Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Walk Article-Hachodesh



Rabbi David Walk


            In last week's article I extolled the wonders of Shabbat.  In these very lines I discussed how Shabbat helps to unify the spiritual with the physical, the sacred with the profane.  Shabbat acts in time very much as the Temple does in space.  It reminds us that there is more to our world than the superficial veneer which greets our eyes.  Places can be so much more than just dirt and rocks; certain times represent a reality greater than ticks on a clock (or is that tocks?).  This week we are confronted with a new phenomenon, chagim, holidays.  The term chagim only refers to Biblical holidays on which the Temple offering called chagiga is brought.  But we moderns use the word as if it was just the translation of the word 'holiday', and that's okay.  This brings me to the question of this week's article, namely:  What is the conceptual difference between Shabbat and Chagim?  Why do we need both kinds of commemoration?  And, of course, this is the perfect week to discuss this issue, because this week we have the special reading called Hachodesh, which introduces the idea of holidays.

            Our annual maftir of Hachodesh begins with the words, 'This month is to you the first of all months (Exodus 12:1).'  Our Sages derive from this dictum the obligation of developing a calendar for our ethnic or national requirements.  Embedded, like jewels, in this Jewish calendar will be our holidays.  This idea is so critical to our national psyche that it is the first mitzva God gave to us as a nation.  The well known first Rashi in Chumash claims that the Torah could have begun with this statement, because this is where the laws begin.  However, since we need some historical background to establish our commitment to God and Torah, we preface the laws with some Bible stories.  So, in a technical sense we got the mitzva of calendar and, therefore, chagim before the mitzva of Shabbat, which is first given to the Jews some five chapters later after the splitting of the Sea.  However, the concept of Shabbat is presented as part of the Creation saga.  And that's the beginning of our first answer to the question.

            Shabbat arrives every seventh day as a result of God's declaration that the seventh day is sanctified.  Shabbat preceded the Jews, and continues whether we acknowledge it or not.  Chagim, on the other hand, are the result of the Jewish nation establishing the calendar and fitting the holidays into its framework.  Maimonides claims that, unlike Shabbat, if the Jews don't celebrate a holiday, it doesn't exist.  So, we can say that Shabbat is essentially God's imprint on time, marking and commemorating the Divine act of Creation, a universal idea which is programmed into nature, while holidays are the result of historical events and the Jews' recognition of God's participation in these occurrences.  The importance of this can't be understated, because we emphasize our partnership with God in making this world a better place.  Another major idea which emerges from this is that as a result of this partnership, we can create kedusha or sanctity.

            I'd like to present another approach to understanding the philosophic difference between Shabbat and chagim.   The author of this novel idea is Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (1771-1809).  The great grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov was really discussing another idea, but you'll see it is readily applicable to our issue.   The Rebbe quotes his great grandfather's opinion that we work to accrue our necessities of life, even though these needs come from Divine largesse.  The work and the amassing of stuff aren't necessarily connected.  In reality we only have to work because we can serve God through our mundane activities as much as through our mitzva performance.  This idea moves the Rebbe to ask a fundamental question: Are the laws of nature a reality or a perception?  In other words when the sun rises every morning in the east, is that because God created a system in which this solar behavior is inevitable or does God personally decree daily that the sun rise in that direction?  The skeptical out there may ask what difference does it make?  And in our everyday lives, it really doesn't make a difference.  However, we want to develop a theory of the world and our relationship to it.  We want to know if our actions are effective or merely a shadow event, signifying nothing.

            The Rebbe declares that they are both true.  How can that be?  I think that it's like light.  Sometimes when we observe light it seems to be made up of discrete particles called photons.  But sometimes when we measure light it seems to be made up of continuous waves.  Nu, which is it?  Well, both.  It depends on the point of view and method of observation.  Similarly, the Rebbe explains whether the world is composed of hard rules or the world is dependant on the constant whim of God depends on your point of observation.   Sometimes, the upper worlds awaken and influence the lower worlds, and it appears as if God is renewing Creation every instant. At other times, the lower worlds, through their own arousal, influence the upper worlds, and that seems to be the laws of science as we understand them. 

            Now we can apply the Rebbe's principle to our problem.  Shabbat represents God initiating and controlling all the forces of nature and science in a very pro-active way.  So, on Shabbat we commemorate the top down bestowing of sanctity. We celebrate the appearance that God renews Creation every instant.  Chagim represent our efforts to influence this world through the combination of applying the rules of nature and appealing for Divine support. On holidays we celebrate the bottom up beckoning of God's holiness into this world.

            These are both extremely powerful ideas.  We need them both.  Shabbat and chagim together are teaching us the dual reality of our two way relationship with God.  We reach up to a God Who is reciprocating by beckoning us into a mutual embrace.