Posted by: Subway Conductor | April 30, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Emor

In this week’s parsha, we find a list of the Jewish holidays.

I believe that the Jewish calendar can be divided into two groups of holidays. It is interesting to note that each of these groups occupies almost exactly the same amount of time – ninety-five and ninety-six days. The first group (which we are currently almost at the end of) began back on Shabbat Shekalim. Shabbat Shekalim is the first of the four special Torah readings that precede Purim and Passover; Shekalim – around Rosh Chodesh Adar, Zachor – the Shabbos before Purim; Parah and then Hachodesh – prior to Passover. The first holiday that comes in this group is Purim, which is, of course, a very happy occasion with eating and drinking and merry making. As a matter of fact, the Talmud states that “when the month of Adar begins, we increase happiness.”  So, this group of holidays begins on a high note. Purim is a forerunner of Passover since it celebrates the saving of a particular Jewish community from annihilation. Passover, the next holiday is the center of this group of holidays and commemorates the redemption of the entire Jewish People from Egyptian bondage. Starting on the second day of Passover, we begin counting seven weeks. During this “counting of the Omer” period, we observe certain mourning practices – no weddings, haircuts, or listening to music. So, what began on a high point has come to a more somber period. At the end of the seven weeks, we observe the holiday of Shavuot which the Talmud calls AtzereetAtzeret is a “stop.” So, this is the end point of this group of holidays. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The second group of holidays begins on a fast day – the 17th of Tamuz (usually in July) – so this group of holidays starts at a low point.  Three weeks later, we come to what is certainly the low point of the Jewish calendar – Tisha B’Av, a day on which we sit on the floor and observe full mourning practices. But, from this point, we begin a steady ascent. Between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah there are seven weeks during which we read “the Haftarah portions of consolation.” These beautiful portions from the prophet Isaiah are intended to revive our sprits as we approach the New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement on which our actions are judged and our fate for the coming year is decided.  This is certainly a serious and solemn day. But, Rosh Hashanah is not a day on which the atmosphere in the synagogue is overly somber. Ten days later we come to the Day of Atonement which is perhaps the most serious day of the year. We fast and klop ourselves, confessing our sins. However, it should be noted that Yom Kippur is not a sad occasion. We should not confuse the fasting on Yom Kippur with that on Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av we fast because we are mourning for the destruction of the Temple. On Yom Kippur, we fast as a way of concentrating ourselves on the spiritual dimension of life in our desire for at-one-ment with G-d. We know that in Mishnaic times, there was even an atmosphere of celebration on Yom Kippur. The Mishnah reports that young women used to go out dressed in white to dance, apparently to attract shiduchim – potential marriage partners. From Yom Kippur, five days later, we have the holiday of Sukkot which is called “the time of our rejoicing –zeman simchateinu.” This holiday lasts for seven days and is concluded with a holiday called Shemini Atzeret. This group of holidays also ends with a holiday called Atzeret. (Just as the rabbis called Shavuot Atzeret.) In the Diaspora, there is one additional holiday that brings this group to a final conclusion. What is it called? Simchat Torah – the happiness or rejoicing of the Torah. Simchat Torah is certainly the high point of the Jewish calendar, celebrated with dancing around the Synagogue with the scrolls of the Torah.

We see, therefore, that both of these two groups of holidays concluded with a holiday celebrating the Torah. We see that these groups of holidays differ in some respects. One begins on a high point, one begins on a low point. One has a mourning period in the middle, the other starts with aspects of mourning.  But, both of them have the same conclusion, they both point to the giving of the Torah as their goal. This tells us something very important.  All of the Jewish holidays can be understood as pointing us toward the Torah. We should understand that the Torah and the observance of the mitzvot it contains is Judaism. We celebrate that G-d has given us a way of life that, if we follow it, leads to happiness in a profound sense because we are doing the will of the Creator of the Universe.

After writing this derasha, I heard the news of the tragedy in Israel during the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer in Meron. At least forty-five people were killed and over a hundred were injured, some seriously. We mourn for those who lost their lives and pray for a refu’ah shelema – a complete recovery – for the injured. May we never know such tragedies again.

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