Parashat Emor: Proclaim God’s Time or Time is more than a packages of moments; it encodes our history, our identity, our meaning, our purpose

Right at the beginning of the bible comes the need to distinguish time. God divides the phases of creation into days and nights and sets up structures in the universe to define the time that already exists, making the sun, moon and stars. Then God models for us the structure of six days of work followed by a seventh day of rest.

Jewish time is further developed in the rest of the bible. In the book of Exodus in Parashat Bo we find the very first commandment in Torah that is addressed to the entire Jewish people and we find that it is about Time. “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim rishon . . . , “This month shall be to you the first of the months . . . “(Exodus 12:2).

Tradition reads this as an instruction to organise a calendar. And this week, in Parashat Emor, we are given the monthly and daily specifics of what goes on it. Mo-adei Adonai Asher Tikr’u otam . . . , “These are God’s set times which you shall proclaim . . . “(Leviticus 23:2).

Jewish time is the ebb and flow of working week and restful shabbat; it is structured around the major festivals which bound the year – so that until recently most Jews would remember a birthdate or a yahrzeit as being in relation to the nearest festival.

Our calendar is a way of making sure that life is not simply the flow of one homogenous day after another.  It is a way of structuring and therefore being able to use and understand, time.

But it’s not just a matter of giving dates for our holy days in order for us to remember and mark them. Our calendar is more complex and more nuanced than that.

First of all, the days of the year must be indexed to the seasons, otherwise even the tiniest annual discrepancy would, over the decades and centuries, mean that we would be celebrating the Spring festival of Pesach in the winter, and the Autumn festival of Sukkot in the spring. So we have to intervene in how we describe time in order to allow it to work in the right and proper place.

Our sages quickly worked out that neither the solar nor the lunar calendar on their own will solve our problem.  Counting full days does not bring the earth back to precisely the same place in its solar orbit. The solar year – the time it takes the sun to pass from vernal (or spring) equinox to vernal equinox is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, so there is about a six-hour  or quarter-day margin of error each year. If we did not compensate for this we would create a margin of error of about 24 days after only 100 years.

So in the Gregorian calendar we add a “leap year” with one more day every four years to bring us back to ‘true’.

The lunar calendar, while having the great visual advantage that the eve of the fourteenth day of every lunar month has a full moon (Pesach, Sukkot, Purim, Tu B’Shevat), still brings the difficulty of being one whole lunar month short every two or three years as it is about eleven days shorter than the solar month. We solve this by adding an Adar Sheini, a second month of Adar nine times every seventeen years.

The creation and structuring of time in order to use it is one of the things that makes us human, and how we do it in our particular tradition is one of the things that makes us who we are as Jews. By our working alongside the natural world of day and night, of solar year and lunar cycle and by adding something of our own so as to keep our festivals in their seasons, we are working alongside of God to co-create both our environment and our expression of our history and spirituality. And it is the list of festivals in parashat Emor which gives us the permission and the expectation to do this.  Having been able to create our time and associate our festivals not just with dates, not simply with seasons, but also with a quasi historical meaning, we Jews, so long uprooted from our land and from the agricultural tradition, have learned to build and to buttress our identity and our history through the use of time. Pesach has become the time of redemption from slavery, Shavuot the time of connection with God through Torah, Sukkot gives meaning through our recognition of our mortality and fragility, as well as acknowledging God’s real and practical gifts to us.  Time is more than a series of events of packages of moments; it encodes our history, our identity, our meaning, our purpose.

However secular or distanced from tradition we may be, we still sense the flow of sacred time alongside our awareness of our routine diaries and the calendars of secular events. Spring time still brings thoughts of Pesach, the Autumn heralds the solemn festivals of new year and Yom Kippur. And Jews who rarely feel the need for community or ritual will contact a local community to find out about seder, or a ticket to the high holy days. We still sense the sacredness of time, but how do we express its holiness apart from a tug into community a few times a year? The psalms tell us the messianic age could arrive tomorrow, if only we would listen. Today’s sidra is called “Emor” – the imperative to speak. Yet if we focus only on speaking we would quickly dislocate ourselves in our dialogue, for just as time is lunar AND solar, so is communication about speaking AND listening.  What we listen to, what we hear bible telling us again and again, is the requirement to be holy because God is holy. And how do we do that? Clearly in part it is a focus on what we do, how we act in the world, but Emor tells us also that becoming holy has something to do with how we ‘make time’ for the important things in life, with we use our time on this earth.

Rabbi Jon Adland (US Reform Rabbi) put it like this: “Time is all we’ve got in our lives, and how we use this precious inheritance will determine the mark we leave on this world. Holy days and holidays are not only about acknowledging God, but also about affirming community and remembering that which came before. The rest of time, the majority of moments outside of the holy days, are left for us to structure. In many ways, every day that isn’t a Jewish holiday is chol hamo-eid, an “intermediate day” in a year-long calendar. Just because a day is not a holy day on the calendar doesn’t mean it can’t be made holy through our actions.”

So we need to be asking ourselves each day: “What should we be doing to sanctify our time?”  “In what way should we be speaking out? In what way should we be listening?”

Our religious practise has moved on since the days that we brought offerings to God at set times to the Temple. Now we have to ask how we use our time in a way that honours God and our tradition. Be it fighting for social justice or bringing compassion to individuals in distress; be it offering gifts of food or money or opportunity to those in need or our living with low impact on the environment; be it political activism or small acts of kindness – there are a myriad ways we can use our time in this world. The important thing is that we use our time well, and create holiness in our world.

 

Sermon 2018

Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.