Shabbat Ki Tisa: What Are You Doing For Pesakh?

As we know, the days marked as holy for recalling and reliving the Exodus from Egypt have marked the Jewish people and Jewish culture profoundly; for thousands of years the Jewish story has been retold every year as part of our human celebration of the spring season.

We need to tell this story; we need to share this story.

We begin to remind each other of the approach of Pesakh way back before the month of Adar begins, with Shabbat Shekalim, which served as a public service announcement to Jewish communities that the new year would soon begin (it was tax time for them, thus the reference to shekels). No less than four special Shabbatot keep our attention turned to the preparations for what was arguably the most significant holy day our ancestors celebrated.

No matter what we are reading as the parashat hashavua, every year for many generations the question has gone around the community at this time of year: 

What are you doing for Pesakh? Where will you hear this story? How will you tell this story?

Parashat Ki Tisa begins with a count of the People of Israel. That it is read as a special extra Torah excerpt added to Shabbat Shekalim, way back before Purim, should draw our attention to it now as it comes around again. What is so important about this reading that we should read it twice in such proximity?

The answer is in how one says “count” in Hebrew: tisa is part of an idiom which literally means “lift up the face.”  In English we might “count heads,” but in Hebrew each person is counted by the act of lifting up the face to make eye contact, it seems, with the one counting. Imagine that moment of eye contact: it is a recognition of the individual soul. And it’s more – it is the recognition of the gift of one’s presence. In the same way, we count ten for a minyan, and we notice exactly who has gathered to be with each other. Jewish tradition teaches that this gathering evokes a synergy that brings the Presence of G*d into our midst.

This kind of counting is an act of taking account of each other. It is the same gesture by which we have learned as a community to notice each other’s situation and ask: do you have a place to go for Shabbat? What are you doing for Pesakh?

This year especially, let’s take account of each other. The way you tell this story counts; it needs to be heard.

Start with the people you know best – your family, your friends, your havurah. What are they doing for Pesakh? Where will they encounter our story?

What are you doing for Pesakh? Is it your turn to host a Seder? It’s not difficult: you can potluck it just as you do a Shabbat dinner, and invite someone who knows how to lead if you don’t feel you can. Just make room for the telling of the story.

All it takes is a Haggadah, and the symbols of matzah (even if you’re gluten free you need the symbol there), maror, and a representation of the zaroa (shankbone). All the rest is improvisation.

What are you doing for Pesakh? On Pesakh, we take account of those with whom we share the journey all year along the Jewish path, and we listen to each other’s version of the story we carry together into our future.

It’s not a story if no one hears it. This Pesakh especially, may you recognize your ability to ensure that every voice is heard – including yours.

Shabbat Shekalim: Tax Time in Ancient Israel

half-shekel

half-shekel

This Shabbat, on which we are reading Pekudei as the parashat hashavua, is also known as Shabbat Shekalim. Yes, the Shabbat of the Shekels. This special Shabbat is not necessarily tied to the parashah called Pekudei, but it’s not entirely inappropriate, since this last reading in Exodus consists of an audit of the records (in Hebrew, “records” is pekudim) as well as the account of, finally, the erection of the Mishkan, the space the Israelites are constructing in order to have a designated place for their kavanah (spiritual intention). Thus the place is called the place to meet G-d, although everyone agrees that no one space contains the holy.

This Shabbat is called Shekalim because it is the first of four special Shabbatot that focus on the upcoming Festival of Pesakh. Shabbat Shekalim always occurs on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the month of) Adar (or Adar II in leap years such as this year). On this Shabbat, a special extra reading is added to the regular Torah readings for Pekudei. The extra (maftir) reading comes from a text earlier in Exodus which describes a half-shekel tax collected from all the Israelites. It is read on this Shabbat because the tax, which became a yearly tax in later Israelite history, was due on the first of the New Year, which begins with Rosh Hodesh Nisan.

This raises some interesting questions which shed light on our ancestors’ culture and social organization.

1. What was the original purpose of the tax? It was a way of conducting a census. Since it was believed that counting the people was bad luck and had been demonstrated in the Torah to bring on a plague, there was – and still is – a reluctance (call it a superstition) to count people. Even in a traditional shul today, one does not count people when checking to see if we’ve reached the minyan number of ten; rather, a gabbai might use a verse such as Psalms 5.8.

 וַאֲנִי–בְּרֹב חַסְדְּךָ, אָבוֹא בֵיתֶךָ;    אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל-הֵיכַל-קָדְשְׁךָ, בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ.

As for me, I come into Your house filled with the joy of Your Presence; I bow in awe of the holiness of your Plac e.

2. Why use a Shabbat as a reminder that tax time is coming? It is striking, after all, in a religious tradition that shuns money on Shabbat and holy days, to consider the prominent place of  money in this Shabbat’s theme. In the ancient past, and continuing right up until the last generation or so, Shabbat was the weekly gathering time of the Jewish community, and the shul was the equivalent of the public square. If you wanted to reach the most Jews with the important announcements of community news, the way to do it was to incorporate it into the Shabbat prayer ritual. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period, who devised the intricate plan of what to read when all year long, mandated certain Torah and Haftarah readings which emphasized aspects of the community. Sometimes the special Shabbat reading brought depth of meaning to the day itself, and sometimes it served, as well, as a reminder of something important coming up. In the same way that we read three haftarot of gathering doom before Tisha B’Av (when the Temple and Jerusalem itself were destroyed, and we went into exile), we – on a happier note – have special readings that recall and add to the excitement of the upcoming Festival of the Spring Harvest, the Festival of Matzah.It’s quite convenient that this verse is part of the first song we sing upon beginning our prayers, so that while you are singing, you can simply let your eyes rest on each person as you chant each word of the verse. You are not precisely counting the people, yet you know if you’ve got your minyan. (Another way to count people is to point to each one and say “not one”, “not two”…..)

3. Why a half-shekel apiece? isn’t that a regressive sort of flat tax?  There are other taxes that are tied to one’s income; this small contribution has a more symbolic value, that of reminding us that this Temple tax asserts that we are all equal before G-d. Further, the application of this tax to all of us demonstrates our belief that each of us has an equally valuable contribution to make to our congregation.

“The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less; it is an atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30.15)

The last phrase of the mitzvah (the obligation commanded here) is the most provocative, describing the tax as an “atonement”. It is easy to see, and assert, that no one is too poor to give, and to understand why the rich are not allowed to give more, but why is the giving an atonement? Perhaps because each of us needs to atone for either feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t have more, or looking down on others who don’t have as much as we do. In the act of giving the very same thing, each one of us and all together, we are invited to atone, which is to say, to return to a place of at-one-ment with each other.

Our Mishkan, our sacred space, exists because of the support of each one of us, and that support is equally valuable, equally necessary. The offerings of our hearts, minds and wherewithall are all needed if we are to fulfill the mitzvah “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might”, from the Shema.

Parashat Ekev: showing up is safer than hiding

A minyan is traditionally defined as ten Jewish men but by Progressive Jews as ten self-identified and committed Jews of any gender; any way you define it, what it means is that we need critical mass. 

What is critical mass? it’s the number you need to get the job done. In order to evoke holiness in Jewish prayer, you need a minyan. In order to study Torah, our tradition teaches, you need at least two students.  Social justice is more tricky: in order to get a possible new law on the Oregon ballot, you need 116,284 names on a petition. I know; I’ve just trained to become a signature collector for a measure on the 2014 ballot to enact marriage equality in the state of Oregon.

This week’s parashah underscores the Jewish emphasis on individual responsibility for the group’s well-being in the very first verse: If you all obey these laws and guard them carefully, God will guard the Covenant established with each of you. (Devarim 7.12) The laws must be obeyed and guarded by all of us, and then God will guard the Covenant made us as it affects us personally, one by one.

The word if in this parasha gives it its name: ekev “on the heels of” in Hebrew. That is how closely act is followed by reaction in Jewish religious belief. Or, as we might say, “what goes around comes around”. It may take a while, but it’s always recognizable when it comes around again, whatever “it” is for you or me. Consider: we see larger social trends, and we can feel, if not always articulate, how we know our acts have been a small part of what has added up to that trend. 

Do you see less litter on the streets? you, because you do not ignore the presence of garbage but take care of it, are a small part of that trend. Do you see more justice in the world? you will if you do not ignore the presence of injustice, and take care of it, in whatever ways you may find to do so. And not only where you happen to notice it –  as the haftarah for this week reminds us, we are called upon to be rodfey tzedek, “pursuers of justice”:

Listen to Me, all who pursue justice, all who seek the Eternal!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut.

Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you.

(Isaiah 50.51.1-2)

It is not enough to quietly be in favor of change, to quietly approve of movements which seek greater justice. We have to show up. Our tradition urges us to show up and to act to guard others if we ourselves would seek to be safe. If we look to the rock of our tradition, let it remind us “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah), and show up in the pursuit of justice, we may suffer and we may not always succeed, but we will know that we are keeping the Covenant, and that it will keep us.

As we come out of hiding, we the quiet ones in support of equality, and act for justice together, may we know justice in our individual lives – and peace in our hearts.