A conference call with Judge Goldstone
This week's portion: blameless

The shape of the spiritual year

The two-semester class I've been taking since last February, Moadim l'Simcha / "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," has ended. At the end of the class, Reb Elliot asked us some thought-provoking questions. Here's the first of my answers to those questions, about the "big picture" of the spiritual year.

The big picture. What is the shape of the spiritual year (as it emerges from the sources we have studied)? The peaks and the valleys? What are the major motifs, themes, questions, challenges?

The Jewish spiritual year has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. This two-semester learning began at a time when when our spiritual sap was starting to rise. We learned together through a time when God's presence is curiously hidden and we are called to rise above binaries and boundaries, and then a time when God's presence is palpable yet we have to take the leap of creating change. Then from that peak we plunged to the bottom of a long mountain climb, and made our slow way back to the peak again, where we encountered a silent א, wordless but containing all of our tradition's endless words within it.

We reconvened during a time of broken hearts. From there, into the deep cleanse of our spiritual year, a forty-day temporal mikvah. A liquid time, a time to be transparent before God. We explored how each year we accustom ourselves to sins, and how we are called each year to purify ourselves from that, what it might mean for teshuvah to be inscribed upon our soft hearts. We emerged from the cosmic womb and began anew. Then into this season of our rejoicing, when we dwell beneath the shelter of the Shekhinah -- in which we continue to dwell even once we have moved back into our solid homes.

All year long, we inhabit the tension between concealment and revelation. God appears at Purim to be hidden, but those who understand, understand that God is manifest throughout the festival. (And indeed, even the distinction between "God" and "not-God" disappears if we ascend high enough.) At Pesach, God's manifest presence is obvious, but our part in the story is at least as important: we have to be the ones who take the leap into the sea before emunah (faith) can permeate our bones. At Tisha b'Av, we may feel that God is entirely concealed from us; at Yom Kippur, we are bathed in the light of Shekhinah and our souls become pure. God is here, God is absent, God is here. The year takes us on a journey through each of these emotional and spiritual places.

All year long, we inhabit the tension between leaping and waiting. At Pesach we have to take the leap of leaving Egypt, stepping into the sea, learning to sing the song at the sea. Our hearts and bodies harmonize a duet, and the Presence inhabits us and opens our mouths. Then comes the Omer, a period of waiting and counting, which culminates in Shavuot, a day of atzeret, holy pausing. As I write these words, it's time for our other annual day of atzeret, which follows on the heels of another 49-day period of intense spiritual work. After these intense periods, God doesn't want to let us go; God asks us to linger just a little longer. Of course, it can't be Shavuot (or Shemini Atzeret) forever -- just as we can't live in the moshiachtzeit of Shabbat mincha forever. We, and God, are always coming and going from one another. This is the natural order of things.

All year long, we inhabit the tension between doing and being. The words and mitzvot we study and practice are holy, but we're always called to remember that the space in which they exist -- the temporal container; the blank parchment -- may be holier still.

Major motifs, themes, questions, challenges: how do we experience unity in a world of multiplicity? What does it mean to be free? How do we balance our sense of God's presence with our sense of God's absence? Knowing that our world is broken and that we sin, how do we make ourselves whole again? How should we balance awe and love, our yearning for God with the awareness that God is always already here?