Parashah of the week: Emor

“These are the festivals (mo’adim) of Hashem” Numbers 23:2


As many a seasoned speaker will remark, “There’s a lot in a word.” The word for a festival in Hebrew is mo’ed, meaning “appointed time” and also “meeting”. Why does this word mo’ed have both connotations?

In Alan Rosen’s book The Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars, he makes the powerful point that in Jewish thought and practice time is not simply a way to measure events. Time is the very prism through which we view experiences and live our Jewishness.

Thus, when trouble was on the near horizon in 1939, Rabbi Yehoshua Barron of Vilna composed a ten-year calendar. In several concentration camps they risked their lives producing Jewish calendars, even if the only observance of the fast days was the creation of the calendar itself.

Two such calendars switch from Gregorian dates to Jewish dates in noting Nazi atrocities around Tishah b’Av; their brave authors were processing these events through Jewish eyes. The Theresienstadt calendar omitted mention of Tishah b’Av and the fast of Tammuz — perhaps their current suffering left no room for further pain of the three-week period between these two fast days.

Sadly, one of the features of concentration camps and ghettos was the destruction of time through monotony and cruelty — “an assault on time” in historian David Patterson’s words.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler, the 20th-century scholar, adds a deeper dimension here. Time in Jewish thought is not only reflective or even indicative, it is causative. Just as different places have different energies and vibes (genuinely so, not just subjective feelings experienced by people in certain places), so too different times in the Jewish calendar contain different energies.

Thus, Nisan 15 contains the epicentre of the energy of freedom, which ultimately caused our freedom from Egyptian rule on that date. This is why Abraham celebrated elements of Passover generations before the Exodus actually happened — for the in-built energy within the calendar was already present in Abraham’s time.

Jewish festivals are called mo’ed because each is a meeting between God and His nation, but also because in a sense each one is a meeting of time and energy for which we must create a special space.

Pesach is the space for freedom, Shavuot for Torah, Rosh Hashanah for Divine kingship, Yom Kippur for atonement, Succot for simchah, Chanukah for gratitude, and Purim for Divine involvement in our lives. No two festivals are alike and we must make sure each is given its highlight billing.

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