To get us into a little bit of word of Torah, I want to start with two brief stories, two small vignettes, as I’ve been learning about how seasons work here in the Berkshires. They were two brief conversations that I had with people who I’ve met here, one who’s in our congregation and the other who’s not.
The first story took place this winter: For many of you who’ve now got to know me, you know that if you want to find me early in the morning, you’ll find me usually at the gym. I was finishing out my workout for the day and was chatting with this one person who was there at the same time as me, just making small talk. It was the dead of winter, and trying to lift ourselves out of the doldrums and find a little camaraderie. It was before sunrise, it was dark and it was damp, it wasn’t that cold out, but it wasn’t that bad, all right, but it was still winter. I said, “What are you doing with the rest of your day?”
I should tell you that this individual happens to own a popular restaurant here in the area. I thought he was going to talk about going over to the restaurant and starting to prepare the meals for the day, but he said, “No, I’m taking the day off. I’m going to go shear my sheep.”
My brain wasn’t working yet. I am very much a city boy, I realized in that moment. I didn’t know what to say in response. I said, “You have sheep?”
And with no sense of irony, he looked at me and he said, “Of course!”
I said, “You do the shearing yourself?”
He said, “Well, I have a guy who helps me out and then my wife goes and does the things we need to do so that later on, in a few weeks, she’ll go and sit down and spin it into yarn. Then, she has yarn to knit with for the next year.”
The thought that ran through my head was, “Only in the Berkshires.”
Fast forward to this week, the other story: I was speaking with a colleague in our area who has another congregation not far from here. He and I have been trying to meet for some time now, and so I emailed him and said, “It’d be great to finally put a name with the face or a face with the name, so let’s grab breakfast together someday.”
He emails me back and says, “That’s great! I would love to. Would you mind coming over to our house?”
I said, “Not a problem, but is there a particular reason why?”
He said, “My wife and I live on our own homestead, and we only in the summertime eat what we can grow, and it’s planting season so I’m really busy right now balancing both the congregation and my homestead. It would just be a little bit more convenient if you could come over.”
Again, the thought that ran through my head was, “Only in the Berkshires.”
There is something about this community, I’m quickly learning, that we are connected to our land and to our season that I actually find quite refreshing, in a way, I think, many people are trying to get back to. Phrases like the DIY generation or the maker movement tell of an interest in creating and get back to our roots, to plug into the seasonality of time, to plug back into the land.
In fact, I know that for some of us that might not consider ourselves all that outdoorsy, we still are connected to the seasons. After all, what are we doing tonight if not welcoming back many who have been away for the winter? What do we call individuals who have spent time away from New England or the North East?
We use the phrase snowbirds to describe individuals who make their way down to the South. That is a metaphor we embrace, the metaphor of nature to describe our own patterns of how we live from season to season.
If we take a look at this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we get into the depth of what it means to be attuned to the seasons of our lives. If you look at chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus found in this week’s Torah portion, you’ll find there the telling of our biblical calendar. There you’ll find the description of when Pesach and Chag HaMatzot, two separate holidays in the Bible by the way, come together in our own practice, you’ll find descriptions of how those are to be celebrated. You’ll find the story of the Omer and how it’s to be celebrated, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shabbat. This week’s Torah portion is about seasonal, sacred time management.
At the beginning of the parasha we read, “Speak these words to the Israelite people and say to them, ‘These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the eternal God which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.'” How is it that not every moment is a sacred occasion? In the Jewish tradition, we distinguish between the chol and the kodesh, between that which is regular time, Sunday through Friday, into Shabbat, into kodesh, into that which is holy, into our sacred time.
It really is about time management. So much so, that the text has to outline for us what the sacred time actually is.
Those words–time management–for some might feel dirty. We’d rather avoid them. One might not like thinking about how we manage his time because it brings up those thoughts of what has to get done, of pressures, of meetings, of the stressors of our businesses, of the busyness that one has during the chol, during that regular week gone by. But I want to argue that we actually think about time management in the wrong direction. Time management and how we fill our time, how we spend our time–it’s not about having the busiest calendar possible. It’s not about showing that from moment to moment of every day, we were busy and that that was a successful life. Rather, successful time management is about organizing one’s calendar, about getting it organized so that we can be fully present, so that we can actually stand in those sacred moments with purpose.
Reading through the descriptions of these holidays, we find that the priestly authors of the Book of Leviticus were not concerned with how we organized our time for business. Rather, they were concerned with when we showed up for the celebration, when we were fully present in those sacred moments. It was about being there for our spiritual selves, not about the busyness of the day. Biblical time management teaches us to pay attention to our spiritual selves.
Consider the instructions that we read as part of our parasha on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, found in this week’s Torah portion. “Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall observe a complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with the loud blasts of the shofar. You shall not work at your occupations, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the eternal God.” When we gather for the sacred task of celebrating Rosh Hashanah, we are to hold back from that regular work that we do. When Rosh Hashanah falls, it’s about how we manage our spiritual time.
Consider, again, the month of Elul helps us prepare for Rosh Hashanah, that cheshbon ha-nefesh work that we are called to do, that soul accounting that has to happen before we can ever walk into that sacred time of the New Year.
The text in this week’s Torah portion goes even farther with describing Yom Kippur. A few verses after the one that I just read, we find the phrase, “Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout the day shall be cut off from his kin, and whoever does any work on Yom Kippur, I will cause that person to perish from among his people. Do not work whatever. It is a law for all time throughout the ages in all of your settlements.” That’s pretty severe, the idea that work, that melachah, that labor, is that thing that we are forbidden from doing on Yom Kippur or Shabbat, our most sacred of days. Later on, equally severe in the Book of Leviticus, we’ll read, “The one who does not observe Shabbat shall surely die.”
Here we are, holding these two very difficult verses together. Very severe punishments for what seem like minor transgressions. How often do we ask of our more observant friends, “Well if you really drive on Shabbat, do you really think that lightning bolt is going to come out of the sky?” We all are pretty comfortable rejecting that narrative, rejecting that theology.
So a different interpretation: One who does not observe Shabbat shall surely die. Read: we can’t survive without rest. How can we survive without attending to our spiritual selves? Living our lives to the fullest means attending to our own sacred time management, not letting it run out of control, so that when those sacred times, those appointed seasons, do arrive, we know how to actually be present. We don’t end up ourselves burnt out and exhausted. We have to tune into the sacred rhythms of our seasons.
When I think back to those two strange conversations I had recently with those different friends, I think of the reconnection to the land. I think of how so many of us right now are spending our days, our afternoons, our weekend hours, planting gardens, working on vegetables that will be coming up soon, hopefully, to setting up time to be both here in the Berkshires to letting go of excellent months in Florida or wherever life took us, that during this season change from spring into summer, we have the opportunity to retune ourselves into nature’s flow.
The message of this week’s Torah portion is that the holidays that we celebrate should help us to reorient to the things that are most important in our lives: to our friends and our family who we get to sit around the table with. Think of Passover and the meaning that so many of us take from that. It’s who’s at the table that really matters. Our sacred calendar enables us to tune-in to that which is really the most important elements in our lives.
Last evening, Liz and I went for a drive around sunset. As we saw, right at sunset, the sunlight light up like electric green, the brand new leaves on the trees and the forests that we were driving past, both of us audibly went, “Ooh! Aah!” It was just natural. Our community is in a very special destination that people seek out to connect themselves back the land, back to the season that we find ourselves in. Also, I would then extend, to something greater, that those natural wonders point to something sacred. The natural flow of the seasons and the way our tradition marks that time through the celebration of key holidays, that’s a reminder for us to pay attention to our spiritual time management.
May each of us cultivate our awareness to the beautiful flows of our seasons, and by doing so, may each of us tune into that which is most important in our lives, our connections to one another, our connections to those significant sanctuaries whether they be indoors or out, and our connection to those sacred appointed times. Amen.