Back in Time

One of the most popular tropes in science fiction stories is time travel. There is something endlessly fascinating about the idea of travelling back in time to see events we know about or travelling forward in time to see things we can only imagine. Every science fiction story that uses the idea must develop a theory of time travel. Can you change the past with your actions or are they part of a closed loop? If you make a change will that create a new branched timeline? What if you kill your own grandfather?

While time travel is mostly a fictional adventure, there are some real-life examples. Due to the theory of relativity, whenever you fly on a plane, you actually experience time moving slightly slower than a person on the ground because you are travelling at a faster speed. Because of the nature of gravity, astronauts and satellites which are at a high altitude actually experience time moving slightly faster than us on the ground.

These types of time travel are mostly unnoticeable for us humans, but there is another type experienced on a plane that very much does affect us. Whenever we take a long-haul flight through several time zones, we feel a type of time travel. When we fly east, we often “lose” time, which one could be described as travelling forward in time. When we fly west, we often “gain” time, which is almost like going backwards in time. An extreme example of this is a plane that took off in 2018 and landed in 2017 (it did so by actually flying east, which usually feels like going forward in time, but that was because it crossed the International Date Line on January 1).

Recently I had a particularly Jewish experience of time travel when I flew from Israel back to the United States. Usually, Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora read the same Torah portion. Every few years, however, our reading schedules get out of alignment. This is due to the fact that in the diaspora we have an extra day of holidays. When that extra day lands on Shabbat, we in the US read the Torah portion for the holiday, while in Israel synagogues read the next regularly scheduled parasha.

We are in just such a calendrical quirk right now, which means that when I was in Israel on April 23 I heard the Torah portion Acharei Mot and then when I returned home I heard it again on April 30. From the perspective of the Jewish calendar, I traveled back in time! This oddity of the calendar is a rather obscure aspect of Jewish life, and yet it is something that President Biden, during his visit to Israel this week, alluded to in a speech.

American presidents love to quote from the Torah when speaking to Jewish audiences. It helps them connect and show that they truly care about and understand the Jewish community. Often, they like to quote from the week’s Torah portion, but what do you do at a time like this? Reference the Israeli parasha or the American? Biden and his team couldn’t help but pull an appropriate passage from Parshat Balak, which is the reading in the diaspora this week, but his speechwriter was knowledgeable enough to note that it was “the Torah portion that will be read in services across United States this week.”

It pays to know your audience, especially when people listen to your speech with great interest. If Biden had said that Balak was “the Torah portion read around the world this week”, he might have offended some Israeli Jews and certainly would have prompted some mocking. Instead, he was acknowledged for his (or, more accurately, his team’s) attention to detail.

The Jewish time travel possibilities are coming close to close for this year. On July 30, those in the diaspora will read a double portion called Matot-Masei while those in Israel will read Masei only. On August 6, the Jewish world will once again unite itself in the reading of Parshat Devarim. While we won’t be able to travel back in time and hear the same Torah portion again, we will have the satisfaction that all over the globe, our fellow Jews are hearing the same timeless lesson from our sacred text.

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