Imagine that we take a broad and representative cross-section of Jews, with every imaginable kind of relationship to Judaism.
Imagine that we ask them: Where were you, and who were you with, at Passover Seder last year? And the year before that? And so on.
Ask yourself the same thing. At any of those Seders that you may remember, how were you doing inside yourself? Was there something in particular bringing you joy or sadness, ease or suffering, in that moment? Where were you then in your life journey, as you currently understand it?
Doing the same thing each year at the same point in our calendar gives us this gift: the ability to see the arc of our lives unfolding. This gift is greatly magnified if we are blessed, that not only do we do the same things, but we find joy, connection and meaning in them. Then we are experiencing that nearly forgotten sacred art: the pilgrimage.
Our sages teach that when our ancestors came on their pilgrimages to the Temple at Passover and the other harvest festivals, they came “to see and to be seen.” A pilgrimage is a revelation to ourselves of who we have become and where we’re headed. It’s a much needed check-in.
For those of us privileged to already live in tune with our calendar, we may live with this gift as a regular part of our lives. Where was I last Shabbat, and where will I be next Shabbat? Very likely the same places, doing very similar things. Like a musician practicing my instrument every day, that is how I can appreciate and measure my progress. No two Shabbats, and no two practices, are ever the same. The differences are the exquisitely rich ground of human growth, if we permit ourselves to notice them.
Even more regularly, the daily rotation of our planet offers us the same opportunity for insight and awakening. The three prayer services which are recited with every sunrise, sunset and evening remain mostly the same throughout the year. The words change very little. But is any one of them like another? Only to the extent that we have become distracted and looked away from seeing what is actually happening. If we pay attention, repetition illuminates the uniqueness of each moment.
The calendar our ancestors created, and we inherited, evolved over millennia and is still evolving. It was based primarily upon natural cycles: the rotations of the ground beneath us; the orbits of heavenly bodies and the resultant shifts in climate and agriculture. But here is the source of its infinite dynamism and wisdom: the calendar also incorporates within itself the soul-stories of how each generation experiences these cycles and shifts. We get to write ourselves into it.
At springtime, we relive how our ancestors left the constriction and suffering of ancient Egypt, thereby offering us an opportunity to do the same each and every year, whatever our Egypt may be. During the darkest nights of midwinter, we relive and reclaim the story of the Maccabees, who had the courage to bring increasing light and diversity to an oppressively homogenous world.
And so on throughout the year. As one would expect in any decent map through the rich ground of human experience, our calendar affords us times to explore our relationship with joy and sadness, love and anger, healing and grieving. When we sensitize ourselves sufficiently to the world around us, we come to see that each of these arises at a certain point in the natural cycles of life we are surrounded by.
When the time for each of these comes around, we are invited to pay attention to this aspect of ourselves and its relationship to the world around us. We are learning about how deeply connected we are to our surroundings, and we are weaving ourselves into the calendar’s chain of wisdom. We are adding our own stories to those we are receiving, and gifting them to those who will follow us.
Our calendar also offers distinct times for exploring key human faculties and senses: our thoughts; our actions; our speech and the stories we tell; our relationship with food and drink; sleep; seeing; hearing and listening; tasting. For each of these times we have inherited abundant wisdom for growth and healing, based on how those who came before us experienced each point in the year’s cycle.
Living through this cycle once is a blessing. But to do it over and over again – that is a privilege. May we learn the value of repetition, and the deep growth it can bring us.
This is a subject very dear to my heart which I have been researching, teaching and practicing for many years. If you would like to explore the sacred cycles of our calendar, please check out this free online class on Kabbalah and the Hidden Light of Chanukah, or simply be in touch.