Jewish Festivals are so total, so enveloping. I can almost imagine Jackie Mason in a skit saying something to the effect of:
The Gentiles, when they have a festival, what do they do? - They make a party, they eat in the living room, they drink, exchange gifts. It's fun, it's relaxed.
But us - we build a shack, we shvitz to put up a rickety hut, and then we sleep in it and eat in it - and we call that a holiday? We clean the house on our knees, and wash the curtains and wipe down the kitchen and change our entire kitchen round, and eat indigestible matza - and we say: That's a Holiday! Ah! - A Yom Tov!
On their new year, they make a drunken party and sleep all day with a hangover. On our New Year, we get up early, and spend half the day in shul!
Jewish Festivals do have their grueling aspects at times. But I love them. and I love them precisely because they are so overwhelming, so all-encompassing.
Take the Yamim Noraim. The Shofar 30 days before, the selichot - getting up early in an intense vigil of chanting, day by day. And then the symbolic foods, the Shofar, the prayer service, and the intensity of the Asseret Ymai Teshuva. It all crescendos perfectly at Neila. Even for a person who isn't prepared in any particular way, the acts of our tradition create a certain momentum, they propel a person forward, thrusting him or her into the mood, the themes, the ideas, the mindset of that particular time of year with totality and immersion.
Take Sukkot which we just celebrated. The lead-up straight after Yom Kippur, with buliding the Sukka, and then decorating it, buying the Arba'ah Minim, cutting Aravot. It's an entire mobilisation. And then Chag itself, when we try to spend as much time possible in the Sukka, eating, relaxing, I even took my laptop out to the Sukka, and we had an entire family sleep-in for 7 days as we all slept in the Sukka. Not to mention Hallel with Arba'ah Minim and Hoshanot each day. And here in Israel, the kids are off school, and we are off work. The country is filled with a variety of music and arts Festivals, and people are all out enjoying themselves. It has a real Holiday feel! Suddenly, the Chag starts weaving its magic. As one lies in the Sukka and the flimsy roof over one's head, the deliberate move away from the creature comforts of one's bedroom and living room, one is inexorably prompted to ponder the deeper meaning sof the Chag, and behaviourly, existentially, the Holiday begins to penetrate, to infiltrate to seep into our minds and souls.
And similarly for Pesach, and other special times of the year, for example the Three Weeks. What is phenomenal is that the more intensely and comprehensively one observes the laws, rites, traditions and practices of the Holiday, the more it envelops your reality, weaving a magical web, and literally reframing one's environment. It is as if life were a stage, and suddenly the backdrop, the scenery and soundtrack were able to generate an entirely new vista, a radically different world, a fresh mode of living, with its unique texture , sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts, a different mood, a new reality.
I think that it is only in recent years that I have become more sensitive and aware to the power of the Chag and its Laws in generating the atmosphere and content of the moment. When in school, we spend ages studying about the upcoming Holidays. we learn the customs, and songs, the ideas and the texts. We are over-primed!
But as life is more busy with kids and work, I have felt (even as a teacher, teaching my students about the Chag) that I have less and less time to work my brain into the correct atmosphere and mindset. With all the hectic preparations, we frequently dash out the shower to shul for YomTov without having engaged ourselves in deeper thought about the chag! It is here that the comprehensive nature of our tradition, the huge numbers of traditions and Halakhot, the physical investment in building the Sukka, or burning the Hametz, and then the rhythm and tempo of the Chag itself, begin to have that amazing effect of penetrating our psyche, our consciousness, as the content and inner spirit of the Chag begin to spread their special aroma throughout our minds, body and soul.
I'm looking forward to Channukah already!