Reclaiming Zuleikha
The view from week 35

The year as spiritual practice

Part 2 of a series of blog posts arising out of final reflections on the class Moadim l'Simcha, "Seasons of Our Rejoicing," which I recently completed. Part 1 can be found here.

It might be argued that the spiritual year is the “spiritual practice” par excellence of Judaism. Assess this statement. What does it mean 'tzu loyfn mit der tzeit,' to "run" (or live) with the times?

Each year is one long spiritual practice, with inevitable energetic ebbs and flows. We have times of great activity and energy: preparing for Pesach in our homes, preparing for the Days of Awe in our hearts and in our congregations. And we have times of stillness: the mountain-peak of Shavuot, the holy pausing of Shemini Atzeret, the fallow month of Cheshvan. This is the ratzo v'shov (ebb and flow, cf. Ezekiel 1:14) of spiritual life, built in to our seasonal-liturgical cycle.

As the sage Mary Oliver has written, in her poem "Five A.M. in the pinewoods," "So this is how you swim inward. / So this is how you flow outwards. / So this is how you pray." For every inhalation, an exhalation. Lather, rinse, repeat. Spiritual life has peaks and valleys, and we need to be conscious of the everyday practices which will sustain us when we're not riding the rollercoaster of the moadim (festivals.)

To live with the times means being aware of the flow of the year, the way one holiday leads to the next. Our festivals aren't discrete gems studding a crown or individual raisins peeking forth from a loaf of challah; they need to be understood as part of a whole. I experience the moadim (even the sad ones) as high points, extraordinary time, set in the framework of chol (everyday). And we need chol in order to integrate the moadim. Each of the moadim takes us somewhere, and then points us toward our next destination.

Just as our Torah reading cycle is a kind of mobius strip, the end of the story leading right back to the beginning again, so our festival cycle is a neverending spiral. The texts we studied (some of which I blogged about here) make the ebb and flow of the cycle plain.

The fallow period of Cheshvan leads us to Chanukah, an outpouring of light in the darkness. That sustains us until Tu BiShvat, when our spiritual sap begins to rise. At Purim God is concealed; at Pesach God is revealed; at Shavuot, God is still more revealed! The Three Weeks offer us a time to connect with mourning, which is a precondition for really experiencing Tisha b'Av, which is a precondition for moving into Elul and the work of teshuvah. That work leads us through the two days of Rosh Hashanah (one to focus on soul, one to focus on the world) and the intense communion of Yom Kippur, into the inside-out festival of Sukkot when we recognize that our physical structures are less significant than the spiritual ones we inhabit. We move outdoors in order to recognize that we were always already there. And then we move back indoors, subtly changed, and hunker down toward winter again. "To everything, turn, turn, turn." Each year the journey is the same, but we are different.

At Pesach we discover our own voice; at Shavuot we see the divine Voice; at Yom Kippur we enter the sound which goes beyond language. (As much as these sages love the Hebrew language, they teach that the sound which jars us awake goes beyond words...) We need all of these: our own voices, the divine Voice, the voice which transcends words.

Each of the festivals informs the others. They speak to one another; they riff of of one another. And our experience of them is always shaped by what has come and what we know is still to come. We move from a kind of extroversion to a kind of introversion, both practically and spiritually, and both are necessary. This is how our life-force ebbs and flows. This is what it means to live in the rhythms of the Jewish year.