The Clock in the Mountain

The Clock in the Mountain

The High Holy Days are a time of serious and penetrating questions: Does God take notice of our deeds? Are there consequences for sin? Will we be forgiven? This year, our questions are smaller but of more immediate concern. How long is all of this going to last? How much longer is the world going to feel this way? Where do we find the faith that everything will return to normal someday?

To begin exploring answers to those questions, consider the mountain. I don’t mean all mountains, I’m thinking about one specific mountain: a hulking mass of West Texas limestone. There is a secret hidden inside this mountain, and it is the brainchild of an engineer named Danny Hillis. What Hillis designed and has spent the last 30 years assembling inside the mountain is a clock.

It is a monster of a thing: about 200 feet tall, machined from marine-grade stainless steel, titanium, and ball bearings made of hardened ceramic. The clock is powered by the energy it harvests from sunlight and from people who visit the mountain.

If you want to help wind the clock, you’ll have to bring a couple of friends with you to the hidden entrance in the cliffs: double stainless-steel doors, leading to a tunnel, several hundred feet long. At the end of the tunnel is a massive spiral staircase carved into the rock which you’ll climb to get to the clock’s drive system. The counterweights are a stack of giant stone disks weighing 5 tons. This is why you needed to bring your friends – all of you will have to work together, pushing a large metal capstan that looks like a subway turnstile to raise the weights.

The clock will store all of that mechanical energy so it can continue running, but it can also use the energy captured by the temperature differential between the heat of the day and the cool nights outside on the mountain top. Even if no one ever visits it, the highly efficient mechanisms of this remarkable clock can keep time, virtually unassisted, for the next 10,000 years.

Imagine it! A clock that will run for as long as all of human civilization has existed. It is an extraordinary accomplishment: in physics, engineering, materials science. But for Danny Hillis, the 10,000 Year Clock is also a way to clarify our values and cultivate a new relationship with time. “I cannot imagine the future,” he says, “but I care about it…. I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me.” 1Quoted in the Long Now Foundation’s article about the 10,000 Year Clock:

That was the inspiration behind the clock, whose fastest-moving hand only ticks once a year, whose bells chime every millennium; it is that long view which can bring us to a deeper practice of the elusive but critical skill of patience. And it is patience that delivers an answer to our pressing spiritual questions in these perilous times. When it comes to faith, it’s often the case that believing isn’t the hard part at all; the hard part is the waiting. From a certain vantage point, faith is indistinguishable from patience.

Fortunately, most of us have some ability to wait for the things we need or want. But this skill has been tested rigorously during the pandemic. More than once we’ve felt ourselves losing track of time, forgetting what day of the week it is, or even what month it is, as one day flows into the next. We feel agitated as we impatiently count the days until we can get back to school, or to work, or to the embrace of the people we love. Even though the lockdown has allowed us to spend our time in ways that, in any other year, we would have said we wanted – more time with our families, more home-cooked meals, less time in the car – we find ourselves unable to summon the perspective and the patience to recognize these small gifts.

The struggle to cultivate patience at times of difficulty is not a modern affliction, of course; our people has been grappling with it for centuries. The words of Psalm 27, which we read throughout the month leading up to the High Holy Days, describes the yearning for God’s presence. It implores us: “Be strong, and brave- hearted, and wait with hope for ADONAI!” 2Psalm 27:14.

The medieval masters of mussar, Jewish spiritual self-improvement, taught that the discipline of patience and forbearance is a mainstay of the spiritually-developed life. The ability to endure discomfort with equanimity helps us to grow and strengthen our connections to others and to God. Learning to become patiently aware of unpleasant experiences and tolerate them without lashing out or shutting down makes us more resilient. The capacity to face the things that bother us and sit still with them for a while is a vital indicator of emotional and mental health. When we face insults or injustices, we might practice taking a moment’s pause before responding to them, and if we cannot respond, we can allow ourselves to let them go, gently, like a child releases a balloon into the sky. An expanded capacity to be patient in the face of things we cannot change gives us renewed energy to respond to the things we can.

And this is an important corollary to our study about patience. I know I’ve spent most of this sermon telling you to cultivate patience, but now I’m going to ask you to consider the opposite approach.

We can grow in faith by deepening our patience toward God, but we grow in strength by preserving a small seed of loving impatience toward ourselves. This is the season of forgiveness, but I will gently suggest that this particular year might not be the time to let ourselves off the hook. This might be the year for us to be demanding, forceful, indignant. The world needs us now – our love and our values and our principled refusal to wait for redemption, to wait for the clock in the mountain to sound its alarm. There is simply too much at stake – social crisis, ecological crisis, political crisis. It is time for us to set audacious expectations for ourselves that we might never have made before – for gutsy activism, tenacious advocacy, courageous generosity.

Faith in God can look very similar to patience, but faith in ourselves looks like personal initiative and bravery. The mystics’ concept of tikkun olam teaches that sparks of goodness are scattered throughout the world, and with each good deed we do, we liberate those holy sparks one at a time, releasing them into the world. The potential to elevate, to redeem, to free the embers of holiness is always at hand, just waiting for us, like that clock ticking inside the mountain.

Each of us is uniquely positioned at precisely the right time in history to release sparks of goodness into the world, and so we should be desperately impatient with ourselves, desperately eager to wake up to our holy work. The moral universe might be able to survive without us, and it is easy to ignore its calls. But the moral universe, like the clock in the mountain, keeps time even when we’re not paying attention. Its weights are heavy, but it needs our muscle if it is to function as it was meant to.

The project to build a 10,000 Year Clock offers a radically new understanding of time and our place in the grand sweep of its hands. History is unimaginably vast, and our time in it breathtakingly brief. But our fragile mortality presents us with a choice: knowing that our time is limited, we can choose lives of self-indulgence, or we can choose to live in a way that honors our commitment to our descendants. What do we want them to remember about us, the inhabitants of earth who lived 10,000 years before they did? What do we want them to know about the choices we made, the moral truths we left in trust for them?

These holy days invite us to strengthen our capacity for patience, our ability to “be strong and brave-hearted,” while we await God’s replies to our prayers. That practice of patience fortifies our spiritual core and rewards us with resilience and grit. But in the meantime, while we wait for God to answer us, let us act to create enduring works of justice and peace. Their cogs and flywheels may turn slowly, their muted chimes buried in bedrock. But their silence does not release us from our holy duty to repair. On this most sacred day, let us pause, between the howl of the shofar and the chanted repetition of our sins, and let us stand in silence, cup our hands to our ear, and hear our names called in the heartbeat that ticks inside of us, beating steadfastly on, whether or not we choose to listen.

G’mar chatimah tovah – may all of us be inscribed for blessing in this new year.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is adapted from the Kol Nidre sermon delivered on Yom Kippur 5781 at Congregation Emanu-El in Houston, TX).

Photo by madichan


1 Quoted in the Long Now Foundation’s article about the 10,000 Year Clock:
2 Psalm 27:14.


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