There’s a story about three umpires discussing their trade. Maybe you’ve heard it. There are these three umpires, and they’re each bragging a little bit, showing off. They’re each claiming to be the best at what they do. The first one says, “I have a good eye, and I call it like I see it.” The second one says, “that’s nothing -- I have a good eye, and I call it like it is.” And the third one just shakes his head, and after a long pause he says, “it ain’t nothin’ ‘til I call it.”
Why am I telling you this?
מוֹעֲדֵ֣י ה' אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ׃
“These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” (Lev. 23:2)
That’s from this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The verses that follow offer an outline of our festival year in its most ancient form. First and foremost is Shabbat. Time and again, weekday and workday consciousness gives way to Shabbat, which tradition calls “a foretaste of the world to come.” That’s the weekly rhythm, the flow and ebb, built into the fabric of creation. And it serves and supports a bigger oscillation, the annual rhythm of the festival year.
At Pesach, in the emerging spring, we celebrate liberation from narrow places. The Omer leads us to Shavuot, when we receive revelation. At Rosh Hashanah the universe begins anew -- Pesach is the anniversary of our Exodus, but Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of all creation. At Yom Kippur we answer for our souls. At Sukkot we move outside, celebrating the harvest and recognizing impermanence. And then, after a fallow time, Pesach comes around again.
Now, Torah could have just said that God declares certain times to be holy. Let it be God’s job to declare what’s holy and what isn’t, what’s a special time and what’s ordinary. I mean, God speaks the world into being, right? But instead Torah says that we proclaim holy time. We declare its holiness. We have a role to play in making our sacred times what they are. The questions for me are, how and why do we do that? And what happens in us when we do?
Torah and the rabbinic tradition are full of “how” and “why.” We declare a time to be kadosh, set-apart, by lighting candles or blessing the fruit of the vine: kiddush, which shares a root with kadosh. Or we build a sukkah, or wave a lulav. Or we set time apart by not-doing things. On Shabbat and festivals, Torah instructs us to cease our working, our rushing to make and create and do. Or we refrain from eating and drinking, as many of us do on Yom Kippur...
What interests me most is not so much the things we do or don’t do, but the internal dynamics behind the doing or not-doing. What does it feel like to consciously refrain from working? What does it feel like to kindle a candle and feel something internal shift thanks to its flickering light? What opens up in us as a result of that doing and the feeling that flows from that doing? Beyond that, what opens or changes in us when we do and feel those things together?
Because that’s another thing I notice about this verse in Torah: “These are My fixed-times, which y’all shall proclaim, declaring them holy.” Now, I’m saying “y’all” because I grew up in south Texas, and even after 27 years in the Northeast I remain convinced that the English language needs a plural form of “you,” and “y’all” is the plural form of “you” that I like best. But I’m also saying y’all because that’s what Torah’s syntax suggests. This is a communal instruction.
Notice the tension between individual and communal. The how and the why of making time holy are communally-agreed-upon, or at least communally-discussed. The internal dynamics of making time holy -- what awakens in us when we take this work on -- are personal. What happens in me when I kindle candles is not necessarily transferrable. And it shifts over time as I change and grow. Making time holy has a profound impact on who and how I become.
The sage known as the Aish Kodesh teaches that festivals have an innate quality of holiness. (Writing about Purim, he says that even if one is grieving on Purim and can’t fully inhabit the holiday’s requisite joy, the day itself will work its magic. I found that deeply meaningful this year when Purim fell during shloshim, the first month of mourning, for my mom.) He’s not alone in that viewpoint. There’s a strong view in tradition that our holidays themselves are holy.
When it comes to Yom Kippur, our sages teach, the essence of the day itself is what enables us to atone -- together with our acts of teshuvah, yes, but the day itself has a unique quality that helps us get there. And yet there’s also a sense that holiness is something we create. In Heschel’s words, we “learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.” We consecrate not space but time.
We consecrate. In instructing us to set holy time apart, Torah implies that something happens when we declare holy time. Maybe something happens in us when we set holy time apart. Experientially, that feels true to me. There’s a difference between being handed something, and making it myself. There’s a difference between being told that a day is holy, and making it holy with my actions and words -- and most especially with my heart and my intention.
It matters to me that we do this with our own hands and hearts. The Judaism that sets my heart afire and tingles my toes is a participatory Judaism. It’s a Judaism that doesn’t outsource our sense of holiness. It’s a Judaism that presumes that every one of us has a role to play in building the Jewish future. A Judaism that encourages every one of us to learn enough about the tradition that we can turn our hearts and hands to building the Judaism that comes next.
In Talmud (Brachot 64a) we read, “our children will be taught of God.” And then our sages creatively read “our children” as “our builders,” recognizing that every successive generation has the responsibility and the opportunity to build the Jewish future, rooted in our own encounters with holiness. The life's work of building Judaism isn’t just for “the rabbis.” Building Judaism belongs to all of us, just as sanctifying time belongs to all of us.
There's something profoundly democratic here, in the lower-case-d sense. God gives us the flow of the festival year, but it's incomplete without our participation. Our spiritual ancestors give us a vast library of texts and traditions, but they're incomplete without our participation, too. They're the recipe, but you can't eat a cookbook. It's our energy and attention, our investment of hands and hearts, that transforms the recipe into nourishing food for the soul.
Judaism asks us to balance what we've received, and what the future asks us to build. Sometimes we build in new ways, through new spiritual technologies, new ways of learning, new texts and prayers and melodies to enliven our experience of ancient texts and festivals and practices. And sometimes we build in ancient ways, letting those ancient practices (like sanctifying time) do their work in us as we open ourselves to becoming and to change.
In the instruction to proclaim the festivals, Torah is telling us that even something as fundamental to Jewish life as holy time is a partnership between us and God. Our sacred times have power, and that power is magnified when we make the choice to declare those times to be set-apart and holy. And when we consciously set time apart, we open ourselves so that holiness can flow through us into the future that is yet to be. Shabbat shalom.
This is the d'var Torah I offered this morning at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo where I am (with Rabbi David Markus) Halpern Scholar-In-Residence this weekend. Deep thanks to the Halpern family for bringing us to western New York!
Written with gratitude to my co-founders at Bayit: Building Jewish.