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Finding Sacred Time in the Midst of Chaos

08/06/2020 08:15:45 PM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

We are now in the first week of August. In normal times, we might be thinking about these final weeks of summer and anticipating the upcoming fall season. For many families, this time would usually mean shopping for the new school year. Some would be busy with the tasks of buying backpacks, crayons, and notebooks for our younger children, or laptops and iPads for older ones, or dorm room supplies for those beginning college. Many of us would be concluding our summer vacations and preparing to return to our yearly work schedules. But these are not normal times, and our typical August rituals no longer seem as pressing.

These past four months or so have been very disorienting. We haven’t been able to schedule our lives according to the normal time segments and separations of work and leisure. Our children are not in school or even in camp. Without safe travel, many of us have not taken our usual summer vacations. Even the spaces in which we live have blended together. Our homes now are often also our offices, our children’s classrooms, our movie theaters, bars, and restaurants. Time and space boundaries merge together.

This is certainly not the world in which we expected to live. We are used to ordering our lives around time. We divide the day into hours, and then we mark the 7 days of a week, the 4 weeks of a month, the 12 months of a year. At least that’s our normal pattern. This pandemic crisis has made time far more fluid and not so easily divided.

If, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, Jews sanctify time, how do we do so when time seems so unsettled? So much of Jewish ritual revolves around time. Our core observance is Shabbat, the completion of the six days of creation from Genesis. In creating our world from chaos, God separated and categorized. There was light and darkness, day and night, dry land and waters. And at the conclusion of the six days of creation, there was Shabbat. We are commanded to set aside the seventh day and make it unique, separate from all the other days of the week. It is holy time to be unlike the ordinary.

The lunar calendar then divides each month into four weeks. We have festivals to mark the major seasonal shifts of a world once more dependent on the cycles of planting and harvest. In addition to the cycles of holidays and festivals, our year is divided up into Torah reading portions. Each week is assigned a different chapter from the Torah and is named and defined by that portion. Traditionally, even each day is divided into distinct times of worship. These divisions of time help us make sense of the world around us, but since March, time has become confused. If we are not mindful, one day can simply blend into the next.

But there is an antidote available to us, especially as we enter this month and a half leading to Rosh Hashanah. We are beginning an entire six week period that is intended to guide us on a path through time leading us to the New Year. Rosh Hashanah is intended to be a time to renew the cycle of the year, but it is more than just a single day holiday. There is a process that leads us on a spiritual path to Rosh Hashanah. There is a road map of time that begins with Tisha B’Av and follows seven weeks between now and the New Year.

First, there are the weekly readings from the Prophets that reflect this time of consolation. In two weeks, on August 21st, the final month of the year, Elul, begins, and the four weeks of that month are also seen as a special time. Throughout the month of Elul, the shofar is sounded in order to prepare us for the High Holy Days. Special prayers are recited as well. On Saturday night, September 12th, another special moment is marked for Slichot, prayers of forgiveness. After all that preparation, Rosh Hashanah begins on Friday evening, September 18th.

There are many moments available to us to mark sacred time. When we fear that the world around us seems out of our control and that we can barely separate day from night, let us discover how these sacred times can help prepare us for the task of creating a New Year of sweetness, well-being, and peace.

Sat, June 3 2023 14 Sivan 5783