Reclaiming My Time: Maxine Waters, the Sabbath and the High Holy Days

In late July, California Rep. Maxine Waters’ “reclaiming my time” became the rallying cry heard round the world. Manifestos emerged as women and people of color discerned the ways in which time has been historically stolen from them.

Memes are now a fact of life; they direct and shape how we consume information. Yet we seldom ask why they become ubiquitous. Some are so sensational they require no explanation for their virality. Others, like Waters’ mantra, invite us to consider a deeper message beyond click bait.

While Waters would almost certainly claim that she was simply employing a House procedural rule in disapproval of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s vague testimony, “reclaiming my time” is also a potent theological statement.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work, The Sabbath, with its themes of time, mitzvot, and the embezzlement of meaning-making, was published in 1951 as a polemic against Conservative Judaism allowing driving on shabbat. But, much like Waters’ statement, The Sabbath’s intended argument unfurled far beyond its original context.

Speaking of sabbath, Heschel wrote: “We try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.”

For Heschel, time was and is the ultimate form of wealth in human society. It is humanity’s most valuable nonrenewable resource, so reclaiming it rebels against the dominant culture of production and consumption. Hours spent unplugged for spiritual introspection are the enemy of the western economic and political ethos. The more people tune in, working and watching, the stronger the machine becomes.

Judaism is no stranger to reclaiming its time. Shabbat and the High Holy Days do not contribute to capitalism—they transcend it. This year, September 21st marks the start of Tishrei, a month that includes the two High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These yom tov (good days), where none of the 39 categories of work is permitted, echo the ancient and modern call to “not be in sync with the rest of society,” according to Dr. Beth Kissileff, author and professor.

This week, Jews around the world will blow the shofar, marking the birth of Creation and the head of the Hebrew Year 5778. Nine days later, Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement, positions Jews to implore God to inscribe and seal them in the book of life for another year. It’s also a reflection of “knowing how fragile life is, and how much it can change,” Kissileff explains. Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria attest to this, in a catastrophic hurricane season, to say nothing of the deadly earthquakes in Mexico or numerous tragic conflicts across the globe.

“Our time is limited and we should be sparing with how we use it, so as to not waste it, but to prioritize what is important,” Kissileff says. “It sets the tone for the whole year.”

It’s unlikely that Heschel would have been surprised by impact of Waters’ mantra, though he might chime in: Tishrei 2017 is a reclaiming of hours amid the chaotic political, economic, and cultural engines that seek to exhaust and embezzle.

Reclaiming time for yom tov, then, numbers our days rightly.