The Festivals Spread Holiness

It is written, “These are the festivals of Hashem, holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appointed time” (Vayikra 23:4).

In this week’s parsha, we read about the holiness of Shabbat and the festivals. As we know, the difference between Shabbat and the festivals is that Shabbat has existed since the six days of Creation and always comes after the six days of the week, which is not the case for the festivals. In fact it is the Jewish people, specifically the Beit Din, that designates their dates, as it is written: “which you shall designate in their appointed time” (see Rosh Hashanah 24a), meaning that they are the ones who designate them. Hence we conclude the Kiddush for Shabbat with the blessing, “Who sanctifies Shabbat,” for it is the Holy One, blessed be He, Who alone sanctifies it. Likewise we conclude the Kiddush for the festivals with the blessing, “Who sanctifies Israel and the seasons,” for He sanctifies the Jewish people, and they in turn designate the dates of the festivals.

I have seen in the Torah commentary Sefat Emet by the Gerer Rebbe that the difference between Shabbat and the festivals lies not only in the designation of festival dates, but in something much more profound. The sanctity of Shabbat surpasses human comprehension, which is why the Sages tell us that G-d said: “I have a precious gift in My treasury, and its name is Shabbat” (Beitzah 16a). Shabbat was given to the Children of Israel as a gift, without work or effort required, which is why man needs an extra soul to receive its light. However the festivals are called “holy convocations,” for man must convoke holiness and draw it towards him, something that depends on the holiness of Israel. This is what the Gerer Rebbe says.

From here we learn that the holiness of a festival depends on man, who must prepare himself to receive its light. If he prepared himself correctly, he will receive an abundance of holiness. In the opposite case, however, the festival will have no impact on him. The same applies for Shavuot, which depends on the 49 days that precede it. Hence the Torah does not call it “the festival of the giving of the Torah” (Chag Matan Torah), but rather “the festival of weeks” (Chag HaShavuot), for it essentially consists of receiving the Torah, which in turn depends solely on the preparation that precedes it. There is a direct link between the passage dealing with the festivals and the passage dealing with the blasphemer, which appears at the end of this week’s parsha. In Torat Kohanim we read, “Why did he curse? When he came to pitch his tent within the encampment of the tribe of Dan, they said to him: ‘What right do you have to be here?’ He said, ‘I’m among the descendants of Dan.’ They replied, ‘Each man by his grouping according to the insignias of his father’s household.’ He entered Moshe’s court and was found guilty. He then arose and blasphemed.” This is astounding, for not only was he not content with blaspheming, he deliberately blasphemed G-d’s Name! How could a man who saw the miracles in Egypt, who witnessed the splitting of the sea, and whose own ears heard G-d saying: “I am Hashem your G-d” – a man who certainly did not participate in the sin of the golden calf, otherwise he would have died alongside the other sinners – suddenly sink to such an abysmal level? How was he not afraid to utter Hashem’s Name; even more so, how could he have cursed it?

Before answering this question, let us delve into the gravity of the sin of rage. The person who blasphemed had been irritated by the fact that he had not been shown respect, and this irritation turned into rage. Now the Sages have said, “He who loses his temper, even the Shechinah is unimportant in his eyes” (Nedarim 22b). Here the blasphemer felt that the Shechinah was unimportant, and he blasphemed. Whoever loses his temper is capable of saying or doing things that he would never say or do otherwise, for in his rage he becomes blind to everything before him. In reflecting upon this, I realize that we sometimes get irritated over trivial matters, over meaningless things. I remember that when I was young, a stranger once arrived in synagogue and sat down in someone else’s seat. When the latter arrived and saw someone sitting in his seat, he said nothing until the Sefer Torah was taken out. When everyone left their seat to honor it, he took his seat back. When the stranger returned and saw someone sitting there, he said that he had been there before. At that point the other person began to scream, saying that it had been his seat for the entire year, and that today he had simply arrived late. One thing led to another, and their exchange became enflamed with anger, to the point that one person pushed the other while he was holding the Sefer Torah – which ended up on the floor, to everyone’s dismay. And it all started from something as trivial as a seat. The stranger could have gone to sit elsewhere, for it wasn’t his seat, or the other person could have forgiven him and gone to sit elsewhere to pray that one time. Yet anger ruins everything and drives people out of control. In fact a person’s tendency to become angry is what enables us to determine whether we should become friends, for as the Sages have said: “By three things may a person’s character be determined…by his anger” (Eruvin 65b).

Indeed, how could the blasphemer in this week’s parsha have reached such a lowly level? What caused it? According to what we have said, since he treated the festivals with contempt, without adequately preparing for them, they automatically did not spread their holiness upon him and he did not benefit from the brilliance of their light. Otherwise he would have been strengthened and used these to study Torah. There is a principle which states that if a person does not elevate himself, he will inevitably descend and become corrupt. This week’s parsha states, “They shall be holy to their G-d, and they shall not desecrate the Name of their G-d” (Vayikra 21:6). If we make no effort to attain a higher degree of holiness in general, and during the festivals in particular, we will end up desecrating G-d’s Name and blaspheming. There can be no worse Chillul Hashem.

If we waste our time during the festivals, it means that we have not submitted ourselves to Torah and that pride prevents us from learning. How can we rectify this? By obeying Hashem’s orders and starting to learn Torah. When we submit to words of Torah and the One Who gave them – the Holy One, blessed be He – we will avoid all forms of carelessness. Here too, the blasphemer in this week’s parsha did not take advantage of the holy festivals for himself, which is why he descended from his level in an appalling way, to the point of denying G-d when he was found to be in the wrong.


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