Transforming Our Festivals, Our Lives

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 5/1/2005

The scheduled Torah readings for the portion called Emor include one of the Torah's recitations of the festival cycle of the year (Leviticus 23).

Two elements of this recitation make clear how the festivals have been transformed by crucial events in the past, and show us the way toward transforming them if necessary to meet our own needs in our own generation.

One of these elements is the description of Shavuot, the "Festival of Weeks" that comes a week of weeks — seven weeks and one day — after the "Shabbat," the resting time, connected with Passover.

In Leviticus and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, this festival is never described as having anything to do with the Giving of the Torah. It is agrarian, and the nearest the Torah comes to dating its own birth is to say that it came during the third month after the exodus from Mitzrayyim, Egypt, the Tight and Narrow Place.

How this wheat-harvest festival was transformed by Rabbinic Judaism into the festival of revelation, of the Giving of the Torah Teaching, and how it was transformed by what became Christianity into Pentecost, the eruption of the Holy Spirit into a Teaching that came in the seventy tongues of the world — the seventy nations — this is a story in itself. We will explore it as our weeks wend their way toward that season.

What the history teaches us is that upheaval in the life of a community sometimes requires a profound transformation in the holy times and practices and metaphors by which it marks its peoplehood.

Keeping this in mind, we can notice that in the text of this week's Torah portion, there is already a description of such a transformation that the ancient Israelites experienced and remembered in the springtime festival we have just marked - the festival of Passover and the unleavened bread.

Says Leviticus 23: 5, "In the first month [literally, "renewing" of the moon for a true lunar "moonth," as the English word reminds us], on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Pesach [offering] for YHWH. And on the fifteenth after this day of renewing is the circle-dance-festival of matzot, unleavened bread, to YHWH. For seven days, matzot are you to eat!"

Please notice that there are two distinct holy days named here. One is focused on an offering of roasted lamb, the Pesach; the other, eating a special primitive bread, bread without yeast or flavoring - nothing but flour and water, baked by fire. One is a shepherd's festival; ewes give birth to lambs at this point in the spring. The other is a barley-farmer's festival; for the barley begins to ripen at this point in the Land of Israel. Here they are connected, happening on successive evenings at the Full Moon of the "first month."

The word Pesach, comes to mean "pass-over." In Exodus 12: 27, the Torah says that God made a "pesach" — passed over — the houses of the Israelites to spare them from the doom of the firstborns of the Tight and Narrow Place on the night of Exodus. Many modern scholars think the word originally described the awkward walk of newborn lambs, who "skip over" as they learn to walk. And then it became the name of a shepherd's ritual dance that at the time of lambing imitated this skipping walk,

How amazing! — to think that the Torah is describing God's protection of the Israelites both as a lamb's early awkward skipping-over steps, and as the shepherd's playful and profound imitation of the lambs that the shepherd must protect! God's own Self, newborn at this moment of Self-transformation, still awkward and uncertain, dancing in the earthquake as the earth quakes in upheaval. And God's own Self as Shepherd, imitating and honoring the newborn people that is just learning how to walk on its own.

But notice that we have already assumed and absorbed the sense that this double festival of Pesach and Matzot is also our single festival of Liberation from Mitzrayyim, from the Tight and Narrow Place. Between the priestly earth-oriented double festival described in Leviticus and the single historical-political-spiritual festival described in the Book of Exodus, what is the connection?

There seem to be three steps in this dance of shaping the Full Moon festival of the "first moonth."

The first step was that shepherds and farmers each separately created their celebration of crucial springtime events.

For farmers, this celebration focused not just on the current springtime, but on the "springtime of agrarian springtimes," the earliest remembered experiments with turning grain into bread.

For instead of using the starter yeast from the year before, the starter yeast that they had learned to use in making leavened bread, farmers harked back to their very earliest remembered version of agrarian life, eating the simplest agrarian food that human hands could shape, using fire to turn a barley paste into a flat and simple bread.

Meanwhile, shepherds were slaughtering some of the newborn lambs, roasting them whole, perhaps dancing their skipping pesach walk around the fire, eating their meat — again the simplest meat that human hands could shape by using fire. Harking back to the earliest days of shepherding.

The second step in this dance of celebration was to connect the festivals of shepherds and barley-farmers. Leviticus is saying that the whole Community of Israel must celebrate them both. Shepherds must honor the farmers' festival, and farmers must honor the shepherd's festival. Both are festivals for YHWH, the Breath of Life. Both must honor the fullness of the moon in this moonth of beginnings.

And the third step in the dance was to subsume these two festivals into the birthing of a people, from the narrow birth canal of the Tight and Narrow Place. And not just the birth of a new ethnicity, but the birth of a new ethic - freedom.

Freedom itself, at the level of society, means what biological birthing means: the emergence of new and unpredictable possibility. For just as the entrance into the world of a new generation of lambs, a new barley crop, a new spring means something unpredictable has come to life, so freedom means that new possibilities are opening in society and politics.

So the newborn People Israel chose to keep celebrating the drowning of despotic Pharaoh's Army in the life-giving waters, the breaking waters of their own birthing — the birthing of their ability to choose freedom and rebirth themselves again and again from whatever Tight and Narrow Place might once have been a sheltering womb until they grew too large in body and soul to stay therein.

In the histories of Rabbinic Judaism and of Christianity after the era of Biblical Israel, this spring festival has been transformed again. As Michael Walzer has shown in his book EXODUS AND REVOLUTION, the Biblical version that focuses on freedom has indeed shaped the thoughts and lives of many peoples.

What can we learn from this deep process in which the very celebration of birthing has been reborn again and again?

Today we might be asking:

Are the pangs of the earthquake of our planet and the human race, of adamah and adam, the labor pains of a new rebirth? Painful as they are, are they calling us to birth ourselves anew from our own Tight and Narrow Place into new shapes for all our peoplehoods?

How might our springtime celebrations begin to reflect such birthing? Celebrations, rituals, festivals, are sparkling crystals of a broader, deeper pattern in our lives. Like the birthing koan of the chicken and the egg, can a new direction in our celebration both give birth to and be born from a new direction in our culture as a whole?

Does the emergence of the "Freedom Seder," of the "Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah," and of many other versions of the Passover "telling" — haggadot — signal a new need to express both the emergence of new forms of Judaism and the need for new rituals of connection between different cultures and peoples in their linked yet distinctive efforts toward a "new birth of freedom" (as Lincoln called it)?

Should we be celebrating the connection between earth and earthling as did the earliest versions of the First Full Moon Festival? Is the birth of Earth Day - and its relative weakness in our culture so far — pointing to a need so far not well fulfilled?

Shalom, Arthur

Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah Portions: