By Rabbi Gila Ruskin
When you are 5½-years-old, your half-birthday is a big event.
We were decorating pillowcases for the seder, and my grandkid (age 5½) painted a sukkah. Why a sukkah? I asked. Passover sort of reminds me of Sukkot, he answered.
Very excited at this opportunity to teach him about the Jewish calendar, I drew a circle and showed him how Passover and Sukkot are directly across the circle from each other. When you look up through the branches when we are eating dinner on the first night of Sukkot, what do you see? A full moon. Tonight at the first seder, when we all go outside to act out leaving Egypt and you look up at the sky, what will you see? A full moon!
That’s because Sukkot is the half birthday of Passover, and Passover is the half birthday of Sukkot! Both have full moons. Maybe, he said, we should sing “Happy Half-birthday” to Sukkot tonight!
Not a bad idea …
Back in the day, it was much easier to see the connections. Everyone was out in the field harvesting at the full moon. Or everyone was in Jerusalem for an eight-day celebration, reconnecting with family and friends and tribe. In our era, maybe we need a half-birthday party to remind us that none of our holy days are like separate slices of a pie; they are all connected through the cycles of nature, as were all ancient festivals.
That teachable moment with my grandkid was a fulfillment of the ritual mitzvot of holy day observance cited in Parshat Emor, but also my legacy from our ancestor Abraham who was specifically chosen to fulfill the mission of “instructing his children and his posterity to keep God’s ways by doing what is just and right, in order that God may bring about for Abraham what has been promised.” Genesis 18:19
That is, according to Thomas Cahill, one of “The Gifts of the Jews.”
“In a world that marked the cycles of the seasons, the Jews revealed a new way to mark time.”
Not only equinox or solstice, but also the linear time of l’dor vador: of living our lives ever aware that we are precious links in the generational chain. We bind ourselves in Divine covenant to our family, our community and the community of humankind, to the past and to the future.
Our cyclical holidays also belong to covenantal/linear/historical time. They commemorate historic events. Pesach celebrates the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot the giving of the Torah and Sukkot the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Parshat Emor explains: “In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” Passover is connected to Sukkot not only with a full moon but also with a shared historical experience of liberation and the promise of a civilization based on transformative justice.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, wrote: “The Hebrew Bible is the first document to see time as an arena of change. Tomorrow need not be the same as yesterday. Time is not a series of moments traced on the face of a watch, always moving yet always the same.” Instead, it is a journey with historical narratives and ethical teachings passed down and ever developing from generation to generation.
What I would like to inform my grandchild is that Judaism has survived and flourished to our day because we embrace all three cords woven together: the awesome attentiveness and ritual response to the cycles of nature, the annual acknowledgments of the historical journey of our people and the commitment to the ethical imperative of justice, tempered with compassion.
Opportunities abound to express with our hands and hearts that glorious experience. Not only at the seder, but as we adorn our sukkah next fall. We will shake the symbols of the autumnal harvest, invite our ancestors (ushpizin) as our honored guests and share our abundance with those who confront scarcity, braiding those three cords of our legacy together. In gratitude, in reverence, in joy. JE
Rabbi Gila Ruskin is rabbi emerita of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, Maryland, and creates Midrash Mosaics. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.