Without the aid of satellites, microwaves or the U.S. Defence Department, our rabbis developed the earliest GPS (global positioning system).
Unsurprisingly, it was designed for a radically different kind of navigation than the one you might find in a rental car. Why? Our rabbis weren’t wrestling with spatial geography, other than the direction of Jerusalem. What our rabbis urgently needed to do was impress on the Jewish world a GPS for cultural, historical and ultimate navigation. A GPS that – rather then simply saying, “Approaching exit on the right” – calls out Jewish time and space.
The rabbis constructed time as the key to raising consciousness beyond the immediate. They transformed the simple calendar into an intricate device for a Jew to locate herself in time, space and head space. A date approaches this summer, for example, when Jews are to recall the destruction of the first and second temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE. It’s a challenge for most of us to remember what we were like as a younger person only 10, 20, or 60 years ago. For an entire people, the challenge is even more formidable.
Tisha b’Av dictates that every year, we must look unsparingly at our reflection in the days of yore of the Jewish nation and see that the destruction of the Second Temple was wrought by sinat chinam (senseless hatred) among Jews. Tisha b’Av demands of me – a liberal woman rabbi – that, for one day at least, I must examine my core beliefs by a yardstick beyond the radically modern values we live our lives by: egalitarianism, social justice, and pluralism.
I must ask myself where these values fit in the scheme of embracing Klal Yisrael, including all those who do not embrace me and those who denigrate the very essence of my beliefs. The prevention of another devastation caused by sinat chinam requires painful choices and comes with no guarantees. Nonetheless, having a day in a calendar that constantly calls us to account is the necessary discipline required for Jews not to lose their bearings.
In truth, we all have at least a fleeting sense of the ideas located within the calendar: repentance, thanksgiving, communal destruction and redemption. However, without setting aside the time, it’s hard to internalize such abstractions. We need time to reach into our hearts and minds to locate our unqualified honesty, humility and communal reflection. It requires a determination to transform simple ideas into the stuff of our souls. Jewish time, if you allow it, will do the work of moulding and forming consciousness.
The Jewish calendar – based in Torah and detailed by the rabbis – includes about 260 such purposeful days each year. From every Shabbat to Sfirat HaOmer to the Three Weeks to the Ten Days of Repentance and onward, Jews live in defined and defining time.
With all of that said, at this moment we are at an eerily quiet time in the calendar. We have long completed our seven weeks counting up to Shavuot, and we are weeks away from the count between the 17th day of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Our GPS is giving few directions or guidance.
Yet, it is in this emptiness that we can perhaps renew our ability to embrace the calendar. We can, at our pace and best suited to our needs, roam the Jewish world. We will not get lost or fall off the map. Rather, we may find that our Jewish journey becomes the destination. A few practical suggestions: go to urj.org/torah and subscribe to 10 Minutes of Torah, or explore myjewishlearing.com or www.hartmaninstitute.com.
Rabbi Landsberg is spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Toronto.