Holiday Thoughts

Some Reflections on the year 2020

“Ezra enacted for the Jewish people that they should read the curses that are recorded in Vayikra before Shavuot and [the curses] of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah. What is the reason? Abaye, and some say it was Reish Lakish, said: In order that the year may end together with its curses” (Megillah 31b).

While the above is said regarding the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah, there are few who would argue that it is most relevant as the year 2020 comes to an end. 

Asara b'Tevet and Christmas

For better or worse, in the minds of many—Jew and non-Jew alike—Chanukah and Christmas are two sides of a similar, if not the same, coin. Chanukah is often identified as the mechanism by which Jews celebrate the holiday season, and Christmas as the way in which gentile society celebrates. With so many peoples of other cultures, faiths, and no faith living in the West, the focus at this time of year is often less of a religious nature, and more a generic time for holiday celebrations.

Chanukah: Clothes Make the Man

There is no more powerful symbol than light in our tradition. It is how we usher in the Shabbat, march down the wedding aisle, mark the yahrzeit of a loved one. Light is the symbol of spirituality which, unlike matters physical, is not diminished when shared. Our spiritual legacy endures long after our physical demise. Our Torah is “Torah Ohr”, the Light of Torah, uniting generations past with those not yet born.

Chanukah: Back to the Future

Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah? the Talmud (Shabbat 21ba) queries, a question we find with respect to no other holiday. The Talmud explains that Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, allowing the needed time to prepare fresh pure oil. However, in reciting al hanissim during davening and birchat hamazon, the focus is very different. Here the miracle of Chanukah is one in which G-d delivered "the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few".

Shmini Atzeret: A Dual Holiday

The Jewish holidays have two distinct themes. The shalosh regalim, three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, occurring at key agricultural seasons, are a time to reflect on our material blessings, specifically in the land of Israel.

Concurrently, these same holidays commemorate the formative historical events in the founding of our nation, affording an opportunity to reflect on the mission of the Jewish people.

Sukkot: Leading by Example

For many years, students were introduced to the study of Talmud with Eilu Metziot, the second chapter of masechet Bava Metzia, focusing on the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, returning lost objects. Beyond the technical details of this mitzvah, Talmud study is introduced with a message about helping others. The mitzvah of hashavat aveidah is a chidush, an original teaching, of the Torah. It requires us to spend time and effort to help someone who, quite likely through carelessness, lost an object.

The Sukkah of Yom Kippur

As important (if not more so) as what one says is how it is said, when it is said, and what is not said. This is equally true regarding both our interactions with other people and our religious texts. Form is as important as substance. So much of Jewish law is derived by looking at form over substance, the 39 forbidden activities of Shabbat being just one of many examples[1].

Yom Kippur: Long Term Planning

“We work and get reward and they work and do not get reward?” This statement, said when one completes a Talmudic tractate, articulates a fundamental difference between a “religious” approach to life and a “secular” one. In the world at large one is rewarded based on results. It is the bottom line that matters, and few are interested in why, what or how you accomplished – or did not accomplish – your goals. Excuses just don’t cut it regardless of how true they may be.

Aseret Yemi Teshuva: The Freedom to Choose

“In a place where ba’alei teshuva stand there, not even the fully righteous can stand” (Brachot 34b). This teaching is generally understood to mean that penitents are on a higher level than the fully righteous. The underlying premise of this teaching is that sinning is enjoyable—if it were not so, then why sin?—and it is much harder to give up something that one has already enjoyed than to refrain from starting in the first place. I imagine I would enjoy lobster, but having never tasted it, I do not miss it.

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