The Most Important Mitzvah

It’s a Portland kind of question: What do you do for Passover when you’re gluten free? 

In order to answer this question it’s best to first consider a more fundamental question: What is the Most Important Mitzvah of Pesakh?

There are several mitzvot that all might be considered primary: 

1. have a Seder and tell the story

2. clear the house of all forms of the five grains: wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt

3. eat matzah

4. observe the first and last days of Pesakh as sacred occasions and do no work

All four of these mitzvot are d’Oraita – an Aramaic phrase that means of Biblical origin, as opposed to Rabbinic (we all know what happens when the Rabbis get started on the halakhah of Pesakh – many many more mitzvot are developed!)

There is no denying the fact that since Biblical times, since before the Tanakh achieved its final, two-thousand-year-old form, Pesakh has always been a central, vitally significant holy day period for our people. It is the time when we remember that we were strangers in a strange land – Egypt – and then slaves, and then, somehow, in a way that seemed miraculous then and perhaps more so now, we were free.

That reality leads us to one more central mitzvah of Pesakh:

5. “In every generation we must see ourselves as going out of Egypt” – we ourselves. This Rabbinic mitzvah is not so easy to understand. A command to remember is one thing; that, we Jews know how to do. But how are we to see ourselves, literally, as going out of Egypt?

The answer to our question is found, wonderfully enough, in a tradition which has evolved around the Seder. The Rabbis ruled that we are to raise our cup of wine four times during the Seder – once for each of the expressions of our redemption from slavery which we find in the Torah (Shemot 6.6-7):

הוצאתי אתכם – I will bring you out of Egypt

הצלתי אתכם – I will free you from slavery

גאלתי אתכם – I will redeem you from bondage

לקחתי אתכם – I will take you to be Mine

And of course since we have a tradition of questioning everything in Judaism, another Rabbi asked, “but aren’t there really five?” And suggested the very next words that appear in the text (Shemot 6.8): 

הבאתי אתכם – I will bring you (into the Land of your ancestors)

The Rabbis ruled that since not all Jews lived in the Land of Israel then (or now), as long as some Jews live in Exile, the 5th cup was to be poured but not drunk, in recognition that freedom is not yet completely real. So we pour that fifth cup and leave it on the table, following the Rabbis’ gesture, and wait for the Prophet Elijah whose coming one day will symbolize the complete freedom toward which we look for all people.

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את אצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים – “In every generation we must see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” 

To fulfill this 5th mitzvah is to bring about the completion of the other four. And this year brings us a clear and compelling illumination of that mitzvah

that when you see a person who is a refugee on a boat in the Mediterranean, 

a person who is in a holding area at an airport, 

or a person being handcuffed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, you are in that person’s shoes. 

You can feel the waves and the terror of drowning; 

you can feel the confusion of not knowing the language or why you are being detained and the fear of what you do not understand; 

you can feel the anguish of being torn away from family and treated like a criminal only because you want to live,

and you do not turn away, either emotionally or mentally. You stay with the anguish just enough to let it mediate your choices.

Our ancestors crossed borders illegally, time after time, in order to escape death. This is part of who we have been, and it is part of our Passover story. If we are able to feel that this is also who we are, and must be, we will come a bit closer to understanding what this 5th cup means, and what we must do in order one day finally to raise it high.

Gluten free? not a problem. Give the money you would have spent on matzah to HIAS, or IRCO, or IMirJ, and raise those four cups with all the kavanah you can muster for matzah as well as maror and zaroa as symbols whose importance is in that they guide all of us toward the 5th mitzvah.

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 Yitro: What does the Voice of G-d Sound Like?

This week parashat Yitro calls us to stand once again at the foot of a mountain as a people, brought together not by lines of descent but by a willingness to go forward, to cross over, to live with uncertainty in the hope of reaching a vision.

One of the most compelling uncertainties of Jewish religious tradition centers on G-d. It begins when Moshe asks, “how shall I say when I am asked how I was sent?” and receives the reply: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “What Will Be is What Will Be”. As if we were children asking to know what will happen when we grow up, all Moshe is told is that Time Will Tell. It has been noted already by Rabbinic scholars and interpreters that this is not a name. It may be, rather, a way to describe Eternity – all time and all space, All, Here, Now.

And what did it sound like, to hear a voice one might – during or afterward – attribute to G-d? Coming out of a bush, of all things? According to our parashah this week, G-d spoke:

Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the foot of the mount. Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G-d descended upon it in fire; and smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled violently. When the voice of the shofar grew louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by a voice.  (Exodus 19.17-19)

What does that mean, “by a voice”? what did our ancestors hear? what are we, by extension and by tradition, called upon to hear?

It is useful to compare another fascinating story of that mountain, preserved in our sources, that happened at another time:

[The Prophet Elijah traveled] forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mountain of G-d. And he found a cave, and hid there; and, there, the word of G-d came to him, saying to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ …. G-d said: ‘Go forth [from the cave], and stand upon the mountain before G-d.’ And, behold, G-d passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks; but G-d was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but G-d was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  (I Kings 19.8-12)

According to our Jewish intuition, developed over millennia, the sound of G-d’s voice is not a great and thunderous, frightening, obvious sound. The phrase “by a voice” in the Sinai story hints to us that hearing G-d is not necessarily the sound of a voice, although it might be “a still, small voice.”

G-d’s voice might also come to us as a realization of something true for our lives; or as an invocation of something real when we find ourselves standing before it; or as a realization, after the fact, that we were in a place of connection to a sense of something greater than our own individual small selves.

What was, is, and will be.

Such an awareness comes to us in small moments, but the impact is earth-shattering. That still, small, certain voice says that you are an essential part of all that is, carry within you the potential of all that will be, and are a necessary, cherished part of what will be remembered. You are part of us, and of All That Is, Always.

On this Shabbat may you hear what you need to hear, and may the source of that hearing delight and unsettle you with a new awareness of the places where truth resides.