Do not think I have come to get rid of what is written in the Law or in the Prophets. I have not come to do that. Instead, I have come to give full meaning to what is written.”
Matthew 5:17 (NIRV)
Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths . . . appear before the LORD your God in the place that He will choose.
Deuteronomy 16:16 (JPS)
I grew up in love with my Jewish heritage. I embraced it, dug into it, treasured it.
With each Sabbath and every holiday, I marveled that people all around the world were chanting the exact same prayers and performing the exact same rituals as little Midwest me. As the years passed, each celebration served to strengthen my identity—not simply as an individual, but also as an interconnected member of my family, our congregation, and the global, historical nation of Israel. We were layers woven together, as thick and strong and beautiful as that ancient tapestry in the Most Holy Place.
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I felt especially aware of this connectedness during the pilgrimage feasts. Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) are in a league all their own. They are so important to God that he’d called everyone in ancient Israel out of their personal spaces and places to worship with one another in his Jerusalem sanctuary. And while that might sound like a burdensome command, it was really a beautiful invitation. An invitation to come alongside one another—as individuals, as families, as tribes, and as a nation—to celebrate in the presence of God. Grand-scale reunions, three times every year.
Incredibly, before there was ever even a temple, God’s pilgrimage invitation began building layers into these feasts, weaving all of his people together across space and time. Even today, despite the physical dispersion from Israel and the millennia since the temple’s destruction, this interconnectedness holds strong—maybe actually because of the dispersion. In the absence of that ancient pilgrimage place, the chosen people chose to lean in, to cultivate these connections, weaving and extending the tapestry across oceans and cultures in ways the Exodus wanderers couldn’t possibly have imagined. Through generations of scattering and persecution, the threads have only pulled more tightly together.
Passover—my very favorite holiday since childhood—puts this connectedness on rich display. Growing up, whether celebrating in New York or Iowa, I worshipped at the table with family and friends and acquaintances, joining in spirit with loved ones and strangers across the nation and the ocean. Doors opening for Elijah on every continent. Matzah breaking and dipping in synchrony. Wine dotting plates for each plague. The Hebrew melodies sung with different accents but with the same gusto. Culminating with every voice joined together in the hopeful declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Why “Next year in Jerusalem?” Because Jerusalem still calls. Even though the pilgrimage place is buried under two thousand years of stone and strife, the tug of God’s invitation still pulls us together. And so, year after year, as I grew into the woman I was becoming, every ritual connected me more firmly to a multitude of people and places, present and past. Filling me with the warmth and strength of knowing with absolute certainty that I was never untethered, never alone.
Without a doubt, the greatest heartbreak imaginable would be to be told I was no longer part of my Jewish tribe, to be put outside the camp. And yet, that’s exactly what happened the summer of my twenty-first birthday when I heard God’s audible voice. It cut through everything I thought I knew, speaking impossible yet unmistakable words: Jesus is the Messiah. I believed it because, well, how could I not believe the voice of heaven?
Not unexpectedly, though, the divine voice was followed by human ones. Speaking words of separation. Saying I no longer belonged to the people I claimed. Words—and silence—cut deep, slicing into every single layer. And yet, even though my heart was crushed, I found that I was not unraveling. In fact, the fabric that had always connected me to Judaism and to the hope of Jerusalem only grew stronger as I leaned in to what I’d always cherished, but with new eyes.
The layers of God’s words and promises were deeper than I’d ever understood. More intentional than I’d ever recognized. More intricate than I’d ever perceived. And more beautiful than I’d ever imagined.
Everything I’d learned in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings became illuminated with the light of Christ. He seemed to rise from every page, like a “magic eye” puzzle suddenly coming into focus. I began discovering Jesus at the core of every ritual and feast of my heritage, especially the pilgrimage feasts. I now could see that Jerusalem hadn’t just been calling my people to remember God’s power and faithfulness in the past. She was also calling them to anticipate the future, as each feast cast long, breathtaking shadows of the promised Messiah—the one I’d heard my grandma speak of with wonder and longing.
I remember reading—for the very first time—the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s last meal, his last night, his last breath. Through tears. My beloved Passover. With its bread broken and its wine poured out by the hands of Jesus. With its bitter herbs dipped, betraying the betrayer. With its psalms of praise ringing out in Gethsemane as the light of life anticipated the cords of death. And heaven’s mighty outstretched arm rescuing us all from sin and death instead of from chariots and crashing waters.
It was almost too much to take in. It still is sometimes.
All of the shadows and promises I had learned and lived and sung about were brought to fruition in the most horribly beautiful way, revealing purposes and plans of God I’d never fathomed. Exposing even more cords of connection, ones that stretched into eternity and fibers that stretched back to the desert, to the original pilgrimage command. Because there, finally, rising from the crisp pages of my new Bible, was the answer to one thing I’d never understood: Why these three feasts in Jerusalem? Why Passover, why Pentecost, why the Feast of Booths? Why didn’t God demand that everyone come to Jerusalem for other special days or even any at all? Why these three?
My new eyes saw what I’d never even known to look for.
God called his people to Jerusalem because one day—during Jesus’s last Feast of Booths on earth—he would stand up and announce that he was the source of living water, the coming Holy Spirit. And God’s people needed to hear it with their own ears. And then carry it back home.
God called his people to Jerusalem because the Messiah would become the sacrificed Passover Lamb, but then rob his own grave after they thought all was lost. And God’s people needed to see it with their own eyes. And then carry it back home.
God called his people to Jerusalem because his promised Holy Spirit would bring down flames and loosen tongues on Pentecost. And God’s people needed to experience the wonder of it all. And then carry it back home.
Jerusalem had called, and God’s people had answered. And then they all went home.
Hundreds of thousands of God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven took everything they’d heard, everything they’d seen, everything they’d experienced in Jerusalem, and carried the gospel back home with them. Every clan and caravan pondering and rehashing it just like the two on the road back to Emmaus. And then sharing it in their own languages in their own communities. Roman roads may have paved the way for the message to spread, but Jewish pilgrims were the messengers who first carried it.
They—like me, two millennia later—discovered that there was so much more to these ancient feasts than they’d ever imagined. With these new eyes, we could see that our beloved pilgrimage feasts were, yes, about looking back, but also about looking forward. About the Messiah foretold and now fulfilled. About walls crumbling down and people grafted in. Jerusalem called to them about the steadfast, unshakeable purposes of God.
Today I treasure my heritage more now than I ever did before. A deeper love seemed impossible all those years ago. Of course, so did the idea of me following Jesus. Of finding him in everything I held dear. Of loving him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. And of eventually even finding my way back to my grandparents’ Passover table, once again surrounded by loved ones. Breaking bread, dotting plates, proclaiming together, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Cover image by Francesca Noemi Marconi.