In 1864, with the Civil War approaching its long and bloody end, Abraham Lincoln took stock. “Human nature will not change,” he averred. “In any future great national trial, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good.”
He was describing the diverse cast of characters that the war projected into the spotlight of history. But he might equally have meant any single human being, then or now, for we all combine within ourselves the potential for contrasts: we are often weak, but can choose to be strong; silly sometimes, but overall (we hope), wise; good (we pray) – but at times (we fear), at least complicit in some evil.
Physically, genetics deals us disparate hands: we are tall or short, dark or light, graceful or clumsy. But character is different. There we choose what to become. To appreciate happiness, live through grief with nobility, be unstintingly grateful, show appropriate love, be generous in spirit — these measures of human depth do not emerge automatically. They require nurture.
Precisely this is the religious quest: to foster human character befitting those who are made in the image of God. Toward that end, this week’s sedra delineates the Jewish calendar, for as much as a calendar structures time, it also creates the character of those who follow it.
A calendar is like the stretching of time across a plain, and dropping magnets along the way. The magnets are those special days that attract us as we march through the year’s terrain. Each magnet attracts a different part of our psyche, but taken together, they plumb the entirety of our human endowment. The religious calendar is the key to the deepest resources of our soul.
Shabbat, for instance, is a day not for work, but for God. Imagine the personal depths we might discover if a seventh of our time were dedicated to spiritual awareness, unselfish acts for the sake of God, and taking stands for the sake of heaven. Passover proclaims the value of family and friends, and the sharing of relationships in a state of freedom. Shavuot — the harvest, when we were commanded, “Leave gleanings for the poor and the stranger” — teaches generosity; as Sukkot features gratitude, a time to “rejoice before your God” for one full week. The High Holy Days generate introspection and remorse, pardon and new beginnings.
The holidays mentioned so far are all biblical, but the calendar didn’t stop with the Bible. As the centuries have rolled by, the magnetic field of Jewish time has multiplied its points of attraction. New holidays added to old allow us to delve down ever deeper in our pool of character, ever enlarging our capacity to be fully human.
The Rabbis added Chanukah, with its ever-possible miracle of light; Purim, for adults to remember how to play and stay young; and Simchat Torah to dance: momentarily, with the Torah; but beyond that, with the ongoing wonder of life itself.
We now have Yom Hashoah, history’s archive of horror-beyond-belief, to acknowledge the demonic depths to which even “cultured” people can descend; and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, where a national anthem trumpets Hatikvah, “hope,” in a land where even deserts come to life.
We can enter the stream of human potential any holiday we wish, and most of us wait until Rosh Hashanah to start again. But right now will do just fine. We are in the period called the Omer, when we count the days until Shavuot – practice, really, for numbering all our better tomorrows. This omer period, as we count the days, we should count also how our days are spent. If we ignore the magnetic rhythm of the Jewish year, we forfeit the fullness of our humanity, letting time congeal into one large yearly clump of blandness. By yielding instead to the magnets of time, we become practiced in those virtues that color our lives in multifaceted glory.