I have a confession to make—something I have never publically confessed to before: I’m often late—not for weddings, funerals or other life-cycle events where starting on time is really important—but for many things. I know there are some people here who are basically always on time for things. I don’t understand you, and you probably don’t understand me, but if you’ve got this figured out already, maybe you can listen and offer some advice. I tell myself that I’m close enough to on time, or that it’s not my fault. But once I noticed that I was essentially always 1-10 minutes late for everything—doctors’ appointments, coming home for dinner, even sometimes late for services—I started to think that maybe I have a little problem.
And it’s not just me. Many rabbis have this problem. It’s like this story I shared with you a few years ago about a mother who called up the stairs to her son: “Get up! It’s time to go to shul.”
The son said, “Aw, Ma, I don’t want to go to shul. The people there all make fun of me. They don’t really like me. Nobody there ever listens to what I say. I’d rather stay home in bed.”
“But son, you’ve got to go.”
“Give me 2 good reasons,” the son said.
The mother replied, “Well for one it’s Shabbos; and, for another, you’re the rabbi!”
Are you like me or are you one of those who are usually on time? Be honest, after all services were supposed to begin this morning at 9:15. Were you here?
Father Jacob was born just a second after his brother Esav. Rabbi Steven Exler—of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale—comments on today’s Torah portion that Jacob wanted to be the 1st-born. He tried to arrive at the right moment but was just a drop late—and that’s where all the trouble began. And now in this morning’s Torah reading, he arrives back to encounter his brother after being away for more than 20 years. He sends messengers to Esav saying (Gen. 32:5), Im Lavan garti, va-eychar ad ata (I have been living with Laban, and I was delayed until now) or, I “tarried” or was “detained” until now,” as different commentaries have it.
But none of the commentaries capture the precise meaning of the Hebrew va-eychar—an active verb. More accurately Jacob is saying, “I wasn’t held up by Laban. I wasn’t slowed by some external force. I am late. I have been hiding, fleeing from you, Esav, and I’m finally showing up 20-something years later, or perhaps 20-something years late; but I am here now.”
What we encounter in this passage is the struggle of someone who has been perpetually hanging back, avoiding, being late, who now finally says, ad ata—until now, but no more! But why does Jacob take responsibility for his lateness? He could have truthfully said, “Laban switched my wives and that cost me 7 years! He switched my wages so I had to work longer to support my family. And not only that, I only had to flee because you were so angry. If you could only have acknowledged that the birthright was truly mine because I had bought it from you, and therefore, I rightly took father’s blessing that was really mine…if you could only have acknowledged this, I wouldn’t have had to leave home to begin with. So my delay in seeing you here, now, has very little to do with me. I wasn’t late, I was detained!” Jacob could have easily and truthfully said this.
But Jacob doesn’t say this or that he was caught in traffic—today’s usual excuse. Instead he says, “I showed up late. I was complicit in this whole journey. I cannot just see myself as a victim.” Jacob owned up to his lateness and we should own up to our lateness as well.
As I confessed, while I try to be on time, something often happens to make me late…and I give in to it. When I arrive at my meeting or appointment, I conveniently only mention the external circumstance that made me late, while I conceal—even from myself—my own role in my lateness.
I want to make 2 points about lateness today. The 1st is that it’s a problem. The 2nd is that something can be done. Those of us who come late to things usually genuinely believe it’s not a big deal. Most people and events run a few minutes late anyway. But if I genuinely respected someone else’s time as much as my own, wouldn’t I want to arrive on time? And in some small way, isn’t an appointment a commitment? So if I’m late, haven’t I, in a small way, broken a promise?
One of the only instances where lateness as a verb appears in the Torah (Deut. 23:21) in the command: Ki tidor neyder L’Hashem Elokecha, lo t’acheyr lishlomo (When you make a vow to Hashem your Gd, you must not be late in fulfilling it). You would think the Torah would say, “When you make a vow, don’t break it!” But the Torah is telling us that there’s keeping our word, and then there’s keeping our word on time. So don’t say to yourself, “I’m going to show up at our meeting like I promised, but I’m just going to quickly shoot off one more email before I leave the office.” No, says the Torah! Lo t’acheyr lishlomo, it’s not just about showing up, it’s about showing up when you say you’re going to show up.
And sometimes bad things happen when you’re late. Arguably the greatest sin of the Jewish people—the sin of the Golden Calf—happened because Moses was late coming down the mountain—or so the people thought.
What am I planning to do about my lateness? I begin by recognizing that lateness stems from different causes. Sometimes it’s about needing to be busy every second and being afraid to be early and be stuck without something to do. In other cases it is about needing to try to get one more thing done before leaving and not leaving quite enough time to allow for a problem like traffic to get somewhere. But if I do plan my time better in advance and if I’m willing to arrive a few minutes early and just sit and think, I can fix this.
Truth be told, sometimes my lateness has more to do with not actually wanting to go to the thing I’m late for. If I can find a way to come to peace with being there, I can help myself to be on time.
Now I’m the 1st to admit that this is not easy. It isn’t resolved in a day, and I’m still working on it. And we learn this from Father Jacob. On the one hand he begins his message to Esav by saying, va-eychar ad ata—I have been late and I own it. Further in the parsha Jacob uses ר-ח-א—the root of lateness—5 times, and the root ה-נ-פ—“approach the face of”—or essentially be on time—7 times! So he’s still struggling. Am I behind? Am I late? Or am I present, ready to confront? This transition takes time.
I think there is a culture in most synagogues of beginning late and it’s Jewish thing—you don’t hear of people coming to church an hour and a half late. The whole notion of “Jewish time” is fascinating and traces its roots back to Father Jacob. And of course there are benefits to flexibility—to making room for latecomers. It’s not my goal this morning to be overly harsh, but rather to work through my own challenge, to express my commitment to better timeliness for myself and reflect that if we turn inward to consider the impact of being late in our own lives, perhaps we can find the ways it challenges us…and grow in not breaking our commitments, even little ones, to ourselves, to each other, and to Gd.
Va-eychar ad ata: Jacob owns his lateness. In his struggles his name is changed to Israel and this becomes his higher, spiritual self—Israel the upright, Israel the up-front, on-time person. This is our challenge as part of the Children of Israel, and for you and me as individuals. May we all be up to the challenge and be on time to shul next week. Amen!