Yom Tov is a beautiful thing. Two days of it – even better. As a Jew in the diaspora, I welcome the double days of holiness, acknowledging that it is not always so welcome by holiday-preparers and people whose livelihoods are impacted. Still, the power of Yom Tov to simultaneously suspend and sanctify time is, in a word – awesome. We detach ourselves from the world and let it spin without us as we ensconce ourselves with God, family, friends, and community.
Jews in the diaspora have experienced a double dose of holiness for thousands of years by observing “Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot, the second holy day of the diasporas,” originally established to compensate for a possible miscalculation of the dates on which the holiday fell. Although we have been able to calculate the correct date with precision since Talmudic times, we traditionally maintain the observance of these double days, safeguarding a custom from the time of our ancestors.
I have been wondering about the dissonance in doubling up on the beauty of Yom Tov for those of us in the diaspora while Jews in Israel enjoy just one day of holiness. This may not bother most people, but there seems to me to be something wrong with this picture. True, there has been a Jewish diaspora for as long as there has been a Jewish presence in Israel. But should my life in the diaspora be enhanced with twice the experience of holiness as that of my brother who lives in Israel? In my attempt to understand this, I offer a reframing of the concept of, and the quest for holiness, the essence of our Yom Tov and Shabbat celebrations. So, let’s begin at…
Our creation story takes place over seven days, six of those consumed with acts of creation culminating with the seventh day set aside as Shabbat. God instructs humankind to maintain this creation cycle of six work days followed by one day of rest. As much as the six-fold emphasis on work is undeniable, the interdependence of work and rest is clear. Rest would have no reason without the work that precedes it; the work that emanates from resting on Shabbat contains its own elements of holiness that carry from day to day towards the next Shabbat.
THE RAINBOW CONNECTION
After thousands of work-rest creation cycles we arrive at the catastrophe of the flood, and its resolution with the covenant between God and humanity that such a deluge will never be visited upon the planet again. The naturally occurring rainbow, created in the liminal moments when the final day of creation mingled with the first day of rest, is repurposed to serve as a global marquee of this new relationship.
The attraction of a rainbow is irresistible. Staring at its magnificence is an autonomic response to heavenly beauty. Jews glance at rainbows but then look away, not because, as some believe, that we should not gaze upon a marker of how reckless humans once were that we came to the brink of annihilation. We look away because the rainbow’s radiance evokes images of the Divine glory, perhaps overtaking us, severing us from the world and drawing us into God’s orbit. Even imagining such an experience would be inappropriate for us, but worthy of a prophet like Ezekiel, “As the appearance of a bow that is in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brilliance all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” (Ezekiel 1:28, as cited in Hagiga 16a).
FACE TO FACE
After the appearance of many millions of rainbows, we are at the encounter between God and the Jewish People at Sinai that culminates with Moses’ request to see God’s face. In one of the most intimate and mysterious passages of Torah, God tells Moses that he can look at God’s back, but not at God’s face because no one may see God’s face and live.
God does not say that a person who sees God’s face will die. That person will not live. God wants Moses to see God’s back and not God’s face because God does not want Moses to spend his life, even for a moment, gazing at God’s presence. Not because Moses will die, but because, God seems to be saying, if anyone believes that the ultimate encounter with God is to bask in the Divine presence, this is not God’s conception of living. Rather, God wants Moses to see God’s back, positioning him to see everything that God sees. God trusts that when Moses sees the injustice in the world that God sees, that when Moses sees the evil in the world that God sees, that when Moses sees the potential of human intervention for good in the world that God sees, Moses acting as God’s partner in creation will do the right thing. Seeing God’s face is not what life is about. Seeing what God sees and acting as God would act – God says that is life.
FROM GOD TO GOOD
A scan of rabbinic literature yields several observations about the relative value of studying Torah and engaging in mitzvot. The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) offers a well-known discussion that is reflective about the reasoning behind the positions taken:
“Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater because study leads to action.”
Study and action. These are not isolated ideas. They are as intertwined as work and rest. Just as rest has no reason without the work that precedes it, study has little value without the action it awakens. Indeed, study without action is irrelevant. The interdependence of study and action is made clear in one of the earliest benedictions that we say each morning, acknowledging the obligation “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” which is usually translated as “to be engrossed in words (study) of Torah.”
But “divrei Torah” also means “matters of Torah.” As if to amplify this understanding, the blessing is followed by a list of such Torah matters…
“…leaving the corner of a field unharvested for the poor, the offering of the first fruits, the appearance-offering…honoring parents, performing deeds of kindness, early attendance in the House of Study morning and evening, providing hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, participating in making a wedding, accompanying the dead to the grave, concentrating on the meaning of prayers, making peace between people and between husband and wife— and the study of Torah is equal to them all.”
Work and rest; Action and study – these are all Divrei Torah.
WHERE IS HOLINESS TO BE FOUND?
When we search for life’s holy moments in the places where instinct leads us, God’s Torah redirects us. Holiness is to be found not only on Shabbat but on the days that surround her; not on a rainbow in the sky, but in the places that are near to us; not by seeking God’s face, but by seeing people’s faces as God sees them; not by being engulfed in study, but by applying Torah learning to life.
Perhaps these redirections may be instructive for how we view the second day of Yom Tov as well.
As welcome and as restorative as Yom Tov is, it compels us to retreat from the world and to cease our holy work. We are tethered to a time that is otherworldly, basking in the beauty of Yom Tov and restrained from fulfilling our roles as God’s partners in life.
The Jewish community in Israel has the advantage here. In our common efforts as a global Jewish People to pursue justice, to be kind to the stranger, to fulfill the mitzvot we read about on Yom Tov itself, Jews in Israel get the jump on the rest of us; after one day of Yom Tov, they re-engage in their holy work with the world. For Jews in the diaspora, that same opportunity is put on hold for another day. Fulfilling our destiny is twice delayed. Considering the work that needs to be done and accepting our unique role in performing that work, I suggest that as much as we diaspora Jews might enjoy Yom Tov, this double-feature of its observance should not delight us. This should frustrate us. We’ve got work to do.
We in the diaspora and the Jews of Israel regard Yom Tov Sheni as something that differentiates us. Perhaps we should consider instead our interdependence – our mutual roles in pursuit of our mission as one Jewish People to engage the world in Torah matters. While there certainly are halachic and historic reasons for a second day of Yom Tov, our examination of this practice from the perspective I am sharing offers a rare opportunity to dwell not so much on where we live, but why we live, wherever we live.
As I prepare to celebrate two days of Yom Tov, I eagerly await my delight in them. Acknowledging what awaits me on the other side, I will also try to develop appropriate impatience to move from the holy days back to the holy work.