According to the biblical narrative, the first commandment given to the Children of Israel as they achieved their freedom from slavery was to observe and celebrate the new moon. We are told that “this will be a new moon for you,” and from this our commentators learn that controlling one’s time is the most important component of freedom.
While we are restricted to our homes, one thing that might be in abundance is time. Perhaps, despite the physical constraints on us, we have more freedom that at other times. Perhaps we have more time to notice the changes in nature around us. Certainly, we can look at the night sky through our windows and observe the changing moon.
Looking at the moon reminds us of many things: it gives us perspective on our place in a larger universe; it inspires awe and wonder as to what lies beyond the moon, out of our sight; it speaks to us about what is constant and what is transient, reminding us that what appears to have disappeared or been reduced to its lowest level can be resurrected and reach a new fullness.
Tomorrow night (Thursday) will be the new moon – for Jews it is Iyar, for Muslims, Ramadan.
For Jews, it is the period of the Omer, counting the days from Pesach to the Giving of the Law on Shavuot (Pentecost.) Every day, we are supposed to achieve a higher spiritual level. Jews who are counting the Omer can gain strength from knowing that this year millions of Muslims are undergoing a parallel process of spiritual growth at the same time. Indeed, it is an opportunity for a global effort.
Every year, Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, offers Muslims an opportunity for self-reflection. The days of Ramadan are spent in contemplation, with the aim of self-improvement. One denies the body physical pleasures in order to nourish the soul. The nights are for manifesting the lessons of the day in generosity and compassion to those around us.
This year has been different for all of us. Jews were forced to celebrate Pesach in various levels of isolation; Christians were denied their opportunity for communal observance of Easter; Sikhs and Hindus have had to find new ways to celebrate Vaisakhi. Ramadan, too, will not feel the same.
This year, we can all participate in the days of Ramadan. Most of us have the time to identify with and participate along with our Muslim neighbours. While we have fewer social and economic distractions and demands on our time, we can use our time wisely, for contemplation.
Of course, the opportunities afforded to us this year have within them the flip-side – the obstacles. All of us, regardless of our faith identity, will be temporarily deprived of the opportunity to fulfil the obligations of the night-time in an ideal way. Whereas Ramadan nights are usually a time for large family and community gatherings, this year, they will not feel so different from the daytime. Each nuclear family will have to celebrate alone.
However, directing our compassion and our generosity to our immediate family is not such a bad idea, so long as that is not where it stays indefinitely.
Muslim teachers have instructed me that that Ramadan is a process rather than an event or an experience. There are stages of reflection, revelation, transformation and restoration. The concept of “restoration” is about adjusting one’s relationship to the Divine and to society by demonstrating hospitality and love to one’s neighbour – in normal years, each night. That is what the Creator, (by whatever name we choose to use), intended for us when we were placed on this earth.
Of course, we see parallels in all the world’s great religions. Most religious calendars have dedicated time for self-reflection which is then manifested in doing good to others. However, the Muslim month of Ramadan is unique in the daily discipline it requires from adherents. It can be an inspiration for all of us. We can show solidarity with each other by committing ourselves to daily self-improvement and to reaching out to those whom we can help.
This year, for Muslims and those of us who choose to identify with the special quality of this month, whether or not Ramadan’s three first steps have been achieved will not occur nightly but will have to be tested in the future. Will we all emerge from this difficult month transformed? Will our relationships be restored? It is up to us and how we choose to use our time.
Ramadan Kareem to us all.