It is hard to imagine a more impactful ritual than that of our weekly Torah reading. While its origins date to Moshe Rabbeinu—acting in his capacity as a rabbinic sage, not as prophet delivering G-d's message—and Ezra the scribe, it was not until the Middle Ages that our annual Torah reading cycle was firmly established. It is through the prism of the weekly Torah reading that Jewish life operates. I shudder to think what would happen to our knowledge of the Bible if not for parshat hashavua; one need only examine how well versed we are in the rest of Tanach to get an inkling.
While the weekly Torah reading follows a set cycle, the Torah reading selected by our Sages to be read on holidays reflect the themes of the day. We read, for example, about the exodus on Pesach and the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot.
Yet the reason for the reading chosen by our Sages for Shabbat Chol Hamoed—both on Pesach and Sukkot—is far from obvious. Taken from parshat Ki-Tissa, it focuses on the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. While the last few verses make mention of the three pilgrim festivals, it is those verses that seem out of context in relation to the main theme of the reading.
It is on the Yamim Tovim that we celebrate the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. We were formed as a nation on Pesach and received our raison d'être on Shavuot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are opportunities to renew our relationship with G-d, followed by Sukkot when we celebrate G-d's protective canopy hovering above us. Shmini Atzeret celebrates the special relationship between G-d and the Jewish people as we head into the long winter months.
While Shabbat is rooted in nature, Yom Tov is rooted in history. This notion is reflected by the fact that Shabbat occurs like clockwork every seven days, whereas Yom Tov is dependent on—and determined by—the Jewish people sanctifying the moon. It is we who tell G-d when to sit in judgment; and we have declared that such judgment cannot take place on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday, known in rabbinic parlance as lo adu rosh.
It is man who determines the start of Yom Tov, just as man determines much of the unfolding of history. It is on Yom Tov that we must “rejoice in the festival", and that same mitzvah of simcha (joy) demands that we go to Jerusalem, where G-d's presence is most readily felt. It is at the Temple where fear of G-d and joy in being in His presence merge. Yet for many, this merger is most difficult. Often we seek G-d in inappropriate (even if well-meaning) ways.
The Jewish people were on a spiritual high; having left Egypt, defeated Amalek, seen food fall from heaven, and heard—nay, saw (see Shemot 20:15)—the all-too-powerful voice of G-d at Sinai. They wanted G-d right in their midst. When Moshe, who in their eyes represented G-d, went “missing” they demanded of Aaron, “Rise up and make for us a god” (Shemot 32:1). What a noble if misplaced sentiment. “They arose the next day and sacrificed burnt offerings and brought peace offerings” (v. 5)—offerings we are commanded to bring on the festivals—“and the people sat down to eat and drink”—activities we are commanded to do on the festivals.
Yet while their desire for closeness to G-d is to be commended, their method is not. The G-d of Israel demands that something as powerful as the worship of the Creator of the Universe be done in a particular fashion. The minute details of Jewish law teach that it is not enough to seek G-d; rather, we must do so in a prescribed fashion. There is much room for personal manifestation of spirituality, but there are red lines we dare not cross. Even—perhaps especially—the righteous amongst us need to be mindful of this. This is a point most strikingly brought home with the death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, for bringing an “eish zara (a foreign fire) to G-d” (Vayikra 10:1). The term zara should make us shudder, as avodah zara is the biblical word for idolatry. The line between avodat Hashem and avodah zara is often thin indeed.
Nowhere is this emphasis on detail more pronounced than on Pesach (and in all matters relating to the Temple service). The reading on Sukkot (which has plenty of its own detailed laws) and Pesach picks up when G-d has forgiven us, understanding that we do not live up to what is demanded of us. We may not be able to fully understand G-d or His demands upon us—not even Moshe was granted such understanding—but G-d does reveal to us His “13 attributes of mercy”, allowing for reconciliation after sin.
On Yom Tov, we strive to feel the presence of G-d. There are risks involved, but those risks are greatly mitigated by the knowledge of G-d's abundant mercy and willingness to forgive.
“In the beginning, our ancestors worshiped idols”. While this is generally understood to refer to Terach—as pointed out by the Haggadah itself—our Jewish ancestors, the same ancestors who experienced the Exodus, also worshipped idols. Yet it is that desire for holiness that enabled them to recreate an even stronger bond with G-d. “And now the Holy One, blessed be He, has brought us to worship Him”. Sadly, so many today seek no gods. May our yearning for G-d lead us to emulate the G-d of mercy. Chag Sameach!