Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11, 26 – 16, 17) – the joy of the pilgrimage festivals

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In the Torah reading of Re’eh, the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are delineated (16, 1-17). In the ancient Biblical period, pilgrimage was made on these festivals to Jerusalem and the Temple of Jerusalem that had replaced the ancient Tabernacle (the Tabernacle had accompanied the Israelites as a center of ritual worship in their wanderings in the wilderness, and upon entering the land of Israel). However, in the delineation of the pilgrimage festivals here in the Torah reading of Re’eh, Jerusalem is not mentioned – and, Jerusalem is not mentioned in the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). In the Torah reading of Re’eh pilgrimage on the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot was to be made to “the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deuteronomy 16, 2 & 6 & 11 & 15 & 16). Jerusalem did not become the capital of the ancient Jewish kingdom in the land of Israel until the period of David and the Temple of Jerusalem was not built until the period of Solomon.

 

But, what stands out in this passage of the Torah reading of Re’eh delineating the pilgrimage festivals that are clearly intended to be a time of great rejoicing is that there is no command to rejoice on Passover. There is an explicit command to rejoice on Shavuot (Deuteronomy 16, 11), and twice there is an explicit command to rejoice on Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16, 14 & 15). The obvious question here is why there is no specific command to rejoice on Passover. Before answering this question, I want to give some background about the pilgrimage festivals especially in distinction to the “days of awe” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim. The key to understanding the difference between the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot on the one side and the days of awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim on the other side is the distinction between the two main terms for God in the Hebrew Bible.

 

The two main terms for God in the Bible are YHVH, the very name of God (usually translated as “the Lord” in English), and Elohim, a generic term meaning God (and, usually translated as “God” in English). The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is reflected in the name YHVH, which signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption as distinct from Elohim, a God of creation and power – and, as distinct from the pagan conception of gods conceived as powers of nature.

 

In the Biblical conception, Elohim is the transcendent God of nature and power – “In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1, 1). YHVH, by contrast, is the God of revelation and redemption who demands morality, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. The great revolution and fundamental theological conception of the Hebrew Bible is that “the Lord (YHVH) is God (Elohim)”, which means that the God who is powerful in creating the universe (Elohim) is a moral God (YHVH).

 

Judgment and compassion are two pillar values of the Bible (and the Jewish tradition) – based upon the differing conceptions implied in the terms for God, YHVH and Elohim. Elohim, as the transcendent God of creation and Judge of all the earth, is associated with judgment, while YHVH, as the God who is revealed in the world as a God of redemption, is associated with love and compassion.

 

The Hebrew term judgment (דין), that is used in connection with Elohim, is sometimes understood as justice, but is better translated as judgment or law – as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a king or judge who issues judgments. A king or judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the king or judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a king or judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the king or judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher political or judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. Thus, the term judgment, as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power (as opposed to YHVH, the source of morality) should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.

 

The image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A king or judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion (רחמים) contains within it the word womb (רחם). The image then of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Bible and Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.

 

If we return to the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – each of the festivals according to our tradition is a celebration of an aspect of ancient Israelite history. On Passover we are celebrating the exodus of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt marking the birth of the Israelite and ancient Jewish people. On Shavuot we are celebrating the giving by God to the Israelites Torah (the 5 Books of Moses, which according to tradition were received on Mount Sinai) marking the birth of Judaism as a religion. On Sukkot we are commemorating the wanderings in the wilderness of the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt. On each of these festivals we are to experience God as YHVH, a God of compassion, who in the Biblical account as an act of compassion brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt marking the birth of the Jewish people, gave Torah on Mount Sinai marking the birth of Judaism as a religion and watched over our ancestors in their wanderings in the wilderness. Thus, each of the pilgrimage festivals is a time of great joy, and according to the Jewish tradition on each of the festivals we recite Hallel, which is composed of psalms of joy and thanksgiving.

 

By contrast, the days of awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim are not a time of joy but a time of fear and trembling when according to the Jewish tradition we are to experience God as Elohim, a God of judgment, in standing before God in judgment – and, the Hebrew term awe (נורא) is of the same root as the term fear (יראה). According to the Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment and Yom Hakippurim is the Day of Atonement. According to the Jewish tradition, we connect these days of awe of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim, which are ten days apart, by referring to them as the “ten days of tshuva”. Tshuva (תשובה) is a central concept of the Jewish tradition and the term is often translated inadequately as repentance but comes from a Hebrew root that means return (שוב) – and, the concept of tshuva then is a return to the path of right living. During such a period of judgment and self-examination (tshuva) when we stand before God in fear and trembling it is obviously not appropriate to recite Hallel, psalms of joy and thanksgiving – and, thus, we do not recite Hallel on Rosh Hashanah or on Yom Hakippurim.

 

We can now address the question regarding the pilgrimage festivals, which are times of great joy, as to why we are commanded to be joyful on Shavuot and Sukkot but not on Passover. Furthermore, on Shavuot and Sukkot we recite the complete Hallel (psalms of joy and thanksgiving) as an expression of our joy – but, on Passover we recite the complete Hallel only on the first day of Passover. On the intermediate days and last day of Passover, we recite only a partial Hallel.

 

There is a midrash (rabbinic commentary) of the Talmudic rabbis that addresses the question of why we are not commanded to be joyful on Passover:

 

Why on Passover do you not find one expression of joy? Because on Passover the produce of the field is judged and a person does not know the fate of the harvest. Therefore, there is no mention of joy. An alternative explanation – on account of the death of the Egyptians. Similarly, you find that on the seven days of Sukkot we recite the complete Hallel, but on Passover we recite the complete Hallel only on the first day. Why? Because “rejoice not when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24, 17).

 

The midrash here gives two reasons why we are not commanded to be joyful on Passover, and why we say the complete Hallel on Passover only on the first day. The first reason is agricultural as each of the pilgrimage festivals is connected with harvesting in spring (Passover), summer (Shavuot) and fall (Sukkot). Passover, from an agricultural point of view, is the very beginning of the harvest when as the midrash states “a person does not know the fate of the harvest”, while Sukkot is the gathering of the harvest in the fall. The second reason is moral, and in celebrating the exodus and birth of the Jewish people we limit our rejoicing due to the Egyptians who died in the escape of our Hebrew ancestors to freedom.

 

By the way, regarding our limiting of our rejoicing on Passover dude to the suffering of the Egyptians, later in the Book of Deuteronomy (23, 8) there is a remarkable law that it is forbidden to hate an Egyptian – and, the Egyptians in the Biblical period were to the Israelites like Nazis. The reason given (Deuteronomy 23, 8) that it is forbidden to hate an Egyptian is likewise remarkable – that the Israelites were strangers in Egypt. That is, in spite of all the evil that the Egyptians did to our ancestors, we are commanded as Jews by the Bible not to hate them and, in my view, to judge them favorably in appreciating all that they did for us when we lived as strangers in their land. In my view, this law applies today regarding Germans following the Holocaust.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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