Thursday, May 5, 2011

When is a Holiday Not a Holiday?

A friend recently wrote me from the US. He reflected on the just concluded holiday of Pesach. He noted that many of his friends in the community where he lives, were quite eager for Passover to end. They had had enough of the matzah and enough of the Yom Tov meals and enough of the long days spent in shule. They were ready to get back to life as normal. He, my friend, wondered why men who were observant of the mitzvot, commandments, and invested in them would be looking forward to moving on.
He remembered when he was a boy and living in Brooklyn amongst hassidim, how when the Passover holiday drew near its close the men shared in a communal 'oneg yom tov', a joyous holiday gathering at the shteible. They sang together and danced, trying to draw every last gift the holiday had to offer. They were sad to see the sun set on the chag.

He wondered what changed. Why do so many of his friends today feel so different from the way the men he looked up to as a boy felt as Yom Tov ebbed.

After reflection, my friend concluded that many of the modern Observant Jews of today keep mitzvot out of a sense of obligation. They hold on to the tradition but see it as a sacrifice, albeit a worthwhile one. They are committed to Torah, but out of duty.
The Hassidim he knew growing up kept the mitzvot out of love more than duty. They cherished the opportunity to fulfill G-d's commandments. For them no holiday was ever long enough, no call to observance too difficult.

I would like to embelish the insight of my friend. And I do so from the vantage point of the Torah reading of this week, the parsha of Emor. In Emor we are given the most detailed call to the observance of the holidays of our year. Not only is each holiday enumerated, but the mitzvot associated with the holiday are detailed and defined.

As the holiday section opens we read "These are the festivals of Hashem, holy convocations, that you are to proclaim at their appointed times." The verse, while well known is mystifying. In the beginning it refers to the festivals as G-d's. If that be true, then why do we need call them anything. They are G-d's holidays, they don't belong to us.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the enigmatic verse by changing the way we read the word "otam" meaning "them" and to read it instead as "atem" meaning "you". The verse then would be interpreted "...which you alone will call at their appointed times". They explain that even though the holidays were indeed Divinely ordained, they do not come to life except through the calendar as decided by the Beth Din, the Jewish court. It decides on the length of the lunar month and when to add a month for a leap year. The Sages point out that even if the court erred in its decision, in example, it made a leap year, adding a month, when it was uncalled for, the decision is effecacious. The chag, G-d's chag, will occurr based on our calendar dates be they right or wrong in reality. While the holidays are G-d's, they are given to us to actualize.

I compared the attitude of my friends friends in the galut with what I experienced as Pesach concluded here in Eretz Yisrael. Here there was a genuine sadness when the Passover holiday was slipping away. At the synagogue I attended we sang and danced before saying goodbye. And this was not a shule of hassidim. Why? Why is here different?

The answer I believe is that here in Israel the holiday is not G-d's holiday alone. It feels like it belongs to us. The chag is part of the fabric of our life. Even secular Jews mark Passover as a time of vacation, trips and outings. There is no mail, no bus service during the days of chag. We look forward a whole winter to this season of family and community gathering. There is no Sunday here. There is no Presidents Day weekend. This is it! Pesach is not an addendum to our life, something extra. Pesach and all the Jewish events are integral to our life and calendar.
When holidays are "atem", belonging to us, meaning they are intrinsic to our lifestyle their can only be sadness when they depart. Indeed the hassidim of my friends youth lived Jewish life, even in the galut, like we live it today in Eretz Yisrael. For them there was no Sunday, no 4th of July, and Succot was an eight day h Thanksgiving, minus the turkey. No wonder they were loathe to see the holidays leave.

And the same could be said for Yom Hashoa, The Day of Holocaust Remembrance. In America in order to feel connected to this important day of identification with our brothers and sisters who perished at the hands of the murderous Nazis, we have to go to a special service of remembrance. Otherwise the day will feel just like any other. Here in Israel, no service is necessary. Sirens go off all over country for two minutes at exactly the same time. Everyone stops what they are doing. Even those in cars on the highway, pull-over. Everyone stands, wherever they are in a common time of silence and sadness. The same will be true this coming week with the day of remembrance for the soldiers who fell in defence of our country, and later in the joyous celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence day. Here these event are part of the tapestry of our lives. They are not obligations. They are consistent with who we are , expressions of our national self.

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that the day a person brings a sacrifice to the Temple is for him/her a holiday, a personal holiday. And because its a holiday for him/her s/he is forbidden from work. Note the sequence of events. Its not the prohibition from work that makes it a holiday. On the contrary, because it's for him/her a holiday that no work should be done.

There lies the key. If the holiday or feeling of a special occasion precedes the call to the observances sorrounding it the event will forever feel fresh and desired.
If the observances are the base for the holidays existence in our life it will likely,at some point, lose its flavor.

The truth is really simple here. Jewish life is meant to be lived in a Jewish state.
Nowhere is that truth more compelling that on a Yom Tov, Jewish Festival, or a day of reigious and national meaning.

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

  1. All so true, all so well said, Israel. Shabbat Shalom