Three weeks of nearly uninterrupted Jewish holidays have now come to a close. Here in Israel, children are back in school and parents are back at work, bringing with us the prayers, the jubilant singing and dancing of the Sukkot holiday, and the incredibly high moments experienced during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These rich memories accompany us as we go back to our seemingly mundane lives.
After the ecstatic joy experienced during the holidays, many, including myself, find it hard to go back to our routines. Although I took down my sukkah the day after Sukkot ended, many of my friends and neighbors have opted to leave theirs intact for just a little while longer as a way to hold onto the cherished moments we experienced just days ago.
However difficult it is to depart from such joyous holidays, I keep reminding myself that the uplifting spiritual experiences we enjoy during the festivals are not necessarily separate from the grind of everyday life. Our task as we exit the holiday season and enter into a new year is to take the inspiration we felt during the holidays and infuse our everyday lives with the spiritual boost we received as a gift on the festivals.
In the book of Numbers, we read about the time when Moses sent 12 spies, one from each tribe, to scope out Canaan, as it was called prior to the Jewish people’s conquest of the land from the seven Canaanite nations. Before entering the land, the Israelites wanted to know what to expect.
Ten of the 12 spies who scouted the land which was promised by God as an inheritance for the Jewish people came back with a negative report, and the Israelites took that hard. The nation as a whole cried out in despair that the Promised Land was not as perfect as they were hoping. For this sin, God punished the Jewish people and caused them to sojourn in the desert for 40 years, until that entire generation had perished, before allowing them to enter the land of Israel.
The people lacked faith in the goodness of the land of Israel, and therefore they lacked faith in God. The result of the spy episode left a big stain on the Jewish people, one that many sages say we are still rectifying to this day.
It is difficult to understand why the spies – who were each leaders of their respective tribes and had witnessed the miracles of the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Ten Commandments – could have sinned in such a devastating way.
Hundreds of Bible commentators try to explain this question, but my favorite explanation, and one that ties directly to this time of year, is that the Jews had it very good in the desert. They got used to intense divinity surrounding them at all times. The Clouds of Glory protected them by day and night, manna – the food that fell from the sky – was given to them without them having to toil, water flowed from Miriam’s Well, and God’s revelation was present. In Israel, by contrast, the Jews had to conquer Jerusalem and build a Holy Temple – which history shows the Jewish people have had to defend constantly from enemy attack.
It is an important lesson for me to learn – that even in the desert the Israelites enjoyed God’s constant presence and had all their physical needs met without any effort. They didn’t have to defend their homeland, set up a nation-state, and produce all the requirements for human life within a sovereign land. Simply put, life in the desert was easier, but setting up a homeland was the real work God wanted us to do.
As I exit the holiday season, I think of the Israelites transitioning from the desert to the land of Israel. During the holiday season I had the luxury of basking in the holiness of each day, focusing my energy on family and prayer, and taking my time in everything I did to ensure it was full of intention and faith. Yet during these days when I return to work, my children return to school, and there is no holiday meal to enjoy together at night, I realize that this is when the real work begins. The holidays are a taste of something beyond this world – our task is integrating those lessons into real life.