THE HOLIDAYS, SEFER VAYIKRA, AND THE SPIRAL OF LIFE
Among the most famous sections in Parashat Emor, is chapter 23, the description of the various holidays on the Jewish calendar. Read on each of the three major festivals, this chapter provides the dates for each holiday, as well as the major rituals involved in the observance of these dates.
However, there is one glaring peculiarity about this chapter. While the focus of the chapter is the holidays, the section begins by discussing Shabbat (23:3). There is no doubt that Shabbat is a holy day on the calendar, and the holidays share many features with Shabbat (most notably the prohibition of performing labor) and are often referred to as being "Shabbat" or "Shabbaton." However, there is also no doubt that Shabbat is decidedly different from the holidays. From a strictly textual perspective, Shabbat has its roots in creation (as well as the Exodus from Egypt), and is included among the Ten Commandments, something which does not apply to the other holidays. Furthermore, Shabbat is something that is fixed - it happens every seven days regardless of what else is happening in the world. By contrast, the festivals are connected to the Jewish calendar, which is determined by the Jewish Sanhedrin (high court), and thus are subject to change.
While it seems that Shabbat is somewhat out of place, especially in its being referred to as a "mikra kodesh" (a holy convocation, usually used to describe the festivals), I would like to suggest that the appearance of Shabbat here sheds light on a trend in the second half of Sefer Vayikra, and that that trends provides us with a crucial concept of what Judaism is supposed to be.
It has often been noted that the second part of Sefer Vayikra, beginning around the end of Parashat Acharei-Mot, deals with the concept of "kedusha" in all of its manifestations. AsRashi notes at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim (19:2), the idea of "kedusha," usually translated as holiness, refers to the need for one to separate himself from the pleasures of this world, or for one to be separated from those who would otherwise be similar to him. By way of example, an animal which is set aside to be sacrificed becomes "holy" insofar as it is no longer just another cow, but now is a cow whose purpose is to be part of the ritual worship of Hashem. Thus, that animal attains a status of "kodesh."
There are three types of kedusha discussed in this part of Sefer Vayikra - kedusha of man, kedusha of time, and kedusha of land. From the end of Acharei-Mot until the middle of Emor, there is a discussion of the kedusha of man. The Jews are commanded to make themselves holy, and the priests are commanded to separate themselves even further, and thus to become even holier. Chapter 23 in Emor deals with the kedusha of time, as we are commanded to designate certain times in the year which will serve as "holy-days," days on which we will spend our time observing specific commandments and generally trying ton improve our relationship with Hashem. Finally, Parashat Behar discusses the ideas of making the land holy, as we are commanded to allow the land to lie fallow every seven years and every fifty years. In all cases, the word "kodesh" constantly recurs, stressing the underlying purpose of these actions.
However, there is a dichotomy in each of these three sections, one which is perhaps seen most strongly by time, but is true in all cases. Sometimes something is holy because Hashem makes it so, and sometimes something is holy because man makes it so. The Jewish people are commanded to make themselves holy. How is this done? By following the various laws given in Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. Kedoshim in particular is interesting since it is fairly pro-active. The parasha begins with a slew of positive commandments, indicating that we become holy not only be refraining from certain actions, but by being active participants in specific mitzvot.
On the other hand, the priests seem to be holy whether they want to be or not. The beginning of Parashat Emor is filled with strictures that the priestly clan must observe, forbidding them to marry certain people, become impure for certain people, and perform the service if they have certain bodily blemishes. Their role is to be holy, and they take part in this role simply by preserving that status. However, they are not given a set of actions that will elevate them from being regular Jews to being holy priests.
Time is also subject to this dichotomy. On the one hand, there is Shabbat. Shabbat is fixed since creation, and does not require man to bring it into existence. Every seventh day is automatically holy, regardless of who is observing it or how they are observing it. On the other hand, there are the other holidays on the year, which are brought into being only through a creative act on the part of the Jewish people. Only when the Jews work to generate this holiness can it be conferred on the holidays.
This approach is evident by the holiness of the land as well. The Shemitta (Sabbatical) year happens every seventh year, and our role is simply to lay down our farming tools and observe the holiness of the year. Shemitta is described as a "Shabbat Shabbaton," conjuring up images of the other holiness which happens automatically, that of Shabbat. By contrast, the fiftieth year, Yovel (Jubilee), is not referred to as Shabbat, and, as one would expect, exists only when man makes it so. We are required to announce the coming of Yovel and to blow the shofar when it begins. Once again, we see the notion of an automatic holiness and a man-made holiness coming together in similar concepts.
What does this all mean? On one level, the message is very obvious. Judaism is neither solely a man-made religion, nor is it a religion imposed from Heaven. If it were the former, it would face the inevitable danger of man discovering a new deity or a new form of worship or a new fad, and abandoning Judaism entirely. Rational religions have never managed to include Hashem as we know Him, and ecstatic religions tend to die out with time. Thus, there is an aspect to Judaism that is imposed form above. However, a religion that would be completely imposed by Hashem would like vitality. It would consist of obedient lackeys following the word of a supreme being in a rote and mechanical manner, unable to do otherwise, but also unable to instill their service with vibrancy and enthusiasm. As such, Judaism brings both of these features together. The religion as a whole is commanded by Hashem, as a safeguard that it will always last. However, at that same time man is instructed to be creative within the religion, to the point where man can create even holiness. This ensures that the practice of Judaism will remain as an elan vital among its people, guaranteeing not only the survival of the religion, but of the religious individual as well.
This idea can perhaps be expressed geometrically as well. In his classic work "The Screwtape Letters," C. S. Lewis discusses the conflict between the "horror of the same old thing" and man's sense of novelty. The evil force inside man seeks to drain him of his vibrant human spirit by having him grow tired of the inevitable cycle in which summer follows spring, and fall follows summer, and so on in an endless procession through life. However, this force is foiled by man's constant appreciation of the renewal of the world. The flowers newly blooming in spring, while they are the same flowers that bloomed last year, are still seen as fresh and new and as a symbol of rebirth.
Our holidays can be placed into this idea as well. Why do we not tire of them? Pesach this year has the same laws as Pesach of last year and the year before, and this pattern applies to Shavuot and Succot as well. Why does this circle not bore us and drive us to look for new customs and laws and practices? The answer is that our calendar is not a circle, but rather a spiral. We do not suffer from the horror of the same old thing simply because it is never the same old thing for us. Since we are active partners in the creation of the holidays (unlike the seasons in Lewis's example), each year we see the holidays in a new light. Yes, the essence of the holiday is the same thing, but we have the opportunity to raise it to a new level each year. The notion of kedusha, as described in our parasha and those that precede and follow it, is that we remain holy by constantly becoming holy, and our spiral is constantly leading us higher and higher, towards an ever-renewed and stronger relationship with Hashem.
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