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.
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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.

Shabbat Parah: Being Seen (Trans Visibility Shabbat)

This Shabbat we mark another of the special Shabbatot that count down (up, rather) to Pesakh: this Shabbat which is Shemini in our regular cycle of readings is also Shabbat Parah, named for a red heifer. Each of the special readings added during this time brings our attention to an important aspect of the Festival of Matzot which we will soon celebrate together.
There are so many eventualities to consider when a major event such as Pesakh is planned, and our own preparation for a Seder is no different from our ancestors’ journey to Jerusalem for the ancient version of the community observance. What if someone is delayed and can’t make it? There’s a backup plan for that: Pesakh Sheni. What if someone has fallen on hard times and can’t afford to hold a Seder? There’s a mitzvah for that too: Ma’ot Hittin. And what if one is tamey, and incapable for some reason of joining a Seder? That’s where this week’s parashah comes in. For our ancestors, there was a ritual of sprinkling a special substance, made of the ashes of a red cow, which changed one’s status and made it possible for the person who is tamey (pronounced “tah-MAY”) to join in the communal Pesakh observance.
If we are addressing an emotional obstruction of a spiritual state, such as the death of a loved one (being in the presence of death makes one tamey), the relevance is similar to the anti-anxiety practice or pill we might take in order to calm the heart enough to be able to participate in the Seder experience. But there is a different side to understanding what it means to be tamey. Consider the life experiences that result in tum’ah, that make one tamey, they include (1) the death of a loved one, (2) giving birth, (3) exposure to the physicality of either experience (contact with the dead, or with menstrual blood, or semen, or amniotic fluid). It has been suggested that in these moments we are in a different place psychologically and/or spiritually, isolated from our regular social circles and alienated from the normal give and take of daily life in community. We have had a powerful, singular experience, not given to sharing. Our experience has taken us outside the community; a veil hangs between us and our companions, and we are not fully seen.
It’s a temporary experience, and when enough time has passed, we will find our “new normal,” sometimes with the help of a ritual moment that allows us to cross over the divide between the solo truth of lived personal experience and the compromises inherent in communal existence. The red heifer helped our ancestors to do this, but we don’t grind cow ashes into a potion anymore. We still, however, need a way to mark our transition.
That’s where the other significance of this Shabbat comes in, as this is also the Shabbat of Trans Visibility. In our own day, in our own way, we all need to be seen, and welcomed as part of our communities of meaning – even – especially – when we’ve had an experience that makes us feel at least temporarily alienated. For a trans person, that might include being “birthed” into one’s true gender. Even as the ancient Israelite community deliberately and officially acknowledged a passage in a tamey person’s experience (from woman to mother, from child to orphan, from partner to parent) so also on this Shabbat our community says to those among us who are trans that we see you, and we embrace you as part of our community. As we do so we offer our support to the trans person as they seek to complete their journey from isolated tamey to part-of-us tahor, and find their belonging with the rest of us.
The first Seder of Pesakh 5779 will be celebrated on erev Shabbat, Friday evening April 19. What transition do you need to complete to be ready? What belonging do you need? What welcome can you offer? Now is the time to plan and consider, invite and prepare. May all who are hungry for community find their place; may all who seek to take a deep breath of belonging find their welcome.

Shabbat Tzav: how to Keep that Fire Burning

This evening as Shabbat begins, the holiday of Purim finally ends, with the extra day called Shushan Purim, the Purim celebrated one day later by those who live in cities that were walled at the time of the Purim story, which takes place in ancient Persia (during the First Exile, 586-520 BCE, when the Jewish refugees from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem lived in the Persian Empire, which had succeeded the Babylonian in regional dominance; it has sometimes been placed during the reign of Xerxes).
Purim is the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, or May Day, or any ritual which marks the advent of spring and the ancient joy of our slow but steady return to longer, warmer days. It’s a much needed opportunity to let go, to upend the normal conventions that frame our lives for one day of rebellion against them. There’s a profound depth to this concept and more to learn – which we’ll return to next year, G*d willing.
And now it’s onward, past Purim into spring and the much more important Festival of Pesakh. This holy day period is so significant that we begin to anticipate it on Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrate the sap rising in the trees; then, even before Purim, there are special Shabbatot, marked by special Torah and Haftarah readings. Nearly every Shabbat brings us a different important detail of preparing for the hag HaMatzot, which we’ll explore as each one is upon us, Shabbat by Shabbat.
If Sukkot was the most significant festival of our ancestors in the land of Israel, Pesakh became primary for us in Exile: where once we farmers celebrated our harvest, we became wanderers seeking the meaning of our religious identity in the story of how “all those who wander are not lost.” Wandering, we need to learn, is a necessary, lifelong process of true personal growth.
Yes – but it is so very tiring and uncertain. Is it never possible to simply come home, and know ourselves there, and end this wandering? Well, no. Life continues, and G*d willing we continue with it, confronted by more questions, more challenges, and more opportunities, not despite all the horrors but within and through them, to find holiness and meaning within the uncertainty.
Spring is coming, and no doubt the social and political stress of our lives will warm with the temperatures. And then there’s Pesakh, only a month away, and much to prepare. This Shabbat is a welcome quiet moment between special maftir Torah readings, special Haftarot, and holidays. This is a regular Shabbat, the kind where you are invited to take a deep breath and become still, so that you might consider, after the long winter, where spring has found you.
In a quiet moment you may realize how exhausted you truly are; Shabbat reminds you that you must rest one day a week (to deny this is arrogance, or at least a misunderstanding of human endurance capacity).
In a peaceful moment you may wonder how you will regain your sense of energy and purpose. As we have learned, each of us is needed to hold up our piece of the universe. No life is superfluous, and therefore no matter how overwhelmed we are, none of us can simply “check out” and leave the rest of us to do the necessary work. May Shabbat remind you that you are not alone, and in our shared community of support each one of us can take turns spelling the other.
In a Shabbat moment, may you consider this eternal message from our parashat hashavua on this normal, ordinary, wonderful Shabbat:
אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶֽה
“Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; don’t let it go out.” – VaYikra (Leviticus) 6.6
Each of us has a passion for something significant; each of us is called out of bed and into life by something important. Our tradition teaches that the fire of this Torah verse really refers to that passion in you, and the altar is your heart. On this Shabbat, consider what you need to keep the fire of your heart going; what regular feeding does it need? As our days warm, may the fire of your passion grow, and may you know your own power to embrace your life, and find within it the blessing you seek, which will bless all around you as well.
hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

Shabbat VaYikra: Salaam, Shalom, Peace

This week our parashat hashavua is VaYikra, which translates as a calling upon, or calling out – out loud. G*d calls upon Moshe to act to evoke holiness in the world, and G*d similarly calls upon us. Though we do not hear a voice, we can sometimes feel that there is something that we are called upon to do. Today we are called upon to speak out for love, for community, and to declare that Od Yavo Shalom, Salaam, Aleynu – peace will yet come to us.

We mourn with our Muslim sisters and brothers after the tragedy of the massacre in two New Zealand mosques. This horrific violence is an indicator of a threat that faces us all: the rise of a racist, hateful white supremacist ideology which targets all of us who are deemed inimical to that world. African Americans, LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, Muslims, feminists, and also us Jews – we are all endangered and we are all called to stand together and strengthen each other. We are witnessing a global resurgence of fascism and white nationalism, and the power of that hate is real, as is the power of the fear behind it, and which it causes. We must not give in to it. We must insist that our elected representatives hold accountable those in our midst who encourage and support hate, and we must ourselves do what we can to give that hate no support, no attention, no opening in our communities.

And even while our hearts are breaking, we are called to hold each other up, and so lift up the power of our mutual respect and support, in defiance of the chaos created by fear. Let us come together to affirm through our acts the belief that a better world is possible. Transformative love is possible. Wholeness is possible: salaam, shalom, peace.

Mir veln zey iberlebn, Avinu shebashamayim – We will outlive them, G*d in heaven! (Yiddish, sang in the face of Nazis at gunpoint)
inna lilahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un – We belong to G*d and to G*d we shall return (Qur’an)

And in the most appropriate form of defiance we know, may we all insist upon a Shabbat shalom.

hazak hazak v’nithazek,
Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Pekudey, Adar II Begins: Don’t Burn the Day

These days, being happy is not easy. Reasons to be sad, to be worried, or to be outraged are easy to find – and late winter’s gloomy chill doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. Even as I have heard some say that Tisha B’Av is impossible in Portland Oregon because the weather is so beautiful, Purim’s declaration that we must be happy seems similarly out of step with our real lives. This year, with an extra leap month of Adar (added 7 times in the 19 year cycle of the Jewish calendar) we are fortunate to have twice the days to find our happy place; and find it we must, our tradition insists.
Consider that the Jewish people has been practicing the mitzvah of mi sheh-nikhnas Adar marbim simkha, “when Adar enters, happiness increases” for many generations. It’s fascinating and curious that in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that, when all other holy days have faded into the past, Purim will still be celebrated. On the simple human level, each of us yearns to be happy, each of us needs opportunities for a smile, a laugh, a moment of delight.
Our parashat hashavua, (Torah reading for the week) is called Pekudey, meaning “records,” from the word for taking account of people, or things. It might be translated along the same lines as “noticing.” In it we are offered a way to learn what it might mean to fulfill the mitzvah of being happy while at the same time not turning away from the reality of one’s life.
This parashah describes in great detail an amazing and joyful event. The mishkan, built with love and freewill offerings by the Israelite community, is completed, and it glows with the Presence of the holy. Every Israelite “whose heart so moved” brought their heart’s offering. All were needed; all were welcomed. They were still escaped and homeless slaves, but they found happiness in together building their sacred space.
It’s important to notice that each offering was different, and all were necessary, just as we are all different, and to the extent that we seek to bring our heart’s gifts to our common space, we are building a space of joy and uplift. If you are not happy in the work, it’s a pretty good sign that you are in the wrong place.
The command to “Be Happy, It’s Adar” is really a way to remind each one of us every year to notice how we are doing. Are you capable of moments of delight? How’s your happiness quotient? You are given the gift of life; there is no rehearsal and no do-over as far as we know. The Jewish tradition of optimism and belief in the perfectibility of this world, the insistence that we are not allowed to despair, requires us to do the best we can in this life to be happy – or at least to do the best we can not to be unhappy for one moment longer than necessary.
Most days, we don’t do this by conquering the world or overthrowing the system. Most days, we do this by noticing a flower, a bird, a kindness. In 1998 the Dave Matthews band released a song in which he sang
We need the light of love in here
Don’t beat your head
Dry your eyes
Let the love in there
There’s bad times
But that’s OK
Just look for love in it
And don’t burn the day away ((full lyrics here)
 
Don’t burn the day. It could be your happiest one. Notice it, notice every gift and every opportunity for gratitude, and for the love you are able to give and receive. This, it seems to me, is a way to understand the urgency of Purim, and its eternal significance. May it touch you despite all that challenges us when we simply try to feel the wholeness that is our original and our natural state.