“The Gift of Celebration”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the second half of this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, there is a review of most of the Biblical festivals of the Jewish calendar. Leviticus 23 starts with the pronouncement concerning the sanctity of Shabbat (verse 3), and the chapter continues with a description of the festivals. The Torah declares in G-d’s name (verse 4): “Eylah mo’adei Hashem, mik’raei kodesh, asher tik’r’u otam b’mo’adam,” These are the festivals of G-d, the holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appropriate time. This verse is repeated for each festival as if it were a theme line, which of course it is.

There is something really special about the Jewish calendar and the Jewish holidays. They resonate! There’s something very natural about them, at least for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Celebrating the new year in the middle of the winter, as is done by those who follow the secular calendar, is somewhat dissonant (and cold). Frankly, of all the times of the year to begin a new year, the end of summer and the beginning of fall seems most natural. The new school term begins, heat waves are mostly gone, and if ever there was an appropriate time for self-improvement resolutions, the two seasons with longer nights seem the most appropriate for introspection and self-evaluation.

Imagine a calendar without a day of rest and without special holidays. How long could we endure? I remember as a little boy being told a story by my father (it was actually a story entitled Am HaYovlim written by Yitzchak Katzanelenboigen) concerning a very ancient people that had lost its way, and its religion. It was an extraordinarily prosperous nation, and the King was a truly beloved figure. But life was oh-so routine, nothing special, absolutely nothing exciting. Eat – work – sleep, eat – work – sleep. How boring! Suddenly, reports reached the King about a wave of depression besetting the nation. One day, a report arrived at the palace that deeply shocked the monarchy and its leaders: a citizen had actually taken his own life because of depression and despair.

The King’s wise advisors gathered for an emergency consultation and concluded that the routine of life in the empire was just too overbearing, and that special events and celebrations were needed to add color and joy to the lives of the citizens.

Not long before the discovery of the national “emotional” emergency, there was an actual physical threat to the nation’s existence. Fierce enemies had attacked the empire, but a heroic warrior rose to save the country from what would have been certain destruction. The advisors suggested: “Let’s celebrate the great military victory and our heroic leader!” That began a wave of celebrations throughout the empire.

To make a very, very long story short, celebrations became the rage of the day. It got so out of hand, that eventually celebrations were planned for every inconsequential and insignificant occasion. People had to be literally kidnapped and dragged to the celebrations!

Soon, a mob of discontented citizens gathered in front of an old dilapidated Temple, the seat of their ancient neglected religion. The King was dismayed at the possibility that his people might be planning an insurrection. He gathered courage, and went to confront the people. Upon entering the Temple, he encountered an old priest who told him that the people had lost their way because the empire had abandoned the ancient faith. The priest reminded the King of the wonderful celebrations of Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth that were observed in previous times.

Of course, they all lived happily ever after, as the empire reintroduced the ancient seasonal celebrations which were so logical and meaningful.

Clearly, things have a way of repeating themselves. Here we are, the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, but are we a happy people? In order to keep us smiling, our entertainment industry must constantly produce more and more graphic, violent and sexual fare.

Contemporary society, especially the Jewish people, need a change of direction. We need to achieve a more meaningful existence-–to encounter the spiritual and the metaphysical forces that are embedded in our souls. Let us begin this transformation by looking for the very special essences that are to be found in each of our holidays. Let us celebrate our holidays with enthusiasm and earnestness. Let us allow ourselves to feel the magic of the seasonal changes-–the mystique of the ingathering of the harvest. Let us acknowledge how much we truly rely on G-d for our economic, agricultural and spiritual sustenance, by leaving our homes and dwelling in booths (Sukkoth), entirely vulnerable to the elements. Let us salute springtime, the season that marked the dawn of our liberation from Egypt, by celebrating Passover. Let us rejoice at the arrival of the new crops, the wheat and the barley, and celebrate the occasion on which our people received its greatest intellectual and religious legacy, the Torah, on Shavuot.

I’ve often said that, irrespective of whether one believes in G-d or not, Judaism and the Jewish life cycle make so much sense. It’s normal. It’s natural. It’s in sync with our bodies and our minds. And, imagine how much more meaningful it becomes when we sincerely accept G-d into our lives.

May the future years of your life be truly enhanced by many many Divine celebrations.

May you be blessed.