Spirograph, Leviticus, and the Cycles of our Lives

For Congregation Ner Shalom, Parashat Vayikra

New moon, new year, equinox, eclipse, junk in a basement. 

The possibilities are endless.

Today is a day when all the cycles collide. It's evening, the denouement of another day on this planet. It's Shabbos, the settling out of another week of struggle and effort. It's a new Hebrew month, the launch of a new lunar cycle. It's the 1st of Nisan, which is one of our people's four new years. (This one is declared in Torah, in the book of Exodus, but historically it relates not to Egypt but to the Babylonian calendar that we adopted in exile, which is why tonight is also Nowruz - the Persian new year.) Meanwhile this particular new moon, thin as a pencil line, traces the underside of a supermoon that is brushing close to us, closer than it has in months. Today was the equinox and the beginning of spring. And to top it off, overnight was a solar eclipse, dazzling the Scandinavians while we were sound asleep. It's like there's a big celestial party going on. All these cycles - 24 hours, 7 days, 28 days, 1 year, 14 months - all of them intersecting and overlapping like the whirling designs we used to make with our Spirograph sets when we were kids.

Do you remember Spirograph? I had a set. So did my sister. Over the last month, they resurfaced in the cycle of chaos and order that over the last year has characterized my mother's basement in Niles, Illinois. As you know from previous drashot, this basement is a magical treasure chest, a never-ending cornucopia of objects from every era of our family's history in this country. From immigration through junk peddling, political scandals, business ventures, cousins clubs and deaths; the basement is littered with diplomas, ketubos, NRA badges, meeting minutes, sheet music and an awesome collection of childhood games. Lynn and I looked at our Spirograph sets side by side. Hers had all the pieces, each one carefully put back in its proper slot after its last use some time in the 1970s. Mine was a mess, many of the translucent plastic disks cracked or chipped; none of them in the right place; the little pins that held pieces and paper to the cardboard backing were all over the place, threatening to prick whoever would reach into the dusty box heedlessly.

My sister decided to keep hers, and it took its place in her takeaway stack, perched atop Candyland and Mystery Date. I let mine go. It's hard for me to let anything go. But I decided to make a clean breast of it. A fresh start. I couldn't see myself at this point in my life sitting and drawing crazy psychedelic spirals anyway, and a half-ruined childhood game seemed a waste of my otherwise prodigious powers of sentimentality.

So I took a fresh start on that one, even while other items cycled back into my "reconsider" pile. See, the thing about cycles is that they're always giving fresh starts and second chances. What I mean is this: we all know that today is just a continuation of time. It is not qualitatively or empirically different from yesterday, other than the fact that it is later; the world is older. But today can feel like a completely different thing. What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours. A new month, a new year, all of these arbitrary markers signal possibility. Rebirth. Reset. Reboot.

Of course, sometimes the desired reboot doesn't happen. We get stuck in a rut, a needle in the groove of an old LP. Whether it's a habit or a grudge or an Israeli election, we don't know how to think, do or try something differently. How to clear the way for a new chance. Sometimes we need something extra, something a little more juiced up, to break the inertia. But what?

One possible answer comes from this week's Torah portion. This week boasts another new beginning, this one in our cycle of Torah reading, which stretches from Genesis to Deuteronomy and from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah. This week we orbit back into the Book of Leviticus, our great and ancient ritual manual. It details a system of offerings that themselves mark time and mark cycles of human experience. Our failings, our leaders' failings, our brushes with death and illness, our communal festivals, our personal joys - all of these end up marked in Leviticus as part of a cycle, marked with ritual offerings. We move from tamei to tahor - from states that are pervaded by everydayness to states that feel radiant with holiness. And back again. In English we call the states described in Leviticus "purity" and "impurity", which is unfortunate. Because they don't refer to physical states of contamination, but to a range of emotional states, spiritual states. Think of the way you feel after you break a promise. Or the way you feel after experiencing a loss. These are psychological states that Leviticus addresses, by prescribing the kind of repair you can do in your world to release it, or the kind of offering you can give to God in order to make a shift and experience, even if briefly, a new start.

In our culture, we don't recognize these fluctuating states in any open, community-supported way. Our emotional ups and downs belong to each of us individually. We hold them privately, even secretly. We are told they are aberrations from what we should be; they are disorders, rather than the emotional landscape of living. We do therapy and we are sold medication. We hide our messy states and pretend we're fine. And we move forward as if we weren't ever in a state of spiritual disarray, when actually we probably are most of the time.

The system in Leviticus, though it seems archaic and, in the case of animal sacrifice, barbaric, was far more accepting of the emotional topography of life than we are. It was assumed that you experienced the full range of life's gifts and sadnesses, fulfillments and foibles. And that you could mark those those by an interaction with the divine that would allow you to transition from one state to another; to let go of one part of the cycle and move forward into another.

In the Levitical code, there's always a new beginning available for you whenever you need it. And the prescription for that new beginning is usually an offering.

So I wonder what we can offer up to help us move from state to state, or to be mindful when we do?

When Lynn and I work in the Chicago basement, it doesn't clearly feel like a cycle, but more often like one, unending difficult state. A jumble of reverence and frustration and ambition and despair. We look at all the holy relics with which my mother was entrusted and ultimately burdened. We sit inside of it and wish it had a cyclical quality. After all, even Sisyphus has his "up" moments. Where are ours?

But then, unforeseen, came some change, through a ritual of offering. We had already been giving furniture and housewares to cousins and friends right and left. But one morning last week I opened a dry cleaner's paper garment bag to discover my father's army uniforms - two dress uniforms and one set of fatigues. They were clean and pressed. His overseas hats folded flat and pinned to the lapels. They had been in this garment bag since, I assume, 1946. They were in pristine condition and their discovery led to a quandary. What do we do with these? They suddenly were symbolic of our father. Not just his service in the army, but the gentle meticulousness that was so part of who he was. How could they be thrown out? We were stuck in a humbling and hobbling reverence for him and needed ritual to move from that state to a different one.

It was my sister's partner who saved the day. Sue said, "Call a theater." And we did. Lynn called Steppenwolf, Chicago's premiere theater, the one that produced Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Laurie Metcalf - performers whom my mother referred to never as "actors" but rather as "Chicago actors," as if that signified something obvious about their skill and their talent and their loyalty to the city of her birth. Over the past 20 years my mother frequently ushered at Steppenwolf. She would call us after a performance and tell us the storyline, mixing into it tangents about the other ushers and the very nice house managers, all of whose stories were as interesting to her as the plot of the play. Steppenwolf said they'd be happy to take the uniforms. Lynn inquired further. Would they take our grandmothers' and great aunts' fur-collared 1940s and 1950s coats? Yes, they said. And we collected them all up and we lay them on the back seat of the car like sleeping children, and we drove into the city. Laurel, the wardrobe mistress, accepted these with the gentleness and regard that one would hope was shown by the Levites as they accepted the offerings of the Israelites on the steps of the Temple. She examined them to see if they were in fact without blemish. She complimented them. She remarked to us about their uncanny state of preservation. As we left the uniforms and the coats on the costume shop cutting table, the altar of alterations, we felt a burden lifted. This was not like giving coffeepots to cousins. This was an offering, in a near-Biblical sense. We were offering up these objects of love to the greater universe. To the gods of creativity and catharsis. So that someone on stage one day in a diminutively sized seargent's uniform might make an audience member cry or laugh and rethink something in their life and be released from some state that they were trapped in so that they too could have a fresh start.

These clothes, held in suspended animation for seven decades, had now reëntered the cycle of things; they were recycled, upcycled. And we moved from our stone-heavy state to one of elation. Even knowing that the next day we might once again feel buried under the weight of our earthly responsibility. For today, it was new beginnings all around.

So new beginnings. From an outsider's view, every day on this earth just looks like a continuation of the previous day's developments. As Ecclesiastes would say, eyn chadash tachat hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun. But from the inside, from inside our cycles, new beginnings are possible all the time. A new year, a new month, a new day, a new chance. Just offer up what you need to offer up - your regret, your love, your gratitude, your hope. Let the regret burn away. Let the gratitude feed the gods. And then you can descend the Temple steps, into your new beginning, the place where possibility lives.

I am grateful to Suzanne Shanbaum who, when I was at a loss, said, "Write about new beginnings." And to Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who teaches the class I'm taking called, "Learning to Love Leviticus." Thanks to her and my classmates, I am.

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