We modern Jews may enjoy the trappings and trinkets of our 21st-century lives, but we lack something wonderful that our ancestors experienced several times during their first year of freedom from slavery in Egypt: revelations of the Divine presence.
There is no reason for us to envy them, writes Rabbi Nathan Laufer, for we can relive those moments through observing our holidays and their rituals.
“Each seasonal biblical holiday commemorates a specific event in the biblical narrative,” the author writes in this insightful book, “in which God’s presence becomes overtly manifest to the entire Jewish people.
“The order of the seven biblical holidays recorded in Leviticus 23 follows the precise order that the seven revelatory events occurred in the biblical narrative.”
The sequence of those holidays “represents the historical and religious process by which the Jewish people … became in biblical times, and annually strive to become, a sacred community living in relationship with God.”
During the holidays, we relive the going out of Egypt (first day of Passover); splitting of the sea (seventh day of Passover); the falling of manna (in counting the Omer, ending in Shavuot); accepting God’s rule at Mt. Sinai (Rosh Hashanah); God’s forgiving of the sin of the Golden Calf (Yom Kippur); and construction and consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) (Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret).
The main purpose of those holidays and their rituals, then, is to enable us to “meet God in our own lives,” according to the rabbi.
For example, at Passover each ritual that we perform, each item on the Peach plate, helps us tell and thus relive the story.
Drinking four cups of wine subdivides the Pesach story into four parts, Laufer writes. Each part corresponds to God’s “four terms of redemption” — “I will bring you out [from your suffering in Egypt] … I will save you [from your bondage] … I will redeem you … and I will take you to be my people.”
Each cup is meant to transport those taking part in the seder to a different part of the story “in which God’s saving presence made itself manifest to the Jewish people. As God rendezvoused with our ancestors, we rendezvous with God.”
As they continued their odyssey toward the land of Israel, according to the Bible (Exodus 16: 6-12), the people ran out of food and complained to Moses and Aaron. God revealed Himself and promised them manna from heaven.
“This revelation of God’s presence, heralding the arrival of the manna to all the Jewish people, is the reason we count the Omer and celebrate Shavuot,” according to the rabbi.
In Temple days, worshipers brought an omer of barley on the second day of Passover, an acknowledgement that the food grown by Jewish farmers “was no less heaven-sent than the manna bread” provided by God to the Exodus generation.
God had supplied manna to feed the people, but also to restore their dignity after years of degrading slavery by having them gather the manna.
The Jewish people were to mimic the Almighty in helping the poor in their midst by not harvesting the corners of fields and the gleanings of the fields that had fallen. This allowed the needy to retain their dignity by having them work for their food by gathering the grain needed to bake their own bread.
What we have here is memory (God’s provision of manna), ritual observance (not harvesting the edges of the fields) and the emulation of the Divine (allowing the poor to gather their food in dignity) producing “the intertwined triple helix of our people’s spiritual DNA that gives life-sustaining meaning to the Jewish people,” the author writes.
Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, in part, commemorate the Mishkan, he notes, a sacred place, where Jews could communicate with God “through priestly service and be addressed by God from the Holy of Holies.” Since the Temple’s destruction, the synagogue has become the surrogate for the Mishkan, with its two main functions — “communicating with God through the sacrifices and being communicated to by God through the prophets — channeled into the synagogue service.”
So, the author concludes, the value of celebrating our holidays is that the commemorations strengthen us to overcome our adversaries and survive.
“The holidays that reenact our rendezvous with God do not only anchor us as Jews, they liberate us and empower us to flourish as full human beings,” Lauder writes.
“Rendezvous with God” has provided me a much more sophisticated understanding of those holidays and their place in Jewish history, ritual and ethics.
Even more, it has given me a different perspective for their celebration — a way to share the experiences of our people’s founding generation.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.