The Jewish calendar’s lesson on life
The Jewish calendar might appear obsessed with tragedy, but the context in which we find these days of sadness teaches us an important lesson on life.
We are told that Judaism is a life-affirming religion. The national anthem of Israel is called “Hatikvah, or “The Hope,” and we celebrate at our simchas by shouting “Lechaim!”, or “To Life”, thereby affirming life itself. However, if we take a good look at the Jewish calendar, we might think that Judaism is the exact opposite of life affirming.
The seven weeks we are currently in, as we count the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, is a period of time traditionally associated with mourning. Our calendar also has an additional three-week period of mourning during the summer. This is the time between the fast commemorating the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls on the 17th of Tammuz and the ultimate destruction of the First Temple on the 9th of Av in 586 BCE. If we add these two annual periods of mourning together, we find that 10 out of 52 weeks each year have mourning customs attached to them. In other words, almost 20 percent of our year is dedicated to practices that help us recall tragedies of the past. Is that really life affirming?
Though at first glance the Jewish calendar might appear obsessed with tragedy, the context in which we find these days of sadness teaches us an important lesson on life.
Let’s start with the three weeks in the summer. As mentioned, these three weeks are bracketed by two fast days, both commemorating ancient destructions. There does not seem to be a cycle of joy here, only unhappiness. But if we zoom out from these three weeks, we find that these sad summer days are linked to the High Holy days through a series of haftara readings taken from the prophet Isaiah. They are known as the Seven Haftorot of Consolation. These readings serve to comfort us in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah – a day that encourages us to renew ourselves and our world. They conclude with Yom Kippur, which the Mishna calls “one of the happiest days of the year.” It is considered so joyful because of the clean slate we receive from God at the end of this cycle that begins with destruction, continues with comfort and concludes with hope for a new beginning.
We find a similar message in the Omer. Remember that the Omer is the 49-day period we count between Passover and Shavuot, the former commemorating our liberation from slavery to freedom and the latter celebrating the gift of Torah. Passover and Shavuot are two of the most joyous holidays in the entire year, and they serve as bookends to the mourning customs that have become connected to the Omer. Again, in this part of the Jewish calendar we see a cycle of joy, then sadness, followed by joy again as the year progresses.
Over the course of a year, we all encounter moments of joy and sadness, of love and loss, of happiness and tragedy. Our ancient calendar gives us perspective on these moments in our lives. Each experience we have, whether full of joy or sorrow, is fleeting. Each one shall pass. When we know this, we can find comfort during the difficult days and learn to cherish the good ones.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.