“The Gift of Celebration”
(Revised and updated from Emor 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The second half of this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, presents a review of most of the Biblical festivals of the Jewish calendar.

Leviticus 23:3, opens with a pronouncement concerning the sanctity of Shabbat. The chapter then continues with a description of the Biblical festivals. The Torah, in Leviticus 23:4 declares in G-d’s name: אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי השׁם, מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם בְּמוֹעֲדָם , These are the festivals of G-d, the holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appropriate time. This same verse is repeated, as a recurring theme line for each festival.

The Jewish calendar and the holidays are not only very special, they are extremely rational. They resonate! There’s something very natural about them, at least for those who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Celebrating the new year in the middle of the winter, as northerners who follow the secular calendar do, 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, for the most part, not a concern, and if ever there were an appropriate time for self-improvement resolutions, the two seasons with longer nights seem the most appropriate times for introspection and self-evaluation.

Imagine a calendar without a day of rest and without special holidays. How long could humans endure?

I recall, as a little boy, being told by my father, of blessed memory, a wonderful story (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. The nation was extremely prosperous, and the king was deeply beloved by his subjects. But life was oh-so routine, nothing special, absolutely nothing exciting. Eat, work, sleep—eat, work, sleep. How boring! How mundane! How frustrating!

Suddenly, word reached the king concerning 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 due to depression and despair.

The king summoned his wise advisors for an emergency consultation, and concluded that the repetitive routine of life in the kingdom was simply 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 arose who saved the country from what would have been certain destruction. The advisors suggested: “Let’s celebrate the great military victory and our heroic leader!” With that, a wave of celebrations began throughout the empire.

To make a very, very long story short, celebrations became the rage of the day. Eventually, they got so out of hand, that 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. Gathering courage, he 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 their 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.

As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Clearly, things have a way of repeating themselves.

We who dwell in the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, enjoy many of the greatest comforts of life. But, are we a happy people? In order to keep us smiling, our entertainment industry must constantly push the envelope, producing more and more, so-called, “exciting” entertainment, often nothing more than more graphic, more violent and more sexual fare.

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

I’ve often said that, irrespective of whether one believes in G-d or not, Judaism and the Jewish way of life is a totally rational system. It’s normal and natural. The Jewish life cycle is in total sync with our bodies and minds. Unquestionably, life becomes much more meaningful when G-d is sincerely accepted into our lives.

May the future years be thoroughly enhanced, by many, many Divine celebrations.

May you be blessed.