Shabbat HaGadol: Being Commanded isn’t Enough, and Neither is Being Free

The days before and after Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” are meant to be a time of excitement and joy, of running around to find the best ingredients and the nicest symbolic foods for our Seder. It’s a time to clean house, to bring out the Pesakh plates and the “good” utensils in honor of the holy day, and of looking forward to being with people we love for the special evening. It’s also a time to review the Haggadah, to prepare to sell the hametz, and to remind ourselves – or enjoy learning for the first time – all the laws and customs and habits.

Shabbat haGadol is always the Shabbat just preceding the Seder. This year the parashat hashavua is Tzav, “command.” And it’s worth taking a moment to let that word remind us that for our ancestors, the preparations for and the observances of Pesakh were not something to decide upon but obligations to fulfill and commands to obey. We are on the other side of an abyss from that world, a would defined by the certainty that one’s life was plotted out with clear rules and duties. It may sound burdensome, but Jewish tradition insists that there is a freedom inherent within submission to the mitzvot. 

We live on the other side of that abyss, in a world of choices that we believe we make freely – until we consider the impact of the influences upon the choices we make: what our friends do, what we believe is expected of us, what our parents formed in us from an early age which we either strive to fulfill or are still in reaction against. Then there’s marketing, advertising, and all the other ways in which our society creates the conditions for psychological suggestion. In a world of so many influences, how are we supposed to know what the best choice might be? And what makes us think that we are really free to discern and make that choice?

The great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of the great Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz – what was that family’s Seder like?) taught that freedom is an illusion. “Cows grazing in a meadow are free,” he said, “they have no obligations at all. Neither are they capable of achieving anything at all. Do you want to be as free as a cow?”

We human beings have obligations, not least to those cows. But that realization is not enough, just as the sign posted in the gym where I exercise five days a week is not, in its urging me to “Live With Intention – Be Bold and Fearless – Make a Difference.” One following these promptings could just as easily apply them to intentionally using the nuclear option in the Senate to force a Supreme Court confirmation, boldly and fearlessly gutting the EPA, and making a difference in the Syrian conflict by bombing refugees.

It’s not enough to be free, and it’s not even enough to know you are commanded, if you do not have a sense of how, and and community to check yourself with. Mitzvot offer a valid and beautiful way to answer the question of “how”,  and the community, through which law is adumbrated and flexed, is the way that the Jewish people developed a meta-ethic of “love your neighbor as yourself” which is meant to communally overrule (by practicing, or, more to the point, not) some of our eternal Torah laws which are not so appropriate.

The sacred Jewish community isn’t perfect, and neither are its laws – both are holy inspiration, though, faithfully if imperfectly transmitted by human hearts and hands. It makes our review of the Pesakh laws comforting – we’re going to do once again something our people has done for millennia – and it guides our free choice, narrowing down the options to something more relevant, coherent, and, even, safe, in the face of all that chaos of what might otherwise seem an endless, meaningless flow of equally valid choices.  

May you find comfort in the mitzvot and the excitement of Pesakh, and be reassured that in the face of unimaginable tragedy wherever it exists in our world, these mitzvot have Eternal meaning. We may not always know what that meaning is – but we’ll only discover it by immersing ourselves in the doing. Consider it your thread of sanity and certainty in all this rain.

hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong and strengthen each other,

Shabbat Zakhor: Fear of G*d

The learning of this week’s parashah all comes down to a confrontation between Shifra and Pu’ah, on one side, and Amalek, on the other. Shifra and Pu’ah were the Hebrew midwives whom Pharaoh commanded to carry out his plan to eradicate the Hebrews by killing all the boy babies as they were born. But the midwives did not follow the command:

וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת, אֶת-הָאֱלֹ-ם, וְלֹא עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם;  וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת-הַיְלָדִים.

The midwives feared G*d, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them; they saved the male babies alive. (Ex.1.17)

The midwives “feared G*d.” In contrast, as we are reminded in the special reading associated with our parashah this week, the Amalekites, a tribe living in the Negev wilderness, did not.

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ …

Remember what Amalek did to you…

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ—וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.

how he met you by the way, and attacked you from behind,

all the weak, straggling in the rear, and you were faint and weary; he had no fear of G*d.(Deut.25.1-18)

The great Torah teacher and commentator Nehama Leibowitz asks, “what is the common denominator of these contexts? What is the character of the fear of G*d that animates or should animate [us]? …the criterion of yir’at shamayim, G*d-fearingness, may be measured by one’s attitude toward the weak and the stranger.” (Studies in Devarim p. 253.)

In a seeming contradiction, we are to remember to forget. We are commanded to remember what Amalek did, but we are also commanded to blot out the memory of it in the world and “under heaven”. There is only one way to do that, and it is not through a simple act of forgetting. The act of blotting out the memory must be an ongoing effort. This is an interesting variation on the famous dictum that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Our tradition teaches that Amalek will appear in the behavior of human beings throughout the generations, and we are to remember that it is up to us to resist it wherever and whenever we see it.

The only way that we can eradicate the lack of yirat shamayim is to nurture it, in ourselves and in others whom we teach and for whom we serve as role models. To be G*d-fearing is to uphold standards of common human decency, by reaching back to the source that informed them – religious ethics such as “love your neighbor as yourself” and defending them against cynicism and despair. Jews, as Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav famously said, are forbidden to despair.

This Shabbat is named for this imperative – Zakhor – “Remember!”  We are commanded to remember the signs of Amalek, and to keep an eye out for all that would attack, demean and take advantage of the weak and the stranger, and resist it. Amalek is rising in our day, and the signs are there in the social assault on all who are politically or economically weak, the refugees and immigrants who are strangers among us, the minority, the historically disadvantaged, the poor.

So much to do. In this holy work, watch out for your yetzer hara’. Your evil inclination will whisper to you that it’s too much, and you have to withdraw, you’re overwhelmed. My people, we have not yet begun to be tested. As we settle in to this struggle, each of us must find a way to draw strength to stay engaged. We are urged by the ancient wisdom of our people:

It is not up to you to finish the work, yet neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2.21)

Take care of yourself; like Shifra and Pu’ah, figure out which mitzvah is yours to do, and stay focused on it.* The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ז״ל once asked, “how can one have yirat shamayim, Awe of Heaven, without beholding the Heavens?” Keep your eyes on what matters, and let your eyes be filled with that which lifts you up – what you believe, what you trust, that which stirs your Awe. 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Tetzaveh: It’ll Cost You

Our parashat hashavua (the parashah, “reading” or “portion” for this shavua, “week”; notice that the h changes to a t when parashah is modified by the specific week’s readingis Tetzaveh, “[you shall] command”.

The parashah begins with a grammatical anomaly noted by the famous Torah teacher Nehama Lebowitz. Usually a parashah begins with the familiar phrase Speak unto the people of Israel, and say to them….. This phrase precedes the specific command. In this case, we have instead G-d’s word coming to Moshe as

You yourself command the people of Israel (Exodus 27.20)

Then, unlike all the other places in Torah that we could mention which go on to specify a command such as bring Me – sacrifices, gifts of the heart for the building of the Mishkan, and more – the verse continues

to bring you 

The subject of the verse is pure beaten olive oil for lighting, for a lamp to burn continually. (still Exodus 27.20)

This is the lamp indicated: the seven-branched menorah. This most ancient of Jewish symbols is attested throughout Israeli archeological sites. This powerful symbol of light kept perpetually kindled was a beacon, more than simply visually, for our people through the course of much darkness.

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What is the way in which we are commanded to keep this lamp alight? Our teacher Nehama offers the commentary of prior Rabbis and Sages, focusing upon one verse, the first verse of the parashah.

Why does G-d say you yourself and to bring you in this parashah of all parashiot? There are at least two possible answers:

1. Moshe’s name does not appear in this parashah, alone of all the parashiot of the Torah which include him (that would be 4 out of the 5 books). Perhaps this signals his feeling diminished, because he knows now that he will not be the High Priest – that job goes to his brother. Here, G-d reassures Moshe that his is really the superior position, since he relays the commands that Aaron must follow. In this particular case, that point is underscored by having Moshe stand in, as it were, for G-d.

2. This is not about Moshe at all. The words you yourself are without a pronoun because the command is for you yourself, and I myself, and all Jews. Our obligation is to bring ourselves. Where? Toward G-d, via the light that we are commanded here to kindle, in company with all those who travel our spiritual path. Bring yourself, and help to bring others, for although there is an important individual link we each seek to experience to life, there is for Jews also and always the mystery of how we experience G-d’s presence only in community.

Now, about the command itself: from Sifre Naso, a collection of ancient interpretation, we find several levels of human context. First, the idea of eternal loyalty to the Word of G-d, implied in the regular lighting of a symbolic lamp, which must be tended twice a day at the very least.

“A command [the word tzivui, from the parashah’s name Tetzaveh) implies now and for all time.”

And then more, shall we say, down to earth comments about the implications of the word “command”:

“Rabbi Judah ben Batira stated: ‘command’ implies extra enthusiasm…..Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai stated: ‘command’ invariably occurs in the context of monetary loss.”

Between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon there is an entire world of human religious behavior. Enthusiasm and monetary loss; are they poles or does one imply the other? At the very least, enough enthusiasm for anything is going to cost you: just look at the price of a child’s sports or arts enthusiasm (uniform, instruments, lessons, shows or games….) and this is not less true for adults. Anything worth being enthusiastic over will demand a price from us.

This is the Jewish path: it demands b’khol levavkha, b’khol naf’shekha, uv’khol m’odekha, “all your mind, all your emotions, all your resources”. (Deuteronomy 6.5, and also found as part of the Shema in the siddur). There are days when we fulfill mitzvot as if they were delightful good deeds, with enthusiasm, feeling good about ourselves and our Jewish ethics. And there are days when we must be reminded that we are obligated beyond our comfort level.

Certainly, our enthusiasm for our Jewish community demands time, talent and money from us. There are days when we don’t count the cost because of our delight; other days we may need to be reminded that we are obligated to nurture and strengthen it. If Jewish community is to exist, we all have to bring our enthusiasm and our monetary contributions.

In sociological studies of Jewish baby boomers it has been noted that the only religious paths which are strong in our post-modern Western society are those which expect excellence and commitment. We expect the best of our schools, our leaders, and our society – why would we settle for less in our religious community? For a generation, Jewish leadership tried to make it as easy as possible to keep Jews attached to religious communities – changing holiday observance to the nearest convenient Shabbat, for example, or refusing to make strong statements about ethics in society that might alienate some. And what we have found is that the half-serious practice of Judaism produces half-serious Jews who cannot stand strong when the winds of uncertainty and stress challenge them. Obligation to excellence apparently nurtures stronger and more meaningful lives.

It’s still okay to moan about it, of course….on our way to showing up and being counted. Each one of us – you yourself – must see ourselves as obligated, whether enthusiastically on any given day or not. Each one of us is necessary if we are to keep that lamp alight.

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