Shabbat in Pesakh II: Bring Your Memory

Holidays are special. Families gather, or they don’t, and either way, the past is more present with us. Pesakh occurs during the full moon and, like the ocean under that same moon, the tides of life grow more intense. It is not unusual for older people to die on the eve of a holiday. There is something about these times, when our gaze wanders further, toward the horizon, and grows thoughtful.

Jews are a people of memory, and during Pesakh, even more so. We are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day, and every Shabbat – and during this time of re-living it, kal v’homer, as our Sages say, “how much more so.”

On this Shabbat morning, the holy day which is the last day of Pesakh, we will recite the prayers of Yizkor, one of four times a year when we speak ancient words that express our hope not to be forgotten after our deaths, and remember our loved ones who have gone before us. If we forget them, it seems, in some way, as if they did not exist.

Curiously, though, the term yizkor does not mean “may I remember”. It literally means “May G*d remember”. This begs the question: does G*d forget? 

And such a clumsy question it is. In order to ask such a question one must presuppose an anthropomorphic G*d, a bit greater, perhaps, than the greatest human being, but not that much if this Divine Being, like us, has trouble remembering. 

I invite you to let your gaze upon that question grow wider, to encompass more of the true horizon and depth of the possibility. Keep in mind that on Pesakh, as on the other Festivals, we are commanded to remember. What does it mean to pray that G*d should remember, if that prayer is not the expression of a sense that memory moves through us and beyond us, part of something greater than us – and that something which is of us and beyond us and to which we belong as waves belong to the sea is G*d?

In the Torah text for this Second Shabbat during Pesakh we read:

שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר–בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם.

Three times in a year all your zakhur shall appear before ה your God in the designated place; at the feast of Matzah, and on the feast of Weeks, and on the feast of the Sukkah; and none shall not appear before ה empty;

אִישׁ, כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

everyone shall give as you are able, according to the blessing of ה your God as you have known it. (Devarim 16.16-17)

The word zakhur is usually translated “males”, since the root z.kh.r can indeed mean “male”. But it also means “memory”. And memory has no gender….Three times a year, then, we are obligated to bring up, conjure up, offer up, our memories. If we do not, it is as if we have come to this great moment empty. But if we do, then all that has come before us sings through us, and we will know what it is to be Memory. 

On this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, may you remember all the lives you have known, and may they sing through you – and thus may you know the fullness of the blessing you bring to the world.

Shabbat of Pesakh I: How Long Should It Take?

In the Talmud, the ancient compendium of Jewish law and lore, we find that our ancestors the Sages envisioned our Pesakh Seder to have one primary motivation: prompting our children to curiosity. No modern expert in pedagogy would disagree that the key to meaningful learning is in being curious, in caring about learning the answer to some question that arises in our minds. So we see in Mishnah Pesakhim:

They pour a second cup [of wine] for him. And here the son questions his father. And if the son has insufficient understanding [to question], his father teaches him [to ask]: Why is this night different from all [other] nights? (M Pesakhim 10.4)

I have had a number of people ask me in the days leading up to this erev Pesakh: how long should the Seder take? As one friend put it, “two minutes is too short, and two hours, well….” The Haggadah itself doesn’t help much; it is full to the brim with all kinds of supplementary material, added by different authors in different times, but with the same goal: to make the Seder experience meaningful. To show you its relevance, and perhaps thereby to pique your curiosity, not just your child’s. We are each different in that regard, and that’s why there are so many Haggadot.

And so we know what we’re supposed to do – the Torah tells us that we must successfully transmit this story to the next generation. 

And so we have to ask ourselves not only how long does it take? 

but how long does it take me? 

What does it take for you to settle down, to notice, to begin to wonder?

The Talmud’s Rabbi Akiba, who lived during the Roman occupation of Israel, used to throw toasted grain at children during his Seder to keep them alert. (Some of us have been known to throw mini-marshmellows for hail during the recitation of the plagues.) That’s nice, since it keeps the children wondering what crazy thing you might do next. But what would it take for them to actually ask you – or for you yourself to formulate in your own mind – a real, living, curious question about some aspect of the Seder?

You would be done at that moment.

חג שמח וכשר

Shabbat haGadol: What’s So Great About It?

This Shabbat, on which we read parashat Metzora, is called the Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat, because this year it is the last Shabbat before Pesakh. There are several possible reasons why it got the moniker. One is that Jews spent more time than usual in the shul getting a refresher on all things Pesakh, especially the Haggadah and the halakha for cleaning the house. (It’s ironically appropriate that this week’s parashat hashavua mentions diseases that visit houses in this context. Hmmm – is a house full of clutter more likely to develop a disease?)

The Shabbat is called HaGadol also because of a striking feature of the special haftarah for this Shabbat, from the Book Malakhi 3.4-24. The passage calls upon a day on which all the world will be just, and fair.

“Behold, the day is coming – it will burn like a furnace – and all the arrogant, and all who do evil, will be like the worthless stubble left after the harvest. The day that is coming will set them ablaze and they will be left with neither root nor branch. But for you who have done well, and feared evil, for you a sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings, and you will come forth and dance like happy calves in the meadow.” (Malakhi 3.19-20)

All the centuries of commentators and all the interpreters of texts have been drawn to this apocalyptic vision, in which the wicked finally are punished and those who do good are rewarded, because they knew as well as we that such has never really been the case, at least not in any consistent, objective way.

It’s a real problem. There are many who deny any foundational meaning to their lives because of the reality of injustice – of evil done by powerful people and innocent suffering. It offends us all. But becoming a cynic in response is the most self-defeating of acts, because then no one moves to defeat the evil that does exist. And then it wins. And the opposite – believing in the vision, and taking a vindictive pleasure in the idea that soon, they will get theirs – is one of the more dangerous impulses informing this electoral cycle.

So what is the point of this haftarah, and why do we hear it chanted on this Shabbat before Pesakh? Most likely it has to do with the mention of Elijah the Prophet, who will come to us at the End of Days to proclaim that finally, everything will be all right. We put out a cup of wine for him, a cup that symbolizes all the unanswered questions of halakhah, and in that way, of all the questions that keep us awake at night, and can’t be answered.

Some day, Elijah will tell us this (or we’ll figure it out for ourselves and therefore summon him): there is only one answer for those who ask why life isn’t fair, and why the innocent suffer, and why some take refuge in lies which are promises that can’t be kept. And that is to change your perspective. The interpreters and commentators of our tradition teach that those who run after power, and do evil with it, don’t even know what they are missing: the Shekhinah, the Presence of G*d, that one can only sense in g’milut hasadim, the practice of loving kindness.

It will be all right, if we put our faith in the meaning of being kind, no matter how many people are mean. They will never know that what they really want is right here, in the next mitzvah you do, as long as you do it lovingly, kindly, with delight. That message is what is so great about this Shabbat.

Shabbat HaHodesh: The First Month For You

“This month shall be for you the first of months”. This is the way the special Torah reading for this Shabbat begins. With Rosh Hodesh (“the head of the month”) tomorrow begins the first Jewish month, Nisan

If so, why is it that, even though the Torah clearly indicates that the High Holy Days are observed in the seventh month, we wish each other a happy new year at Rosh HaShanah, called “the head of the year”? 

The answer illuminates the development of Jewish identity from antiquity. Once, we were farmers and herders, and the beginning of spring was literally the time of all things new – baby lambs and goats, new growth in field and tree. It was the natural rhythm of our relationship with G*d, and it echoed through all our acts as we excitedly, and worriedly, moved through this most vitally important of seasons to one’s physical life and well-being. With the growth of each healthy new plant and animal our own future seemed more assured.

As a result of the industrial revolution, of modernity and urbanization, many of us have to “go out” in order to connect with that most fundamental level of nature, of baby lambs now found in petting farms and new shoots in a community garden or on a window sill. It’s no less profoundly true that G*d is found in nature, just that we seek G*d less in the Great Outdoors and more in the Mysterious Inner Depths of our own being, and in our relationships with others.

We struggle to nurture a garden of morals, rather than (sorry) morels. And so the seventh month, with its Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, have become our moment for taking stock, turning a new leaf (even if only metaphorically), and starting over.

But this month of Nisan is still called “first”. Note what we are commanded: “this shall be for you the first of months.” Perhaps the buried hint is that each of us, for ourselves, can still relate to this time of new growth as a time that encourages new hope. And from that thought, of course, we move to the teaching of our embracing, loving tradition – that every month, every day, every moment can be for you the first of months.

What “first” needs your nurturing right now? what small green shoot of promise is there for you, simply awaiting your deeper gaze into its true potential?

Shabbat Parah: This Calf Makes Sense, This Cow Does Not

This Shabbat is called Shemini, “eighth”, because the parashah begins with an account of the eighth and final day of the ritual of ordination into the priesthood for the very first High Priest, Aaron, and his sons, who were now his assistants. For seven days they have carried out a precise order of sacrifices and purity practices, and now they are ready, body and soul, to take on the role of intermediary between G*d and the People of Israel.

What is the first thing you do when you are finished with the process of getting ready for a new role? Maybe you are pregnant and preparing for the role of mother, or maybe you are graduating college and preparing for the role of participatory citizen in your community. Perhaps you are finishing orientation for a new job, or completing training for a volunteer responsibility, or getting ready for a mikveh that will turn a significant page in your life.

It seems a very positive, promising moment. But then the High Priest receives his instructions for his first official act: “Take a calf [עגל] of the herd for a sin offering” (Lev. 9.2) A sin offering? How depressing on the first day of the new reality! 

The Zohar explains:

“Aaron was commanded to offer a calf as a sacrifice – because it is the offspring of a cow – to atone for that other calf that Aaron made, thereby sinning against the cow, who is unblemished, consummation of the faithful of Israel.” (Zohar, Shemini 3.37a) 

This calf of the herd is offered in atonement for the golden calf. That much is clear. But what is the other, unblemished cow?

The other cow that the mystical tradition mentions here is the cow for which this parashah is also named: Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Cow, or, more specifically, the Red Heifer. 

This third of the special Shabbatot occurring in the weeks before Pesakh is named for the special additional Torah that we read. It describes a recipe for creating a substance that purifies a person who has been in contact with a dead body. The recipe requires a sacrifice of “a red cow without blemish” which is completely burned. Its ashes are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and “crimson stuff”, and the resulting ashes are kept in a safe place, to b used for “waters of purification” when necessary.

The curious part of this, and the reason why this is the cow that does not make sense, is the following: the priest who oversees the concoction becomes impure and must undergo a purification ritual of some hours. The same is true of the person who moves the ashes. How is it that handling something pure makes one impure?

No one, not the great sages of yore and certainly no one since, understands this. It is said that Shlomo the King, who was by legend said to be the wisest of all human beings who ever lived (tradition relates that he even knew the languages of all the animals), was unable to fathom the secret of the this red cow, and after contemplating it, he was said to have declared “I said, ‘I will become wise, but it is far from me’ .”(Kohelet 7:23) 

This leads us to the Two Kinds of Halakhah; the mishpat and the hok. Mishpat is the Jewish law that makes sense, such as the prohibitions against killing or stealing. Hok, on the other hand, is the category of kashrut, of the do’s and don’t’s around holy days, of this strange cow purification ritual.

For us who swim in the nearly endless sea of Jewish tradition, there will always be mystery, and we should learn to welcome it. It keeps us humble: we don’t understand everything, and we can’t. It keeps us mindful: I am doing this because I am a Jew, and there’s no other reason. And it helps the under-used imaginative side of our brains keep up with the over-emphasized rational side.

And it is a good reminder that when we stand on the edge of a new experience, there will be that which we cannot understand, and cannot possibly prepare for. And more: one does not enter a new experience “clean” of all that one has ever been. Standing on the edge of what will be, we must recognize that we bring all we ever were with us. Both cows, the one that symbolizes all you understand and the one that reminds you of all that you don’t, come with you.

Thus we go forward: humbly, realistically, humanly.