Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein
Joyless Festivals in Israel
Rabbi Yochanan, who lived in Israel about two hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple, was in close contact with the Jewish communities of Babylon. As quoted in the Talmud (Shabbos 145b), he wonders why the festivals are more joyous in Babylon than in Israel. And he offers a solution based on the Prophets.
Hosea prophesied (2:13), “I shall end all her joy, her festive gatherings, her new months, her Sabbaths and her festivals.” Isaiah prophesied (1:14), “My soul despises your new months and holidays; they have become a burden to Me.” Both prophets conveyed that there is a specific curse regarding festivals in the land of Israel.
What did Isaiah mean by “they have become a burden to me”? Rabbi Eleazar comments, “It is not enough for Israel that they sinned before Me, but they also burdened Me to determine which harsh decree I shall bring upon them.” The Talmud concludes that this “burden,” clearly just an anthropomorphism, causes more frequent troubles and a general diminution of joy during the festivals in Israel.
Many questions come to mind. Why was the land of Israel singled out for a harsher decree long after the destruction of the Temple, when only a fraction of the Jewish people remained there? In what way is it a greater “burden” for God to make harsh decrees in the land of Israel? How do we define this additional sin of “burdening” God over and above the sins that lead to divine retribution in the first place? And how does this sin relate to the festivals?
The most essential aspect of the festivals is to reinforce the idea of God’s continual benevolence and providence; they recall the redemption from Egypt (Passover), the giving of the Torah (Shavuos) and God’s providence during the forty years in the desert (Sukkos). This providence is most manifest in the land of Israel, as we read in the second paragraph of the Shema prayer. It is there that man can achieve the closest possible relationship with the Creator.
It stands to reason that the land of Israel demands a “reverse providence” when it is not fulfilling its purpose, and so, “bad” things tend to happen in Israel. This is especially true during the festivals when, in good times, the great gathering at the Temple would have reverberated with paeans to His providence. Now, as the Temple lies in ruins, the people are banished and silence greets the festivals, it is fitting that the absence of providence be most acutely felt.
Ideally, God wants people to choose good for its own sake, without prodding by miraculous occurrences. But people tend to be wayward, and God redirects nature to produce providential events that guide them back on the right path. The Talmud characterizes this active override of the laws of nature as a “burden” on God’s ultimate plan. If all that is required is a small providential nudge then the “burden” is considered small, but if a major calamity is needed in order to get their attention, they are imposing a great “burden,” so to speak, on God’s plan for the world.
People living in the land of Israel, the place designated for the most manifest providence, are held to a higher standard. For them, small nudges were often not enough. They required more significant intervention and thereby caused an additional “burden.” And during the festivals, when the “reverse providence” was so manifest, the “burden” was the greatest.
A Fitting Cadence
The Book of Leviticus begins with God’s call to Moses to initiate the divine service and comes to a disturbing climax with the Tochachah, the dire warnings of divine retribution should the people go astray. It is a fitting place to turn the last page and open the next Book. But surprisingly, a few didactic laws regarding animals sanctified for the divine service follow the dramatic Tochachah. Why do these laws appear here? The anticlimactic conclusion diminishes the power of the reproof, distracts from the Book’s theme and detracts from its message.
The very last passage of Leviticus discusses the laws of temurah, among the laws of other holy items. An animal sanctified as an offering cannot be exchanged for another. If the exchange is attempted, both animals remain in the holy domain. The Torah repeatedly stresses (27:33) that no distinction be made “between good and bad.” The laws of this section teach that once an object attains holiness it must remain so unless properly redeemed.
Upon consideration, this law provides a fitting metaphor for the consolation that concludes the Tochachah, where God declares (25:24), “Even in the land of their enemies I will not cast them away, nor will I loathe them to destroy them and void My covenant with them.” We see this promise etched into the structure of Halachah in the laws of temurah and other holy items. God has invested the Jewish people with sanctity by selecting them. Whether “good or bad,” they cannot be exchanged or lose their higher designation. They, too, will have redemption.