by Rabbi Rona Shapiro, Congregation B’nai Jacob, Woodbridge
People often misunderstand the purpose of the holidays. They think they celebrate historical triumphs: they tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat. That is true but if that is all you know you are only scratching the surface.
Holidays in any culture are like secret code — understand the holidays and you understand what the culture is about. Pesach – we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us. Shavuot – God didn’t only set us free, he gave us a purpose – the Torah. Sukkot – our bounty is in God’s hands – we are grateful for what we are given. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – we need to take time, at least once a year, and look at what we have done, take responsibility for it, and set a new course. We make mistakes but we can ask forgiveness and move on. We tell our story through matza and sukkahs, through waving lulavim and twirling graggers, but the messages come through – you were strangers in a strange land. You know what it is to be a stranger. Do not oppress the widow, the stranger, the orphan. God took us out of Egypt. The roots of our tradition stand against tyranny. God is on the side of justice and miracles can happen. Life is forgiving but you are accountable. And most of all, the gift of Shabbat – our gift to the world – that you are not created just to work, that you are a human being, not just a human doing, and that you are entitled to rest, to cease from your labor, to enjoy the world and cease from your creations and destructions.
Pretty powerful pedagogy! Even when the message gets lost, as it so often does in our schools and even for us, the symbol persists, laden with meaning, waiting to be understood by the inquisitive child or the wise elder.
And more than this! To be a Jew is to orient yourself to this calendar, to know that New Year’s comes in September and not January, that April means Pesach, not taxes, and that, as I am writing this in the month of Adar, when joy increases. It is that the rhythm of your days and your weeks, reminds you like a song – God created the world, you were slaves in Egypt, don’t oppress the orphan, be thankful, say I’m sorry, little guys sometimes beat out tyrants, miracles happen, God helps. To live by this calendar is to know who you are, to know your place in the world, to give meaning and shape to time that is otherwise shapeless. Our calendar is not one damned day after another – it is Shabbat to Shabbat, havdalah to havdalah, Adar to Nisan, and so on. You are not the sole author, giving meaning to your days on earth – those days also give meaning to you, a meaning determined by your people.