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Friday, August 22, 2014

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Making holidays into holy days

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We have just come through another month of chaggim, those ubiquitous holidays that start off the school year. We call them holy days. What is the difference between holidays and holy days?

Let me state at the outset that I often get irritated with this interruption of my work week. At times, there is a full month of days missed, of classes to make up, of studies lost and work piled up. I need to write, be at meetings and get stuff done. These days are lost to me as working days, and while my colleagues get ahead, I fall behind. On top of that complaint, my very traditional role brings with it an added burden. It sometime feels like I cook and clean up all the time. There are often three days strung together during which we eat, go to synagogue and then eat large meals again and again. All that “festive” time requires advance preparation, marketing and cooking. In order to invest joy in our meals, guests are invited, again requiring extra kitchen work. So much for the spirituality of the moment. We’re called upon to be happy on these festivals, but doing the dishes at 11 p.m. is a strain on the joy factor.

So where’s the simchah, the elation, of holy days? Where can we find the fullness of the holidays during this month in modernity?

A holiday is a vacation. In a way, these days are vacations that are imposed on us. The challenge is to find in them ways and means to break with our daily and annual routines. How can we do that?

The method developed in our tradition is to confront the work ethic and space in a new frame. What does that mean to me? I had to use these days off to figure out what chafes at work and what is smooth. What angers and what calms me in my career? Slowly, as I sat and prayed, the twists in my gut became guides to problems and expenditures that perhaps I should no longer be paying. Perhaps by taking some time away from classes when I don’t have time, I’m forced to understand the essentials of teaching and the price of education. Challenged by time off, if I listen carefully to myself, I can learn a lot.  Slowly, I can come to grips with issues central to my core of beliefs and goals. Slowly this forced vacation from teaching has turned into a spiritual quest, into a holy day.

So, too, can my other petty complaints be exposed. Yes, I spend too much time in the food department. But truth be told, I love it, even though I am bone tired. I love feeding people good food. I enjoy cooking, making intricate meal plans and designing new recipes. I like having a diverse group of people around my table talking, arguing, and laughing. To me, the holidays become sanctified as guests sit around a table and bless the food I prepare. So I’m tired and overworked, but I know of no other way to make the days sacred. The rituals of holy days are centred in shared meals.

Somehow our ancestors understood the need for holiness and for celebration. They anchored our tradition with these elaborate rituals of prayer and food. And it can work. Perhaps it’s a bit overdone. Perhaps two to three days of yom tov, holy day, is too much for anyone. Perhaps we would all do better with the Israeli model: one day of yom tov only.

But no matter the number of days, the actual experience depends on a great deal of human effort, both spiritual and physical. Without real preparation, understanding and intention, nothing works well. After many decades, I’m beginning to get it. I’ll still complain. That’s my nature. The physical can overwhelm me and take precedence over the existential and the holy. I do live in the moment.

But once we can get into the fullness of the actual celebration, the joy of the ritual moment takes charge, as it’s meant to. The holiday becomes a holy day, and I’m surrounded by joy and a glimpse of the sacred.

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