Rabbi Siemers – May 2016
In this interval between Pesach and Shavout, I often return to a teaching of Philo Judaeus. Philo lived in Alexandria at the beginning of the Common Era and wrote a synthesis of Jewish law and Greek philosophy. Above all, he wanted to explain and defend Judaism to both the diaspora community of Alexandria and to its non-Jewish milieu. Because he wrote in Greek his historical influence has weighed much heavier on Christianity than on Judaism, but in modern times his writings have been studied widely in Jewish circles. A piece of Philo that has always stuck with me is from his explanation of the Jewish festivals. Because of a mystical tendency that was widespread in antiquity to ascribe completeness to the number ten, Philo argues that there are ten festivals of the Jewish calendar. This requires him to go beyond the list of what we generally think of as Jewish holidays. So he begins the roster with a bracing claim: “The first festival is that which anyone will be astonished to hear called a festival. This festival is every day.”
Every day a festival! We are conditioned by our culture to confine our religious and spiritual identities to discrete places and times. Shabbat and Yom Tov are days for rest and joy, but for the rest of the time we, well, mark time. In contrast to this ethos, Philo correctly notes that we are to learn from Shabbat and Yom Tov a joy that we carry throughout the world and throughout the week. If we exercise virtue every day and if we apprehend that our lives are a gift, each day becomes an arena for sanctification and celebration.
This teaching is especially poignant in this time of sefirah, on which every night we stop and give a number to each day, only after reciting a blessing that thanks God for making us cognizant of the gift that is each and everyday. Our tradition is generous with her lessons, may we match this generosity with devotion and seize the tools we have to enrich our lives and the world. Don’t forget to count the Omer!
Rabbi Bill Siemers