On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Special Edition: the Jewish Calendar

In this week's special edition of On The Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about the Jewish calendar, including how we mark time and how we find meaning.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode fourteen of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion, though this week is a special edition. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ, like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism Judaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, that special edition I mentioned earlier, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will talk to us about the Jewish calendar, how we mark time, and how we find meaning.

[Rabbi Rick:] Chag same'ach, a happy Passover to all. This week, we're focusing on what it is that we're eating, what it is that we're still celebrating, which is the holiday of Passover. And normally, in our podcast, we focus in on the Torah portion of that week, but I'd like to focus in, today, on the sacred calendar of our people, which at times is a little bit confusing, right? It is a solar-lunar calendar. Sometimes we in the diaspora are not exactly on the same calendar as the land of Israel. So, the burning question at the beginning of this holiday is, how long do we eat matza? Or, as my kids would always ask as they were young, when do we get to eat pizza? And the answer is, depending on who you are and where you live.

So, the Torah says that the holiday of Pesach has seven days. It doesn't know about eight days, it only knows about seven. If a person lives in the land of Israel, you only have seven days. So, the holiday this year will conclude at sundown on Friday. That is, if you are not in the diaspora and are not a Reform Jew. I know this is already sounding a bit complicated.

But the reality is, those of us who live in the diaspora, the whole notion of when holidays fall was somewhat up in the air, because we actually had to cite the new moon in Jerusalem and then pass word to the outlying communities. We did it on bonfires at the top of mountains. It took a while. So just to make sure we had the right day, we observed two days at the beginning of a seven-day festival and two days at the end, which is why, for Conservative and Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, the holiday of Pesach is eight days.

So, when people ask me, not explain all the different derivations and evolutions, what are you going to do, Rick? What are you going to eat this Friday night as we move from the end of the seventh day to the eighth day? And to that question I respond quite simply. We will eat chametz. We observe, in our family, in our household, seven days. We're completely in alignment with the Torah, we're in alignment with every single person who observes Passover in the Jewish state. Eight days is for North American Orthodox and Conservative Jews. And there are, of course, some within our very diverse, reformed community who find extra meaning in that extra eighth day. So however, we're going to observe, let's observe it with all of our hearts and soul, finding as much meaning as we possibly can.

So, the question is really mostly, how do we mark time? How do we find meaning? Not, do we count the days until we get the bread, but how do we also make the most of this holiday of Passover? So, over the weekend, we had our sedarim, our Passover seder rituals. I hope they were joyful, meaningful, filled with questions and delicious food and serious, deep conversation about where we are on our collective journey and where we are on our personal journeys. But today, we think about that calendar that sometimes surprises us, because Saturday isn't Saturday. When we make it holy, it becomes Shabbat. And Passover isn't just a recollection of something long ago but reminds us to pay attention to the symbols and the meaning that open us to the possibility of Jewish life today.

So, this weekend, we also will see that the last day of Passover is a day when we tell the story of the actual crossing of the Red Sea. That is Friday morning. That is the holiday climax of not just leaving Egypt, not just having the showdown with Pharaoh, not just having the courage of Moses to lead our people, but to finally emerge through that sea of reeds into a place of freedom and openness and possibility.

So I hope that as we continue to celebrate this holiday, that we don't have an Egypt-like experience, feeling constrained and limited by the very, very particular rules of Passover, but we find in each day the taste of matza teaching us something new-- something new about the bread of affliction, the bread of poverty, the bread of people that wandered through history. That each day, we also take time to think about the things that are for Passover and the things that aren't.

And during the rest of the year, we don't pay as much attention, perhaps, to our food as we do on Passover. That's an opportunity to take nothing for granted, to not just say, I'm hungry, I'm just going to take something to eat-- to think, what fits into the categories of this holiday? I'm free to eat whatever I want. That's part of freedom's liberation. But in that freedom, I choose responsibility-- to be responsible to my family and to my people and to my tradition, and to find a way to live mindfully and meaningfully each and every day.

So perhaps, for you, the holiday of Passover will end Friday night. Some of you within our Reform community also observe an eighth day, and so you will conclude on Saturday night. But the key is not just, when do you end, but how do you find meaning each step along that way? And even though, for a few weeks, the diaspora and Israel calendars will be out of sync, we'll be reading different portions, we'll ultimately reconnect and once again find ourselves focused on the same Torah portion, finding myriad layers of meaning so that we could find our way forward into history and the forward motion of our lives.

So, I say to you, chag same'ach, joyous, meaningful Passover. And when it ends, enjoy the taste of that bread that is puffed up. But in the meantime, let's find even the most powerful meaning for the foods that we eat during Passover, as well as an awareness of the foods that we do not eat. And in so doing, may we find new dimensions to what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century. You're free to choose. Choose wisely.  

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today-- and we hope you did-- you can find new episodes each week at reformjudasim.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – L’hitraot!

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