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Time Spiral

By: Rav Aharon E. Wexler

It has been pointed out that Judaism is not a religion of sacred space as much as it is a religion of sacred time. While other religions concentrate on the holiness of things, we concentrate on the holiness of events. Judaism has no objects that are inherently sacred. Even TefilinMezuzot and Torah scrolls are just pieces of parchment until a Sofer consecrates it and turns into a holy item. In other words, Man must make it holy; it has no holiness in its own right. This aversion to the inherent holiness of things most probably stems from the same aversion to the pagan depictions of their gods who were represented by objects; an anathema to the Jew. In fact ancient Hebrew possesses no real word for ‘thing’. The word that is used, davar, does not really mean ‘thing’ but ‘word’. Words are important. Material, physical matter, is not.

There is another element though, that of time. Time is made holy by God. He is: ‘mekadesh Yisrael v’HaZmanim’, ‘sanctifies Israel and the times’! In fact, the very first act God does upon completion of Creation is to bless and sanctify the seventh day yielding the Shabbat. God is above and beyond time. Its ravages have no effect on Him. Yet, it is through time that both Israel and God meet. When we make Kiddush, we use words to become partners with God to sanctify time. Absent our homeland for two millennia, the Jew retreated into his sanctuaries of time by lifting his cup of wine to find respite with God and his people.

The Pagans perceived their gods as gods of nature. And since there were multiplicities of them, they were all subject to the cause and effect of other deities. Israel on the other hand had this idea that God was not only One, but beyond nature and therefore not subject to it. The God of Israel manifests Himself through time and history. When God first introduces himself at Sinai, He does not say: “I am the Lord your God who created Heaven and Earth!” But rather, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt!” As if to say “You know me, we have a history together!”  And it is based on that history, that we have a future together. 

The choice of the Exodus as the introductory statement of the covenant between God and His people serves as the paradigm of time and events as the basis of the relationship God has with us.  To paraphrase a great line from American cinema, “You’re darn right we’re living in the past!”

Unlike the pagan cultures that surrounded it, the Israelite calendar was not based on the agricultural seasons alone, but on historic occurrences in the life of the people. Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot all existed before the Torah was given.  What God chose to do was to elevate the crude agricultural holidays and tie them into events in the life of the nation. By freeing the meaning of the holidays from seasonal time, God made the festivals timeless. The spring holiday marks the Exodus from Egypt, the summer holiday marks the revelation at Sinai, and the harvest holiday reminds us of the booths the Israelites lived in during their desert sojourn. Even the Sabbath is not some disconnected holy day, but marks the historic occasion of God resting on the seventh day. Thus, the Jew in Poland in the 17th century who stood freezing in his Sukkah while making Kiddush was able to reconnect with his ancestors who dwelt in those very same Sukkot in the past. Had Sukkot remained a harvest holiday alone, it is doubtful that our freezing Jew would have had felt any real link to the meaning of the festival.

Those of a more mystical bent have tried to visualize the Jewish time line as a spiral. While the rest of the world has a linear notion of time with each event separated from the next, our spirals see the return of each year as a reconnection to the past. The event is literally revisited as the spiral rotates to the same position. Imagine an episode on our spiral as having experienced a blast of kedusha, of holiness. As the year winds around to the same spot again, we once again re-experience the plume of kedusha emanating from that event. This would explain the meaning of the words: b’zman hazeh, at this time, in the Sh’Hechyanu and Asah Nissim blessings. It’s not a poetic metaphor, but an ontological fact. We are blessing God for what is happening at this time.

This idea may be hinted to by the Torah’s use of the word Chag for holiday. The word Chag comes from the word chug which means to encircle. We mark the holidays by circling around to the same event once again and re-experience it. Another meaning of the word Chag is pilgrimage. The Hebrew word Chag shares the same Semitic linguistic source with the Arabic word Hajj in which Muslims have the command to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and encircle the Ka’aba. This would explain why the Torah uses the word Chag only by the three Festivals for which we are commanded to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The term the Torah uses for the other holidays is mo’ed, appointed time, from the word yeud, which means destiny. The word mo’ed has another meaning, to meet. In fact, the word mo’ed, most probably comes from the Canaanite word for gathering. It expresses the same point that the purpose of the holiday was not an excuse for drunken revelry, but to meet with God.  If used correctly our holidays are not just celebrations of events long ago, but can serve as meeting points with God, our past and our destiny. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach




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