Torah from Around the World #324

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Rabbi Micah Streiffer

, Rabbi of

Temple Kol Ami

, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada

Sacred Moments

The old joke says that every Jewish holiday can be summed up in three short sentences: They tried to destroy us. They failed. Let’s eat.

It’s not true, of course. Our festivals are incredibly nuanced and rich with meaning; but mythology often contains a kernel of truth. It IS true to say that many – though not all – of our holidays commemorate some miracle or moment of liberation. It is also true to say that they usually involve food – in the form of family meals, symbolic foodstuffs, or fasting.

The centrality of holidays in Judaism goes back to our very beginnings. This week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains a discussion of the Israelite festival calendar as it was observed more than two millennia ago:

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying**: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions*.

The holiest moments of our year, the feast days and fast days, are referred to here by the Hebrew word


, translated as “fixed time.” It actually means something closer to “appointment,” and Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes that it “can refer either to the time or place set for a meeting**.”  This is a reminder to us that holiness can be found both in space and in time – there are sacred buildings and there are sacred days.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the great 20th century scholar who was associated with both the Progressive and Conservative Jewish movements – writes that the Jewish people have always had a particular talent for sacred time:

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans could destroy: the Day of Atonement…. Jewish ritual may be characterized… as architecture of time***.

When Heschel writes about “architecture of time” what he means is the practice – which is by no means unique to Judaism – of setting apart or elevating moments through ritual: the lighting of the candle, the wearing of a garment, the recitation of a blessing. These may seem like common acts (in part because we perform them so often), but in fact, the ability to designate certain moments as sacred is a reflection of

Tzelem Elohim

– a reflection of the divine image within us. We get to decide that Friday night is holier than Tuesday morning. We get to elevate the days of Pesach through what we do (and do not) eat. These sacred days are gifts given us with an expectation that we will perform the actions that can bring immense meaning to our lives.

And which is the highest of these festival days? Which one are we meant to hold up as the archetype for all others?

We might have thought that the Torah would begin its discussion of festivals with a description of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Or maybe it should start with Pesach, the original Jewish New Year and the commemoration of our most memorable historical event. But it does not. The Torah opens its discussion of sacred time with the holiday that comes most often: Shabbat.

The Midrash says that when God created the world, each day was given a partner. Sunday had Monday, Tuesday had Wednesday, and Thursday had Friday. But Shabbat was created with no partner, and when it went to complain to God, God replied, “The people of Israel will be your partner****.”

Shabbat is our “partner.” It is our weekly infusion of holiness, and it sets the rhythms by which we live our lives. And just as important, it is the archetype for all Jewish holidays. Rashi writes: “[Shabbat] is mentioned together with the festivals to teach that anyone who keeps God’s festivals is regarded as having kept the Sabbath*****.”

What is a holiday in Judaism? It is a time for celebration and reflection, for family and food, for rest, rejoicing, enjoyment, study, and Godliness. We do not have to wait weeks or months to have this experience; we can have it every single week.

As Progressive Jews, we take seriously the challenge and opportunity of Shabbat. We are fortunate to have been afforded, by our tradition, this weekly chance to step outside of the ordinary and to focus on what really matters. And, as with all things, we approach Shabbat through the lens of pluralism and choice. Mark Washofsky writes:

As adherents of a movement that cherishes religious freedom, Reform Jews will respond to the demands of Shabbat in many different ways. For this reason, the observance of Shabbat in Reform Judaism – the definition of “rest” and “work” – will vary widely from person to person and from community to community******.

Where one person may consider gardening to be the most onerous of all chores, another may find it to be an enjoyable release from the stresses of the week. One of us may find it peaceful to take a bike ride through the park, while another may consider that to be the very definition of work! But either way, the principle is the same: Shabbat should be different from the rest of the week. It should be a day on which we – “Architects of Time” – construct a moment of holiness by refraining from work (however we define it) and focus on rest, family, community and personal growth.

“These are the sacred moments of the Eternal.” May we recognize our power to bring holiness into the world and may we, through our concerted and thoughtful architecture, infuse the moments of our lives with sacredness, joy and blessing.


*Leviticus 23:1-2.

**The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition). URJ Press, New York; 2005. p. 824.

***Heschel, A.J. The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York; 1951. Page 8.

*Leviticus 23:1-2.

**The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition). URJ Press, New York; 2005. p. 824.

***Heschel, A.J. The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York; 1951. Page 8.

****Genesis Rabbah 11:8.

*****Rashi on Leviticus 23:3.

******Washofsky, Mark. Jewish Living (Revised Edition). URJ Press; 2010. Page 83.

****Genesis Rabbah 11:8.

*****Rashi on Leviticus 23:3.

******Washofsky, Mark. Jewish Living (Revised Edition). URJ Press; 2010. Page 83.

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