The Shabbat of Hol HaMo’ed Pesakh: The Door is Still Open

The parashat hashavua for this Shabbat depends on which day of Pesakh we are in. This year, since Pesakh began on Monday night, we are deep into the hol hamo’ed part ofPesakh, the “normal” part of the Festival of our Freedom (and our Matzah). “Normal”, in this context, means neither the first two days nor the last day of the Festival, which are not normal – they are shabbat, days on which Jews traditionally did nothing but rest and pray and study, just as on our seventh-day Shabbat. (Too bad that custom has faded in our Western capitalist world, where we all have to go to work. Funny that Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, with much less of a Torah-presence, have taken the place of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot in our prominence of practice).
There is a special holiday reading which takes the place of the regular weekly parashah, and that reading changes depending on whether it’s the beginning/end of Pesakh or the middle, the “normal” days when there are no Shabbat restrictions, while still observing the Pesakh rules (there’s that matzah again). For this particular year, the reading is Exodus 33.12-34.26, and includes a special second reading, Numbers 28.19-25. 
The first reading reprises parashat Ki Tisa, focusing upon the process of forgiveness after our betrayal of the Covenant (so quickly our commitment was broken!) with the building of the Golden Bull. Moshe begs God not to destroy us, nor to abandon us in the midst of the wilderness.
The second reading reviews the sacrifice that was once brought in honor of the Pesakh Festival – continuing a millennia-old tradition that maintains our memory of who we used to be, even though we do not seek to return to that aspect of our past.
Taken together, the two readings might be said to express the difficulties of wandering, and the dead ends we encounter on the way. Religion is not a perfect practice with assured truth always available; religion is a messy process of struggling with our human confusion, within the constantly humbling realization that we don’t know what we’re talking about half the time (or more).
We are out of Egypt, but Egypt is not out of us. In every generation we are commanded to believe – not to cynically dismiss, but to believe – that we are going out of Egypt, that it is possible, that we have done it and now must live differently. We are to believe that a door of hope is still open.
The political philosopher Michael Walzer writes* “so pharaonic oppression, Sinai, and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the political world. The ‘door of hope’ is still open; things are not what they might be…We still believe…what the Exodus first taught…-first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; – second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; -and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” 
According to the traditional count of days, we aren’t even at the splitting of the Sea yet. Patience and determination – and belief – will help us through all this wilderness, away from where we are, toward where we might be. We, as a holy community, helping each other, moving forward together toward that vision of a door – a threshhold, beyond which we might hope not to come back this way again, because we’ve finally seen a distant hint of that “better place”.
shabbat shalom, and mo’adim l’simkha, may this appointed time be joyful for you.
*Exodus and Revolution, New York 1985, p. 149; with thanks to Rabbi Zvi Leshem who brought this citation to my attention.

Pesakh: You Must Remember This

The following is a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet, a book of his insights into the parashat hashavua and also the Jewish holy days. This is an edited paraphrase of one of his Pesakh teachings:
Of Pesakh it says, “this day will be a remembrance for you” (Ex.12.14) and “so that you remember the day you came out of Egypt” (Deut.16.3), and “Keep the [holy days of] matzot” (Ex.12.17). Memory is a point within, one where there is no forgetfulness. It has to be “kept” i.e. guarded lest it flow into the place where forgetting occurs. That is why “keep” and “remember” are said in the same single utterance at Sinai.
Every Pesakh the Jew becomes like a newborn child again, just as we were when we came out of Egypt. The point of remembrance within us is renewed. That primal point within is like matzah, which is just the dough itself, simple, with no fermentation or expansion. On this holiday of matzot the inner point, simple, unchanging, pure, is renewed. We do the work of Pesakh when we fulfill the command “keep the [holy days of] matzot” by taking time to renew the point within, the point of memory. We ask questions of others who remember what we remember, what we need to remember in order to guard that inner flame that keeps and guards us, as we keep and guard it.
It is striking that in this teaching, it is very clear that human free will, and human agency, are vitally important to human wholeness. We are not meant to passively sit back and wait for Divine grace to shower down upon us, nor to spend all day praying for it. Abraham, the quintessential Jew, defines that identity by his act of moving forward into uncharted territory – purposeful movement toward meaning is itself part of the creation of that meaning. During Pesakh we are reminded that in order to become the Jewish People, the communal equivalent of Abraham’s journey had to be repeated. Once again we ventured forth, purposefully moving toward meaning, into an unknown future that we would summon by our own act of moving forward.
As it is said, nishmat adam ner Ad-nai, “the human soul is God’s candle”. As one Rabbinic commentary observed, it is as if God said to Abraham, “go, and light the way before Me.” As we move forward into the future, as we choose the acts that make our lives meaningful, we bring illumination not only to ourselves, but to God as well. We are partners in a Covenant that truly calls upon us to keep and guard the meaning of our people’s memories through our own actions – and the meaning of those memories will stand or fall upon our willingness to take on that responsibility.
May our acts bring the illumination of our memories to bless our shared future.
hag Pesakh sameakh v’kasher, may your Pesakh celebration be joyful and fit.

The Shabbat before Pesakh: a Big Deal

This Shabbat is called HaGadol (“The Great Shabbat”) because it is the last before Pesakh and there is so much to review and reinforce of the halakha of Pesakh. It is also the Shabbat on which we read parashat Tzav, “command”. In a neat little nutshell these two terms cover much ground.
gadol – the word means “big”, and also “important”. The most important thing we are doing on this Shabbat, as Jews study and pray and rest, is to think about the meaning of the Festival of Freedom just ahead of us on Monday evening. Pesakh is a Big, Important Deal: if you heard President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem, he described our holy day in terms I use too. Pesakh is the holiday which describes who we have been, and what we are.
tzav – “command”, from the word mitzvah, “commandment”. Jews are commanded to observe the Pesakh Seder, and further commanded to tell our children about it, so that in their turn they will be able to pass the story along to the next generation. There’s a real poignancy here; we are obligated as Jews to make sure our children know that they belong to a history, and therefore that they are not alone in the world; they have a home, and a people. 
I recently read a medical article that reported that children who know their family history handle life’s stresses and challenges better than those who do not know where they belong. The idea is that whether one’s family history is a positive arc or a difficult one does not matter. For a child to know that “in our family, grandmother came to this country with nothing, and her children managed to start a business, and their children were the first to go to college” is to present one kind of hopeful family pattern in which to find one’s own personal inherited strengths; for another child to know that “in our family, we’ve had ups and downs and we’ve had to struggle, and we’ve come to know the strength of determination” is just as empowering a message.
Getting the message of Pesakh across to our Jewish children is, then, vitally important to their sense of self, of security – and, in Jewish tradition, of home, and of belonging. How shall we effectively get that message across?
Eysh tamid tukad al hamizbe’akh, lo tikhbeh  – the sixth verse of this week’s parashah commands, “you shall keep a fire burning continually upon the altar; it shall not go out.” (Lev.6.6) It is said that, from the time that the altar in the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, the altar remains afire in our hearts – and our challenge is to keep that fire – of engagement, of enthusiasm, of meaningfulness – burning bright, always. With what shall we feed the fire?
Remember that fire ignites fire. We adults are obligated to nurture the fire in our own hearts if we hope to pass it on to the next generation that we are all helping, together, to raise up as Jews. Make your Seder interesting and fun for yourself, and the children will respond. Not magically or all at once, but they will register that this mysterious gathering really is a Big Deal.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

On this Shabbat we begin the Book VaYikra (in English, “Leviticus”, because the book is really an instruction manual for the Levites and Kohanim, priests). This book records for us the ancient ritual of sacrifices as they were offered to our G-d (other sacrifices offered in specifically different ways were offered to other gods). What are we, two thousand years after the last sacrifice was brought to the Jerusalem Temple, to do with these texts?

This too is Torah, and within it there will be something that we need to learn, if we are willing to look closely and in a spirit of thoughtfulness. If we come to the text feeling dismissive, prejudging it as clearly meaningless, it will be. Follow the lead of generations of Jews who determined to keep it relevant because it is a memory of our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents. Look closely at the words, see if something does not intrigue you. And if you can’t find it for yourself, read the commentaries. 

One example: VaYikra Chapter 1, verse 1: If you look closely at the first word, VaYikra, which means “[G-d] called” you will see that the last letter of the word, an alef, is written much smaller than the rest of the letters. What can be learned from this small alef? The alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, and it is also the first letter of the word ani, “I”. Insight: sometimes one must make oneself small, i.e. humble, in order to hear G-d’s call.
The most intriguing question brought forth by this material for me is to consider:

What is the importance of sacrifice? The sacrifices our ancestors made seem far from us, and they are difficult to understand or to justify in our own day. But the details are preserved so completely and so carefully, at such length, that we should be curious as to why. Human nature has not changed so very much in only a couple of thousand years. What made the sacrificial system so necessary, in their eyes, to their relationship with the universe, and with G-d? What essential human need is served by giving up something of great value? Remember that for them, bringing an offering from their flocks of sheep or goats was a real financial sacrifice. One theory is that they felt that this was the only way to bring the universe back into balance after the kind of cosmic skewing caused by sin.
How does your Jewishness inform your understanding of sacrifice? Is there anything in your religious observances that moves you to sacrifice something for a greater good? Are you able to see the idea of sacrifice as answering an essential human need? To ask it another way, what, in your experience, is an effective way of atoning, bringing the universe back into alignment, after you sin?
I know, it’s a long time from Yom Kippur, Rabbi, why are you talking about sin? It’s one of those words from which we can learn a great deal if we are willing to bring it out of the box of toxic words damaged by powerful individuals who have used profound religious teachings for venal, manipulative purposes. Sin is simply that which separates you from G-d. Atonement through sacrifice may be a very powerful way of bringing you back home.

parashat Ki Tisa/Parah 5773

The coincidence of reading parashat Ki Tisa and the special text for Shabbat Parah on the same Shabbat brings us, among other things, an embarrassment of cows.
The weekly parashah has brought us to the narrative of Moshe on the mountain with G-d, receiving the teaching that will serve as the document of the Covenant between G-d and the Israelites. Down below at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites are getting restless. Moshe has been gone so long, they complain to Aharon: “make us another god instead”. And Aharon, perhaps afraid of the crowd, perhaps to stall for time, commands the Israelites to bring him all their gold. (The women demur, and that is why Rosh Hodesh honors them, but that’s another story.) The men bring enough gold to shape a bull – small, but an ancient Canaanite image of power and fearsome strength. 
G-d is annoyed. Moshe is distraught. Aharon is apologetic. The Israelites are punished, and repent of their deed. All goes on, but no quite like before. This is scar tissue in the relationship that the Israelites are developing with G-d; as in a marriage, hurtful words and betrayals cannot be completely healed, even when a couple manages to go on together. Scars do remain. And for many long years of Jewish tradition, the people of Israel has always been a bit embarrassed to be reminded of this sin, committed so soon after we promised our faithful commitment to G-d.
So reading the Shabbat Parah reading feels like having our noses rubbed in it. The entire reading is about how to turn a young heifer into a potion for ritual cleansing (ashes of heifer, a bit of herbs, cedar wood, some tola’at shani, the usual stuff). Why is this the special reading for the third special Shabbat before Pesakh?
The special reading and the haftarah both speak of the need for spiritual cleansing after a tough time. According to Pesakh halakhah, one who is ritually unclean cannot participate in the Seder. So these readings come as we begin to prepare, to remind us of the need for spiritual preparation as well as menus, guests, and deciding on this year’s haggadah.
It’s no mistake that we read of both embarrassing sins and the way toward cleansing in the same Shabbat, then. Our tradition is always reminding us that the first step toward healing is recognizing that one needs it. The first step toward overcoming a mistake, or a sin, or some other terrible thing that you’ve done (or that has been done to you) is to recognize that you could use some spiritual refocusing, some refreshment – a way of turning over a new leaf, so to speak.
The month of Pesakh, which begins very soon, is the first month of the year on the Jewish calendar. A good time to throw out the old and bring in the new: in the pantry, as we clean out hametz, and in our lives, as we greet spring with the hope that the world, and we ourselves, will find a sense of renewal, of newness, of spiritual cleansing from the old baggage and pain.
It is a custom to go to the mikveh before Pesakh or any holy day. I recommend it to you sometime during the month of Nisan, as you prepare for the 14th of the month, at twilight, and the Seder.
The mikveh is, after all, as Rabbi Akiba said, the hope of Israel (the word in Hebrew, mikveh, is very similar to the word for hope, tikvah). Immerse yourself in hope; allow yourself to believe in spring; realize that mistakes and embarrassments can be overcome through gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.