Recently, fellow Tribesman Jonathan Ratner wrote a really provocative article about the nature of time in Jewish wisdom. Which got me thinking about the Wisdom Tribe yearly cycle.
I think it’s fair to say that we at the Tribe operate on an inverse pattern from the regular cycles of the world. Stay with me.
When you look at nature, you see a clear yin and yang going down on an annual basis. Winter for rest, summer for being a go-getter. Hibernation, activity. Anabolism, catabolism.
(No, not cannibalism. Sheesh! Catabolism is a microbio term you would know if you had a nutrition-craze phase in high school… Or is that just me?…)
See, the world operates on a solar schedule.
Short story: because the sun is closer to Earth during the summer, the days are longer and the weather is warmer. And the reverse in winter. The degree of activity of the natural world follows these rhythms pretty nicely; during the summer everyone’s hustling and bustling, and during the winter people just snuggle around the fireplace with hot cocoa.
And human civilization has come to more or less adapt. We save up our vacation days for the summer, so we can hit the road and have a crazy time. And we save up our sick days for December and January, because it’s in those months that our bodies just seriously need a break.
But the Jewish Calendar is Kinda Backwards...
But the Jewish calendar is kinda backwards…
Starting after Pesach, the Spring Festival, Jews hunker down for some of the most subdued months of the year. The weeks leading from spring into summer are a period of mourning and introspection, when Jews are forbidden from engaging in the sorts of fun that the world is enjoying. No music, no parties; that kind of thing.
Soon after this phase is over, we enter another slow-down period, a time [ingeniously] named ‘The Three Weeks,’ which lasts for a duration you’re welcome to guess at. This period is again one of resting and digesting, of reflecting on our place in the world and the impact of our mistakes.
Pretty shortly after those weeks are over we start the Jewish month of Elul, which marks the start of a forty-day period of personal repentance. Not so much reflecting on national issues, but personal ones. How did I do this year? What have I got to improve going forward? Do I owe any apologies?
Only after these days do we reach Sukkot, which, for all intents and purposes, marks the beginning of the new Jewish yearly cycle. That’s when the celebrations pick up, when the activities get more happening and joyous, and when we start to really put our backs to the millstone for the next several months. Fall ends with Chanukah, then Purim in mid-winter, and things stay cheery all the way until Pesach comes again in early spring. These cold months, when the world is on hold and the hibernation is deep, are when Jews are in their prime.
Yaakov, Chief Fella of our Tribe, pointed out that this calendrical abnormality is consistent with a general trend in Jewish wisdom, which we might simply refer to as ‘swimming against the current.’
The Midrash tells of a conversation between 1st century leader Rabbi Akiva and the Roman emperor Turnusrufus (who had one heck of a name, by the way). Turnusrufus is complaining about the Jewish practice of circumcision, making the theological case that we oughtn’t try to alter G-d’s creation. Are we better creators than Him?
Rabbi Akiva proceeds to produce a handful of wheat and a chocolate cake (insert your favorite high-gluten goodie), and asks his Roman buddie to select his preference. The chocolate cake being the obvious choice, Turnusrufus opts for the desert dish. “Aha!” says Rabbi Akiva. “If the natural world is so perfect, why not take the wheat?!”
What the tale intends to teach is the importance of looking to improve the world. G-d deliberately leaves elements of Creation incomplete, such that humanity might join with Him to finish the job.
Accordingly, the Kabbalists point out that circumcision is performed on the eighth day of a newborn’s life, as the number eight always symbolizes transcendence above the natural. Seven is a full natural set, hence the global constant of seven-day weeks. But eight is the elevated state of seven, when it has been given the finishing touches to make the natural supernatural.
That’s swimming against the stream.
And that’s why the Tribe’s yearly cycle follows this odd schedule we find in Jewish wisdom. We haven’t been having many meetings recently, and won’t be resuming for another few weeks. Just taking care of things here and there when there’s a pressing need.
Because we’re spending the summer out swimming. Upstream.
Yisrael Friedenberg is a passionate student of psychology and Jewish mysticism, and is an in-house content creator at Wisdom Tribe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.