If nothing stood in your way, how would you spend the rest of your summer? Would you embark on a dream vacation? Would you learn a new trade? Would you escape to a faraway island?
For Jews worldwide, the summer season is spent in unique and perhaps challenging ways. A while ago a friend complained to me that he finds the “Jewish summer” very frustrating.
“Look at our summer,” he said half-jokingly. “Even before the actual arrival of summer, for seven weeks beginning on the second day of Passover we count the days leading to the festival of Shavuot; then for three weeks we mourn the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples; and for the remaining four weeks we repent in preparation for the High Holidays.”
“You’re right,” I told him. Quoting Andre Naher, a 20th century French-Jewish philosopher, I added: “It’s a difficult pleasure to be a Jew.”
Cynicism aside, we ought to echo his question: Why would our tradition fill our fun-filled summers with such restricting limitations?
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald has a moving description of the summer season: “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees…I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
Indeed, this season teems with a new sense of life and brims openness and freedom.
But these are not always good things. Reports show that crime goes up when temperatures do, and cases of marital infidelity also soar during this time of the year. This may be due to the extra time people have on their hands throughout this season, along with the inviting openness of the weather that drives people outside of their homes.
These reports reflect an obvious truth: freedom without purpose ceases to exist. And unless we have a purposeful plan in play, we will struggle to find direction and meaning in the open freedom of summer. And therein lies the secret of the “Jewish Summer Plan” that summons us to embark on a three-step journey of counting, mourning, and atoning.
Step One: Valuing Time. We must begin with valuing time. Every moment is precious. Every tick of the clock is filled with opportunities. There is so much life in the present that we ought to make the most of it before it vanishes.
The Jewish pre-summer begins with our counting each day for seven continuous weeks. “Time is the best teacher,” a wise man once said, “but unfortunately it kills all of its students.” The only way to avoid being “killed by time,” especially during this season, is to count and put into use the full value of its every day.
Step Two: Connecting the Past To The Present. For three weeks we mourn the tragedies of years gone by, and connect to our spiritual roots. These are the weeks when many tragedies befell the Jewish people including the besiegement and destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in the years 586 BCE and 70 CE and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.
This connection to the past during the “Jewish summer” ensures that we are not left wandering aimlessly in search of a meaningful direction toward the future. It bolsters our identity and guides us onward with clarity and focus.
Step Three: A Return to the Self. We are invited to repent – a better word is “return” –during the final four weeks of the Jewish summer. Jewish law calls on us to awake from our spiritual slumber, inspect our actions, and return.
This lesson holds particularly true In our age of distractions. The Jewish summer encourages us to rid ourselves of the fantasy that life’s blessings, such as peace and happiness, can be found outside. We ought to refocus on who we truly are, and what our personal mission statements ought to be. The unleashed potential of the individual self, with all of its God-given talents and skills waiting to be realized, is irreplaceable.
Looking at Life from the Inside. Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, recently shared an interesting observation:
“Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices. So I say, look up, look at one another…”