Catch the Rhythm

The Jewish holidays can help those on the periphery gain access to the rhythm of Jewish life.

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

The most significant part of this Torah portion comes toward its end when it states, “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Lev. 23: 1-2). Here, God instructs Moses on when the Israelites should celebrate holy days such as Passover, Shavuot, and Rosh Hashanah. These holiday instructions are given in the context of sacrifices, since sacrifices were the leitmotif of sacred observances in the ancient world.

While we may have replaced sacrificial offerings with prayer offerings–in the form of a liturgy that identifies a special day–one thing has remained constant since ancient times: these holidays are occasions for the entire family (and community, by extension) to come together and celebrate. By taking part, one could feel in sync with the rhythm of Jewish life that guided the entire society. But the biggest challenge, to which the text is alluding, is the same: gaining that first entrance into the rhythm of Jewish life.

This rhythm is what specifically identifies the Jewish people, even as we find our lives being influenced by various calendars. Perhaps it is one reason that we persist in debating whether the holidays are early or late–they almost never seem to be on time. Nevertheless, while holidays are among the primary guideposts for Jewish time, they are not alone. There are many other indicators. For the individual immersed in Jewish time, the cycle of the Torah reading itself, for example, is a primary indictor of Jewish time–where we stand in the ongoing saga of the journey of the ancient Jewish people.

But again, we return to the question of how to provide initial access to this Jewish rhythm, especially for those on the periphery of the community? What are the entry points for those who are potential newcomers to Jewish life? The answers, conveniently, are contained alongside the questions in this Torah portion: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.”

In other words, the holidays God provided give us the best access points for people to enter the community, to demonstrate how inclusive is the Jewish community, and to underscore their sacredness in the midst of a less than sacred world. Guests in the sukkah. Friends and neighbors around the seder table. Contained in these holidays–when shared properly–are the values which draw people to the community. The rhythm follows.

Provided by Big Tent Judaism, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

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