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  • Writer's pictureLight of Torah

The nuances of festivity

I write this reflection during a week charged with religious festivity. Liturgically, my own Catholic community moves through the Octave of Easter; while Orthodox Christians prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday, 24 April 2022. Meanwhile, Jewish communities are in the final days of the Passover festival, while Muslims continue in the holy month of Ramadan.

With respect to Christian-Jewish relations, both traditions celebrate festivals of liberation, drawing on a common Scripture. Still, the harsh realities of this world are never far from our consciousness. I am reminded of this as the 107th anniversary of the genocide of Armenian Christians, along with Assyrian and Greek populations, draws near on 24 April 2022. I note, too, the approach of Yom Hashoah (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, also marked internationally) commencing sundown on 27 April 2022.

Meanwhile, present-day atrocities and violent conflict are occurring in Ukraine and other parts of the world, with or without headlines to remind us.

What, then, are we to make of the Christian proclamation of the risen Christ’s victory over sin and death? And of the annual Jewish Pesach celebration of the Almighty’s redemptive action in freeing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, as told in a sacred text that continues to inspire human rights movements of many kinds? Pipe dreams? Pious nostalgia? In both religious traditions, and in different ways, Jews and Christians articulate their message of divine victory with unabashed confidence. And in both cases, and in different ways, these perspectives are attentive to the ‘facts on the ground’.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again, is the Church’s proclamation. Touched by the irrepressible joy and hope of the Resurrection, Christians are called to live this joy and hope as both a 'now' experience and an expectation of the future. We must witness to the in-breaking reign of God in the human story, even if at times this is experienced as a tiny flickering flame on a cold night. Meanwhile, Jewish tradition holds that the gift of freedom is not an end in itself; it is for the purpose of living as a holy people in the service of Hashem. Divine election is always inseparable from human responsibility. Thus, Passover and Easter are pinnacle periods of festivity, filled with joy. Yet they are also festivals that sensitize us to the 'unfinished business' of redemption; they propel Jews and Christians, respectively, to active involvement in God’s ongoing healing designs for a world that yearns for true freedom, loving kindness, justice and peace. And we do this not as NGOs with only humanitarian goals, but as communities fired by a deep-down decision to trust in the revealed (and revealing) presence of the lifegiving, liberating God.

In this vein, and in keeping with this Light of Torah ministry which draws Christian attention to Jewish Torah insights, here is a reflection relevant to Pesach VIII [Deut. 14:22 - 16:17] in the Jewish liturgical cycle.

Light of Torah Reflection

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses impresses upon the Israelites their responsibilities, as they prepare to enter the promised land. In a lengthy statement of obligations, we learn that the people of God have a choice: listen to God’s teachings and be blessed, or turn from God and be cursed (11:26).

Yet amidst the dire warnings, we also hear verses like these:

“Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you” (12:7).

“And you shall feast there, in the presence of the Lord your God, and rejoice with your household” (14:26).

“You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God…for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy” (16:15).

These are commands to gather the family for a joyous feast. How often do we think of loyalty to God in terms of feasting? Elsewhere, in the context of ritual prescriptions, the Israelites are commanded to “eat to your heart’s content” (12:21), to “spend the money on anything you want—cattle, sheep, wine or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire” (14:26), and to hold annual festivals (16:1-17) while God provides secure dwellings (12:10), enlargement of their territory (12:20), and countless blessings.

We are reminded that covenantal relationship with God is not all hard work! Yes, God is unafraid to make demands of his people. But God also provides, has the people’s interests at heart, and some divine demands are actually delightful!

“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (14:2).

God asks much of his people, but only because his people are treasured beyond belief, and because such demands bring forth a just world where the stranger, orphan and widow find safety (16:11).

Deuteronomy invites us to dwell on God’s abundant blessings. Yes, the consequences of rejecting God are dire, but the blessings of cleaving to God are lifegiving beyond measure.

We are tempted to disbelieve this, for life is difficult, sometimes brutal. Bad things happen to good people; evil can be seen to have its way. Even religion can be experienced as a weapon of oppression, or reduced to loveless ‘duty.’ Yet another testimony prevails through generations of those who live by God’s word: God’s blessings are real. They can be celebrated with smiles and laughter, music and dancing, feasting and lovemaking, prayer and passion. Thus, Judaism speaks of ‘Simchat Torah’, ‘the joy of Torah,’ and Christianity speaks of the ‘gospel,’ ‘good news.’

Even so, in the midst of texts which call for feasting and celebration, our eye is drawn to a verse commanding the Israelites to eat the ‘bread of affliction’ or ‘bread of distress’ (16:3). What is the power of this verse, placed as it is amidst the description of Israel’s festivals?

We also find the sages asking: why does the text here twice command that we rejoice during the festival of Sukkot (16:11,14) but omits this command with regard to the festival of Passover? An explanation offered in the midrashic collection Yalkut Shimoni: “On account of the fact that [during the exodus] the Egyptians died.” The midrash immediately cites the Book of Proverbs (24:17): “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice.”

Think about it:

Unless we remember the taste of slavery, can we truly feast on our freedom?

In what ways do your family/community festivities retain an appropriate place for sober recollection of past and present struggles?

Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco, 2003); Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996). Scripture: NJPS.

© Teresa Pirola, 2013, 2022. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.


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