We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
This is almost too good to be true: the beginning of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar this year coincided with opening day for Major League Baseball.
Usually around this time of year I show you this T-shirt based on an observation by Rabbi Morris Allen at my parents’ shul about the absolute parallels between the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar.
In all other years, pitchers and catchers report to training camps around Tu Bishevat, and spring training games begin around Purim. Which is for us the start of a warmup period too, with planning and preparation for Pesach, which generally coincides with baseball’s Opening Day!
On the T-shirt this part of a typical year is what here is called the “dog days of summer”, and it lines up with Tisha B’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the Batei Mikdash (the two Temples). In baseball this kicks off a hot and hard period of time leading to the pennant races for spots in the playoffs and the World Series. The climactic moments of the season in September and October coincide with the month of Tishrei and the High Holy Days. (Well, they did before the expanded playoffs!)
This year, time and the seasons have been disrupted, and summer isn’t what summer usually is for many of us. Even baseball has this compressed season -- the whole cycle from Opening Day through the champshiop will take place in three months from now to the end of October. And for us, our season of teshuvah, of reflection and renewal, begins now with the week of Tisha B’Av and this Shabbat called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision.
This week and this Shabbat kick off two months of reflection that lead toward the big games, so to speak, the High Holy Days, when we judge how the past year went and think about our destiny in the new year. We think about being in exile and coming home. We spend a month, well into October, with the holy days through Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Like in baseball, there’s a lot this year packed into three months. But baseball’s new Opening Day, just invented out of whole cloth, can remind us that time in a ritual sense is something we construct as communities, to help us do what would otherwise seem infinite and overwhelming. Without the calendar rhythms and rituals, it would be harder to stop and take note of our blessings. Without them we couldn’t step out of everything that’s driving us, to tell stories of our past, stories of challenges and resilience, stories of difficulty and hope.
Without the calendar in particular, we could easily be overwhelmed by the demands of staying alive and getting by, in a world that is enormous and throws so much at us.
My teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joe Lukinsky, taught us what calendars and rituals do for human communities. They are how we fight for some order out of chaos, and how we build actual power to push some of the chaos away. Think about how many of our rituals take place at the moments when darkness begins. Our candles on Friday night and Saturday night, when we fight off the darkness where danger might lurk -- we refuse to retreat, we insist on saying I am standing, we are standing. In Jewish ritual, we choose those night times for our most messianic dreams -- when we step into Shabbat, the Taste of the World to come; when we step out of Shabbat in the first darkness of the week and summon Eliyahu, the prophet who tells us when redemption will arrive for the whole world.
Think about how many of our rituals are sitting in circles, or nowadays rectangular circles around tables, singing -- creating strength, covalent bonds between us, a binding chemistry that draws out the power in each other that is more than the sum of all our parts.
Our genius as human beings is ritual and calendar. These allow us to pull blessing and strength and resilience and connection out of the chaos that could be the world. otherwise Rituals are supposed to help us face what we are afraid of and make it safer to be afraid and handle fears, together with each other, together with the wisdom of our ancestors. Rituals let us tell stories not just about the past but about the future, the crazy audacious stories of a world so much more perfect thatn our own.
Rituals aren’t life, and they aren’t the only thing religion is supposed to be. They are where we find the energy pods, the wisdom pods, and the connecting bonds that we need to go out and live. Rituals and holy days are not for themselves -- they are for life,as a whole and we need them so we can live in this challenging time.
This year, we especially need those rituals. We will use them and wring us much as we can out of them in this particular season of this particular year. We need to consciously bring more of the rituals and more of the calendar rhythm, from this Opening Day of the beginning of Av all through the whole holy day season, Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. We need to use all of it, because there is so much chaos and so much overwhelm in our worlds. As individuals, as households, as parents and schoolchildren, as citizens.
I want to help us this year make use of all the time of these three months coming, especially starting with Elul at the next new moon. And I want to help us make use of rituals that we sometimes just do superficially.
The four weeks of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah should include four deliberate check-ins. Maybe you’ll set aside four times for yourself to sit and reflect. Or meet four times with a group of people online or in a yard, twice to look back and twice to talk about hopes for the new year. Or maybe you commit to just getting to know a group better within the congregation, or learning something that might be valuable for your new year from a Jewish source.
We will have the sweet apples and honey, so we can think about what is still sweet in our lives, what is fruitful, what has been generative this year that we forgot to notice. We can look at the seeds and think of what we planted, or who planted something inside us that has grown beautiful and nourishing to others. We can think about what might grow and what will be sweet even in this unique new year.
We have the shofar, blown every day of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We will think about the shevarim blasts, the brokenness of our world and the things that broke apart for us in our lives, and how we want to see them put together again. We will think about the t’ruah blasts, the scattered details of our lives as we have learned how to do each little thing again in a new way. We will think about the t’kiah gedolah, the clear calls we still believe in and still want to hear, the ways we are whole, the summons to where we want to be going.
We will have lakes and streams and oceans we can stand by, where we can toss away the things we badly want gone from our old year.
We will have the sukkah, the simple structure that challenges us to think about what protection is, what we really need in our material lives. By the time of Sukkot, we can hopefully think of ourselves as active builders of the new year.
All of these times and rituals will help us think about uncertainty and fears, and give us time to reflect and redirect -- and help us find the powers we still have, the wisdom we still have, the power and wisdom we can share with each other, all that power over the chaos of 2020 and 5780. Our rituals and our calendar will not be another demand added to an overwhelming list. They will make our lives easier, and help us turn our cries into songs.
We will have this new season through these months, from the new Opening Day we declare this week to the World Series of our holy days. One way or another -- together, online -- we will stand in circles as the sky becomes purple, and light our candles, and sing together, so we can live well in a new year.
A short (three minute) podcast about celebrating Simchat Torah, with one small traditional melody that you can learn.
Also on the melodies page are some links to songs of the Hallel service, which we will do on both mornings this weekend, courtesy of the web page for Cantor Ken Richmond of Temple Israel in Natick, Mass.