When the Holidays Are Over
The most important days of the year are about to begin.
My father taught me a fascinating financial concept that has special relevance as we come to the close of a hectic holiday period.
I thought of it the other day when someone offhandedly said to me, “Well now that Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are finally over, it looks like we're done with the most important days of the year.”
And I couldn't help but smile at this all too common misconception.
The high cost of something is not an indication of its innate value.
The true worth of anything is based on understanding the concept of the inverse relationship of price and value. My father explained that price is determined by scarcity -- the rarer an item, the higher its cost. If diamonds were to be found scattered on streets with the same frequency as pebbles their price would plummet to insignificance. It's only because it's so hard to find them that they are so expensive.
Yet, the very high cost of precious jewels is hardly any indication of their innate value. How necessary are they really to our continued existence? Imagine someone wandering in the desert desperately struggling to find food and water. Then picture him suddenly remembering that he was carrying a diamond in his pocket. It might have cost him a fortune but when his very life was at stake it had absolutely no value.
The things we truly need, not just have to have for social status or self-aggrandizement but for life itself, are all around us. God made sure that air and water are not scarce simply because they are so vital for our survival. Ironically enough, precisely because they are so valuable and can't possibly be in short supply, their price is exceedingly minimal or nonexistent.
Air is free. Like all things for which there is no charge, we take it for granted. But God, knowing we couldn't live without it, surrounded us with it. And that's what God did with everything else that He included in His creation. What we really need is readily available. Because it's not rare, it's cheap or free. That is the greatest divine gift. Whatever is really essential to our lives was placed before us in great abundance.
The equation then is simple: the scarcer an item, the more it costs. Its very scarcity however vividly demonstrates its superfluousness. After all, how essential can it be if most of humanity can get along without it? Conversely, universal and easy accessibility signify divine recognition of human need. Whatever we really must have is so readily available that its cost can’t be prohibitive.
On a Daily Basis
And what does this have to do with the Jewish holidays?
This, my father explained to me, is the insight that lies behind the Talmudic principle that “Between the more frequent and the less frequent, the more frequent takes precedence.” There are some mitzvot that are rarely performed. They make their appearance but once or twice a year. For that reason we look forward to them. And because of their scarcity on our personal calendar of observance we tend to imbue them with supreme value. We assume that because they are so rare they are equally priceless.
The frequency of a mitzvah shows how much more we need it.
Yet in fact, the reverse is true. If our religion tells us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur it is because that suffices for us to incorporate its message into our psyche. If we are to sit in a Sukkah but seven days it is because that is enough time for us to reaffirm that we are aware of God's protection even we sit in our comfortable homes the rest of the year. But in order for us to gain the spiritual insights of the Sabbath we must re-experience it again and again, every single week. The frequency of this mitzvah best emphasizes how much more we need it.
The things we do on an annual basis enjoy a prominent place in our lives. Their relative infrequency infuses them with the excitement of the new and the looked-forward-to. But what we do on a daily basis is the most powerful assertion of our awareness of ultimate value.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood this well. In a remarkable passage they debated a fascinating question: Which verse of the entire Bible is the most important? Which one succinctly summarizes its major message?
One rabbi suggested the famous verse in Leviticus, chapter 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Clearly, for him, the purpose of Torah was to improve interpersonal relationships.
A second rabbi offered Deuteronomy 6:5, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” His emphasis was man's relationship with the Almighty.
But the last rabbi quoted offered a seemingly incomprehensible suggestion. The single most important verse according to him is from the book of Exodus, chapter 29:39 that refers to the daily sacrifice: “And one lamb you shall bring up as the offering daily in the morning and the second lamb you shall bring in the evening.”
Commentators clarify this perplexing response. The last opinion did not mean to reject the importance of the verses stressing our need to love God as well as our fellow man. But those noble sentiments pale into insignificance if we fail to recognize the need to sacrifice for these ideals on a daily basis.
We demonstrate our love for God and for others far more by our daily actions than by infrequent gestures - just as our devotion to parents is illustrated by our constant behavior rather than by flowery sentiments sent to them once a year on a card for mothers or fathers day.
So now that the holidays are over the really important days of the year begin. They may not cost as much as we spent on the days just past. They are not the rare moments that greet us only annually. We'll tend to take them for granted because of their frequency. But then again, they bring with them all the joys and the trials and the challenges of daily living - and that's why they are the holiest and most meaningful times of our lives.