holiday simplicity

Written by  rav rafael

art-splitmatzahAround our home, Jewish holidays are elaborate affairs. While I tend to be focused on the ritual and teaching aspects of the holidays, I observe that each time they come around my wife turns into a full-time caterer.

Not only has she been planning for weeks to have all the right foods on hand, the common areas of the home get reconfigured for the coming events. Honestly, it’s a bit mind boggling to me all that she has to think about and plan for. When I help her, she knows that she has to give me just one or two tasks at a time which I work through. When I complete them, I come back for more. I am sure it’s a similar situation in other Jewish households. Part of our honoring these special days is to bring a unique joy to our time of eating together.

It’s a certainly our tribal ethic to put out the big elaborate spread for these celebrations. Pondering this, I went back to the Torah to see what kind of spread our biblical forerunners put out.

And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it … And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. – Exodus 12:9,11

Okay, so we were escaping yet another tyrant. I can see why we had to keep things simple. What about the yearly observance?

And no leaven shall be seen with you within all your border for seven days; neither shall any of the flesh you slaughter on the preceding day in the afternoon, remain all night until the morning. You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. – Deut 16:3-4

It seems that even our yearly observance required the central, simple unleavened bread and a remembrance of humble beginnings. Matzah, the simplest of foods, consists of just flour and water. As elaborate as our yearly celebrations get, it is the simple matzah that is at the center of our table. We are reminded year after year of our humble beginnings. The wisdom of this tradition is that no matter how grand the scale of your celebration, it’s the simple foods and story of humble beginnings that teach us the true lessons of the season.

While Passover uses food to bring us back to the simplest lessons of life, Succot teaches us a similar lesson through the simplicity of where we eat, and for some, where we sleep. We could think of Succot as the other reminder of the Exodus story. The succah reminds us of the simplicity of living while we were sojourning in the desert. Here we take the feast out of our homes and celebrate it in simple temporary homes in our backyard. We leave the comfort and relative certainty of our homes and take our lovingly catered meal outside. In Seattle, this is a true act of faith since the rainy season is usually right on time with the beginning of Succot.

For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43

The succah reminds for a week that we can live with much less and be just as happy. Our homes tend to enslave us in many ways, through our mortgage payments, regular upkeep, and improvements. Living outside for a week reminds us of how precious our homes are and how life can be simple and happy in humbler surroundings.

Whether it is the matzah at the center of our table, or the succah where we eat and sleep, the holidays serve as important reminders that the joys in life are not derived from how elaborately we can celebrate them, but from the simple lessons and reminders they bring. While eating your finely catered meal in your succah, remember to savor each simple joy and treasure its blessing.

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