And so, two calendars clashed: one recent, the other, ancient. One is based on the acquisition of knowledge in an institution of higher learning. The other is outlined in the text of the Torah, and still followed by many Jews around the world, whether by simply acknowledging the time when we observe Shabbat, or by lighting candles, reciting the kiddush, blessing the Challah, joining a congregation in worship or finding a way to truly rest for one day of the week.
The observance of Shabbat should be familiar to anyone in the greater community with a moderate awareness of the content of the Bible, or even with knowledge of only the 10 Commandments. For most people in the world for whom the Bible is Scripture, the day of rest was moved to coincide with “the Lord’s Day,” so Sunday took on some of the practices of the biblical Sabbath.
In any case, in the modern world, it is we of the Jewish community who mark the 7th day as Shabbat AND who also observe the holiday calendar according to the schedule presented in the Torah.
Those basic facts most of us already know. So why is this calendar different from all other calendars?
The answer is that it is only partially because of time.
Other peoples in the Ancient Near East, especially the Babylonians, may have used 7 as a common marker of time.
For the ancient Israelites and the Jewish people, that time period of seven days took on a new and deeper meaning through the designation of Shabbat as a day of rest.
Other peoples in the Ancient Near East celebrated spring in some way through rituals that related to agriculture and raising animals.
For the ancient Israelites and Jews of all generations, spring’s theme of renewal was embodied in the story of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. Our ancestors were, at first, free. They became enslaved and moved to freedom, and then on to Sinai, where they would receive the teachings and rules that would keep them connected and committed for centuries.
So what do we learn from the Israelite holiday cycle that is not embodied in the Gregorian calendar by which we measure birthdays, secular holidays, fiscal years, and the beginning and end of the four seasons?
Leviticus Chapter 23 outlines the Israelite holiday calendar, one of several passages in the Torah to do so. I will be reading in a few moments the verses that focus on Shabbat and Pesach. Even that short section sets apart those observances as holy and different from all the other days of our lives.
We learn from these verses in Leviticus that we are not to engage in any creative enterprise on Shabbat. We are not to work at our occupations on Pesach. Why? Because we are not our work. We are not what we create. The fruits of our labors and ingenuity do have a lot to say about who we are. They are, however, a reflection of our essence. On Shabbat and holidays, it is that essence that we have an opportunity to explore. Even if we find it necessary to engage in some work on those days, the message remains clear. Take time out. Find out who you really are. Try to discover your essence by stepping out of your routine long enough to allow your thoughts, your dreams, and your values to come to the surface and inspire you. Be with your family and your community so that you can remember the greater whole of which you are a part. Add your voice in prayer and song without ego and with a depth of spirit. Give what is within you a chance to emerge for a short time, so that you will know yourself better as the new week begins. Let rest and renewal define and redefine you in a way that will demonstrate your ability to learn and to grow.
Leviticus Chapter 23 directed the Israelites not to come empty-handed to their celebration of Pesach. They were called upon to bring an ISHEH- an offering by fire. In certain other instances in the Torah which mention the fire on the altar, the rabbis relate that altar flame to the fire that is inside each of us. So what is our offering that we present that represents our internal flame? We may give something of that fire when we join our community in prayer. That fire can be our passion for learning and leadership. It can be our dedication to Israel the state and to Israel the people. That fire can be in the warmth that we show one another when we give others support and hope through genuine concern and by extending a helping hand. It can signify our desire to grow spiritually by being in this place. It can find expression when we look east to the mountains, or when we enjoy a nearby desert landscape as we connect with creation. The offering by fire can foster and build community when it comes from the depths of our souls.
One aspect that various calendars have in common is that they come back around on themselves. They repeat week after week, month after month, year after year. That repetition does not mean that the people who follow the calendar are the same as they were even a year before. Within Judaism, it is not just every year that sees each of us become new in some way. Every week in Jewish practice is a rebirth because of Shabbat. Every Pesach hopefully brings humanity closer to the freedom for which we all strive. Because of this notion of renewal, we can ask ourselves: what steps did we take forward this week for our own benefit and to benefit others? What steps did we take backward? How did we grow? How did we learn from our mistakes? And as we observe our festival of freedom year after year, Judaism calls on us to consider what it means to be free. On both Shabbat and Passover, all people are equal. Everyone present in the community is bound to rest and to mark the holiday. Servants don’t work; the stranger or guest in the community joins his or her hosts in observing the rituals of the day. On Pesach, the Haggadah reminds us that all who are hungry should have the chance to come and eat with us. Shabbat and our holidays direct us to open our eyes to the realities of the world outside and to the values we hold inside so that we can sustain goodness within ourselves and offer the gift of our fire and passion for justice and freedom to those who may be mired in hopelessness.
So why is this calendar different from all other calendars? Because it’s not just about days and dates, times and seasons. It is about how we can move ourselves up with each passing week and year, as if walking up a spiral staircase of Torah towards a higher place where we can find our best selves. We can ascend and join with the One who makes peace in the highest heavens in bringing that SHALOM, completeness and wholeness, to our own lives and to all people who can benefit from our concern, our support, and our kindness. May these values be the basis upon which we mark our days, weeks, months and years.