We have just concluded the celebration of almost a month of Jewish holidays.
Watching the children in the religious school this week, I noticed that they are overwhlemed with holidays.
To them it seems that we have a holiday every time we meet - talk about saturation and overdoing it!
I tested this feeling today, by asking the younger students to tell me what holiday we are celebrating now or what is coming next. There was a pregnant pause, then one of them ventured the guess, "Halloween?". I said no, that is a holiday everyone can celebrate, but it is not a Jewish holiday.
Another long pause, then one of them said "Your birthday?" I smiled, and said no, that was a good guess, but it is not my birthday at this time of year.
After a short time, I told them they should understand that I had asked a trick question, and that the answer is 'nothing'. They all looked stunned.
I continued, "we have had a lot of holidays, but they are over now for this year. But we do have a holiday that comes every week". They are smart youngsters, and caught on - they all called out that it was Shabbat (the sabbath).
I then said there is a holiday for the beginning of each Hebrew calendar month, and asked if they knew the name of it. No one did, so I explained that it is called Rosh Chodesh (head of the month) and it is the day when the new month starts, the day when we can see the tiniest sliver of the new moon in the sky. They all knew about the moon getting bigger, until it was full, then getting smaller, so they could understand this idea, and i seemed to make sense to them.
Then I told them that other than Shabbat each week, and Rosh Chodesh at the start of the month, we have no Jewish holidays for a while. I asked if they could think of what the next holiday might be. They didn't seem to know, until I offered the hint that on this holiday we have chocolate coins.... I never got to mention Dreidles (tops) or latkes (potato pancakes), because they knew right away what I was talking about. One of them exclaimed, "Chanukah! I know that! I LIKE that holiday!".
I tell this not only because they were so cute, but to point out that we have a calender problem in Judaism. The reactions of the children exemplify it.
With the intensity of introspection in the month of Elul immediately followed by the concentration of holidays in the month of Tishrei, we are ALL subject to Holiday Fatigue Syndrome: a sense of exhaustion, irritation with celebration, and a wish to get it over with, already! Who can stand two months of this?
Not me, and not most of us, I suspect. At least, not if we see it as one long holiday and drive ourselves to the brink of sanity over it.
Instead, I suggest, we need to separate the components out, look at each one on its own, and give each its due.
Elul with its introspection in anticipation of the High Holy Days is not an active time, but it is somewhat draining emotionally, if we take it seriously. Perhaps we need to look at it not as a month of self-examiniation, but as thirty days on which we can take advantage of the season, for short periods, when we are able. I cannot sustain the same level of introspection over days and days, but I can take a day here, an hour there, and during the period of Elul, with breaks and downtime, make use of the time to conduct my cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul). I even suspect that I am more ready to undertake such an accounting, if I know that I can stop when it becomes too hard and return to it later.
Similarly, rather than seeing it as ten days at a peak for the yamim Nora'im (days of awe), I can set aside times during the period from Rosh Hashanah (new years day) to Yom Kippur (day of atonement) for my Teshuvah (repentance and penitential prayers). Again, concentrated moments spread out over the period are more likely than a continuous push for the whole time.
And when we begin Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, I can celebrate when I am in the Sukkah, so that it is a more time and space limited holiday, and in that way I can ameliorate the impact of a seven day celebration.
Finally, for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, I suggest that we have taken these with a bit of the wrong sense. I think we should view these days as more like the time after a family Simchah (joy): that time when the majority of the guests have left, we are almost done with the clean up, we have taken off our fancy dress, and the closest family and friends have stayed around to spend time together, and to relax in each other's company. I think perhaps we should be looking at Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in this light - our chance to wear more comfortable clothes and relax in company with G-d and each other - our closest friends and family.
Perhaps if we saw it in this light, and acted accordingly, the concentration of holidays wouldn't feel so burdensome, but would be a joy and a means to relax and truly celebrate what matters.
So, do we have too many holidays? I would answer, No: we have just been trying to make each one a formal affair. If we can stop trying so hard, we might find we are having a good time and truly celebrating! And that would truly make it the season of our joy.
Rabbi Joe Blair