There are, however, at least two other underlying purposes that shape many a matsuri: community building and passing of traditions from one generation to the next. These motivations have a religious dimension, but also are about cohesion, cooperation and cultural continuity.
While there are large-scale festivals involving thousands of participants, many others are much smaller involving only a local neighborhood, or at most a village or town. Often very simple, these small matsuri have an excitement and immediacy far greater than the much larger and slicker grand festivals. They have the feeling of a block party, where everyone is enjoying himself or herself.
All matsuri depend on an enormous amount of volunteer participation, often built around community groups and adherents of a specific shrine or temple, with preparation time taking weeks or even months. In a large festival (often in a very big city) this may directly involve only a very small percentage of the inhabitants, but the small community matsuri can involve nearly everyone.
Many times, as you watch events unfold, you can see the different – often age related roles – that are filled. Older men and women, well conversant in all the rituals and observances appear to act as officials, guiding the matsuri and ensuring that everything is done correctly, while the younger men and women (and often children) perform the actual rituals and rites. Younger men and women also often play logistical roles, such as guiding both human and automotive traffic.
Like these Japanese festivals, the chagim of the Jewish year also serve many purposes. At its best, Jewish ritual can awaken awe and help us to connect with the divine. It also can lead to introspection and self-judgment as we search out our souls, realizing the mistakes of the past, and the potential for transformation in the future. These, indeed, are central messages of quickly approaching Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yet, these and the other holidays also serve other purposes, similar to the matsuri I experienced this year. Like Shinto, Judaism is not a religion of isolation, but rather of community. It is nearly impossible to be a Jew, living alone in the world. So many of our prayers require a minyan (ten adult Jews), so much of our tradition requires the presence of family and friends. Our holidays exemplify this, as we gather for festive meals and communal celebrations. Coming in to shul we greet each other with Shabbat Shalom, or Shanah Tovah even if others are deep into the prayers. Community and connection is at the core of all we do. Even the message of repentance is a communal message. Our tradition implies that it is far more important to repair the damage and differences between individuals, even than between the individual and God.
Festivals are also a central time for continuity. Their colorful rituals can create memories, which can last a lifetime. Some, like Simchat Torah, Purim and Hanukah, are powerful because of their fun and exuberance. Others, like Sukkot and Pesach, because of evocative rituals, and some like the High Holidays, remain with us through their solemnity and powerful messages. These memories will stay with us long after we leave our parental homes. All are essential building blocks in the creation of committed Jewish adults.