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The Seasons for God

This week’s Torah portion Emor, אמור, contains within it the section of the “moadim,” מועדים. How exactly to translate the term “moed,” מועד, to convey its proper significance, is not so simple. Sometimes it is translated as “seasons.” Yet Shabbat, for example, is mentioned first in this section but it is not seasonal. You will notice, however, that it is set off from the rest of the special days that follow.

Shabbat is different from the other special days in the Jewish year. Shabbat is designated holy by God from creation. The other holy days require an initiating proclamation by the Sanhedrin to designate them as holy. How is this accomplished? The Sanhedrin first declares the new month based upon witness testimony or their astronomical calculations. The court sends out messengers that announce they declared the new month. Then we count the days to the appropriate day of the month, say the 15th of Nissan, to celebrate Pesach as a holiday. There is no Pesach until the Sanhedrin declares Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This process does not happen for Shabbat. A second distinction of Shabbat, as everyone knows, is that it is weekly and not seasonal. So, in what way, then, is Shabbat a “moed, מועד?”

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, we testify that the Creator of the universe 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. All our other holy days stem from the second underlying idea tied to Shabbat, the Creator of the universe relates to man. This idea explains how Shabbat is “a remembrance of our exodus from Egypt.” The Creator of the universe relates to us. He took us out of Egypt. The recitation of the קידוש Friday night makes clear reference to these two concepts of Shabbat. Is there then some commonality or underlying idea running through the term מועד that the Torah calls all of our holy days ה’ מועדי?

Judaism, as a way of life, is unique in many ways. One uniqueness of our lifestyle is to note “how” we celebrate, but perhaps more unique 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’s manifestation in that process of liberation. The Creator wants these 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 an individual and 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 the 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 live 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 celebration.

What is the upshot? Judaism stands for the true ideas of God. How did God insure that these ideas would be made known to humanity? He sprinkled these special days throughout the yearly cycle of Jewish life, weekly and periodically. On them we gather in our homes and at synagogues, testify as one people to the truth of these ideas, study sections of Jewish law and philosophy related to these concepts, and engage in activities (mitzvot) designed to reinforce these universal ideas of God and His relationship to the Jewish nation.

If we take advantage of the Shabbat and holidays, the designated system of “the 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