Shabbat VaYakhel-Pekudey/Shabbat Parah: Holy Tents and Sacred Cows

This week I am privileged to share an erev Shabbat thought with you from Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Soon a group of Shir Tikvah congregational family and friends will arrive and I look forward to greeting them soon at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve come a few days early to see family and friends.
Here in Israel, one enters any communal building and sees that one is in the Jewish state. There are Pesakh haggadot for sale in the bookstore at the airport, Pesakh coloring books for children at the grocery store, and my cousins are already planning their family Seder – for 100 participants! There’s nothing quite like being in the midst of a nation of people who are all looking forward to the ancient Festival of Pesakh as one of the most important family – and national – holidays of the year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Israel today is that, for all the differences caused by two millennia of normal historical developments as well as abnormal events of Exile, to be in Israel now is to be as close as one can come to the feeling of what it is like to feel one’s life to be part and parcel of the mainstream of Jewish life, whether 3000 years ago or now.
This week’s parashah presents us with an opportunity to consider how we might relate to that thought, that each one of us is an integral part of our story. We witness in this double parashah, parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey, the poignant story of our entire people helping each other to pick each other up and go on, together to discover the way to make our way forward once again. What was the direction we were heading before last week’s explosion of frustration, confusion, anger and upheaval?
This week we return to the narrative of two weeks ago, to immerse ourselves in the details of creating the Mishkan, from gold and silver to finely wrought wool and linen to wooden planks and hooks, clasps and sockets. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the work, and it was that immersion in the work itself that healed the rifts. Work that could only be done together – you holding the cloth while I fasten the clasp – reassured us that we could work together. We could, and we can, live together.
It’s true, commentators have pointed it out since there were commentaries on the Torah: where there are Jews, there will be divergent opinions, passionately held. To be immersed in work that one considers holy causes passions to rise, because one cares so much. It has been pointed out that there is only one place in the Torah where the entire Jewish people, gathered together, is referred to using a singular verb, indicating that all the people were of one mind. That moment is no coincidence but full of meaning: vayikhan sham Yisrael neged haHar, “[t]he[y] camped at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19.2) We derive from this verse that we were all one when we knew ourselves to be standing in a holy place, that is, in the place of the mountain where we experienced the Presence of G*d. No matter where we find ourselves within community, the “tent” we raise together is holy when you and I delight in the work we are doing together, as well as the goal, as well as each other.
This happy state, of being of one mind, does not necessarily entail agreeing, or knowing certainty. We are reminded of this by the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. This passage is so inexplicable that even King Shlomo, the wisest of them all, admitted he could not understand it. Committing to the mitzvot does not mean we can understand and explain them all logically, and, similarly, committing to each other need not be understood as some kind of unnatural conformity of heart or mind – or that we understand each other. Only that we understand that we cannot live without each other.
I look forward to bringing you Torah insights related to the learning we will do in the next two weeks here in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land – not because of some intrinsic quality, but only when, and because, we are standing here together in the Presence of G*d.

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,

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 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 in Pesakh II: Bring Your Memory

Holidays are special. Families gather, or they don’t, and either way, the past is more present with us. Pesakh occurs during the full moon and, like the ocean under that same moon, the tides of life grow more intense. It is not unusual for older people to die on the eve of a holiday. There is something about these times, when our gaze wanders further, toward the horizon, and grows thoughtful.

Jews are a people of memory, and during Pesakh, even more so. We are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day, and every Shabbat – and during this time of re-living it, kal v’homer, as our Sages say, “how much more so.”

On this Shabbat morning, the holy day which is the last day of Pesakh, we will recite the prayers of Yizkor, one of four times a year when we speak ancient words that express our hope not to be forgotten after our deaths, and remember our loved ones who have gone before us. If we forget them, it seems, in some way, as if they did not exist.

Curiously, though, the term yizkor does not mean “may I remember”. It literally means “May G*d remember”. This begs the question: does G*d forget? 

And such a clumsy question it is. In order to ask such a question one must presuppose an anthropomorphic G*d, a bit greater, perhaps, than the greatest human being, but not that much if this Divine Being, like us, has trouble remembering. 

I invite you to let your gaze upon that question grow wider, to encompass more of the true horizon and depth of the possibility. Keep in mind that on Pesakh, as on the other Festivals, we are commanded to remember. What does it mean to pray that G*d should remember, if that prayer is not the expression of a sense that memory moves through us and beyond us, part of something greater than us – and that something which is of us and beyond us and to which we belong as waves belong to the sea is G*d?

In the Torah text for this Second Shabbat during Pesakh we read:

שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר–בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם.

Three times in a year all your zakhur shall appear before ה your God in the designated place; at the feast of Matzah, and on the feast of Weeks, and on the feast of the Sukkah; and none shall not appear before ה empty;

אִישׁ, כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

everyone shall give as you are able, according to the blessing of ה your God as you have known it. (Devarim 16.16-17)

The word zakhur is usually translated “males”, since the root can indeed mean “male”. But it also means “memory”. And memory has no gender….Three times a year, then, we are obligated to bring up, conjure up, offer up, our memories. If we do not, it is as if we have come to this great moment empty. But if we do, then all that has come before us sings through us, and we will know what it is to be Memory. 

On this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, may you remember all the lives you have known, and may they sing through you – and thus may you know the fullness of the blessing you bring to the world.

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.