A cup of tea later I sit on the little balcony, as Jerusalem sleeps its pre dawn hour, and there’s jasmine in the warm air, and I wonder to myself if I am not obsessing too much about time, and is this just jetlag, or perhaps has something to do with turning 40. Which is, sort of, a big deal and gives me lots to think about, plus, I’m jetlagged.
Anyway, it IS Tuesday, and the sun rises slowly above the balcony and over Jerusalem, and Israel prepares to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Sharply at 10AM a two minute siren is heard all over the country and I get to my parents home just a few minutes earlier, making sure to be with them at the exact moment and not get stuck in traffic. We stand where it finds us: my mother in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, looking vacantly, outside, through the window. My father and I stand in the living room, he is looking at the floor, clutching the newspaper he was reading, and I am leaning on the wall, looking at him. When the sirens fades out I set my watch to Israel time: 10:02.
It is a curious and uniquely Israeli ritual, this ‘memorial siren’ – heard here on the days of remembrance for the victims and heroes of wars and the holocaust, commanding the public sphere into a compulsory, uncomfortable silence. Mandated by Israeli law since the early 1950’s, the siren (‘tzfira’ in Hebrew) is one of Israel’s most original (though British inspired), powerful – and problematic – civic ceremonies. But it is also the descendent of the classic Jewish Shofar – the ram horn that called the community for reflection – and for combat. Today, it’s a clarion call for making meaning of the (carefully chosen) collective (Jewish) memories, and for marking larger than life moments loom larger yet -through singular, ticking, manipulated minutes.
Can life’s big moments be captured by single minutes?
It is a bold ritual, this ‘memorial siren’, and one wonders what it means to the millions of people who stop in their tracks all over Israel in the middle of life when 10am on this random Tuesday happens. It’s a brave attempt at making meaning of history – as brave and beautiful and fragile and perilous as the Passover Seder, or the mourners Kaddish, or Fourth of July fireworks, or ‘happy birthday to you’ at some random or not so random party. Brave because it is so small in comparison to how bigger than life, life really is. And beautiful because it’s so real, and fragile and perilous but also – so easy to fall flat and fail and become a meaningless giggle or shrug.
Who was it who said that to mark moments in time is like hitting a nail with a hammer in the middle of the ocean?
Not the Torah, that’s for sure. Time is the Jewish ancient way for fighting chaos and celebrating life – culture trying very hard to make sense of nature. Jewish life – on whatever level of practice – demands constant counting – the counting of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years is what gets the Jewish engine to tick-tock through eternity. Not only are we in the midst of the fifty day count from Passover to Shavuot, and not only are we two days into the end of this lunar month – we also find time in this week’s double-portion Torah Tale – Tazria-Metzora, where time is honored as the great healer of disease.
Way before ‘take two and call me in the morning’ these chapters in Leviticus extended the period of healing to seven full days – regarding a long list of ailments. This coming Seventh Day, in a synagogue near you, some lucky Bar or Bat Mitzvah will chant bravely about all sorts of curable and incurable infections, pores, sores, sorrows and cures. The one common theme to this list of woes is the insistence, perhaps radical for its time – that all medical procedures be carefully monitored and checked per specific time grids based on the cycles of seven. Counting days constitutes the essential element in the early Hebraic medical system – in an attempt to construct order on chaos – both physically and spiritually.
Take for instance the person who has had a discharge of some sort – (and never mind right now the socio-medical-religious meanings of exactly this STDesque trouble signifies.)
‘When one with a discharge becomes clean of his discharge, he shall count off seven days for his cleansing, wash his clothes, and bathe his body in fresh water; then he shall be clean. “(Leviticus 15:13)
Mazel Tov! But what if it takes four days to heal? And what if it takes ten? Can this rigid one-size-fit-all grid really help all people stand up to disease and decay? Or is this, perhaps, just another imperfect brave attempt at getting between life and living and for creating rituals that help us to reflect, grow, heal? In some ways, I find that Leviticus is offering another metaphor, another recipe for counting time and making life count – all of it, every messy bit.
As I write this, on the balcony, it’s just past midnight and is already Wednesday, the 22nd of April, the day on which, according to official government records and astrological signs, I came howling into the world. But until a few years ago, because of some confusion, we thought it was the 21st of April, and anyway – according to the Jewish calendar, my birthday is not for another week – and it is that date which I will really celebrate – and it also happens to coincide with the date of Israel’s Day of Independence – yet a whole other time-management system, and a whole other excuse for taking time out to be with people I love. So I guess I’m celebrating NOW. And it’s as good as the NOW that your eyes are now reading, even though it already happened or maybe not.
Hammering nails in the ocean…
Seven days of hopeful cleansing, two minutes of fragile silence, sixty one years of furious independence and forty years of living loud – stopping to make sense of it all and make these moments count – priceless.