Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: the Imperative of Joy

On Sunday evening at our Second Seder we counted the plagues:

world wide pandemic and more than 2.5 million souls lost

Oregon fires

Texas ice storm 

George Floyd

economic hardship

assault on the U.S. Capitol

children in U.S. concentration camps

31 million people without health insurance

white supremacy violence

The Federal government repeatedly using weapons of war against Portland citizens

Our Haggadah refuses to narrate the story of freedom without stopping to grieve. It is painful to learn this, but the lesson is demonstrably true over millennia: human life is a mixture of joy and pain, triumph and bitterness, of Pyrrhic victories and defeat’s silver linings. 

All the more remarkable, then, that our ancient tradition also insists on lifting up the moments of joy shining like a shaft of light through all the darkness. Yes there is fear, and pain, and confusion; yes, there are birds singing in the trees after the ice storm, and people who will hold out their hand to you when you are hurting. 

The story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt is easy to look back from this distance. Through the veil of centuries the past is hazy. It’s easy to tell children the simple story: Moshe Rabbenu led us all out, and we all followed. Even though the Torah itself will show us repeatedly in the upcoming Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) that we fought constantly and drove our leader to despair, we all still have a mental image of a group that suffered, a group that walked out of Egypt bravely, a group that crossed the Sea, and a group that stood at Sinai.

In truth, it’s always more complicated. Midrash, that layer of ancient lore which fills in the human dimension of Torah, lays it out:

only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt; the other four-fifths died in Egypt, for they refused to believe. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 13.19.3)

All the more precious, then, to celebrate when we reach the other side of the sea. On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh the terror begins our special Torah reading:

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

Pharaoh and the chariots of war drew closer and closer to the Israelite people, and it was terrifying, and we screamed out our fear (Exodus 14.10)

And after the chaos and fear, there is the silence of finding ourselves on the other side: somehow, suddenly, the din is over and it is just us. Bedraggled, but safe for the moment, on the far side of the fear we once knew. 

Then the prophet Miriam fills the silence with her famous song, teaching us in this first instance the lesson that will sustain us through all our existence as a people: there must be moments of joy.

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת

Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand, and all the women followed after her with their drums, in circle dance

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ 

Miriam shaped their response: sing gratitude and praise! our terror is drowned in the sea!

(Exodus 15.20-21)

On this Shabbat, we lift up our joy. On this Shabbat, in the face of fears past and future uncertainty, we take this sacred moment to feel gratitude for what has been, and focus on confidence in what we know we are.

On this Shabbat, may you who are hurt, wounded, unhappy after a year of plagues and so much stress, find the burden of your sorrow lightened and the veil of your fears lifted. May the Sea you have crossed, in between the pain of the past and all we are able to imagine going wrong in the future, nevertheless turn in your memory and imagination from a terrifying wall of death to a life-giving mikveh of hope. 

mo’adim l’simkha – May the Intermediate Days of the Festival bring you joy!

shabbat shalom

Rabbi Ariel

Because What Do I Know about Love

Except that we are at sea in it 

– and parched for its lack?

Let down your buckets, my dears. 

Haul up the sweet, swaying spill.

Tilt your face to the stream.

Be washed. 

Be drenched. 

Turn loose

the dripping dogs to shake themselves among you.

Flood the decks; fill the cisterns. 

Then drink, and find it fresh.

You have sailed all unknowing

into your home river.

– author unknown

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: What Does It Take To Make A Clean Break?

I believed that the Soviet Union was dead and gone; I even thought that war between the nations of Europe was a thing of the past. I was certain that people carrying giant placards depicting the face of Stalin in Red Square during political rallies in the past twenty years were hopelessly anachronistic. I was sure that the rise of a new generation would bury the bad old ways beyond reclaiming.

The news of the last few weeks has surprised me. The ghost of the Cold War and all its related horrors – racism, persecution of minorities, and trampling of individuality – is not dead. As William Faulkner famously said, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

How long does it take to make a clean break with the past? When do you know that you will never go back to Egypt? As anyone knows who has ever made a big change in life, the one thing that crossing a barrier teaches you for sure is that once breached, most can be breached again. And maybe it’s a natural thing – it is, after all, the path one knows best, having followed it with one’s own will. Backsliding is a human norm – the most difficult of all our self-made prisons to escape.

The parashat hashavua for the middle of Pesakh is a special reading, out of our normal Torah reading cycle: Exodus 33.12-34.26, followed by Numbers 28.19-25. In the first reading we are reminded of our very first backsliding. Following the great Escape from Egypt, we crossed the Sea and committed ourselves utterly to a new and better way of living; and within three months of that great crossing, we crossed back over. We did not actually, physically return to Egypt, but we did in our hearts. We repudiated Moshe, we built a calf-god made of gold, and we killed those who tried to stop us.

It took a state of war, and a lot of suffering and death, to bring the Israelite people back to the path of commitment we had begun. Most of our own personal backsliding is less widely destructive, though it can be no less personally catastrophic. An addict once recovered goes back to the addiction; a woman freed of an abusive relationship returns; promises we’ve made to ourselves and others to live more meaningfully starting NOW recede into last week’s sunnier horizon.

On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh, the outer world is crying out to us as loudly as possible with this message and this question: what does it take for you to make a clean break with the past and become your best self? And what is the cost – to yourself, to your community, to the world – if you do not?