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The Seasons of God

This week’s Torah portion, אמור (Emor), includes a section that includes the מועדים (moadim). How exactly to translate the term מועד, to convey its proper significance, is not simple. Shabbat, for example, is mentioned first in this section and if you notice it is set off from the rest of the special days that follow. It is different from the other special days in the Jewish year. It was designated holy by God from creation. The other holidays require a proclamation by the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court. The Sanhedrin declares a new month based upon their calculations. Then we count to the appropriate day of the month, say the 15th of Nissan, to initiate Pesach as a holiday. This process does not happen for Shabbat. A second distinction of Shabbat, as everyone knows, is that it is weekly and not seasonal. In what way then is Shabbat a “moed?”

While the term “moed” can be understood as “seasons,” “festivals,” or “holidays,” by Shabbat it clearly has a different meaning. In the Torah we come across the term, “ארון העדות”  “the ark of testimony.” Here the form of the word מועד comes from the root, עד, which means a witness and עדות, meaning testimony. Shabbat is celebrated to give testimony or to serve as a witness for two primary concepts. First, we testify that the universe has a Creator. Second, this Creator relates to man. To drive home the idea of a completed, purposeful universe, created by the Creator, we cease from engaging in 39 major categories of physical creativity on Shabbat. Second, all of our other holy days stem from the second underlying idea tied to Shabbat. This Creator of the universe relates to man. Shabbat also serves as “a remembrance of our exodus from Egypt.” Our initiation of Shabbat on Friday night with the recitation of the קידוש makes clear reference to these two concepts.

Is there then some commonality or underlying idea running through this term that the Torah calls all of our holy days ה’ מועדי (“seasons of God”)? Judaism, as way of life, is unique in many ways. One uniqueness is to note “how” we celebrate but perhaps more important is to consider “what” we are celebrating. When we reflect on the “what” often times the “how” becomes obvious. A few examples will help clarify this relationship.

The Creator was responsible for our liberation from Egypt, so we have the holiday of Pesach to commemorate that concept. We celebrate by performing activities directly associated with God in that process of liberation. The Creator wants this liberated people to model a certain way of life for all humanity, so He gave us the manual, the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The holiday of Shavuot commemorates that singular event.

The Creator is mindful of our actions on a personal level as well. We have a Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah. This personal and Divine accounting of our deeds culminates ten days later with a day of repentance and forgiveness, Yom Kippur. So it is understandable that our extended New Year’s celebration is not with parties and drinking but with fasting, prayer and reflection.

Finally we arrive at Sukkot. The most essential idea here is that the Creator is also our protector and sustainer. We celebrate these concepts first by moving out of our secure dwelling, our home, into more flimsy living quarters for the week. Second we hold and shake special vegetation that is extremely water dependent. Both activities call to mind that our temporary, dependent existence is also a tenuous one. If rain comes at the wrong time or not at all, humanity’s survival is at stake.

When we are in line with the Creator, truly in step, we have a joyous life. We experience, so to speak, being in God’s presence. Through the celebration of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, we model that it is possible for mankind to achieve this relationship with the Creator. Interesting to note, on this holy day there are no special activities. Simply, we have a day set aside and designated to enjoy that relationship with God.

Why do all of our holy days include the prohibition of work? The prohibition of certain creative productivity serves to create an unencumbered atmosphere whereby we can focus on the specific idea(s) highlighted during each particular celebration. What is the upshot? In Judaism we are celebrating true ideas about God. How did God insure that would happen? By sprinkling these special days throughout the yearly cycle of Jewish life, both weekly and periodically, we gather in our homes and synagogues, testify as a people, reflect on specific concepts, and engage in activities (mitzvoth) designed to reinforce these universal ideas of God and His relationship to the Jewish nation.

If we take advantage of the Shabbat and holiday system, the appointed “seasons of God,” מועדי ה’, not only do we elevate ourselves individually but collectively we become “ ממלכת כוהנים וגוי קדוש, a kingdom of priest and a holy nation.”  We, as a Jewish nation, are to be distinguished from all other nations, reflecting the true ideas of God for all to see and embrace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan