When I think about the elements that shape and create the contours of a community, of a group of people who feel connected to each other no matter where they may be, one of the critical elements is a shared sense of sacred time.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we encounter another layer of how Jewish times works. Jewish time is actually comprised of four distinct layers, each of which communicate core values and ideas to the Jewish people.
The first layer is the Shabbat cycle. One day out of every seven, we imitate God by refraining from creative labor, and express gratitude for the world as it is. This layer is not tied to the solar cycle or lunar cycle, or any other cycle for that matter. It is an arbitrarily set pattern, gong back to the beginning of time (not literally, but mythically yes) that continually reminds us that there is a Creator of the Universe, who has created a world that is essentially good, and that we play a vital role in maintaining and stewarding.
The second layer of time we encounter for the first time in Parshat Bo, which is the annual calendar. This new way of marking months and years is tied directly to the experience of the Exodus, its preparations, the final night in Egypt, and the days and weeks that follow. The months do not have names; they are devoid of any connection to anything other than the Exodus itself. They are markedly monotheistic, whereas months of other cultures bear names that connect to a pagan pantheon of gods. (This is not unlike the names of the days of the week, which are all related to Greek, Roman, an Nordic god names. The Jewish weekdays are all numbered, except for Shabbat.) It is upon this lunar-solar hybrid calendar that the Jewish festival cycle is built. This layer of Jewish time creates an endlessly repeating series of opportunities to encounter our most sacred stories: Creation of the Universe, the Exodus from Egypt, Receiving Torah at Sinai, Exile from the Land and Return to it. This cycle also ties us to the Land of Israel and its agricultural cycle, which keeps us connected to it, no matter where we are.
The third layer of Jewish time is our weekly Torah reading cycle, which is actually a combination of the Torah reading cycles from the communities of Babylon and the communities of Eretz Yisrael. Each week, you know that in every Jewish community around the world, all eyes are on Parshat Bo (whether it is all, one third of it or a selection thereof), and those who are engaged with it are considering how it informs and impacts their lives today. The Torah reading cycle creates, in a very real sense, the world’s largest Book Group, and which gathers to discuss the reading on a weekly basis.
The fourth layer of Jewish time is the Jewish life cycle. Beginning with birth and taking each of us through every milestone of life up to that final moment of our lives, every turning point in life is not only framed by the context of our individuals lives, but by the meaning of that moment for the entire Jewish people. A Bat Mitzvah celebration is a communal event, not only a private one. A shiva is not a solitary experience, but one meant to be shared with the entire community. A wedding is both taking us back to the Garden of Eden, with the possibility of a new world being created, and to the future, where the city of Jerusalem rejoices as love of celebrated again in her streets.
Being tuned in to these four layers of Jewish time, all of which interact with each other at each moment, is a critical piece of Jewish consciousness and identity. For example, tonight begins Shabbat (Layer 1), and this is Parshat Bo (Layer 2), where we encounter the build up towards the moment of the Exodus. We are coming up to Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees in the land of Israel and Purim, a topsy-turvy festival that speaks about how life is experienced in the Jewish diaspora (Layer 3). And this weekend, one family is feeling the loss of a mother and grandmother, another is celebrating at a family Bar Mitzvah, couples are getting to know their newborns or anticipating the birth of a baby, and some are going to celebrate their first Shabbat as part of the Jewish people (Layer 4).
May the rich tapestry of Jewish time be a continual source of connection, inspiration and consolation for us this day and every day.