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Shemot/Exodus 23:14 Three times you shall celebrate a festival to Me in the year.
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Etymology starts this investigation as the straightforward meaning of is 'feet', which seems somewhat disconnected to the word 'time' with which it is translated above. To add to the confusion, the concluding verse of this section - "Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the L-RD" (Shemot 23:17, NJPS) - uses the Hebrew word , from the root . How did , a foot and , a striking or stamping, come to carry the idea of a time or occasion? The answer seems to be firstly that is associated - apart from its specific meaning of a foot - with the idea of feet in motion: stepping, striding, focusing more on the raised foot. On the other hand, - which can also have the meaning of 'anvil' and 'hammer' - is associated with the striking or impact of the foot on the ground, so giving a rhythm or beat. The first, then, in this context can be seen as a time when travelling - naturally, in those days, on foot - takes place, so leading to the later meaning of as a pilgrimage feast. The second, similarly, is seen as a regular marker in the pace or progress of each year.Targum Onkelos switches both words to the Aramaic word , 'times', the plural of , a specific or appointed time. The Mekhilta informs us that "this [command] applies only to those who can travel on foot."
Our second word of interest is the Qal 2ms prefix form of the geminate root , to dance or move in a circle. Umberto Cassuto suggests that "the verb means originally, as in Arabic, 'to go round, encircle, dance a sacred dance with circular movement'; hence the connotation of a festival in general, and more particularly of a pilgrimage to the temple."1 Ubiquitous both in the Bible and modern Hebrew is the noun , a feast or festival. RabbiHirsch points out that "the basic meaning of forming a circle is the expression for the nation gathering together around their spiritual centre, around G-d and the Temple of His Torah." He proposes a literal meaning for the verse: "three pilgrimages shall you undertake to form a circle around Me each year." Citing the verse, "bind the festal offering to the horns of the altar with cords" (Psalm 118:27, NJPS), where is used for the offering at a festival, Ibn Ezra suggests that the Israelites are being told to bring a sacrifice three times each year.
Noticing the way that this command to celebrate the festivals immediately follows an injunction forbidding the Israelites to even mention "the names of other gods" (Shemot 13:13) theBaal HaTurim comments that this "indicates that a person who degrades the festivals is considered as if he worships idols." Peter Enns observes that "obedience to law is something G-d requires of His people, not just so that they have something to do, but that they may have proper relationship with Him. We must remember the refrain of the Exodus narrative itself: 'Let My people go, so that they may worship Me' (Shemot 8:20)."2
The third word that catches the attention - the shortest and simplest in the verse - , "for Me". Nahum Sarna offers the shortest comment - "exclusively" - which starts an interesting train of thought. The Sforno proposes that the phrase "keep a feast to Me" is matched by the verse, "Let Israel rejoice in its maker; let the children of Zion exult in their king" (Psalm 149:2, NJPS). This implies that the main purpose of the festivals is for worship, to gather and rejoice specifically in and about G-d. Ibn Ezra points out that "it is the custom of idolaters to sacrifice at certain specific times during the year. The Israelites are told to do the same, but 'for Me.'" Leon Kass explains that, "whereas the pagan agricultural holidays pay homage to natural powers, especially the earth and the sun, the Israelite sacred festivals will be devoted to the L-rd."3 While the Israelites may benefit from many aspects of the festivals (such as remembering, building community, eating, etc), they are not primarily for them, but forHaShem. The effort and sacrifice of time and offerings are for HaShem alone.
Modern commentators too have noticed this purpose in the text. Aware of post-Temple Judaism's efforts to refocus the pilgrimage feasts around the religious and redemptive qualities of the Exodus journey, Walter Brueggemann says that "the festivals are not primarily oriented to the memory of liberation but to the patterns of agricultural life. In the festivals, Yahweh is acknowledged as the owner of the land and the giver of crops, i.e., a G-d of fertility who gives life to all creation. The festival ritual is a regular, disciplined demonstration of loyalty to Yahweh, acknowledging that life comes from Yahweh alone and is given back to Yahweh."4 In modern society, where most people neither know nor care where their food comes from, there is a significant disconnect between people and the land, between the food that we eat and the places and means of production. Food is just bought in a supermarket, without any thought of the people who are involved in growing, harvesting, packaging and shipping those packets, jars or tins to that point. Any concern about the length of the supply chain, the number of air-miles, the pressure on water supplies or the greenhouse gases involved, is felt just by a few and even then is directed at and managed by one of the many environmental campaign groups with a not only secular but distinctly anti-religious agenda.
No, this is not a 'green' rant; it is a call to re-establish vital connections between HaShem and His people. This needs to happen in two important ways. The first is to recognise the intimate way in which HaShem, the earth and the people are intertwined. While Adam was told "by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" (B'resheet 3:19, ESV), so that mankind needed to work the land and to earn their living from it by their work, the Israelites are told to remember that it is HaShem "who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers" (D'varim 8:18, NASB) and that if they forget Him, they will perish. G-d is the life giver, the source of all life and creation; whatever man does, it is as a husbandman over what G-d has given. G-d's people - Jew and Gentile - are to remember that and the festivals, celebrated to the L-rd, are a key way to not only do that but to put G-d back into creation and back on the green agenda: "As among the pagans, the cyclic fruitfulness of the land will provide occasions for Israelite celebration. As among the pagans, there will be a festival of planting, a festival of first fruits and a festival of final harvest. But in Israel ... where their gratitude will be expressed in sacrifices offered not to 'nature gods' but to YHVH."5 We respond to this by blessing G-d for His creation and, as far as it possible, being good stewards of creation's resources and people.
Secondly and just as importantly, we need to ask the question, what do we do that is for G-d alone? Much of what we do for God is also good for us or has side benefits that bless us. When was the last time that we made a sacrifice of money, time or some other resource, that was of no benefit whatsoever to us that was offered simply and solely to Him, so that He would be pleased. The Torah recognises the difference between the freewill or peace offering and the burnt offering; the former is shared between the altar, the priest and the offerer, while the latter is totally consumed in smoke on the altar and the offerer simply gives and gets nothing back - it is a pleasing aroma to the L-rd. One way to do this might be anonymous donations to one of His good causes: no thanks or acknowledgement, no feedback or idea how it was used, not even a tax deduction. Another might be volunteering at a food-bank in the next town, where you are not known. Yet another might be turning up a couple of hours before services at a congregation you don't attend, when no-one but the pastor knows and he isn't telling anyone, to clean the sanctuary and put out the chairs and then vanishing before anyone else arrives.
These are all acts of service and worship - remember the Hebrew word , 'avodah', means both - offered to the L-rd for His pleasure. Then when we come together to celebrate His goodness, as His people circled around His, we keep a festival to the L-rd.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 302.
2. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 459.
3. - Leon R. Kass, Founding G-d's Nation - Reading Exodus (New Have, Yale University Press, 2021), page 412.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 431.
5. - Kass, page 413;
Further Study: Shemot 34:22-24; Matthew 20:25-28; Galatians 5:13-15
Application: How far have you walked today to bless G-d? What could you do to go the extra mile in His service that is for Him alone? Seek the guidance of the Spirit to help you find something that is close to His heart and make today a festival to the L-rd.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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