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Circles and Cycles: The Never-Ending Cycle of the Jewish Year

Last month we celebrated Purim with joy and abandon. This week we rejoice in freedom and redemption with a mixture of celebration and serious contemplation. As we sat at the seder table this past week we hopefully pondered what freedom truly means to us. Tradition also teaches that as we experience our freedom we must also ask ourselves what it means that others, like the Egyptians in the sea, must often suffer or die for our redemption. Next month we will once again stand together filled with awe and trepidation at the foot of Mount Sinai as we receive the word of God that is meant to guide our lives on Shavuot (the festival that traditionally celebrates that seminal event in the Torah). And so the cycle continues each and every year.

Like our lives, the Jewish year is a never-ending cycle. Of course, one might say that there is a major difference. After all, the days, months, years and holidays repeat every year without change. By comparison, our lives seem more linear to us. We progress from moment to moment, day to day, and so on in a straight line. We never return back from where we began. Or do we?

As a child of the (late) 60's and 70's two of my favorite songs were Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" and Harry Chapin's "All My Life's a Circle." These are but two songs that use the image of a circle to describe our lives. But the reality is that both our lives and the years are more like a spiral, as others before me have suggested. We may go "round and round and round in the circle game" but we are also moving ahead - whether we recognize it or not - so that when we get back to what we believe is the starting point of our circle we are somewhere other than where we began. It may seem as if we "have all been here before" (to quote another favorite 70' s song), but the reality is that we have never before been where we are now, nor will we ever be here again.

What, you may ask, does this waxing philosophical have to do with Pesah? I believe there is a simple answer to that question. For what allows, or actually compels, us to move ahead in our lives is freedom. It is the freedom to choose that pushes us from where we are forward (or sometimes backward?) into a new place. With each choice we make we move from where we are in this moment to where we are in the next. Without experiencing the redemption that is symbolized by the Passover story we could not exercise our divine blessing of freedom the way that we are meant to.

If this is so, then perhaps the cycles of our life are caused by the limiting forces originating in the laws and rules represented by the giving of Torah on the festival of Shavuot. Taking place seven weeks (seven complete seven-day creation cycles) after Pesah, Shavuot brings us back to the central mythic moment of Sinai. In effect we are standing where we stood last year on this same date on the Jewish calendar. And yet we are not. For we can never be in the same place again - even though we are. Even as we move forward in our lives the boundaries and structures represented by Torah (whether one translates it as teachings, law, or guidance) begin to bring us back to our "home base" of Sinai. Yet each time we encounter Sinai it looks and feels different. Each time we hear the words of the Divine being spoken from the mountain each of us is different. We have lived all of the moments of the past year and so it is a new person standing before a new mountain each time. We have changed just as our world has.

And when the cycle begins again and we return the following year to the shores of the Sea of Reeds on Pesah we also experience a different sea, a different crossing, and a different sense of self. The splitting and crossing are never the same, for the oppression we leave behind and the freedom that lies ahead are constantly changing as well.

The kabbalists (mystics) focused a great deal on the need for hesed (overflowing, unbounded love) to be balanced with din (justice, judgment and limitation). Without this sense of balance the entire universe, both divine and human, would spiral out of control. Too much hesed and anarchy reigns. Too much din and tyranny prevails. And so life is a delicate balance of freedom and responsibility, love and limitations, straight lines reaching out towards infinity and the gravitational forces that bring them back towards the center. This is the essence of this particular season of the year. No wonder the time from Pesah to Shavuot, from freedom to responsibility, is counted day by day and week by week in what is known as "Sefirat Ha'Omer" The Counting of the Omer. This systematic countdown reminds us of the importance of each day and each moment as we move ahead each year on the journey that seems so familiar and yet is never the same.

May we all travel this journey being mindful of the importance of its meaning for each of us as individuals and for all of us as a community, here and throughout the world.

Type: Dvar Torah