Much can be learned about a people by looking at its annual holidays, for it is on these days, in halting the workaday routine, that it conveys messages of national significance. And if a national holiday calendar provides a window into the soul of the nation, the biblical holiday calendar discloses the very aims of the divine. The biblical holidays are mentioned throughout the Torah, however the listing in this week’s parsha is unique for it teaches the order of the holidays (Sifri Duet. 127). That is, not only does each holiday bear a message, but the complete holiday cycle – in its order – is of import.
The holidays, introduced with the words, “These are the appointed times [holidays] of the Lord, holy convocations” (Leviticus 23:4), are listed in the following order: Pesah, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini-Atzeret. Before attempting to understand this order, it is important to note that the chapter actually starts with Shabbat:
The appointed times [holidays] of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My appointed times [holidays]. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation … (Leviticus 23:2-3)
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, asks, “What does Shabbat have to do with the holidays?” Answer: “To teach you that one who violates the holidays is like one who violates the Sabbaths, and one who keeps the holidays is like one who keeps the Sabbaths.” This is a rather strange formulation that will, however, prove most meaningful when we understand the holiday cycle as a whole.
The holidays, quite logically, begin with Pesah since it commemorates the beginning of the nation, as God explained prior to the Exodus, “and I took you to be my people” (Exodus 6:7). This “taking by God” to establish the nation is symbolized by matzah, of which it is said, “And they baked unleavened cakes [matzah] of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, …” (Exodus 12:39). Matzah is the symbol that the people left Egypt by force, without any expression of self-will. On Pesah, then, we remember our dependency on God: “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place; there shall no leavened bread be eaten” (Exodus 13:3).
Now, if matzah represents man’s dependency on God, leavened bread demonstrates man’s capacity for initiative. Both notions are critical to the complete man; and so, after counting seven weeks from Pesah, the holiday of Shavuot is celebrated by bringing an offering of leavened bread (Leviticus 23:17). In this offering, indeed, in this holiday, we affirm the notion that we are at once dependent on God as well as bidden to actualize our independent creative potential in the service of God. We accomplish this integration by fulfilling the Torah, the giving of which is celebrated, appropriately, on Shavuot.
The giving of the Torah, as opposed to the Exodus in which the people had little choice, was effected by consent to the proposal, “if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; … and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation …” (Exodus 19:5-6). In accepting the Torah, the people, of their own initiative, accepted the task of being “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”
This brings us to the next set of holidays.
On Rosh Hashanah the people of Israel accept God as King. This day, however, is not particular to Israel; for, being the very day that God created the world, it denotes God’s interest in all mankind. Indeed, the Mishna explains that all of mankind is taken into account on this day. As such, on Rosh Hashanah, Israel accepts God as a King, not only of Israel, but of all mankind; and in this acceptance the people realize that to be a “kingdom of priests” is to represent God to the world.
The “kingdom of priests” role, however, is conditioned by the demand to be a “holy nation”. Indeed, God says, “And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I the Lord am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). Only by being holy is the nation of Israel distinguished from the other nations, otherwise, the privileged status – kingdom of priests – is lost (see Rashi). To this comes the holiday of Yom Kippur, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30).
The atonement, the purification, effected on Yom Kippur, readied the “holy nation” to assume its role as “kingdom of priests” to the world. As such, just days later, the nation ceremoniously performs its priestly role on the holiday of Sukkot, bringing seventy offerings for the proverbial seventy nations of the world (Sukkah 55b). And while these offerings are being brought in the Temple, the nation as a whole observes the holiday by dwelling in Sukkot, temporary structures which express the notion that man’s ultimate purpose lies not in pursuit of the material but in pursuit of the divine (Malbim, Leviticus 9; Hirsch, Numbers, p.495).
This is Israel’s message to the world; and it is one, explains the prophet, that will ultimately be accepted on Sukkot:
And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. (Zechariah 14:16).
Rav Hirsch explains that the world will come to acknowledge God specifically on Sukkot, because the whole of human history is really, “the battle of the roof against Sukkah, the fight of the ‘roof-illusion’ of human greatness which never allows Man to come to repose, against the ‘Sukkah-truth’ of cheerful confidence and quietness which putting one’s trust in God’s protection grants” (Numbers 29:13).
Finally, having fulfilled the priestly role of bringing God’s word to mankind, of fostering the divinely intended perfection of mankind, Israel culminates the holiday cycle with Shemini-Atzeret. “Throughout the entire [Sukkot] holiday, they brought offerings which represented the seventy nations. When they were going to leave, God said to them, ‘I request of you, make a small repast for me, so that I may enjoy your company’” (Sukkah 55b). This day is Shemini-Atzeret, a private holiday to acknowledge the “kingdom of priests” for a job well-done.
The biblical holiday cycle is informed with the divine aim of bringing the world to its intended perfection. It is a perfection that was to have been achieved in that primordial week of creation culminating with Shabbat; for, had Adam not sinned, he would have entered Shabbat perfected – perfected to enjoy the intended everlasting bliss (Rav Tzadok HaCohen, Divrei Halomot 19). Having eaten from the Tree, man took the long route to perfection, to “Shabbat”. With this in mind, we can now understand why the chapter opens with the words, “These are My appointed times”, only to list Shabbat, and then reiterates, “These are the appointed times of the Lord”, only to then list the holidays. Shabbat is the quintessential holiday, the ultimate goal and “appointed time” of creation. That goal is to now be achieved by the kingdom of priests as expressed through the holiday cycle.
Perhaps this explains the meaning of the statement “that one who violates the holidays is like one who violates the Sabbaths, and one who keeps the holidays is like one who keeps the Sabbaths.” By keeping the holidays one demonstrates, even effectuates, the desire that keeping the Sabbaths expresses, the desire to achieve the ultimate Shabbat of perfection when all mankind will celebrate as one, for in that day “the Lord shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the Lord be One, and His name one” (Zechariah 14:9).