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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

May 8, 2020

Today is a very special day!

Not only is it the 30th day of the Omer...

Not only is it national No Socks day...

Not only is it national public gardens day...

Not only is it national cream pie day...

It’s also Shabbat!

No socks, public gardens, cream pie - sounds like a pretty great Friday, May 8th to me!

You may be aware, amused, or even confused by all of these national and international holidays that have become more popular as of late. It’s easy to take a cynical view - apparently, today is also national have a Coke day - yes, there is an aspect of marketing and self-promotion to these celebrations. And yet, there’s something powerful about having something to celebrate.

This week, I found myself doing a lot of celebrating. On Tuesday, you may have observed Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, which has become a celebration of Mexican culture and food, particularly in the United States. Tuesday was also the birthday of one of my dearest friends. Her family organized a virtual zoom birthday party - we were all online, in zoom, just like we are now, singing, catching up, and vicariously enjoying her birthday cake. Friends from around the country came together to make the day special for her.

The very next day, I attended a virtual birthday party for another friend. From the safety of our homes, we all met, online in the same virtual fitness class, and then we shared photos, again online, wishing her a happy birthday. I reconnected with some people I hadn’t talked to in months who also attended.

The holidays only continue. This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and back on the Jewish calendar, in a few days we’ll celebrate Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, the time period of 49 days we count between Passover and our next holiday, Shavuot. On Lag Ba’omer, it’s traditional to have bonfires and bring some joy to a period on our calendar that is traditionally more solemn.

Holidays have always been an essential aspect of Jewish life. In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we are given a detailed calendar of many of the key Jewish holidays we still celebrate today, notably Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the High Holy Days. As we read:

Eleh mo’adei Adonai, mikra’ei kodesh asher tik’ri’u otam b’mo’adam. These are the set times of the Eternal, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time (Leviticus 23:4).

That word, mo’ed, refers to both time and place. We also call the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, the sanctuary that followed the Israelites throughout the desert, the Ohel Mo’ed - the tent that was a set place to gather.

Through this strange time of isolation and quarantine, we are not gathering in our sacred or familiar places as we normally would. Whether it’s a birthday, Mother’s Day, Passover, or Shabbat, we’re also not celebrating our special occasions in the ways we usually do right now. We may be separated from people we love, with whom we’d normally celebrate. We may be unable to find certain foods, observe traditions, or travel where we’d like to be.

For me, that’s exactly what makes celebrating holidays and birthdays all the more essential right now, of designating sacred and celebratory times. This is a disorienting, tragic, and isolating period. Holidays provide us with an outlet for our grief and an antidote for our listlessness.

Holidays give us a sense of order. Shabbat is always the seventh day of the week. Cinco de Mayo is always the fifth of May. At the end of the Omer, after 49 days, we celebrate Shavuot.

Holidays give us a moment of joy. Having a zoom gathering or a spontaneous dance party or baking a cake are the release we need right now. Synagogues and offices are closed, events and gatherings are cancelled. Love and connection and joy are not cancelled. Celebrating the sweet moments sustains us in the face of tragedy and illness around us.

Holidays bring us together, at least virtually or by phone. We can’t be in person for many of these special days right now, for a birthday party, holiday, or Shabbat. Zoom isn’t ideal, by any means, but these virtual gatherings are the next best thing.

And finally, holidays sustain us. More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat - and every other holiday - Shabbat and our sacred occasions have kept the Jewish people. I’ve never felt the power of these words more than I do now. Our holidays and sacred days and yes, our silly days, bring us together, uniting us in these virtual spaces and with Jews around the world, even as we’re spending time physically apart.

That’s why I’m inclined, right now, at home and in virtual space, to celebrate moments big and small. There’s plenty of time for sadness, and sorrow. There’s plenty of time for reality, and for reading the news, and for living in the world as it is. Let’s find those moments that can bring us order, joy, connection, and love. Let’s celebrate birthdays, pretend holidays, and the real ones, too. Let’s gather at sacred times, even if we’re in separate spaces. Let’s find joy together.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Tue, July 14 2020 22 Tammuz 5780