Sermon – Shabbat HaChodesh – the gift of time
Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 4 April 2022
French Philosopher Henri Bergson had a theory about time. He argued that time has two faces. There is objective time, the time shown on our watches, the dates on our calendars. And there is lived time, the time of our subjective experience, how time is felt, lived and acted.
We mostly pay attention to objective time, it is far more useful. It gives us the structure to make arrangements and makes sure we are never late. But we become acutely aware of lived time at different moments. An hour from 10am to 11am is the same in duration as the stretch of time from 3am to 4am. But a morning spent over coffee with friends can fly by, whilst an hour spent in bed, worrying about the tasks of the day ahead can drag.
Following two years in and out of lock down, time feels particularly strange. For some the past two years have been interminable, separated from their family and community, with a sense of isolation. For others, the past two years have flown by. Babies have become toddlers, children have grown to adults, new additions have been made, and many have been lost.
As Jews we are used to living in a different concept of time. We live our Jewish lives on two different rhythms, the rhythm of the week, leading up to Shabbat, and the rhythm of our cyclical year. And our year is defined by two calendars, the lunar and the solar combined.
This constant adjustment of our calendars means that our Jewish festivals move. Sometimes the Jewish festivals are early, sometimes they are late. And just like us, living on Jewish meantime, the festivals are never on time.
Our calendar, our objective time, helps to ground us with each festival giving us a sense of routine and normality. This shabbat, one of our special shabbatot in the lead up to Pesach, Shabbat HaChodesh, signifies the very first Shabbat of our Jewish year, the first of Nisan, the beginning of all the months.
We read, as Hannah did for us today, from Exodus:
“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex 12:2)
What does it mean that this is the first of the months of the year? Surely it makes more sense that our year begins in Tishrei, with Rosh Hashanah.
This moment, just following the Exodus signifies a new beginning. It is the very first commandment given to the Israelites since they became a united people. ‘It shall be the first of the months for you.’ With one word, lachem, the Israelites became in charge of their calender.
Midrash comments on this. It tells us: ‘This month is lachem, for you, the first of the months. The ministering angels said to God, ‘Master of Infinity, when do you declare the festivals?’ God said to them, ‘You and I will accept whatever Israel calculates’. The Holy Blessed One said to Israel, ‘In the past they were in my hands. But from now on they are in your hands’.
Midrash Tanhuma clarifies this for us further. It tells us:
“It resembles a king who had a clock. As he examined it, he knew the time of the day. When his son came of age, the king told him: until now I held this clock, but from now on it is given to you. Thus also the Holy One, blessed be God, used to sanctify moons and intercalate years, but when Israel came of age God told them: … from now on they are your responsibility.”
This is a moment of empowerment for Israel. Not only are we no longer slaves, but we are also now given the true gift of freedom – control. God liberates us from the confines of someone else commanding our time – we are free to decide our own movements, our own destiny. And for this people wandering in the desert, with no holy space, the focus on creating sacred time was even more important. Moments in time became moments of gathering.
The evolution of the months and hence the placement of the festivals, are decided by the phases of the moon. Traditionally, Rosh Chodesh, the start of a month, was declared by witnesses, who saw the new moon and reported it. It was a human led cycle, the month doesn’t just happen, we instigate it.
Hence we have differences in our blessings for Shabbat and for Festivals. Shabbat was sanctified by God, given to us when the world was created, a day of rest of all. Festivals, on the other hand, are sanctified by us, the Jewish people, given responsibility for the calendar. On Shabbat we praise God who “sanctifies Shabbat”. On the festivals we praise God who sanctifies “Israel and the holy times”.
Our festival cycle is under the control of humankind. Yet there is a complexity, a set of parameters in which we navigate. Medieval Spanish rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote:
“Measuring the years according to the cycle of the moon instead of the cycle of the sun,” is not just a matter of following a different cycle. Our Muslim neighbours also follow a cycle of the moon. But the cycles differ in length by about 11 days every year. We are told to keep the first month, the month of Nisan which contains the festival of Passover, in the spring. “If so, we are not just to keep a cycle. We are to determine it.”
We are to determine it.
It is up to us to determine our time. For our Jewish calendrical cycle, we add Adar Sheini, the month we have just finished, a leap month to regulate our cycles.
But in life it is not always so easy. We cannot just add an extra day or month when we need to regulate our time, when our schedules get too busy, when our life feels off balance.
Therefore, this very first commandment to our ancient ancestors is a lesson to us, despite the feeling that we are caught in a constant cycle of time, in reality we are in control of our own lives. We are in charge of our own time, our own diaries. When our days look full, it is us who made them that way.
When I first started my job as a rabbi, I was told, block out space in your calendar – space to write, space to breathe, space to see your partner. Never put your meetings back to back, always leave 15 minutes worth of wiggle room and breathing space.
And yet, I failed, and continue to fail to heed this advice.
This special shabbat, Shabbat Ha Chodesh, is a gift to us all. It is a call to freedom. It is a moment of taking back control. A reminder to us all to block out that space in our diaries, for if we don’t, we will fill it.
This shabbat we are given the gift of time, a gift for to us to control.
May we use it wisely.