ON THE BRIDGE
by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg
Chol HaMo’ed-An Oxymoron?
Passover is divided into two segments: The first two days (one day in Israel) and the last two days (or one day in Israel). The days in between are referred to as Chol-Ha’mo’ed—the “Weekday of the Festival.” If this term appears to be an oxymoron it actually captures the essence of Passover and the essence of Judaism—to instill the holiness and joy of the festivals into ordinary weekdays. It represents the great challenge we have in maintaining a delicate balance between the two ostensibly opposite worlds of the Festivals and weekdays.
We generally do not like to place labels on Jews. But if we have to identify Jews by their state of religiosity and spirituality we can say that there are three kinds of Jews: The Holy Day or spiritual Jew, the weekday Jew and theChol HaMo’ed Jew. The ultimate goal, and clearly the most formidable challenge, is to be the latter, for that is the test of the Jew’s commitment to the ideal of fusion and synthesis.
For a spiritual person it is easy to be in the Holiday spirit all the time. The spiritual individual shuns the commonplace and is attracted to the festive and spiritual atmosphere of the Holiday. The spiritual individual is always on a spiritual high.
The materialistically oriented individual obviously feels much more comfortable at the golf course than in the synagogue and cannot tolerate the holy atmosphere of the Holiday, wishing it to end sooner rather than later. It is theChol-HaMo’ed Jew who successfully fuses the two, instilling the holy within the secular. The Chol HaMo’ed Jew appears to live in both worlds, but has actually created a new and higher world—a G-dly world out of the two disparate ones.
Chol Ha’Mo’ed, as the Intermediate days of the Holiday that is “sandwiched” in between the two parts of the Passover festival, also poses a second challenge.
In life’s journey there are three periods: Our point of departure, our destination and the time we spend in transit between these two junctures. These intermediate periods are challenging because of the uncertainty that exists when we are on the road. We know that the evil nation Amalek attacked us when we were “on the road” and, thus, in our most vulnerable state.
Chol HaMo’ed demands of us to maintain our lofty Holiday ideals even after departing from one part of the Holiday and not yet having arrived at the second and final stage of the Festival. The intermediate days of the Holiday sustain us even in times of darkness and confusion.
The above can help us understand why the Torah reading for the Shabbos of Chol Ha’mo’ed is about the aftermath of the Jewish nations’ most serious breach of faith—the worshipping of the golden calf. Why would we include even a remote reference to that tragic episode in the middle of the joyous festival? And while it is true that the end of that Torah portion specifically discusses the Festivals, it still does not justify including the sin of the golden calf. More specifically, what is the connection between this Torah reading and the Intermediate days of the Holiday?
If the Intermediate days represent the challenge for us to maintain our spiritual equilibrium even when we are in between two special periods, we can see the connection to the golden calf. The Jews constructed and worshipped the golden calf in a period of transition; when they were waiting for Moses to return. This interim period posed a serious problem for them. Their minds were clouded with uncertainty and they were so easily influenced to believe that Moses’ tenure as their leader was over. The message of Chol-HaMo’ed is to remain faithful and strong even when we are on the bridge between two points of light in our lives and not to allow uncertainty and doubt to cloud our mission to go forward.
Two Stages of Liberation
There is an additional historical insight that related specifically to the Intermediate days of Passover.
While the first days of Passover mark the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, the seventh day of Passover marks the culmination of the Exodus. On that day, the Jewish nation miraculously crossed the Red Sea and was thus saved from their Egyptian pursuers who drowned in the sea. Prior to this miracle, the Jewish nation was still in danger of being attacked by their Egyptian masters and forcefully returned to slavery in Egypt. Thus, their true liberation occurred on the seventh day of Passover.
The question can be raised:
Why did G-d have to divide the salvation of the Jewish people into two stages? After all they had been through couldn’t they have been liberated in one sweeping action? Why did G-d have Pharaoh have a change of heart and decide to pursue them after he relented and allowed them, nay encouraged them, to leave?
The Pattern of Concealment
Upon deeper reflection, what happened then is a reflection of a pattern that has occurred throughout Jewish history. G-d, in His infinite wisdom, creates bridges for us to cross from one level of achievement to the next. In between these two levels we experience a lull and hiatus that is needed to extricate ourselves from the earlier level and that prepares us for our elevation to the next level.
The Talmud relates that a great Babylonian sage, Rabbi Zeira, fasted to forget the inferior dialectic style of the Babylonian Talmud as a preparation for his mastering the more abstract methodology of the Jerusalem Talmud. In between these two admirable levels of learning there had to be a lull that negated the lower level, so that his rise to the higher level would not be tainted by the lower one.
However, every opportunity for growth carries within it the potential for failure. This transitional period is fraught with great danger of regression. Thus, our Sages relate that there were groups of Jews who wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. Others wanted to commit suicide. And even those who wanted to fight the Egyptians or pray were not focusing on their journey to the next level—the splitting of the Sea on the way to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.
This pattern occurred even earlier when they were still slaves in Egypt. Moses was ordered by G-d to begin the process of liberation and he was recognized and accepted as the “redeemer of Israel” by the entire nation. However, this situation did not last. There was a period, which the Midrash describes as nichseh; when Moses was concealed. In between his two states as the revealed redeemer there was a time when Moses’ role was in limbo.
“Happy is the One Who Waits”—in Times of Concealment
The Messianic redemption, too, unfolds in two stages.
The Midrash explains that the Messianic drama will also feature an interim period of concealment. In the end of the Biblical Book of Daniel it states: “Happy is the one who waits.” Rashi, in his commentary to this verse, explains that it refers to the time of concealment when our faith is most challenged and that the one who meets this particular challenge and continues to wait for Moshiach is to be commended.
This pattern—of periods of concealment and seeming regression—is analogous to the Chol Ha’mo’ed period and especially the intermediate days of Passover from which we draw the inspiration and strength to transform the spiritual lull into the force that catapults us into the next stage—the final, complete and true Redemption through Moshiach!