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The Secret of Jewish Observance

05/08/2023 10:52:09 PM


Rabbi Moshe Rudin

Contemplating the Conclusion of the Jewish Year, 5783

Looking at Jewish spiritual life, it’s really astonishing just how much stuff we do.  I mean look at it:  We start the year by blowing loud blasts on Ram’s Horns.  Then, we go through a 25 hour total fast.  After that, we build little huts and move in for the week!  And if that’s not weird enough, we wave around palm fronds and neon-yellow citrons.  We dance with Torah scrolls and give our children candied apples and flags.

But wait- there’s more!  After taking a month off, we mellow out a bit with lighting little candelabras in our windows for Chanukah.  Then we take a strange turn by celebrating trees (Tu Bishvat)- in the middle of the winter.  Compared with what came before, that’s just a little odd.  

But then, we go full out again when winter finally turns to spring.  We don masks, twirl crazy loud noisemakers and throw parties (Purim).  And then… I won’t even try to describe all the oddness around Pesach.

Then, as the year wanes, the great countdown begins toward the summer holiday of Shavuot, the feast of weeks.  The modest festival of Lag B’Omer is in a way the most logical minor holiday: a genuine bonfirey, barbecuey celebration of spring.

The grand finale to all of this is Shavuot- the Holiday where we get the Torah.  And to celebrate we…. Eat cheesecake?   Now that is just weird.  So weird that the Rabbis themselves even comment on how understated the holiday is.  Torah is such an integral part of Jewish life, that we cannot conceive of life without Torah.  Just as we do not celebrate the air we breathe, and just as fish do not celebrate the water that sustains them, we are too immersed in Torah to properly appreciate or celebrate its meaning to us. 

Among all of these practices, customs and sacred moments, there is one climactic experience that powers the whole enterprise: Shabbat.  A weekly pause in the whirligig of life that both grounds us and elevates us.  

Why do we do it all?  All of the praying and the singing and the dancing and the celebrating and the kibbitzing, the jokes and the smiles, the handshakes and the hugs and even the arguments (sometimes) and the reconciliations- all for what? To remember? To sanctify?  To add meaning and purpose?  To show gratitude, come together, connect?  Yes, yes and yes. 

But if you woke me up in the dead of night and demanded to know why.  Why this passion, why this practice, why this observance?  I’d say the deepest truth.  Because it’s fun. 

Being Jewish or rather, doing Jewish is so fun!  And the more you learn, the better you get at it, the further you explore, the more fun it gets.  The energy and rhythm of Jewish practices take a while to learn but they grow in you and lift you so high.  Everyone loves a good story, whether it’s in a book or on the screen and the stories we have written in the parchment scrolls don’t come any better.  And then there’s the singing and the dancing, the laughter and even the tears, the l’chaim’s and the, I don’t know, depth of it all.  

I remember sitting in the freezing stands of the old Metropolitan Stadium, watching the Minnesota Vikings running their plays in the middle of a sleet storm with the wind chill at ten below zero.  And everyone’s having fun!  Because fun is about getting into it, devoting yourself to it, knowing the players behind the numbered jerseys, knowing what it means when legendary QB Fran Tarkenton peels back five steps and fakes a screen before hurling that long bomb… Fun is knowing and more important feeling it down to your toes, feeling it in your kishkes.

Fun? Does G-d have fun?  Yes, actually.  The holiest book of the Torah, says the great sage Rabbi Akiva, is the Song of Songs, the love song that describes Israel and G-d as lovers.  Let us celebrate, let us run through the fields and sleep in the meadows.  Let us dance in the vineyards and leap on the mountaintops with joy.   That is the highest religious service and you know- that sounds fun!

That’s how it is, I think.  The fun.  If we can hold onto it, nurture and grow it, then we can spread it, share it.  So yes, let’s do a deep, authentic, meaningful Jewish practice- but above all else, let’s make it fun.  


Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784