By Samia Mansour
Perhaps it’s cliche to say, “we’re living in unprecedented times,” but the Hebrew calendar has bestowed gifts upon us, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share them with you. For many, our lives have been upended by the events of the past 2+ years. Our perspectives have changed, our priorities have shifted, we have grown. Think back to the person you were in February 2020; what would you say to that person now?
The Hebrew Calendar, in all of its infinite wisdom, could not have predicted what we had to lose and gain to get to this moment. It cannot tell the future or spell out impending doom. But it can give us cycles and energies to live by, to center ourselves when we find that we are unmoored. The cyclical nature of the calendar gives us calm and stability; we know what’s to come and what we need to face, and we reckon with times that have the least amount of light and times of unbridled joy.
So here we are, in the Hebrew year of 5782, and we find ourselves in a leap year! What does that mean? Much more significant than an extra day in February, a leap year in the Hebrew calendar gives us the gift of an extra month of JOY. That’s right, this year, we are granted 59 consecutive days to live in our joy. According to the Talmud, “When Adar arrives, joy increases” (Ta’anit 29A). The month of Adar, most commonly known for the joy-filled celebration of Purim, is a time to let the joy wash over us as we bask in its warm embrace. In a leap year, we get two months of Adar to center ourselves in this bliss.
Now I must admit, this does feel a bit daunting. First, I don’t know where you are in the world, but I know that in Cleveland, where I live, February and March are not what I would refer to as our most joyous months. Here it is still bitterly cold, and the snow has lost its enchanting early December whimsey and has turned murky and brown on the sides of the road. Spring is nowhere in sight, and on Groundhog’s Day, Punxsutawney Phil already ensured we’d have 6 more weeks of winter. Weather aside, the state of the world seems precarious at best. There’s a meme from a couple of years ago that I have printed on my wall; I think it’s commonly known as the “This Is Fine” dog. The dog is sitting at a table, and the room is on fire around him, and he casually responds, “This is fine. I’m okay with the events that are currently unfolding,” while the room engulfs in flames around him until his face melts. I’ve always deeply resonated with that dog.
So, in this cold and dreary world, how am I supposed to prioritize joy for 59 days!? There are probably lots of little answers that could help me along the way: practice gratitude, spend time with loved ones, read a good book, order some sushi. But the Hebrew calendar has given us another gift this year that I really believe has arrived at this moment to help us heal: the Shmita year. The Shmita year, which falls every seven years, is a whole year where we prioritize REST and forgive all debts. This is a radical act. Imagine if we all observed the Shmita year and worldwide people had the privilege to put themselves and their bodies and souls first. We could take care of each other if we could first take care of ourselves. Unfortunately, the world we have inherited does not make space for this kind of radical self-care. So in this Shmita year, in the year where we are supposed to uplift joy for 59 consecutive days, we have earned the right to put ourselves first.
There is this voice inside of me that deeply resists rest. My mind struggles to calm down, to stop making plans and to-do lists, to stay present. How can I rest knowing there is so much work to be done? This is not what our Hebrew Calendar intended for us. With the cycles of time, we have so many opportunities for rest and reset: the weekly Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and the new year, the Shmita year- rest and realignment are integral parts of what it means to practice Judaism and to be in rhythm with the calendar. Nothing is arbitrary about how we mark time. Our sages were intentional in making sure that there was time for us to rest and then begin anew, just as they were intentional in creating a calendar that ebbs and flows with the seasons.
Of course, everything is a choice. We see pain and sorrow as challenging emotions to hold, yet when we are directed to simply rest and embrace joy, it can feel overwhelming. Even our sages had a choice: there are 12 months in the Hebrew Calendar just like the Gregorian Calendar, and of all of the months, Adar, the month of joy, was chosen as the month to repeat in a leap year. If our ancestors could choose joy, so can we!
When I was driving earlier today, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Under capitalism, a tree has no value until it’s cut down.” In this leap year, this Shmita year- we must value the forest. It took a global pandemic for many people to reevaluate what is most important in our lives. If the Great Recession has shown us anything, it’s that we are simply tired of being a cog in the machine, tired of being tired, tired of racing towards a finish line that is constantly moving.
In Hebrew, the leap year is called shanah me’uberet, which translates literally to “a pregnant year.” This year, we are creating a new life, which feels very apropos as we transition to whatever reality is to come after COVID, which has dominated our lives for so long. It is amazing that in this new beginning, we have been gifted a year of rest and two months of joy to center ourselves and our values.
I want to end with a Shehecheyanu, the blessing commonly said on special occasions, and to celebrate first occasions as a way to commemorate this sacred moment in time when joy is increased, rest is required, and a new life is to come.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.
Blessed are You Eternal Spirit who has given us life, sustained us and allowed us to arrive in this moment.