The Personal is Communal

Events in the "calendar" of the lifecycle are private, yet connect us to the "unseen presences" of missing family members and our entire people throughout history.

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Reprinted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).

I have two calendars on my desk. The first one is a Day Timer, a thick, loose-leaf volume that details my existence into the foreseeable future. The second, sitting next to its leather-bound colleague, is a Jewish calendar, detailing Hebrew dates, dates of festivals, candle lighting times, and Torah portions. I travel back and forth between those two calendars. One tells me about my life, and the other tells me how to live that life—the story and meaning that makes the days that are detailed in the Day Timer into days of value and substance. 

Truth be told, Judaism also has two calendars—the public and the personal. The public Jewish calendar is the festival cycle. It chronicles the story of the Jewish people, our encounter with God, with nature, with history, and with ourselves. It contains moments of joy, of introspection, of gratitude, of serious contemplation of the Jewish past and future, of anger, and of sorrow. We celebrate those moments both in the privacy of our homes and in the public realm of the synagogue and the community.

communal jewish eventsThe private Jewish calendar is the lifecycle—birth, maturity, marriage, and death. We celebrate those moments in the public realm and in the private realm—both in family contexts and with other Jews in community (which deepens and enriches and contextualizes those celebrations).

But note: There has been an interesting and significant shift in the way that Jews live their lives. With the exception of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which remind us of the patterns of life and our own fragility), the spirituality of most modern Jews has usually shifted from the festival calendar to the life cycle—from the public to the private.

When Jews tell the stories of their lives, when the talk about the moments of holiness and transcendence, the stories they tell, invariably, are of brit milah [circumcision ceremony], baby namings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, and funerals. Those are the times when we awaken from our spiritual slumber and realize that there is a God in the world.

There are all sorts of reasons why this has happened. We live in a very self-oriented time. People tend to think less in terms of group and more in terms of self. We live in a time that has seen the triumph of individualism. Sometimes, the only community that we know well is our family. The synagogue may be a public space, with publicly owned ritual items such as prayer books and tallitot [prayer shawls] and yarmulkes [head coverings], but the meanings that we bring to it are often very private—and often take precedence over the public meanings.

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Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the Senior Rabbi of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York; the Co-chair of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.