Discomfort: Jewish Holidays in a Nutshell
Judaism is about discomfort. What do I mean by that? I mean we want to avoid it’s opposite – no, not “comfort” but “complacency.” The English language sometimes trips us up as words that sound like opposites aren’t always the best choice for demonstrating opposing concepts.
At the anniversary of creation (well, according to the prevailing opinion) we say on Rosh Hashana, “Who will live and who will die?” Yet after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, who’s alive? Almost all of us. So there must be another better meaning behind the words.
Rather, in Judaism we say that someone can be physical alive but dead and conversely, one can be physical dead but still alive. I’m not talking about physical resurrection, but rather, you’re ability to effectuate change in the world. This what is called “living”. For example, take Steve Jobs. He is physically dead but what he did in changing computers from a text-based green phosphorous screen to beautiful fonts and design based on his love of a calligraphy course he sat in on changed our world. He is physically dead but his change in the world lives on.
On the other side, Pirkei Avos says “at one hundred, as good as dead” (Perek 5). However, one need not reach a ripe old age to stop “living” – they sit at home and play video games as is a common problem among, “hikikomori”, half a million Japanese people who haven’t interacted with others for six months or more. They have little to no effect on making the world a better place or on life itself, casting their aspirations into futility and effective death.
How does Judaism prevent this? Well, what is needed to live? Let’s start at the basics – food, shelter, clothing, sleep. Let’s add a less common referred to, but just as important, concept: mental stimulation. Accounts of people living in solitary confinement with 24 hour lighting cannot even focus on a page of book. It’s just monotony followed by mental degradation. They begin to “die” young.
Judaism requires, not just having food, shelter, clothing, and mental stimulation but regulates each of them. They become more than just having them to physically live, but rather, use of each requirement to life to connect to the higher power and to make each meaningful through … well, a certain degree of discomfort which helps an aware person not only physically have, say, food, but also appreciate food ephemerally.
Food – laws of kashrus.
Clothing – laws of shatnez (not mixing wool/linen), tzitzis (adding reminders on each item of certain times of clothing).
Shelter – mezuzah on your door.
Sleep – wake up by the third hour of the day to pray (no sleeping very late).
Mental stimulation – learning Torah.
Avoiding monotony – Shabbos! Your work schedule must cease.
However, these too can become rote. When I first started keeping kosher, it was tough. Which kosher symbols are good? How do I deal with family events that aren’t kosher? Where do I get kosher food at school and how do I logistically get there with my class schedule? What will my social interactions be like and who will I have them with now – will they change? Shoot, is this kosher or did I eat the wrong thing? What food is good?
Twenty years later and apart from planning vacations, which I’ve pretty much figured out as well, I barely think about keeping kosher. I just do it. Same with Shabbos, same with tzitzis, same with menorah and usually it’s even the same with learning Torah. I have my schedule (which is a requirement – to be “kovei itim” – not to learn Torah all the time but to have a regular schedule for doing so).
So Judaism takes it up a notch. Your observance of mitzvos shouldn’t become rote – complacency is bad, remember? Effect change in the world! Make the world a better place and constantly keep yourself moving and alive! But alas – it tends to happen to us. So we break out of this complacency too! How? Yom tovim! (Holidays).
Let’s start at the other new year now – the month of Nissan when Peasch [passover] falls. Become complacent with your food? Let’s add new levels of kashrus! Think about keeping kosher all over again! Once a year revisit the issue and have to figure it out again – where will I eat? What will I eat? Who will I eat with? How do I handle the workplace or school? Oy. Except not “oy” – it’s just discomfort to pull you out of your complacency.
Shelter? That one’s easy – Succos [Sukkot]. Quit taking your complacency with your house and mezuzah for granted. Go build a hut and live outside. Put your best stuff in there, eat all your proper meals there, learn Torah there, sleep there – take it up to the next level.
Clothing – a bit harder but on Yom Kippur there’s no leather shoes. Same with Tish B’av.
Sleep – Shavuous. Stay up all night to learn Torah. Or, at least wake up for the earliest possible time to pray.
Torah study? Well, Shavous has us covered on that one as well. It’s a special time to commemorate receiving the Torah and break out of our regular schedule and learn much more.
Monotony? All the Yom Tovim do that but recall that Shabbos is in this place each week. What happens when keeping Shabbos becomes “rote”? We have a Shabbos of shabbosim which is perhaps an exception to the exception of how one comes out of their complacency. One can become complacent even with second level non-complacent behavior which are the yom tovim in general. Here, we have the flip side of Yom Kippur from the admitting our failings. Shabbos is “me’in olam haba” – a portion of what it feels like to be in the world to come. On Yom Kippur we’re like malachim [angels] – a higher level of the spiritual and negation of the physical. No food, no water, and about 11-14 hours of the day in synagogue. It’s amazing experience when it can be appreciated. (Parenthetically, it took me 20 years to appreciate it for the first time which perhaps enabled me to then figure this all out as it was the missing puzzle piece for me for many years.)
Thus, we’ve taken Shabbos and elevated it one step further with the Shabbos of Shabbosim.
The last example then begs the question – why leave the physical in place? Why not do so on other holidays too? Why do we need any shelter? Forget the sukkah and go outside and sleep directly under the stars – what do you mean we have to have more shade than sun as our roof? Why don’t we only learn Torah on Shavuous and forget the physical needs there? Why only Yom Kippur for that?
Well, to recap Yom Kippur is the exception the rule of the exception to the rule. It represents the next world. Meanwhile, we’re in this world and we do need physical structures to live. We are part animal and part angel – body and soul. The rest of the yom tovim represent this. While throughout the regular days the physical is before us, on the yom tovim we emphasize the spiritual but do not negate the physical. It’s a portion of not the next world, but this world when the spiritual light is prominent. We want more sukkah and less house – rely on G_d more than on nature as we do now. More shade than sun right now, but later the sukkah comes from an “above nature” creature, the Levithan. Our skin, our clothing, will be the minority whereas our internal light which is hidden away, our soul, will shine through.
That’s the Jewish year in a nutshell. Fix the physical and elevate to to the spiritual. Discomfort avoids complacency and allows us to great things, the greatest of all being the full rectification of the world.