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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Calendars and commitment

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For his video installation The Clock, Christian Marclay assembled 10,000 film clips to create a 24-hour loop of cinematic references to the passage of time. Each clip is in sync with real time, so when the time is 3 p.m., we see a wake in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Robert De Niro upending a table in Raging Bull. The exhibit functions as a 24-hour clock, but it shatters the idea that time is whole and linear. The clips are discontinuous and the calendar is irrelevant. Each moment is as good as any other.

Even though we are often encouraged to “live in the moment,” we seek more than the particulars of our days. Oliver Sacks writes: “To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, to transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, a sense of the future. And we need freedom… to get beyond ourselves… to rise above our immediate surroundings.”

We Jews are not only the people of the Book, we are the people of time. We connect to the Infinite by doing the finite. On Rosh Hashanah, we want to know how to live in the day-to-day, the timely, temporal present, while we link ourselves to the Eternal and the timeless. Our tradition uses temporal signposts to create the religious, cultural and social system of Judaism. We pause at stations of time. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat and Sukkot, become days of celebration and moments of memory.

Just as we seek more than moments on the daily clock or in our individual lives, we are aware of issues that extend beyond our private lives. Our community and the world face raging conflicts in Syria and Egypt, as well as the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb. We seek to support and encourage meaningful spiritual and social encounters for an iPhone generation, and the need to create jobs for our young people in a still-struggling economy. We are concerned about religious pluralism in Israel and the growing conflation of anti-Israel activity with anti-Semitism outside the Jewish state. We have to articulate the importance of living a committed Jewish life and find ways to meet the financial sacrifices needed to maintain our spiritual and cultural heritage. We face the challenge of keeping each generation engaged with Israel, committed to tzedakah and seeing value in synagogue life, while also stepping forward to address global issues of environment, poverty and basic health care. As we look toward the New Year, we think about these contemporary and ongoing concerns.

Paradoxically, the calendar is how we situate ourselves in the world and how we transcend the day-to-day. On a basic level, we all know that Rosh Hashanah is “early” this year. We are not referring to the first day of Tishrei. We are commenting on the relationship of Rosh Hashanah to the seasonal cycle and to the secular calendar that dominates our lives.

In her fine book, Palaces of Time, historian Elisheva Carlebach points to “the central paradox of Jewish existence”– the delicate balancing act between maintaining our separate culture and integrating into the majority culture.

Carlebach explains: “There were many things that made Jews in pre-modern times seem different to their neighbours: they sometimes spoke a different language, dressed differently or were forced to wear identifying badges. Every one of those signs of difference could be erased or absent without touching a person’s inherent Jewishness. But the calendar Jews followed – their different day of rest, business as usual on Christian holidays – this was something of an indelible marker of difference… The Jewish calendar in the Christian world includes the Christian calendar, and the Jewish calendar in the Muslim world includes the Muslim calendar – but not vice versa.”

The Jewish calendar frames our spiritual and cultural identity. When we enter our Jewish dates into our planners, we create a place for ourselves in the larger society. In the Diaspora, sacred seasons and holy times depend on shul and home, school and camp. They are where we feel the pulse of Jewish life. To promote creative Jewish life and to fortify ourselves to face our many challenges, we must protect and privilege the Jewish calendar.

There was a time when stopping for Jewish festivals was problematic for school or work. It is now much more acceptable to maintain Shabbat or yom tov, but our own commitment level has decreased. Synagogue time is a way to strengthen our core, to support our spiritual aspirations. As Jews in Canada, we are challenged to retain a Jewish sense of time so that we can maintain our identities and advance our communal ideals. We should use the calendar, a deceptively simple instrument, ubiquitous on our walls and our computers, to reinforce our awareness of our past and to energize our commitment to a Jewish future.

We have been given the gift of time for a new year. May we use the calendar for good and may the year bring blessings to each of us. Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl

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