Perhaps you’ve had this experience before. You have a full schedule of events, a busy day, where you go from one thing to another. Until, like a gift from the heavens, at the last minute, someone has to cancel on you for a meeting, an appointment, or even a night out. Maybe you’re disappointed, but I am willing to bet that instead of being disappointed, you probably feel joyful or excited at the prospect of newly found extra time. It’s like a gift! Here’s this time that I didn’t expect and now I get to fill it or not, however I wish. Or for those of us who are parents of Middle School athletes, is there any sweeter text than the one saying that the fields are too wet and softball practice or games are cancelled?!
That’s today, Leap Day. And while Leap Day is not a Jewish holiday, (we have a leap month every couple years) we can turn to our own tradition to see how we approach “extra.” When we have something additional, something unexpected, something more than we planned for how do we as Jews respond?
One example, which if you are not familiar with you will be in about ten minutes, is the musaf. Musaf is the additional bonus section of our prayers which we add on Shabbat and Festivals. In ancient times, an extra sacrifice was offered in the Temple. Since the time of the destruction of the Temple, we offer additional prayers as our gift to mark the specialness of this time. In this example, something extra is offered as a gift.
An example from the natural world, there are three mitzvot which have to do with how we handle something extra from our own personal resources. In a few weeks in the midst of the book of Leviticus we will hear the command to gather extra ears of grain, and extra fruit from the tree. (Leviticus 19:9-10) Our tradition requires that the extra from our own resources, the neglected corners of our fields, even metaphorical corners, be used to provide for the poor and the needy. In this example, something extra is offered as a kindness to others and as an act of repairing the world.
But today is about extra time. That extra day every four years that right sizes the Gregorian calendar which we follow. What do we as Jews do with extra time? You won’t be surprised to find out that we do several different things.
The first is that we create extra pockets of time on purpose. There’s actually a mitzvah of adding extra time to our celebrations. It’s called Tosefet Shabbat, adding to Shabbat and it is part of the reason why in Baltimore we light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before Shabbat actually starts. Rashi (on Genesis 2:2) explains that while God knows the precise moment when one day ends and another begins, we humans do not. Therefore, we have to “add from the ordinary to the holy”, meaning we begin Shabbat a little early and end it a little later (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 261:2).
This may sound crazy to you, but if you have ever spent a summer night in a place like London or Alaska you know exactly what the tradition is speaking of. It doesn’t get dark until 10:30, 11pm at night! I don’t know about you, but my family could never wait that long for dinner or to bring in Shabbat. I’m usually fast asleep by that time on Friday nights. But in actuality we do it not for practicality but to show that Shabbat is so beloved to us that we want to welcome it in early and escort it out late. In this case we use extra to demonstrate affection.
This week’s parsha, begins the four week story of the building of the Tabernacle. It begins with a command for every Israelite who is so moved, to bring gifts to collectively build their sanctuary. They bring gold, silver and copper, and they bring purple yarn and fine linen, and they bring animal skins, and they bring precious stones. And they bring so much, that their leaders find themselves in the unheard of Jewish communal reality, of having received too many donations. So Moses does something really unheard of, he tells them to stop giving. In this example extra is seen as willingness, as an abundance of desire to give, to build and to create. When there is extra time or extra resources the Torah hopes that we will be moved by ruach Elohim, the spirit of God.
So how should we celebrate Leap Day as Jews? First we celebrate with Jack! We take this bonus 24 hours to mark his entry into the adult Jewish community and to escort him to his rightful place among us. But after Shabbat ends you might wat to use this extra day to make Mishloah Manot. Purim is in a week, use February 29th to bake your hamatashen and pack bags of treats for friends and neighbors. You could spend some time learning something Jewish to continue the learning that we’ve begun here together.
How many times have we wistfully said, “If only there was more time in the day? If only there was one more day in the week? Well through the magic of the Gregorian calendar, our wish has finally come true. Every four years we get an extra day to do with as we please. Let’s take the model of our tradition and accept this gift, use it to offer a kindness to another person, an act of repairing the world, and as a way to demonstrate affection.
In Hebrew a Jewish year that has a leap month is called shanah meuberet, a pregnant year. This extra time, this extra day, is pregnant with potential for something exciting and special. May it live up to its name.