Our lives are driven by calendars and clocks. We noticed this especially during the height of Covid, when so much was cancelled, and we would wake up and wonder what day is it. And then consider if it mattered. Often the answer was no, it didn’t matter one bit.
We’re returning to a more normal reality, although I doubt if our lives will ever be the same as before. But we’ve begun once again to notice the time, check the date, open our calendars to make sure we haven’t missed anything.
Both ways of being have their benefits – there’s something remarkably freeing about not worrying about what time it is, and instead watching the sun arch across the sky and begin to set, the only clue that it might be time for dinner.
And there’s something wonderful about having a calendar to tell you that it’s Friday and a clock to tell you that it’s time to go to services, or to turn on the computer so you can zoom in.
Judaism tends to be a pretty sensible tradition, so of course it gives us both options. Shabbat is a day, from nightfall to nightfall, to let go of calendars and to-do lists and “I’ve got to take care of this now.” The rest of the week we’re welcome to be as organized and timely as we like, but Shabbat is designed for leisure. For rest. That’s what Shabbat menuchah means.
The Jewish calendar has other ways to keep us organized, ways that align closely with the flow of nature and the revolutions of the sun and moon and stars. Each month begins when the new moon is just visible. It lasts for 28 or 29 days, long enough to watch the moon go through its cycles.
Today is the beginning of the month of Kislev. It follows Cheshvan, a month bereft of holidays, which follows Tishrei, a month with way too many holidays.
Being eminently practical, the Jewish calendar understood that its way of tracking months results in a year that is much shorter than a solar year. The answer was adding leap months occasionally so the holidays continue to occur in the proper seasons.
Which means that we’re not kidding when we say that the Jewish holidays are always late or early, and never on time.
Of course, we don’t ignore the secular calendar. How could we? It drives the rest of the world, our schools, our business lives, doctors’ appointments, pretty much everything.
This week on November 9th to 10th on the secular calendar, we remember Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in 1938 when Jewish homes, businesses, schools, and synagogues in Germany were violently attacked.
Before that date, Jews lived under increasingly oppressive policies and laws, but it wasn’t until that night that violence became the watchword of the Nazi regime’s actions towards Jews. One hundred Jews were killed that night, in the following days 30,000 were sent to concentration camps, and in the end six million were murdered.
Kislev doesn’t always begin this early in the year; Kristallnacht often fall in the previous month on our calendar. But that it does fall in Kislev this year helps us understand darkness, the darkness of the human soul, and the darkness of nature. The days are beginning to shorten. Daylight savings time ends this Sunday and night will fall more quickly in the evenings.
And the human soul? Antisemitism continues to rear its ugly head. Hatred of the Other is rampant. Black people are afraid. Jews are afraid. Asians are afraid. Sikhs and Muslims are afraid.
How can we deal with these threats, both existential and physical? Kislev has the answer to that, too.
And the answer is light. The sole holiday in Kislev is Hanukkah, the holiday of lights, of joy, of celebration. A holiday that marks a people’s quest for religious freedom. A holiday that asks us to spend eight nights – eight crazy nights – lighting candles. Each night, adding another candle.
The Talmud teaches that one candle is not diminished when it lights another. It does burn down and disappear – that’s what candles do. But when it shares its light with another, and then another, and another, and another, its tiny, ephemeral, short-lived flame can be a spark that lights the entire world.