This past summer, Hindy and I visited an art museum in Alexandria, Virginia to see an exhibit titled, a Year In, a retrospective of the pandemic. The first few pictures depicted the loneliness that many experienced during this time; a single chair on a rooftop overlooking a city, empty thoroughfares that we can only assume were once filled with cars and people. Some of the pieces were bizarre – a house surrounded by a cage, representing the sense of ‘stuck-ness’ that the artist felt during the lockdown. But the piece that made the greatest impression on me was a picture of toilet paper rolls. That’s right, toilet paper rolls.
In the first week of the pandemic, if you recall, toilet paper was more valuable than diamonds. For reasons I cannot even fathom now, we all thought that the biggest issue we’d have was a lack of toilet paper. There was no toilet paper anywhere. And it was during that first week of the pandemic, after finishing a roll of toilet paper, that Mark Armbruster decided to keep the cardboard tube of the toilet paper roll. Not only that, but he decided to jot down the date on the tube. Then, when he finished the next roll, he decided to do the same thing. And he kept at it. Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, for about a year and a half, Mark kept every tube of toilet paper that he and his partner finished and wrote the date on the leftover tube. The picture that made it to the exhibit was one of shelves filled with toilet paper tubes with the date that the roll was finished.
In the paragraph explaining the picture, the artist described the time warp that many experienced during the pandemic; our sense of time was completely distorted. It was those toilet paper rolls, he explained, that grounded him; it was how he kept time. The toilet paper rolls gave him a tool to ensure that time did not just pass him by; it helped him capture time. Each toilet paper, to this man, represented a chapter of his life during the past year and a half.
Time is slippery. How often do we say, where has the time gone by?
Time is so hard to capture. What? I didn’t get to do all that I intended?!
Time is our mortal enemy; we all know where time is taking us.
How do we capture our time? Trips we’ve gone on? Books we’ve read? Puzzles we’ve made? Or is it the relationships formed, the good deeds we’ve performed, and our inner growth?
We’re attracted to the first category over the second because it is far more tangible. I could touch and feel the pictures from my grand vacations but I have nothing to show for my inner battles. And so we’re seduced by the concrete – the purchases, the awards, the shareable stories, when we all know not-so-deep inside that those are not the most meaningful accomplishments or usages of our time.
As I was looking at that picture of toilet paper rolls, March 21st, April 3rd, April 19th… I thought of a group of people who tracked the pandemic in a very different fashion. People who completed Meseches Berachos just as the pandemic was beginning, Meseches Shabbos as things got so much worse, Meseches Eruvin through that long and difficult summer, Meseches Pesachim, Meseches Shekalim, Meseches Yomah, Meseches Sukkah, and on and on. In the struggle against time, there are those who capture her with volumes of the Talmud, and those who do so with toilet paper.
Daf Yomi is not for everyone. It’s not for most people. But there are other modes of trackable Torah study that are. This Shabbos, a new cycle of Mishna Yomi is about to begin. Mishna Yomi, quite similar to Daf Yomi, was a relatively recent innovation that attempts to give every single Jew an opportunity to connect to Torah in a comprehensive and daily fashion that is coupled together with a sense of accomplishment. It takes ten minutes of your time and in approximately five years you could learn all of Mishnayos (2 mishnayons a day). Most of the meaningful things in life are hard to track, spirituality is hard to capture, but there are exceptions to every rule, and these readily accessible Torah cycles are one of them.
Limnos yameinu kein hoda, please grant us the ability to count our days.
Mishna Yomi: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/all-mishnah/id1598932850 (And if Mishna Yomi is not for you, stay tuned, a new Nach Yomi, a chapter of Navi a day, is starting in just a few weeks!)
(Adapted from a Yom Kippur drasha)