What makes this a holiday?

What makes this a special day? And what can we learn from the single midrash contained in Midrash Rabbah about it? Glad you asked!

“On the eighth day you shall have a convocation, no task of work shall you do” (Num. 29:35)

First, a little context: in the description of each of the seven preceding days, the number of bulls to be sacrificed is reduced each day from thirteen to seven. On the eighth day, however, the number drops to one. Noting a difference, the sages wondered about what made the eighth day unusual. Earlier in this midrash, in establishes that the “convocation” is a “festive season,” and hence the midrash that follows.

A heathen addressed a question to R. Akiba. He said to him: ‘Why do you celebrate festive seasons? Did not the Holy One, blessed be He, say to you: Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth’ (Isa. 1:14)? Said R. Akiba to him: ‘If He had stated, “My new moons and My appointed seasons My soul hateth” you might have spoken as you did. But He only said, “Your new moons and your appointed seasons”!’ That was in reference to those festive seasons which Jeroboam ordained (see I Kings 12:32-33). Our festive seasons, however, will never be abolished, neither will the New Moons. Why? Because they belong to the Holy One, blessed be He; as it says, These are the appointed seasons of the Lord (Lev. 23:4, and similarly Lev. 23:2 and Lev. 23:44). Consequently they will never be abolished, and of them it says, They are established for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:25

On the surface, we have one of those quibbles between literalists that seems to be of minimal merit: finding contradictions, gaps, and just plain unintelligible passages within the Bible is like shooting fish in the barrel – if we’re only reading at the surface. Even Akiba’s response seems more like Shammai – don’t bother me with such trivia! Here’s the plain solution – than Hillel.

At a deeper level, though, what distinguishes G!d’s festivals from ours, given that they are all found in the Bible? The answer comes, I believe, from Isaiah, but more from Chapter 58 than Chapter 1. What Isaiah speaks to there is how we transform a day that should be holy into something mundane, or more properly, something profane. By not honoring the spirit of the day, by executing the form without the substance, we cast off the chance for an encounter with G!d and instead engage in meaningless bobbing and weaving, “bowing (our) head(s) like a reed.”

When we swallow the letter of the law without the Spirit, it’s like we’re drinking ink, not the honey we have been taught to see the letters as written with. When we take the holiness out of holidays, we end up with just more days.

Thankfully, the holidays will never be lost to us. We must only embrace them for what they are: G!d’s gift of an opportunity to celebrate and remember our partnership, our covenant, our embrace with the Eternal.

May your eighth day – and all that precede and follow it! – be blessed with the sheltering embrace of the Shekhina.

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