Monday, April 13, 2009

Judaism and Time: Beyond Bridges and Pendulums

(a short recap of my Pesach sermon)

How does Judaism look at time? Well, like a lot of subjects, in a complex and conflicted way. An excellent example of this can be found in contrasting some of the Jewish holidays.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are holidays that see time as a bridge. These holidays bridge between one year and the next, prodding man to judge himself and improve his behavior. Yom Kippur, the holiday of repentance, is an austere day in which man resolves to transform his nature. These holidays present time as a bridge which allows man to cross his limitations and discover new spiritual horizons.

Time as a bridge is most often associated with personal growth, seeing man as dynamic and ever changing. The famed narratives of Rabbi Akiva and Reish Lakish, in which ignorant and dissolute men become great Rabbis and spiritual giants, reflect the dynamic nature time has, and how it allows everybody to transform and change. (This perspective is less common regarding history; however, some thinkers such as Rav Kook, do accept a dynamic, ever changing view of history.)

On the other hand, Pesach, (as well as the other pilgrimage festivals), view time as a pendulum. These holidays present time as ever recurring; the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, the wandering in the desert, happen over and over again and again, year after year. Time constantly swings back to where it once was, producing the same seasons and the same moods repeatedly.

Time as a pendulum is on prominent display at the Seder. The Hagaddah tells us to view ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt, and we declare that “in every generation they come to destroy us”, that anti-Semitism is an iron law of history.

Time as pendulum is reflected in many Jewish sources. A well known passage is the famed Midrashic comment, championed by Nachmanides, “that everything that occurred to the patriarchs is a sign of what will occur to their children”. This seems to say that history is a recurring narrative, and yes indeed, history will repeat itself.

One passage in the Talmud says that even specific months have historical tendencies:

“ the month of Av, we reduce joy (due to the destruction of the Temple, which occurred in that month) and in the month of Adar, we increase joy (due to the redemption related to the holiday of Purim).

Rabbi Pappa said: therefore, if one has a court case, he should avoid the month of Av, which is bad luck, and try to schedule it during Adar, which is good luck”.

In other words, to Rav Pappa, the calendar itself is a pendulum, moving between dates that are “good for the Jews” and dates that are not.

Pesach and Yom Kippur have very different views of time, indeed. What is fascinating is what they share. On both days, we declare at the very end of the service, “next year in Jerusalem”. In other words on each of these holidays, we say that the holiday itself is a springboard for redemption.

There are bridges one must cross on the road to redemption, and on Yom Kippur, we are expressing our hope that our repentance is finally sufficiently good to be worthy of the Messiah. However, on Pesach, we believe, as the Talmud puts it, “in Nissan we were redeemed (from Egypt), and in Nissan we will be redeemed (with the messiah).” We open the door for Elijah, expecting the pendulum of redemption to finally swing our way.

In actuality, Pesach and Yom Kippur reflect two sides of a famed Talmudic debate. Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer debate the circumstances of the Messiah’s arrival. Rabbi Eleizer says the Messiah arrives due to repentance, period. Rabbi Yehoshua says that the Messiah will arrive at an appointed time, and that the arrival is a law of history. In a sense, the declaration of “next year in Jerusalem” on Yom Kippur reflects R. Eliezer’s view, while the declaration of “next year in Jerusalem” on Pesach reflects Rabbi Yehoshua’s view.

Is there any possibility of finding a connection between these two conflicting views of time? Perhaps. There is one other similarity between Yom Kippur and the Seder. There is a strange custom among Ashkenazim of wearing a kittel, a white coat, both on Yom Kippur and the Seder. On Yom Kippur, the Kittel is worn because it is a garment that inspires repentance due to its similarity to angelic white and burial shrouds. But why do we wear a kittel on Pesach? Angels and shrouds seem quite foreign on the night of divine redemption. This question confounds the Taz and others.

I think perhaps a simple solution can be found. Being that Pesach and Yom Kippur have such different dimensions, with Yom Kippur viewing time as a bridge, while Pesach sees it as a pendulum, we want to remind everyone at the Seder that in truth, we must marry both visions of time together. Even if we see history returning to the same themes, we must be certain that it not be experienced as a thoughtless pendulum, something that keeps going back and forth without change. In reality, time should neither be a pendulum nor a bridge, but rather a tower, where the lessons of the past are cherished, and we grow and relive at the very same time.

In actuality then, we don the kittel at the Seder to remind us of Yom Kippur. It reminds us that the spirit of the Seder must be merged with the spirit of Yom Kippur, and at the Seder, we should not forget all the spiritual bridges we have to cross. We should not think of redemption as a birthright that we can wait passively for; even as we wait for the pendulum to swing, we hope to raise ourselves to new and greater heights, climbing the tower of spiritual growth.

Chag Sameach!!

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