PASSOVER, A NEW BEGINNING
Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and the Haggadah tells the story. Jewish people have always had a fascination with numbers – the number 18 stands for chai or life, the Jewish people wandered for 40 years in the desert, we light 8 candles on Chanukah, etc. So, it is no different with Passover. In the Haggadah, the number “4” is very significant. There are 4 specific instances in the Haggadah where the number 4 is prominent.
There are traditionally 4 cups of wine consumed as part of our Passover seders. The first cup of wine accompanies Kiddush and serves to sanctify the holiday. The second cup of wine is the cup of redemption because it is drunk after the telling of the Passover story when the Jews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt. The third cup of wine is drunk after the birkat hamazon, the blessing after the meal. It represents gratitude to God who sustains us. And, the fourth cup of wine is symbolic of the future. It is drunk near the conclusion of the seder when we pray for an age of peace for all humankind.
The four questions are typically recited at the seder table by the youngest person who is able to recite them. The answers all have to do with our unique history of slavery and redemption of the body and the soul. On Pesach we enjoy special freedoms that we did not enjoy when we were slaves. And it is our obligation to teach our children about Jewish customs and rituals.
There are four sons – the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who does not know enough to ask. The wise son is eager to learn. He embraces his Jewish heritage and tries to lead a righteous life. The wise son will insure the perpetuation of future Jewish generations. The wicked son sees the requirements in the Torah as constraints on his freedom. If future Jewish generations must rely on him, there will be nothing that separates us as Jews from anyone else. The simple son has the capacity to learn, but he is lazy. He wants everything to be immediate and does not want to spend time learning or understanding about his Jewish heritage. He needs to understand that learning does not come all at once. Learning is an on-going process we continue throughout our lives. And the son who does not know enough to ask relies on each and every Jewish person to teach him the ways of Judaism to insure that he and his future generations will be Jewish.
There are four mentions of redemption in the story of the Exodus. The first, “I am Adonai and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt” tells how Adonai showed the Egyptians that our God is a mighty God. The second, “I shall save you from their service” tells how Adonai brought the plagues upon the Egyptians and lead the Jewish people out from slavery. The third, “I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great punishments” tells of the miraculous parting of the Red Sea where the Jewish people crossed on dry land while the sea swallowed up the pursuing Egyptians. And the fourth, “I shall take you to me as a People, and I shall be a God to you” tells of the spiritual redemption of the Jewish people to become a holy nation.
HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY - Yom Ha-shoah
In the month of April, Jews celebrate three relatively modern Israeli national holidays that came into existence since the formation of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland in 1948. The first of these holidays is Yom Ha-shoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This holiday commemorates the lives of those who perished in the Shoah or Holocaust. The Shoah was the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In 1951, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) proclaimed Yom Hashoah would fall on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan each year. This date allows the holiday to fall after Pesach but still within the time span of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Israel, Yom Hashoah is a national holiday and all public entertainment ceases on that day. In fact, at 10 am a siren is sounded throughout Israel and everyone stops what they are doing to stand in remembrance for a minute or two. Here in the United States we commemorate Yom Hashoah with special services where we light memorial candles and recite Kaddish to remember the six million Jews and many others who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
ISRAELI NATIONAL HOLIDAY - Israel Remembrance Day - Yom Hazikaron
This holiday is always celebrated on the day preceding Israel’s Independence Day. It is Israel’s Memorial Day, a day to remember all military personnel who were killed while in active duty in Israel’s armed forces. There is a special reason why Yom Hazikaron is always the day before Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) because by linking the two days together, it shows that Israelis owe their independence and the existence of the Jewish state to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for it. For the entire day of Yom Hazikaron, all public places of entertainment in Israel are closed. A siren sounds two times for 2 minute “standstills” of traffic and all daily activities. The first siren is at 8 pm marking the beginning of the observance and the second siren is at 11 am on the day of the holiday. After the second siren, prayers are recited at military cemeteries throughout Israel.
ISRAELI INDEPENDENCE DAY - Yom Haatzmaut
Israelis, and friends of Israel, celebrate Yom Haatzmaut – their Independence Day. At this time, right before sundown, there is an official switch from the somber mood of Yom Hazikaron to the more celebratory mood of Yom Haatzmaut. The celebration begins with a ceremony at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem where the Israeli flag is raised from half-mast to the top of the flag pole. The holiday celebrates the formation of the Jewish National State in 1948 and in Israel it is celebrated with parades, singing and dancing in the streets. The celebration ends with the Israel Prize ceremony (which is similar to our Kennedy Center Honors) recognizing individual Israelis for their contributions to culture, science, arts and humanities. American Jews celebrate Yom Haatzmaut to show their solidarity to the state of Israel. This year, Israel will celebrate 65 years as a State and national homeland for Jews.
What is Shavuot? The Torah was given by G-d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai more than 3300 years ago. Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we renew our acceptance of God's gift, and God "re-gives" the Torah. The word Shavuot means "weeks." It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. The giving of the Torah was a far-reaching spiritual event - one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all times. Our sages have compared it to a wedding between God and the Jewish people. Shavuot also means "oaths," for on this day G-d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him. In ancient times two wheat loaves would be offered in Holy Temple. It was also at this time that people would begin to bring bikkurim, their first and choicest fruits, to thank God for Israel's bounty. The holiday of Shavuot is a two-day holiday, beginning at sundown of the 5th of Sivan and lasting until nightfall of the 7th of Sivan. Holiday candles usher in the holiday on both evenings; the reading or hearing of the Ten Commandments are a part of the celebration.
Saturday before Rosh Hashanah
Selichot, a Hebrew word meaning "forgiveness," refers to the special penitential prayers recited by Jews throughout the High Holy Days. Jews recite Selichot beginning late at night on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah and continue each morning on the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah (literally, "Head of the Year") is the Jewish New Year, which marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance. This period, known as the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe or High Holy Days), is widely observed by Jews throughout the world, many with prayer and reflection in a synagogue. There also are several holiday rituals observed at home. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which—because of differences in the solar and lunar calendar—corresponds to September or October on the secular calendar. Customs associated with the holiday include sounding the shofar, eating a round challah, and tasting apples and honey to represent a sweet New Year.
YOM KIPPUR - the Day of Atonement
Ten days from Rosh Hashanah
Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement" and refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance. Part of the High Holidays, which also includes Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. In three separate passages in the Torah, the Jewish people are told, "the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: You shall practice self-denial."(Leviticus 23:27). Fasting is seen as fulfilling this biblical commandment. The Yom Kippur fast also enables us to put aside our physical desires to concentrate on our spiritual needs through prayer, repentance and self-improvement.
Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. We are commanded to turn to those whom we have wronged first, acknowledging our sins and the pain we might have caused. At the same time, we must be willing to forgive and to let go of certain offenses and the feelings of resentment they provoked in us. On this journey we are both seekers and givers of pardon. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness: “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”
SUKKOT - Festival of Thanks for the Fall Harvest
Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning "booths" or "huts," refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest. It also commemorates the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert after the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of Tishrei, and is marked by several distinct traditions. One, which takes the commandment to dwell in booths literally, is to erect a sukkah, a small, temporary booth or hut. Sukkot(in this case, the plural of sukkah) are commonly used during the seven-day festival for eating, entertaining and even for sleeping.
Sukkot also called Z’man Simchateinu (Season of Our Rejoicing), is the only festival associated with an explicit commandment to rejoice. A final name for Sukkot is Chag HaAsif, (Festival of the Ingathering), representing a time to give thanks for the bounty of the earth during the fall harvest.
SIMCHAT TORAH - Rejoicing in the Law, the law of Torah
Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law) celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah. This joyous festival provides opportunities for Jews to affirm the centrality of Torah in their lives, as well as to demonstrate their commitment to lifelong study. As part of the celebration, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of the fifth book of the Torah, D’varim (Deuteronomy), is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B'reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read. This practice represents the cyclical nature of the relationship between the Jewish people and the reading of the Torah.