What’s Different about Jewish Holidays?

Sermon given September 18, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

What’s different about Jewish holidays? Just ask the folks who work at your supermarket. Jewish holidays involve much more food. Even if we’re not consuming greater quantities, which we probably are, how can our poor grocers be expected to keep straight which foods go with which holiday? Passover is the most egregious example, for then we require entire aisles and special displays, but other holidays also present special culinary demands, from apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah to blintzes on Shavuot.

Food is not the only, or even the most important, distinguishing feature of Jewish holidays. Our celebrations have differed from those of our neighbors since the dawn of Jewish history.

In the ancient Near East, where our holidays developed, the festivals of surrounding peoples were primarily agricultural. Usually, they also focused on events in the lives of their gods. A feast at the outset of the rainy season, for example, might celebrate the primeval victory of the rain god, while a fertility goddess might be at the center of a spring harvest festival. A high holy day, if you will, would celebrate the prehistoric triumph of the chief god over his rivals, even if the defeated gods also continued to be worshiped by the people.

Many of our special days, too, are linked to agriculture. Our holy days, though, are not about events in the life of God. Rather, we celebrate moments in our own lives and in the history of the Jewish people. On special days, we exalt God’s connection to our human existence.

Need I offer examples? Our most ancient festivals — the agricultural pilgrimages of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – are connected to the greatest moments in Jewish history: the Exodus from Egypt and God’s revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Hanukkah and Purim celebrate ancient Jewish victories. Though we praise God for our survival, and worship God on Purim and Hanukkah, the stories of those two holidays scarcely mention God at all. The High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are about to begin, are considerably more focused on God. Nonetheless, they are not so much about God, as they concern the human condition, and its relationship with God, Whom we praise for creation and entreat for forgiveness.

This people-focused holiday characteristic is not shared by all monotheistic religions. In fact, our own interfaith dialogue points to a significant distinction between Jewish and Christian holidays. Consider Christmas and, more importantly, Easter and the entire Lenten season that precedes it, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. These holidays chronicle events in the life of Jesus, whom Christians consider to be God in human form. Christian festivals, apparently more God-centered, may seem to be more religious than our own Jewish celebrations.

Certainly, though, we consider our holidays to be religious. They are, after all, occasions for worship. We perform mitzvot in connection with each of these sacred days. We sanctify our celebrations with words that remind us that the Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, has made us holy through mitzvot, and commanded us to enact appropriate rituals for each holiday.

Since God is the Author of our observances, the Architect of the holidays, there must be a good reason why our celebrations focus more on Jewish people than on God. I will suggest three: first, that Judaism focuses on our covenant with God as a whole people, not just as individuals; second, that God wishes to endow us with a great measure of humility; and finally, that God wants us to understand the singular importance of human life.

A holy day focused on the life of the deity would challenge each of us to do no more than develop our own individual tie to the Divine. Festivals that center on God’s relationship with our people, though, present us with a double obligation: yes, we must explore our personal link to God, but we are called upon to do that in the context of our whole Jewish people. God’s plan, it would seem, is to employ these holy days to bind us both to the Divine and to our fellow Jews.

Yom Kippur is an interesting example. Most of us probably think of the Day of Atonement as a day of very private introspection. Each individual explores actions of the past year. Each person vows to do better in the year ahead. Each one of us singly asks God for forgiveness.

Note, however, that we do not sit in our homes, praying alone for repentance on Yom Kippur. Instead, we come to the synagogue with great throngs. Though there are opportunities for private meditation, much of our confession is stated in the plural. We ask forgiveness al het shehatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed against You. We take responsibility for the sins of our entire community.

Yom Kippur in God’s sight may be no different from any other day. We have never learned that this holiest day is the anniversary of any significant event in the Divine history. Rather, it is a day for all the Jewish people to repair and renew our relationship with God. Yom Kippur is a day for us to understand, as our Gates of Repentance teaches, that while only some are guilty, all are responsible. Yom Kippur is a day that reminds us that our destiny is shared with that of all Jews.

Our modern minds may recoil a bit at this focus on the collective, rather than on the individual. Ours is a world of individual rights and responsibilities. In many ways, that is good. Yet, the communal nature of our Jewish holy days may bring each of us sorely-needed humility. Lest we think that each of us is the ultimate repository of the image of God, our uniquely Jewish festivals remind us that we can not have our unique relationships with God absent the covenant with every other Jew, and with all humankind.

That message of humility is reinforced if we properly understand why our holidays are human-focused. God has designed these festivals in order to achieve a Divine purpose through us. We can not wallow in excessive pride, if we acknowledge that our ultimate mission on Earth is God’s, not our own. God’s method of achieving heavenly goals on Earth is through us. Proper observance of the holy days permits us to do God’s work on Earth, to complete a task that can only be accomplished by human beings.

Passover provides an excellent opportunity to examine this point. Our spring festival celebrates God’s everlasting renewal of the Earth and of the Jewish people. Through the rituals of the Seder, we recall that God saved us from slavery in Egypt, and we celebrate the rebirth of the natural world in springtime. We also open the door for Elijah, inviting the hope for future renewal and liberation.

The message is clear: God wants us to participate in the Earth’s renewal, and in bringing better days to come. God desires a messianic age here on Earth. However, just as God required the assistance of a human agent, Moses, to bring about the Exodus, God needs us to do the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world to make a better future. That message is the ultimate purpose of the Passover observance, ordained by God to achieve a Divine purpose through us.

Passover in God’s sight may be no different from any other day. We have never learned that this holy festival is the anniversary of any significant event in the Divine history. Rather, it is a great day in our Jewish past, the liberation that paved the way for God to give us the Torah, forming us as a people with a mission, God’s mission. Passover reminds us that we owe our freedom to God. We do not serve Pharaoh or any other human servant, even ourselves. We must humbly submit to God’s purpose, to repair the world, through us.

Paradoxically, the same holidays that call us to humility also remind us of humanity’s great significance in God’s eyes. By designing our Jewish holidays to focus on us, on our lives, on our history, God demonstrates that human life is significant. Our lives themselves are cause for rejoicing.

Celebrating the greatness of human life may be at the center of our fall harvest festival, Sukkot. That holiday takes its name from the sukkot, or booths, fragile huts in which we dwell throughout that holy week. Those sukkot remind us that our lives, and certainly their material underpinnings, are fragile. And yet, God commands us to fill those booths with fruits and vegetables, reminding us that our lives, however precarious, are replete with blessings.

On Sukkot, we are actually commanded to be happy. God wants human beings to rejoice in the harvest, not just of agricultural produce, but of all the goodness in our lives. Human life is not meant to be grim, or cold, or lonely, though those, too, we know in some measure. God has created these holidays, for us, about us, to teach us that our lives matter, and that God wants human life to be good, to be pleasant, to be happy.

Like Yom Kippur and Passover, Sukkot is not known as a season of significance in Divine history. Rather, it is connected to life on this earth, to the seasons of the harvest, and also to Jewish history, for we are reminded that God caused us to dwell in sukkot during our forty years of wandering in the desert. God has provided this holiday to teach us to count our blessings, to acknowledge the goodness of God’s world, to revel in the importance of humanity, God’s greatest creation.

Many of us have already been to the grocery store this week, stocking up on Rosh Hashanah goodies, apples and honey, the fixings for a holiday meal, a round hallah. Some people may already have set to work, preparing their break-the-fast for the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Food is indeed a significant attribute of all of our holidays, even when we fast.

There is a danger in all this food-focus, and I’m not talking about high fat or cholesterol. The potential problem is that we’ll get so caught up in the cooking and eating that we’ll forget about the religious significance. I’ve even heard stories about families who gather during the Passover season, eat matzo balls and haroses, but don’t conduct a Seder.

Hopefully, though, the fact that the food is for us will remind us that God has purposefully designed our holidays to focus on human beings. As we celebrate our holy days, then, we will be linked to our covenant with God and all humanity. We will be imbued with proper humility. We will celebrate the significance of our lives. God couldn’t have planned it better.