On the Modern Jewish Holidays
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This Shabbat we read from the Torah Parashat Acharei Mot. We are told about the ritual that took place in the Tabernacle during the most sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur. This festival is one of many that are listed in the Torah, together with Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and, of course, Shabbat. In fact, we will be reading about these holidays in two weeks, on Parashat Emor.
There are two other traditional celebrations that are not mentioned in the Torah, Chanukah and Purim. The Torah does not recall them simply because the historical facts that gave origin to these festivals occurred after Torah times.
All of these biblical holidays endured in time and are part of the traditional celebration of the Jewish calendar. We may have changed the way we understand these festivals, and even the way we celebrate them, but they undoubtedly are part of the annual Jewish year.
This coming Shabbat is special because it falls between two modern Jewish celebrations. This week we are commemorating Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, while next week we will be celebrating Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
These two holidays commemorate events that happened about seventy years ago. As they are so new (at least compared to the Biblical holidays) and evoke events that completely changed the history of the Jewish people, they are still popular among the Jewish people today, in Israel as well as in the Diaspora. However, there is the question whether the deep feelings that the Shoah and the creation of the State of Israel awaken in us will be so intense for the future generations.
The Jewish people have found a way to remember our history, not allowing us to forget things that happened a long time ago. It is called “ritual”. We Jews have a long, rich and intense history, full of tragedies and miracles. It is impossible to remember all of them, unless one is a historian or scholar. However, as we observe, every year, the ritual of our historical holidays, we are able to remember and understand the most significant parts of our history and identity.
That is why I think it is so crucial to develop new rituals for Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut, because it is the proven way of eternalizing the remembrance of these two unique celebrations, and also for giving them a deserved place in our calendar, so we can have a time dedicated to reflect about their meaning.
Every year there are more and more proposals for observing Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut, which are slowly becoming accepted by many congregations and Jewish institutions. Let’s participate in this creative process with energy, respect and optimism.