What do most Americans know about Jewish holidays? Typically – Hanukkah, Passover and… not much else. The three big holidays are the pilgrimage festivals. Cantor Linda Hirschhorn of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro wrote a lovely, brief description of them. Have a look.
In Parshat Re’eh we are given a description of the three major pilgrim festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot . (These are called Hagim- Hag is related to the Arabic word Haj. Just as Haj to Mecca is a requirement for Muslims so was the Hag to Jerusalem required for Jews)
The brilliantly orchestrated holiday cycle gives a structure to our lives. Starting with the first month (Nisan) we have the holiday of Pesach which commemorates our transition from slavery to becoming a free people with the freedom to choose how we live. Pesach comes with the constant reminder of our obligation to advocate for the freedom of all people (since we know what it is like to not be free.)
Next comes Shavuout- where we are given the Torah, a manual or guidebook of do’s and don’ts: on how to live our lives in relation to each other, to the earth and to the divine.
And finally we come to Succot. Succot is referred to as “zman simchateinu” – “the time of our happiness”. (It is the only one of these three holidays that is referred to with the word Simcha- happiness. It is a time when we both celebrate the abundance of our harvests while paradoxically we leave the comfort and security of our homes and move into a temporary, exposed and unglamorous booth. Dwelling in the succah reminds us that the physical pleasures in this life are temporary. Our happiness lies not in our possessions but in our relationships and in the (hopefully good) choices that we have made over the course of the year – in sharing our bounty, in respect for each other, and in the advancement of all people’s freedoms.
The pilgrimage festivals shaped the Jewish calendar – and still do for practicing Jews – in the same way that Halloween Thanksgiving and Christmas shape the American calendar. Anticipating and preparing for a holiday, including in ancient times, a trip to Jerusalem, were powerful and meaningful experiences. Try taking one of these holidays, learning about it and observing it with energy and passion this coming year!