The rabbis of old firmly held to the belief that there are no extraneous words or passages in the Torah. This week’s Torah reading, a repetition of the Jewish holy-day calendar, challenges this position. After all, there are only very minor differences between the holy-day calendar in Leviticus 23, and the parallel passages found in Exodus 23, Numbers 28 and 29, and Deuteronomy 16.
One suggestion as to why we are commanded again and again to observe these holidays is that the Torah sees the celebration and observance of these special days as being critical to Jewish continuity. The Jewish calendar has been the glue that has kept the Jewish people united across time and space. Observance of Shabbat and the other holy days of the Jewish year causes each of us to recognize that God is both the creator of the universe and the giver of Torah who acts in history. Each and every holiday is connected to both a reference to the natural world and to an event in the history of the Jewish people. Every Shabbat and holiday is therefore an opportunity for us to make time kadosh (holy), by remembering the past, appreciating the wonder of the world in which we live, and passing on our love of God and our connection to the Jewish people to future generations.
A second purpose of this Jewish calendar is to challenge us to make time in our lives to look beyond the immediate tasks we face and appreciate the beauty of life. The biblical formula for observance of festivals is quite simple and direct. The celebration of each holy day involves making a distinction between the every day and the holy day. The prohibitions against work, the plea to gather together in a communal setting to celebrate, and the command to bring the fruit of our labor to the service of God remain as relevant a challenge to you and me today as they were to our biblical ancestors. The Levitical calendar found in our Torah reading this Shabbat stresses that time becomes holy only when we separate it from the mundane as well as the profane.
The calendar in Leviticus 23 begins by reminding us to observe Shabbat not for the benefit it has for us personally, but rather as a sign of our love for God. The Torah alludes to a fact that each of us can confirm by our own experience as Jews living here in Bergen County: Shabbat and the holidays occur only when we observe them. For the vast majority of people of Bergen County Friday night and Saturday are the beginning of the weekend. Friday night and Saturday become Shabbat only when we, in the words of Exodus 31, “La-asot et HaShabbat,” make it Shabbat, by taking active steps to affirm and acknowledge it as Shabbat. This passage became the Sabbath prayer known as “V’shamru” and is repeated three different times in our Sabbath liturgy.
Another significance of the Jewish calendar is its definition for us of freedom. According to all the biblical calendars, the year begins with Passover not Rosh Hashanah. Passover marks the beginning of Jewish history. It is our original Yom Ha’atzmaut, our first Independence Day. Passover, according to Leviticus 23:15 and 16, is connected to the next festival on the biblical calendar, Shavuot, by a ritual called the counting of the Omer. The theme of Passover is liberation. The holiday of Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud refer to Shavuot as “Atzeret” or a concluding festival. Their reference helps us to clearly see that the Jewish definition of freedom is liberation plus acceptance of the rule of law.
Jewish communal unity, Jewish spirituality, respect for Jewish ritual actions as carriers of Jewish values, and the necessity of Torah for the maintenance of freedom are all values the Jewish calendar conveys to us. The wonder of wonders is that these values are taught to us in the atmosphere of celebration. Our observance of Shabbat and the holidays connects us to God and to each other. Moreover, through the power of memory, the festivals – which in Hebrew are called moadim, a word linguistically connected to the term moed, meaning meeting place – help to keep alive for us our bonds to both our own loved ones who have died and to the 4,000-year chain of Jewish life that links us to Abraham and Sarah. Thus the festivals become true moadim, meeting times, for us: A time when we meet together with each other; a time when our past and our future meet in the present; a time when we are challenged to meet God.