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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Time to Create Time.....or not

The following is not a commentary on the Torah or other Biblical text.  Rather, it consists of my musings about the nature of time and its role in our lives.
This past weekend we celebrated the festival of Purim.  Purim celebrates the victory of the Jews over their Persian enemy Haman, viceroy to King Achashverosh.  The story is told in the biblical Book of Esther, because the Jewish Queen Esther is the heroine of the story.

Purim usually occurs in March.  But these year, for the first time I can remember (though my memory is not what it once was) it fell on the evening of the 23rd of February.  This is indeed quite early!  As a matter of fact, all of the holidays for the remainder of 5773 on the Jewish calendar (the end of August) through Hanukkah of 5774 will be “very early” this year. As a matter of fact, for the first time in history (and the last time until about 400 years from now) the first day of Hanukkah will actually fall on Thanksgiving Day!!!! (this fact actually deserves the hyperbole of multiple exclamation points!!!)

The calculations of the lunar/solar Jewish calendar are complicated. But the reason the dates of the holidays on the Gregorian (English) calendar change each year is actually simple to explain. The Jewish months are based on the lunar cycle, each month beginning with the new moon and lasting 28 or 29 days. However, lunar months are shorter than solar months of the Gregorian (secular) calendar, and so one lunar year is approximately 11 days shorter than one solar year. Therefore, without  adjustment the holidays would continue to fall earlier and earlier each year. Eventually, Passover/Pesakh would migrate to the fall, Rosh Hashanah to the spring, and Hanukkah to the summer. This is similar to what happens to Ramadan in the Muslim calendar, which is strictly lunar. However, since the three Pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim) of Passover/Pesakh, Sukkot and Shavuot are directly tied to specific seasons and their harvests, this cannot happen.

This is why the ancient rabbis, in their infinite wisdom, created a leap year in which we add an extra month to the calendar. In a leap year you will find two months of Adar, Adar Aleph (1) and Adar Bet (2). As Purim falls in Adar, next year it will be celebrated in Adar Bet, as it is in every leap year. That mean, guessed year Purim will fall about as late as it can! So too with the remainder of the holidays for the coming year. Then the holidays will once again fall earlier and earlier each year until another leap year occurs and they get pushed back again. The calculations for when a leap year falls are complicated, but within a 19 year cycle there will always be 7 leap years.

However, though it may seem to us that the holidays are falling early or late, they always fall exactly when they are meant to. Purim is on the 14th of Adar, Rosh Hashanah is the first of Tishri and Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev. However, because we follow two calendars there is the illusion that they are falling early or late.

More than 80 years ago Mordechai Kaplan, z”l (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing), the founder of Reconstructionism, wrote that we live in two civilizations; our task is to somehow firmly plant our feet and find balance in both. But today we live in more than two civilizations. It seems that we are always trying to balance our relationships to the different worlds in which we orbit. We do this, in part, by trying to manage time with our calendars, smart phones and daily planners. And yet, no matter what we do or how much we try, time goes on as it was meant to. Well, just as we humans designed it to.

For the concept of time is a construct created by the human mind. The earth was spinning on its axis, the earth was orbiting the sun and the moon was orbiting the earth, just as it is today, long before the first clock or calendar was created. But we humans have long felt a need to understand and control our world. And the creation of time is part of this. The ancients felt the need to divide the days and years into neatly organized equal units. And so they created the 60 second minute, 60 minute hour, 24 hour day and 365 day year. And yet, we know things are not quite that neatly divided. It takes 365.26 days for the earth to orbit the sun. Therefore, we add a day to the calendar every four years to make up the difference. But even then we are behind .01 days! And a day is not really neatly divided into 24 equal parts. And so, in a way, we are perpetually “running behind.” Even though these may seem like minutia, these facts remind us that no matter how much we try to control or manage time we simply can't. It resists our efforts and thwarts us at every turn, even though we believe we can control it because we created it.

The attempt to control time is the cause of so much suffering in our lives. For we can never win. The days pass by, lives begin and end, and we can't do a thing about it. Millenia ago, the author of the biblical book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes wrote “there is a a time for every purpose under heaven....a time to be born, a time to die...a time to mourn and a time to dance...” But we cannot determine the time for each purpose ahead of time. We don't know if the next moment will be a time to rejoice or a time to mourn, a time to live or a time to die. Perhaps that is why Kohelet also believe that all was vanity or futility. Yet I see this in a more positive light as a call to us to be fully present and rejoice in each moment. Perhaps this is the lesson we can learn from the confusing intricacies of the Jewish calendar. That nothing comes early or late. Everything happens in its time. And that is as it should be.

William Shakespeare knew this when he wrote Macbeth's words (uttered following the death of Lady Macbeth) “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day today....and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.” He realized that the attempt to control life and time was a foolish endeavor. However, the ending of his soliloquy   “it (life) is a told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is what we must try to avoid. Even when we face death, pain or tragedy we must try our best to create meaning in our lives. The best way to do this is by living in the present, allowing each moment to unfold, taking it as it comes, and trying our best to rejoice when we can, and mourn when we must, and then move on to the next moment. Doing this, we can create a life, moment by moment, that is still will have its ups and downs, but which ultimately will be the opposite of the pessimistic views of Macbeth and Kohelet. For we can create a life, full of joy and meaning.  We can live a life which reminds us that we are created in God's image, and that we can can make a difference and bring healing to the world, even though ultimately we cannot control the world or control time.

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