At home with life

The High Holiday season is all about one thing—chaim: life and living. 

This season is known as the High Holy Days or The Days of Awe.

Each of the three festivals we celebrate during this season-Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot-witness pilgrimage to the synagogue in all its American varieties. This is the season when the Jewish people gather once again to recommit to what we live all year.

This season is all about one thing- chaim , life and living. The experience in the synagogue can't happen without the pathway to the synagogue. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, there is a great family meal. The next morning, we repair to the synagogue. After services, another family meal. The Fast of Yom Kippur, a day of great joy for its promise of renewal, begins with a celebratory family meal before the fast, and concludes with a celebratory break-the-fast. Sukkot is a time when we leave the home and eat outdoors, replicating the way our parents lived for 40 years of wandering in the desert.

The encounter with the Jewish tradition, with God, with the prayer book, with the collectivity of the Jewish people in the synagogue, is framed at each instance by family meals at home.

Home is where Jewish life is lived. This is chaim , Jewish life lived to its fullest. Our great moments from time immemorial have been about this double experience. At Mt. Sinai, we received the Torah. The entire Jewish people were there. It is the only revelation in Western religious experience that is presented to an entire people, women and men, young and old. Yet, that experience is preceded by a family meal. The pathway to Sinai begins a few weeks earlier in the Passover family meal on that first night of freedom in Egypt. The first commandment to the Jewish people, before they can experience God's revelation and the giving and receiving of the Torah, is a family meal.

This is a unique feature of Judaism and the Jewish experience. Family meals are central to the experience and understanding of the Jewish purpose in life. The mitzvot of the Torah are nothing if not about the normal activities of human life-commerce, agriculture, food, marital relations, property. In each of these cases, the mitzvot of the Torah seek two things-to ensure the prosperity and success of these regular human activities and, at the same time, to make them special, to integrate them into a sacred way of life.

While sanctity sounds like something other-worldly and heaven-focused, in Judaism it is not. Sanctity is found in and through the material world. The Sabbath itself, while celebrating God's creation of the material world and humanity, is a day that revolves around three family meals.

This focus on life to its fullest is given intense expression in a famous passage in the Talmud-better one hour of good deeds in this world than an eternity in the world to come. The Torah is given at Sinai not to one special person, but to the entire Jewish people-men, women, children, old, young, learned, ignorant, wise, and foolish. It is given to the Jewish people in their diversity because diversity is normal. The Torah is about the sanctity of normalcy. It can only be presented in the most normal of life situations. This is what accounts for the Jewish passion for life and immersion in chaim , the stuff of life itself in the here and now.

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund.


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