Shabbat haGadol: Preparing for Today

This is the last Shabbat before we leave. Grab what you think you can take with you, we have no idea, really, what we’ll be facing, only that we’re leaving.

בכל דור ודור חייב אד לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים . In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.  (Mishnah Pesakhim 10:5)

This mitzvah, this obligation, is at the heart of our celebration of Pesakh, the Festival of Matzah. And on this last Shabbat before Pesakh we are to prepare, and to help each other to prepare. But here’s the paradox: the moment itself, should we reach it (may we reach it in peace!), will be something we cannot be prepared for.

How shall we be prepared for that which we cannot prepare for? The regular parashah this week, parashat Tzav, holds a clue to the answer. Among the directions for maintaining the newly established sacrificial system we find the following:

  אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה.

Fire shall be kept alight upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Lev. 6.6)

We find that the Jerusalem Talmud comments, “continually—even on Shabbat; continually—even in a state of spiritual unreadiness.” (PT Yoma 4.6)

In a very real way, this is still our daily work: to keep the fire burning. The mystics teach that every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary, within the soul of the Jew. Your heart, they teach, is that altar. Our most important task is to keep the fire – of passion, of love, of joy – burning. 

How do you prepare for the unknown that Pesakh commands us to face? by keeping your inner fire bright. That which you do to take care of that inner fire – even on Shabbat, even when you are distracted, bored, not “spiritually ready” – that will keep you prepared, even for that which you cannot imagine in your future.

In this context we note that the name here for the continually burning fire is eysh tamid, from which we get the ner tamid, that light in every Jewish sanctuary which is misunderstood as the Eternal Light. The only thing eternal about it is the regular daily dedication of those who were tasked with keeping it going, regularly, all the time! Once that was the priests on behalf of us all, but since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, we act according to the Torah’s teaching that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19.6). We are all priests now, and that fire’s regular light depends upon all of us to keep it going, not only for ourselves but for each other.

The Talmud records the teaching: “the one who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith.” (BT Eruvin 54a) This is not meant to encourage you against future planning – only to understand that essentially we cannot control tomorrow, but we can act upon today. Especially upon ourselves. Worry about yourself today, the Sages suggest, and you need not fear tomorrow. Keep that fire going for today. One day at a time. Right now.

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Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,

We have begun reading from the third book of the Torah in our ritual cycle; the book VaYikra, translated as “Leviticus”. The word refers to all things priestly, literally, of the Levites. It gives precise instructions for how the ancient sacrificial cult was to be enacted, and probably was originally meant only for the priests, as a sort of manual.

Sacrifice – killing animals in a ritual way, offering them up along with grain, wine and water (with incense and salt added) – here is a whole swath of Torah that seems so far beyond relevance for us today. 

Yet the Jewish dance with Torah is a committed one; we continue to hold on even when the steps aren’t so certain. As Martin Buber taught, we who are covenanted with G-d see the Torah as our ketubah. We are always to accord it the same respect that we would a human interlocutor. That is to say, we do not decide in advance if the person speaking to us will offer words worth considering. Rather, we grant that courtesy in advance, for the sake of authentic communication. In the same way, with every verse, we give Torah credit for having something to say to us that is worth hearing, and keep our minds and hearts open for what it might be.

We begin to bring the conversation out of obsolescence and into provocative territory simply by noting the Hebrew name of the book. VaYikra, “And he called out.” This is the first word of the narrative, yet unlike in good English grammar, there is no named subject, no definition of “he”. One must go back to the preceding words, at the end of the book Shemot (Exodus), to find the referent. It is G-d, calling from the newly-built sacred space that the Israelites just spent the last few parshas constructing. 

The lack of clarity here invites us in; it is not so clear what is summoning or to whom, and so we can ask ourselves; in what way does this apply to me? what, for example, summons me, even if I am not entirely clear yet about it? What is it that pulls at us so softly that we cannot quite name it?

Jewish tradition offers us a way to listen more closely to that which summons us. It comes from an interesting aspect of this very first word. As written in the Torah, the last letter is too small: 

vaykro
That first letter, the alef, sits there and says to us darsheni, “interpret me!” And so we consider: the first letter is first, which connotes importance, even centrality; it is not a surprise, then, that the alef is the first letter of the word you need to express yourself, your “I”: ani.  This letter’s place in the initial word of the book VaYikra can be seen to offer us a lesson all by its small self. It is the insight taught by the mystics: if you want to experience G-d, get your “I” out of the way.

When you feel that uncertain something, that invitation to consider not what is but what might be if you are ready to contemplate a new learning, don’t let your “I” stop you. It will say “I don’t believe” or “I don’t want to change” or “I already understand” or even “I have a right to….” 

This first word of the book that calls out is calling out to you not to let surface strangeness put you off. It is not dangerous to corral your “I” (a mystical practice called tzimtzum, voluntary contraction of the self) when you do it from a place of choice. And when you do it, leaving defenses behind and making room for that summons, the word VaYikra hints at what you might find – something very yakar, “precious”. And if not a certain finding, certainly a sense of something pulling you toward what might be, yet, to learn.

Getting Ready for Pesakh: What Is Matzah Really About?

It’s all about the matzah. The official name – and the  most ancient name – of our early spring festival is Hag haMatzot, the Festival of Matzah. Eating matzah is a mitzvah, an obligation for every Jew.

But what if you’re gluten free? this question has of course already been answered by the matzah industry: along with all the other varieties, there is gluten-free matzah. 

But this answer is too quick; it doesn’t give us the chance to really consider the question of why we are obligated to eat matzah in the first place. After all, we are forbidden the five grains wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. but we can eat them in a matzah state, so the grains themselves are not forbidden….or what?

The answer is not about food at all, but about our illusion of control over our lives. Why matzah, i.e. unleavened bread, bread that is entirely untouched by the natural or introduced presence of yeast? 

Our ancestors lived and died by the amount of grain they were able to grow, gather and store by the hard work of their own hands. One can imagine the care they took in storing grain so that it would last as long as possible without fermenting, which after all is the first step in rotting.

And now imagine a festival which is marked by the cleaning out of all the old grain – even before all the new grain is gathered in. This is our ancestors’ ultimate leap of faith – to clean out the old before the new was a sure thing was to demonstrate with their lives and that of their families that they trusted the old Jewish idea that if you take great care with today, tomorrow you will be all right. 

Note the interesting verb tashbitu in the verse: 

שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ–אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל–מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.

“Eat matzah for seven days – on the first day, tashbitu the grain from your houses. Anyone who eats hametz from the first day until the seventh day will be cut off from Israel.” – Exodus 12.8

The root of tashbitu is sh.b.t. This hint of Shabbat is possibly meant to remind us that we are not in control; that you can store up all you want against life’s contingencies, and you are not, after all, going to be able to control them.

The eating of matzah is a positive obligation; that is, it is not about avoiding something, it is about doing something. In this case, eating matzah. That is why, even if you are gluten-free, it is incumbent upon you to do so. There is something profoundly symbolic about it, so much so that if you do not, you cause yourself to be alienated from the People of Israel. You do not have to eat matzah all week; just an amount equal to the volume of an olive. If you absolutely cannot eat even that small amount, it’s best to get together with others who are truly gluten averse and 

invest together in one box of that expensive gluten free matzah – one more way to demonstrate our absolute need for each other, and the reason why the idea of being cut off from Israel is the worst outcome our ancestors could possibly envision

Shabbat Ki Tisa: Thinking Outside Your Self

This is the Shabbat of parashat Ki Tisa, the most famous part of which is the debacle of the Golden Calf. On one foot (the Jewish idiom for “in a nutshell”): We have just lived through the glorious commitment ceremony between us and G-d, and received the promise of the Torah (at least the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”) as our ketubah. We begin to build a sacred space to celebrate that relationship and seek its intimacy. Then Moshe goes up to Mt Sinai to get the Torah from G-d – and there our troubles begin.

According to the midrash, it was all due to a misunderstanding:

When Moses ascended the mountain, he said to them: After forty days, in the first six hours of the day, I shall return. They thought that the day of his ascent should be counted as one of the forty, while he meant forty full, 24-hour days. In truth, the day of his ascent – Sivan 7 – should not have been counted, since it did not include its previous night, meaning that the forty days ended on Tammuz 17.

On the 16th of Tammuz the satan came and filled the world with darkness and confusion. Said he to them: “Where is your teacher Moses?” “He has ascended on high,” they answered him. “The sixth hour has come,” said he to them, but they disregarded him. “He is dead”–but they disregarded him. So the satan showed them a vision of Moses’ bier. This is what they said to Aaron, “For this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.”   (Rashi; Talmud, Shabbat 89a).

The appearance of the satan in this story is fascinating, because in Jewish midrashic tradition, the satan is expressed as that which sabotages the relationship of the Jewish people with G-d, or between two Jews. In this story, the satan does nothing creative to bring about the disaster of the Golden Calf – it simply amplifies and “tempts” into hysteria something that is already there.

What could have caused our people to stray so utterly, and commit so painful a betrayal, so quickly after the joyous Sinai moment of “we will do and we will hear”? Perhaps it was really nothing more than letting themselves get caught up in a never-ending loop of mutual concern, which turned into escalating fear, which turned into catastrophic fantasy – thus we might all find ourselves falling down a big, black rabbit hole of our own making and without any reality other than that of our own, utterly unfounded conviction.

It’s too bad that they could not hear Aaron trying to tell them: there’s nothing wrong with Moshe; he’s on his way. All you’ve done is get nervous and mistake the time.

Where does the satan come to amplify your own fears or misgivings, and turn them into a stumbling block before which no good intention can possibly get through to you? Is it a feeling that you haven’t been heard, when if you checked you’d find out you had? Is it an ill-considered desire for your own definition of perfection that gets in the way of the communal good? If it keeps you away from G-d and feeling distanced from those with whom you share community, then maybe you need to try thinking outside yourself and your own, already formed convictions. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe there’s another perspective. Maybe you need to open your heart and listen.

The wonderful thing about community is the trust we are offered, and the chance to turn to someone and say “please check my thinking here”. Where one may be lost in the dark, two or more have a better chance of finding the light again.