In 1864, with the long and bloody Civil War approaching its 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 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 involves choice. Measures of human depth — to appreciate happiness, live through grief with nobility, be unstintingly grateful, show appropriate love, be generous in spirit — 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 parsha delineates the Jewish calendar; for beyond structuring time, the calendar creates the character of those who follow it.
A calendar is like the stretching of time across a plain, and dropping magnets for special days along the way, each attracting a different part of our psyche, taken together, plumbing 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 and unselfish acts for the sake of God. Passover proclaims the value of family and friends in a state of freedom. Shavuot — when we are commanded to “leave gleanings for the poor and the stranger” — teaches generosity, as Sukkot features gratitude, a time to “rejoice before your God.” The High Holy Days generate introspection and remorse, pardon and new beginnings.
These holidays mentioned are all biblical, but over the centuries, the magnetic field of Jewish time has multiplied, with new holidays allowing us to delve ever deeper, ever enlarging our capacity to be fully human.
The rabbis added Hanukka, with its ever-possible miracle of light; Purim, for adults to remember how to play and stay young; and Simhat Torah, to dance: momentarily, with the Torah, but beyond that, with the ongoing wonder of life itself.
We now have Yom Hashoa, history’s archive of horror-beyond-belief, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, when a national anthem trumpets “hope” in a land where even deserts come to life.
We are now in the period of the Omer, when we count the days until Shavuot, but when we should also count 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 a clump of blandness. By yielding to the magnets of time, we become practiced in those virtues that color our lives in multifaceted glory.