By Nir Braudo
The year we read Parashat Emor immediately after Yom Haatzmaut, which concludes the week of Israeli national holidays that have taken form over the last 70 years.
In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, which is at the heart of our Parasha, we see a detailed list of holidays which we are commanded to commemorate, with specific dates and customs that are still followed today: Pesach, counting the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
This begs the question, what should our relationship be toward the different holidays – the ancient holidays that are written about in this Parashat Hashavua, the holidays that became part of our tradition throughout the generations like Chanukah, Purim and Lag B’Omer, and the newer holidays that we have experienced this week.
The second verse in the Parasha opens the list of special days in this way: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” (Leviticus 23:2)
One of the most beautiful midrashim on this verse appears in the Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashana (Chapter 2). There we find the story of Raban Gamliel who would use the testimony of witnesses who reported seeing the new moon in order to decide when to proclaim Rosh Chodesh (the start of the month), and based on that, to calculate the dates of the holidays. n the month of Tishrei he met with witnesses whose credibility was in doubt and regardless Raban Gamilel accepted their testimony and set the date accordingly. Rabbi Yehoshua publicly disagreed with his declaration, and so Raban Gamliel decided to reproach him and ordered him (Rabbi Yeshoshua) to appear before him (Raban Gamliel) with his staff and money on the date that would be Yom Kippur according Rabbi Yehoshua’s (but not Raban Gamliel’s) calculation – or in other words to desecrate Yom Kippur in public. Rabbi Yehoshua was grieving this order until one day Rabbi Akiva met him and comforted him with the help of our verse, reminding him that our verse speaks of the appointed times “which you shall proclaim”, that is to say you the people will set the times and they will be My times. The human decision is more important than the specific angle of the moon.
Through this story of Raban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva we can understand a very meaningful message about our Jewish calendar – it is a calendar that stands in opposition to star-worship and idolatry, a calendar in which human beings take a central place in the design and determination of it.
This year is also a leap year on the Jewish calendar, which is an opportunity to think about this special phenomenon and how it emphasises the centrality of humanity in the Jewish perception of time.
The Christian calendar is a solar calendar which originates from the movement of the Earth around the Sun and therefore the seasons match the months – April is always in Spring, September is always in Fall, December in Winter and so on…
The Muslim calendar is lunar, originating from the movement of the moon around the Earth and therefore their holidays, like Ramadan which started this week, are set according to the the new moon and are not connected to the seasons of the year.
The Jewish calendar manages to do the seemingly impossible – it is both solar and lunar at the same time. Pesach, for example, is both a spring festival and also starts with a full moon every year. In order to synchronize the two calendars, which are not synchronized cosmically, we need the intervention of humanity – and therefore the leap year (adding an extra month 7 times every 19 years) means that each holiday remains at its rightful season.
As with the setting of the date, we also intervene with the content of the holiday, adding to the ancient agricultural festivals modern content that reflects our story and values. The verse “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard themselves as though they themselves left Egypt” invites us each year on Pesach to add our own stories of redemption and of exodus to freedom – those of our families, of our people and of all humanity.
Similarly, most Israelis mark Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut as equal holidays on the Hebrew calendar and see them as no less holy and binding than the ancient holidays which appear in the Parasha. This is in itself an impressive achievement of the modern Jewish renewal but it is still not enough.
We still haven’t succeeded as a people in imbuing into Yom Haatzmaut deep Jewish content, content of a special day where we read together an ancient text, make it holy through interpretation, and more importantly, use it as an opportunity to discuss our core values, our situation today and our mission.
Man does not live by the BBQ alone, and also not by silly string or plastic hammers – the current common Israeli customs for Yom Haatzmaut. Therefore our generation must create a tradition of reading and interpreting the Israeli Declaration of Independence (Megilat Haatzmaut) in every house and square in Israel, to be moved together by the words of prophecy in it, and to assess if we are truly meeting the mission that its writers set for us a little more than 70 years ago.
Nir Braudo is Deputy Director of BINA
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