This past Sunday we took on the second of the holiday cycles in the Jewish calendar: the Spring cycle, from Purim, through Passover, to Shavuot. Like the High Holiday Cycle, it follows a distinct arc. This cycle carries the Jewish community through the evolution of our story.
We begin this cycle at Purim, with the story of Esther. Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, is a book in the last section of the Jewish Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim). The book tells about a near-disaster to the Jewish community in Persia, when a Jew-hating courtier named Haman plotted to kill all the Jews. His plans were foiled by Queen Esther, a secret Jew, and her uncle Mordechai. The book ends in a bloodbath, and the name of God is never mentioned, even once. While the ultimate outcome is a triumph for the Jews of Persia, the final chapters are gruesome: thousands of Persians dead. We generally sanitize the story by leaving off the bloody parts, and in America today it’s largely a children’s holiday.
One of the interesting things about Purim is that while it is supposedly a “minor holiday,” Jewish tradition insists that the annual reading of the story is essential: we are told to read it on the 14th of Adar, but if not then, the rabbis give us a whole list of other times to read it. The sense is, this is a Very Important Book and we should reread it every year.
The day after Purim, we embark on the process of getting ready for Passover. This is the origin of “Spring Cleaning”: every bit of chametz must be cleared from the house. For many Jews, this is literal housecleaning. For others, it has become a spiritual housecleaning, asking what “crummy things” are lying around our life, and cleaning those out. Either way, the process takes a month and concludes on the 14th of Nisan as we get ready for Passover, which begins at sundown on the 15th of Nisan.
Passover is the most-celebrated of Jewish holidays: more Jews sit at a seder meal every year than keep any other holiday. On Passover, we retell the story of our deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It is similar to the Esther story, in that the entire Jewish community is in peril, but different, in that God is front-and-center: in the Haggadah, the script for the seder meal, Moses is never even mentioned! It is the Jewish community in its infancy, totally dependent on the “outstretched arm” of God to save it. At the seder, we eat prescribed foods to help us remember the pain of slavery and the joy of redemption. There are four ritual questions (that are never really answered) which are there to remind us to ask questions, to increase our learning. We finish the meal with the afikomen, a broken piece of matzah. (The rabbis devised the seder after the destruction of the temple. Greek symposium meals were a model of modern education at the time, and they wanted the best “educational technology” for teaching the story of redemption. However, those meals often finished with “afikomen,” a dessert and entertainment show that often got out of hand. The rabbis transformed the afikomen so our focus would stay on the story, not after-dinner shenanigans.)
On the second night of Passover (it runs for 7 nights) we begin to count the Omer, which will continue for 49 days. Each night before dinner, we say a blessing counting the days. It originated in the Temple offering services, which had special grain offerings for the 49 days after the first night of Passover, but today it’s an exercise in discipline. It sounds so simple, to remember to do something at the same time every day for 49 days! And yet it is difficult to maintain the focus day after day. Our ancestors had to learn discipline in the wilderness after the deliverance from Egypt: it wasn’t enough to be miraculously saved from Pharaoh.
Which brings us to Shavuot. Shavuot means “Weeks” and it falls exactly seven weeks (49 days!) after the first night of Passover. On Shavuot we remember the covenant of Sinai and the giving of the Torah. It is a third story, different from the other two, in which we take responsibility for partnership with God in doing the work of healing the world.
This cycle of holidays takes us from the assimilated Jews of Persia, whose story ends in a massacre of their enemies, to the slopes of Mt. Sinai, where the Jewish community commits to a covenant of partnership with God, bound by the laws of Torah. We then return to our normal lives after all these stories and reflection, to work out the messy business of “real life” on our own, hopefully in partnership with God, informed by the Torah.
Next Sunday: The National Cycle.
— Rabbi Adar