcend a strict and limiting linear conception of time and employ it to our advantage.
This explains why the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation was to mark time, to construct a uniquely Jewish calendar (Exodus 12:1-2). Coming as the Jewish people left Egypt, this instruction was particularly apt as the word for “Egypt” in Hebrew connotes “constriction” or “a narrow place.” Mastering time is the primary quality needed to go from constriction to expansion; from slavery to freedom; from finite borders to a state of eternity. Abraham, and by heredity, all his descendants, have the ability to master time and to extract the most from each moment.