Living in Jewish time
January 31, 2012
It's a funny way of inhabiting time, this Jewish calendar of ours. Every seventh day a holiday. Every new moon a holiday. And then, studding the year like jewels in a crown, the festivals, each with its own music, its own flavor, both literally and metaphorically.
Right now we're ascending toward the full moon of Shvat, the New Year of the Trees. Making shopping lists: we'll need three kinds of fruit (fruits with shells, fruits with pits, fruits which are soft all the way through -- each representing a different sphere of existence, body and heart and mind), maple syrup (why not celebrate the rising of spiritual sap with some literal sap?), juices of different colors for the chemistry-set pleasure of slowly transforming the pale white grape juice of winter into the vivid flame of deep purple autumn.
One month later comes Purim. Our carnival holiday, costuming and amateur theatrics. The remembered taste of hamentaschen (I always love apricot and plum the best.) The annual re-enactment of the almost-tragedy which turned comic, Haman's attempt at a Final Solution which was deflected by Esther's bravery and wisdom, the villain ultimately hoisted by his own petard. I met this morning with a friend and congregant to plan our annual Purimspiel, and and together we dreamed up a scheme for bringing the art of Jewish puppetry to my shul. Now I am pondering hot glue guns and papier-mâché.
One month after that, Pesach. The season of our liberation. The remembering and re-telling of our Exodus from the Narrow Place of enslavement, in mythic history and in our own hearts. The fifteen steps of the seder, from sanctifying the day all the way to concluding the evening with song. I can almost taste the crunch of matzah smeared with horseradish; the matzah balls my grandfather (of blessed memory) used to make. The scent of roasted egg.
Jewish time has ebbs and flows. Right now our spiritual sap is rising. At Purim-time, we retell a story in which God is (on the surface) entirely absent -- and yet divine sovereignty is hidden in plain sight all over the columns of the holiday's text. At Pesach-time, we're called to take the leap of faith of leaving slavery and plunging into the sea, trusting God to part the waters when we get too deep. We spend seven weeks doing the inner work of preparing ourselves for Sinai, and then Sinai comes.
At Shavuot, we remember and re-experience the Sinai moment, a deep encounter of connection with the Infinite -- and then we head toward the burning heat of remembering the breach of Jerusalem's walls and our communal broken hearts. Then we immerse in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, another season of inner work, in order to emerge with due fanfare and whole hearts at Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur takes us inward; Sukkot is our chance to go outward; at Simchat Torah we dance circles with our circular story. In the dark of (northern hemisphere) winter we kindle tiny lights until the whole chanukiyah is ablaze. And then, after a fallow period, our sap begins to rise again as Tu BiShvat approaches.
It's a neverending spiral from one festival to the next. From rejoicing to mourning to rejoicing again, from extroversion to introversion and back, from autumn to winter to spring to the next autumn. The whole year is a slow wheeling dance with God.
I used to wonder what it was like to be a dancer. To have a whole choreographed performance internalized in your body, such that even as you're dancing one movement, you know what movements come next, and after that, and after that. I still can't imagine the literal experience, but on some level, I think maybe it's a little bit like this experience of being rooted in the Jewish year. Doing the dance steps of Tu BiShvat, knowing that the Purim steps come next, and the Pesach steps, the Omer steps, the Shavuot steps. It's a balancing act, being wholly in this moment even as I try to lay the groundwork for moments to come.
And this is something every Jew does, or can do, or might aspire to do. It's not because I'm a rabbi that I get to learn the steps of this year-long dance... though being a rabbi does give me, sometimes, deeper opportunities to practice the steps -- and the joy of knowing that keeping my community dancing is, quite literally, my job. What an inestimable blessing.