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.