Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

Open Closed Open

Those of you on Facebook understand Facebook memories, when the social media site selects a posting from the past to remind you of what you posted on that day in years past. Recently Facebook has been reminding me of my trip to Israel l took a year ago at this time.

It was a trip to Israel unlike one I had taken before. It was focused on peace building efforts as our interfaith group met with a host of organizations and individuals who are building bridges to peace, connecting Israelis and Palestinians. It was also my first trip into the Palestinian West Bank as our tour took us to Ramallah and Bethlehem. And then, after the formal tour had ended, I stayed in Israel an extra week to visit family and friends and do my own touring. As part of this time I had the privilege of spending a day with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights as he did field work in the West Bank.

This experience was life changing as I began to understand things in a new way. There is nothing that compared to bearing eyewitness, and the ability to both see on the ground peace efforts as well as the day to day lived experience of Palestinians was powerful to see first hand.

I’m reflecting on that trip again as today is Yom Ha’atzamut, Israel Independence Day.

On that trip we visited a Yad B’Yad (Hand in Hand) school in Jerusalem, a school that is for both Jewish and Arab children. Unlike other schools that are segregated, this school brings together students of different backgrounds to learn with and from each other. It was also firebombed a few months before we visited, a testament to the fear and hatred that comes from forward movement.

yad byad
From the Yad B’Yad school in Jerusalem

It is an enterprise not without its challenges, as was described by our guide. And one challenge comes around this time of year, when the Israeli national holidays are not observed in the same way by the Arab Palestinian population. For while some celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, others call it the Nakba—or “catastrophe.” The school administration is charged with holding both narratives at the same time, and honoring and understanding them both. A recent article talked about this.

And this must be our charge as well. As Jews living outside Israel, who have been brought up with a particular story and narrative as to the creation and continuation of the state of Israel and its place within world Jewry, we must be able to recognize that there are multiple narratives surrounding this day. That victory oftentimes creates victims, and that the story of Israel does not just involve one people, but multiple peoples.

And as we celebrate the achievement that is Israel itself and all that the country has attained, we as American Jews can not deny the fact that Israel currently is oppressing and controlling another population, and that this reckoning has practical and moral implications for the Jewish people and for the future of the State of Israel.

This is what I am wrestling with this Yom Ha’atzmaut. Two things that came across my desk recently, in addition to the article about the Yad B’Yad school, are giving me hope for forward movement.

One was about the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony held for the past 11 years by the Combatants for Peace Movement in cooperation with the Parents’ Circle – Bereaved Families Forum. This joint ceremony mourns all loss created by ongoing conflict. As an Israeli journalist wrote in the Forward about her experience:

…by taking the risk and attending this ceremony at last, I made a commitment: to remember and to hope, to feel the pain and to look to the future, to celebrate Independence Day while recalling the Nakba and trying to build a better society. To mourn the dead, but never to value them more than the living.

The other came out of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, where the Jewish student organization hosted a panel with representatives from across the political spectrum–including those shunned by “mainstream” Jewish community–to talk about Israel/Palestine. For our other challenge as American Jews is to be continually open to who is in our tent, and to listen to all the voices being expressed from among our ranks. Excluding voices present within Jewish community can come with risk, and I am not sure that it is one we want to take. Litmus tests can be dangerous things.

[And as an American liberal rabbi, I am also concerned when one’s Jewish identity is solely focused around Israel at the expense of the rich spiritual and textual tradition we have inherited.]

There is much to read and think about and discuss when it comes to Israel. I value the place as a Jewish cultural center, a repository for Jewish history, a crossroads of diverse Jewish community and a home to members of my family. (Facebook also reminded me that today is the birthday of Yohanna’s twin cousins). We must look to a time when we can truly create a nation that lives up to its expressed ideals in its Declaration of Independence:

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The title of this post is from the poet Yehuda Amichai, whose last collection of poems before his death was called Open Closed Open. Amichai is one of my favorite poets and I think about his work often. In honor of this day, I offer this selection from his work:

I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turnoff, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head: There, over there, not that there, the other there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.

Open Closed Open. If we are open, not closed, to one another, then we are open to a new future. We can point to what the right way is.

After Death, After Boston

This week’s Torah portion in our weekly cycle is Acharei Mot, which means “after death.” The death referred to is that of the sons of Aaron, priests like their father and nephews to Moses, who make a mistake in the sacrificial offerings and are incinerated by God in the process. The text describes Aaron silent in the face of this destruction and loss, and other priests swiftly moving in to clean up and tend to the dead. (The narrative of the death takes place a few chapters prior to this week’s portion.)

We feel the same way “acharei mot”–after death, after Boston. The news out of Boston this week was terrible, just terrible. The death of three, including a child, the loss of limbs by many, the sense of security and trust shattered hits deep at our core. We watch in silence as others move in to clean and investigate.

But we are all impacted by these events. On the one hand, it is because we turn inward and see our own vulnerabilities. We imagine the places we have been, exercising our right of freedom of assembly, only to have it disrupted by terror. With ArtsWalk looming on the Olympia horizon, I’m sure many of our thoughts turn to that spectacular event, and the risks associated now with gathering in such a public, and vulnerable, space.

On the other hand it is because we share a common bond with those thousands of miles away. Not all of us are runners, who find meaning in the achievement and solidarity in running a marathon and being with the community of runners. Not all of us have ties to Boston, or Massachusetts, who are oriented to the celebration of Patriots’ Day, a day set aside in that state to mark the battle of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution. But we are a part of the same greater (American) community, committed to the same values, inheritors of the same history, living under the same tent.

The same feeling is what connects us as Jews to what happens in the State of Israel. The bombings in Boston occurred during the “High Holidays” of civil Israeli society–Yom Hazikaron, memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, this year marking 65 years since the founding of the nation.

We all know that discussing Israel is sometimes difficult, that we in this community have differing opinions about Israel’s future direction. But we can not dispute one fact, that all of us do have different opinions and struggle how to talk about Israel at times because we have a connection to what happens there. That we, as Jews, are part of the worldwide Jewish community, and thus committed to the same values, inheritors of the same history and living under the same tent to Jews everywhere.

Which is why an attack in Boston is an attack on us. Which is why (to cite one example) a struggle to make the Western Wall in Jerusalem more open to egalitarian prayer is our struggle. We are a part of the greater whole. And moving beyond, we remember that we are connected to all humanity. There is no “over there.” There is only “over here.”

Earlier this week we found glimmers of hope in those who ran towards the scene as opposed to away from it (though we can all sympathize with the latter, can’t we?), in those who reached out to help others and carry them to safety, to the doctors who made difficult decisions, to the first responders who are always there in times of crisis.

Let us remember that hope.

The day of the Marathon, Patriots’ Day, is a day of hope–the hope that a struggle against a tyrannical power would result in a new reality based on values not power, based on individual rights and communal responsibility. Let us remember that hope.

Yom Ha’atzmaut is a day of hope–the hope that an oppressed people, traumatized by history, can find peace, recognition, an end to conflict and the realization of future potential. Let us remember that hope.

Let us remember the hope. Let us remember the hope and abide by it, so that the hope of the aftermath of the bombings, the hope of Patriots’ Day, the hope of Yom Ha’atzma’ut can continue to guide our lives and be extended to all.

The parasha that follows Acharei Mot is Kodashim (“holiness”). After death, after Boston, must come the renewed commitment to manifest holiness in our world.