Shabbat HaGadol: It Matters Now, Too

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the “great Shabbat,” possibly echoing the content of the special Haftarah chanted on this day, which speaks of a “great and terrible day” which is coming.
הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Here, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and terrifying day of HaShem. (Malakhi 3.23)

The Prophet Malakhi – his name means merely “my messenger” – brings words to a people demoralized, despairing of truth and no longer so sure that virtue is a reward. They have seen those who cheat and lie prosper, and those who abuse workers and the vulnerable poor grow rich. They have begun to wonder if anything matters at all, and why be good, why try your best, if evil is flourishing?
It’s a perennial question for us Jews, and for those who love us and travel with us. We are preparing once again to celebrate the Pesakh Seder with all those who are part of our community, and for some of us there may be a painful undertone of wondering if it really matters. How can we pay attention to requirements for ridding our houses of hametz when the world seems so overwhelmingly full of something much worse, which we don’t seem to be able to eradicate?
Let me offer you a few brief thoughts if this is where you find yourself on this Shabbat before Pesakh 5779.
1. For those who are moved by comparison: the song is V’hi Sheh-amdah, which reminds us that this is not the first time. Our ancestors have seen worse, and who are we not to keep up the traditions they managed to preserve?
2  For those who prefer relevant symbolism: consider the circumstances of the first Pesakh. Plagues have destroyed much of Egypt’s infrastructure and the people are rightly terribly frightened – as are the Jews who witness the terror. It is at the moment of greatest fear, when one experiences the strongest inclination toward despair and immobilization, that the door to freedom is opened. Not before. The Prophet Malakhi’s message warns exactly of this: the day that comes will be great, but not in the colloquial sense. It will be terrifying. In other words, don’t wait for the situation to calm before responding – it may not calm.
3. And for those who want to consider integrity of practice: in a few days it will be time for you to collect all that is hametz in your house, and to either finish it, give it away, or lock it up and send me a list so that I can symbolically sell it for you, so that you will be living in accordance with the Torah’s dictate that “no hametz shall be found in your possession during the Festival of Matzot.” (Exodus 12.19). As the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught, A ritual that is only followed when you feel like it is no true ritual; a prayer you only recite when you want to indicates that you have no G*d but yourself. And good luck with that.
My friends, this was a difficult week – and this was not the first like it, and it will not be the last. It’s rather like standing in the ocean in rough water just deep enough that each wave crashing to the beach nearly knocks one down. We cannot stop the flow and we cannot get used to it – but in a real community of mutual support and caring, we can hold each other’s hands and together meet the next wave without being swept away.
We are no different from those who came before us, really: we make our meaning as a small island of calm in the midst of a great rough sea of uncertainty. The more we give to it, the stronger it is when we come to need it. Don’t skimp on your Shabbat; don’t short change yourself on your Pesakh; don’t worry if you cannot see the ultimate meaning of all of this ritual, or of the world that surrounds us so overwhelmingly. There is, in the end, a comfort in joining the rest of us in dipping karpas in salt water, in hiding matzah for children to find, and in singing dayenu. May it be enough.

Shabbat HaHodesh: Homelessness and Hope

On this Shabbat HaHodesh (The Month) we mark the first day of the month of Nisan, which, since it is the first of months in our calendar, is also the first day of the Jewish year. Happy New Year! Our people took their timing from the world around them, which renewed itself in buds of green and baby lambs at this time.
The return of spring and the longer, warmer days bring with them the opportunity to stretch, and relax, and hope again. This sense of renewal is so precious when we are able to feel it, and so necessary to our ability to live and thrive, that our ancestors wisely incorporate an opportunity for us to be mindful, and to be grateful, in our daily morning prayers: ברוך המחדש כל יום מעשה בראשית Blessed is the Renewal every Day of Creation. 
 
Everyone can touch this sense of beauty and meaning, whether one lives in an insulated house or in a tent under a bridge. Our sense of the history of our people and the culture of our experience is that of wandering and homelessness, and so we know that even in uncertainty there can be beauty, and even in misery there can be uplift. Flowers bloom freely; it is we who need the regular reminder to look at them.
This Shabbat we read parashat Tazria, which speaks of the seeding of new life, and the special role of the female whose womb is a conduit between the Source of All Life and the small lives of human beings. The most ancient level of our tradition seems to recognize the female infant as a double blessing for that reason. The Torah records our ancestors’ sense that the act of giving birth makes one tame’ – and here we are confused if we translate tame’ as “impure.” Yet it is a condition from which one must take time to recover, and so it may well be that a mother giving birth was standing in a place, as it were, which we normal mortals cannot access.
There is a parallel between the homeless human being under the bridge and the mother giving birth. Both are in a place of human intensity which is not easy for the rest of us to understand or with which to empathize. Like our patriarchal ancestors, who were quick to recoil in fear of what they did not understand and in which they could not participate, it is easy to see a negative difference here, and to fear an impurity of some sort, and to avoid contact with someone in such a state.

Yet the mother giving birth seeds the world with renewal; unless we can find it in ourselves to look more closely at the homeless refugee at our border, under our bridge, and on our street, we will miss the opportunity to discover what renewal of our own lives, and our world, is dependent upon what only the houseless person can seed for us.

If we look at the growing desperation of those living on the streets from a distance; if we take refuge in some explanation for their plight from which we ourselves are separate; if we refuse to look at them at all, we will not avoid the supposed contagion of impurity, but only make it worse with a rising tide of callousness. This is the impurity that recedes only when it is seized with compassion, with awe, and with the determination to find through that human touch a renewal of life for us all.