It is fascinating, if not annoying, how American celebrated holidays are so often overshadowed (or is it over-marketed!) by commercialization.
The joke about Halloween is that it is the launch of marketing for Christmas, except that marketing for Halloween seems to begin before summer is over. If, anything, the most shared holiday for all Americans, Thanksgiving, is “turkey sandwiched” between the formerly children’s (now reclaimed seemingly by the adults!) holiday and the end of the year festivities. Too bad for Thanksgiving, since it is arguably our most unifying of all holidays in American culture, until and unless MLK Day becomes more universally observed as a day to commemorate values of honoring and celebrating respect for all Americans with all our differences.
This month of February is home to two holidays: one that has been hyped by the marketers since before we hit New Year’s Day with all the candy wrapped in pink. While many American holidays have their counterparts with Jewish holidays i.e. Sukkot, our Jewish Thanksgiving, there isn’t a Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, unless you stretch the meaning to figure that Shavuot, the Time of the Giving of Torah is that alternative. Our tradition associates God’s Love with HaShem’s gift of Torah, which is commemorated in our daily and Shabbat prayer that leads into the Shema, which in turn opens us to returning that Love to God, the Veahavta.
In Judaism, love is more than feelings accompanied by hearts, flowers and an abundance of candy (I confess I love buying the latter at the deepest of discounts a day or two after each of the seasonal holidays ends i.e. with stores needing to rid themselves of those Reese’s peanut butter trees; they still taste the same!). “Love” in Judaism is a product of accepting Torah, in that it is reflective much more of action and interaction than expressions of feelings.
Consider the word “love” in Hebrew: it is three fourths God in its spelling. Ahava is spelled “Aleph”, “Heh”, “Bet”, “Heh”. The only non-God letter of the three (with Heh repeated) is the “Bet”, which happens to be, as the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the one that associates specifically with the human being. God is number 1; we are number 2. The visual of “love” in Hebrew is how human and Divine interact, reflected by how we treat each other and interact with one another, looking for opportunities to do Mitzvot, caring actions that make life better, kinder and sweeter for one another. Love is what you do, with hopefully feelings that match your actions of kindness and caring.
One of the paradoxes which I am not sure how to think of in terms of that other holiday I alluded to at the top of my reflections is that the joy of Purim (which we will celebrate on the last evening of February at 6:30 PM followed by our party) is a response to hate. The paradox is that while we automatically think of hate being the opposite of love, it is not. Indifference is the opposite of love. Love and hate are cut from similar cloth. When the inclinations for good and bad, the yetzer tov and yetzer ra are in partnership and balance with each other then we turn the idea of love into a reality with the passion (associated with yetzer ra) making the love palpable and operational. When the yetzer ra is not harnessed by and channeled through the yetzer tov, then the selfishness that prevails easily can transform into hatred for someone else.
Whichever holidays are your favorites, one difference between secular and Jewish holidays, other than Hamentashen not deeply discounted the day after Purim, (though I’ve noticed, seemingly available year round, if you know where to look!) is that the secular ones seem to get lost and mired in the commercialism, with their content unfortunately muted, (and in the case of Christmas, a religious holiday rendered for many/ most as secular). In contrast, our Jewish holidays always give pause for reflection and action, i.e. Mitzvah becoming an expression of Love for life and for all God’s creation. We Jews are fortunate to have lots of depth and meaning to enhance our holidays. All we have to do is to embrace them, observe them and live with them!
As the song goes, “what the world needs NOW is Love, sweet Love!” Jewishly speaking that means stepping up to embrace Mitzvah, responsibility to act in ways that will enable people of all backgrounds in our country to be safe and to assure that America is home to values of caring, kindness, compassion and justice…for ALL. That is the news we all need to bring to reality, as abiding truth!