Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

Testimony in favor of excused absences for Jewish holidays

Today I testified in front of the WA Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in support of SB5173, a bill which would provide for excused absences at work or school for “days of faith or conscience”–i.e., in our case, Jewish holidays that conflict with work or school. I joined a panel with a representative of the Jewish Federation in Seattle and two members of the Seattle Muslim community in support. While the bill won’t go anywhere this year, the hearing set it up for consideration next session. Here is my testimony:

Members of the committee, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein, and I serve Temple Beth Hatfiloh, the Jewish community of Olympia and I am also representing the Jewish Coalition for Justice. I am in strong support of SB 5173.

As a member of a religious minority in this country, I recognize the benefit I have received from rights enshrined in our country’s founding documents, specifically those related to religious liberty. Our federal and state governments have not only sought to avoid the establishment of religion in the public sphere, but have gone out of its way to protect the rights of religious minorities.

This bill recognizes that along with the freedom of conscience that comes with religious liberty, so too must there be a freedom to worship and celebrate according to one’s beliefs. Although religious liberty is guaranteed, its execution often runs up against practical difficulties, especially when holidays and celebrations conflict with the normal course of our civic life and calendar.

Within Judaism, while our weekly Sabbath falls on the weekend, our holiday cycle is not so accommodating. Jewish practice is based on a lunar calendar, with holiday dates laid down in our sacred Scripture. The result is that in relationship to our common Gregorian calendar, the Jewish festivals often fall on weekdays, and do not fall on the same (Gregorian) date from year to year.

In order to fully observe these holidays—and not every holiday requires a day off—students and parents must negotiate a day off from school, and others a day off of work. In my own experience as a congregational rabbi and as a parent of school-aged children, this sometimes goes smoothly, and sometimes does not. Sometimes, especially students, are given a hard time about work missed, or a test to retake. (It is especially challenging for Jewish students because the most important holidays fall during the fall, not long after a new school year has begun.) This bill will go a long way to not only protect those students from what they then perceive to be discrimination, but also educate people about faiths and celebrations different than their own.

The Jewish community, along with our Muslim brothers and sisters and others, do not seek any special considerations outside those granted to all—the ability to assemble and worship without fear of reprisal, punishment or being made to feel that our faith is inconvenient or second class. To that end I urge the support of SB 5173.

Thank you.