Today, not only are we about to begin Shabbat, but it is also Rosh Chodesh Av–the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. On the Hebrew calendar, every month begins when there is a new moon in the sky (even if it isn’t visible); it is a lunar calendar (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which is solar). Even so, the Jewish calendar has a solar correction because the sun and the moon aren’t always lined up; there is a leap month every few years so that Passover always ends up in the spring, Rosh Hashanah in the fall, etc.
Judaism is especially attuned to the cycles of nature. We not only mark the cycles of the moon, but also the various seasons and harvests that accompany them. Prayer times are set by the pattern of sunrises and sunsets.
There is only one major observance that does not line up with any astronomical or natural cycles: Shabbat, the day of rest. It does not reflect anything going on in the cosmos; rather it is based on the biblical story of Creation. Even so, it is an important part (the most important!) of the cycles that make up Jewish life. The mega-cycle of the year on the Jewish calendar causes us to appreciate the world around us, to confront our responsibilities, and find our place in the world. Each holiday asks us to focus on what we need to do in the world. Passover focuses on freedom, Shavuot on responsibility, etc. All the cycles give us context for our lives so that we are not simply running on a treadmill from cradle to grave. The calendar encourages us to live in and appreciate the moment.
I cannot help but see a parallel to the world of physical fitness. Many of us have our regular cycle of upper body days, lower body days, group classes. We may even have a rotation of cardio equipment we use. For those who take this seriously, the cycles and patterns provide a sense of orderliness; they present a plan where it is possible to see progress–to look back on where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go. These cycles can be quite effective.
In our society we often hear that we should not get “stuck in a rut.” We need to “break the cycle.” There is, however, a flip-side. We can use these patterns to help us organize our lives, set goals and even give our lives a sense of meaning.
On this new moon, I am reflecting on the bad things that happen in our world (that is a theme of the month of Av), and what I can do to prevent them. On this Shabbat (on which we conclude the Book of Numbers), I am thinking about closing one chapter and beginning another. I look to these cycles to help me find my place in the world and what I can do to reflect God’s presence in it.