Shabbat HaGadol: It Matters Now, Too

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the “great Shabbat,” possibly echoing the content of the special Haftarah chanted on this day, which speaks of a “great and terrible day” which is coming.
הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Here, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and terrifying day of HaShem. (Malakhi 3.23)

The Prophet Malakhi – his name means merely “my messenger” – brings words to a people demoralized, despairing of truth and no longer so sure that virtue is a reward. They have seen those who cheat and lie prosper, and those who abuse workers and the vulnerable poor grow rich. They have begun to wonder if anything matters at all, and why be good, why try your best, if evil is flourishing?
It’s a perennial question for us Jews, and for those who love us and travel with us. We are preparing once again to celebrate the Pesakh Seder with all those who are part of our community, and for some of us there may be a painful undertone of wondering if it really matters. How can we pay attention to requirements for ridding our houses of hametz when the world seems so overwhelmingly full of something much worse, which we don’t seem to be able to eradicate?
Let me offer you a few brief thoughts if this is where you find yourself on this Shabbat before Pesakh 5779.
1. For those who are moved by comparison: the song is V’hi Sheh-amdah, which reminds us that this is not the first time. Our ancestors have seen worse, and who are we not to keep up the traditions they managed to preserve?
2  For those who prefer relevant symbolism: consider the circumstances of the first Pesakh. Plagues have destroyed much of Egypt’s infrastructure and the people are rightly terribly frightened – as are the Jews who witness the terror. It is at the moment of greatest fear, when one experiences the strongest inclination toward despair and immobilization, that the door to freedom is opened. Not before. The Prophet Malakhi’s message warns exactly of this: the day that comes will be great, but not in the colloquial sense. It will be terrifying. In other words, don’t wait for the situation to calm before responding – it may not calm.
3. And for those who want to consider integrity of practice: in a few days it will be time for you to collect all that is hametz in your house, and to either finish it, give it away, or lock it up and send me a list so that I can symbolically sell it for you, so that you will be living in accordance with the Torah’s dictate that “no hametz shall be found in your possession during the Festival of Matzot.” (Exodus 12.19). As the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught, A ritual that is only followed when you feel like it is no true ritual; a prayer you only recite when you want to indicates that you have no G*d but yourself. And good luck with that.
My friends, this was a difficult week – and this was not the first like it, and it will not be the last. It’s rather like standing in the ocean in rough water just deep enough that each wave crashing to the beach nearly knocks one down. We cannot stop the flow and we cannot get used to it – but in a real community of mutual support and caring, we can hold each other’s hands and together meet the next wave without being swept away.
We are no different from those who came before us, really: we make our meaning as a small island of calm in the midst of a great rough sea of uncertainty. The more we give to it, the stronger it is when we come to need it. Don’t skimp on your Shabbat; don’t short change yourself on your Pesakh; don’t worry if you cannot see the ultimate meaning of all of this ritual, or of the world that surrounds us so overwhelmingly. There is, in the end, a comfort in joining the rest of us in dipping karpas in salt water, in hiding matzah for children to find, and in singing dayenu. May it be enough.
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Shabbat Parah: Being Seen (Trans Visibility Shabbat)

This Shabbat we mark another of the special Shabbatot that count down (up, rather) to Pesakh: this Shabbat which is Shemini in our regular cycle of readings is also Shabbat Parah, named for a red heifer. Each of the special readings added during this time brings our attention to an important aspect of the Festival of Matzot which we will soon celebrate together.
There are so many eventualities to consider when a major event such as Pesakh is planned, and our own preparation for a Seder is no different from our ancestors’ journey to Jerusalem for the ancient version of the community observance. What if someone is delayed and can’t make it? There’s a backup plan for that: Pesakh Sheni. What if someone has fallen on hard times and can’t afford to hold a Seder? There’s a mitzvah for that too: Ma’ot Hittin. And what if one is tamey, and incapable for some reason of joining a Seder? That’s where this week’s parashah comes in. For our ancestors, there was a ritual of sprinkling a special substance, made of the ashes of a red cow, which changed one’s status and made it possible for the person who is tamey (pronounced “tah-MAY”) to join in the communal Pesakh observance.
If we are addressing an emotional obstruction of a spiritual state, such as the death of a loved one (being in the presence of death makes one tamey), the relevance is similar to the anti-anxiety practice or pill we might take in order to calm the heart enough to be able to participate in the Seder experience. But there is a different side to understanding what it means to be tamey. Consider the life experiences that result in tum’ah, that make one tamey, they include (1) the death of a loved one, (2) giving birth, (3) exposure to the physicality of either experience (contact with the dead, or with menstrual blood, or semen, or amniotic fluid). It has been suggested that in these moments we are in a different place psychologically and/or spiritually, isolated from our regular social circles and alienated from the normal give and take of daily life in community. We have had a powerful, singular experience, not given to sharing. Our experience has taken us outside the community; a veil hangs between us and our companions, and we are not fully seen.
It’s a temporary experience, and when enough time has passed, we will find our “new normal,” sometimes with the help of a ritual moment that allows us to cross over the divide between the solo truth of lived personal experience and the compromises inherent in communal existence. The red heifer helped our ancestors to do this, but we don’t grind cow ashes into a potion anymore. We still, however, need a way to mark our transition.
That’s where the other significance of this Shabbat comes in, as this is also the Shabbat of Trans Visibility. In our own day, in our own way, we all need to be seen, and welcomed as part of our communities of meaning – even – especially – when we’ve had an experience that makes us feel at least temporarily alienated. For a trans person, that might include being “birthed” into one’s true gender. Even as the ancient Israelite community deliberately and officially acknowledged a passage in a tamey person’s experience (from woman to mother, from child to orphan, from partner to parent) so also on this Shabbat our community says to those among us who are trans that we see you, and we embrace you as part of our community. As we do so we offer our support to the trans person as they seek to complete their journey from isolated tamey to part-of-us tahor, and find their belonging with the rest of us.
The first Seder of Pesakh 5779 will be celebrated on erev Shabbat, Friday evening April 19. What transition do you need to complete to be ready? What belonging do you need? What welcome can you offer? Now is the time to plan and consider, invite and prepare. May all who are hungry for community find their place; may all who seek to take a deep breath of belonging find their welcome.

Shabbat Tzav: how to Keep that Fire Burning

This evening as Shabbat begins, the holiday of Purim finally ends, with the extra day called Shushan Purim, the Purim celebrated one day later by those who live in cities that were walled at the time of the Purim story, which takes place in ancient Persia (during the First Exile, 586-520 BCE, when the Jewish refugees from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem lived in the Persian Empire, which had succeeded the Babylonian in regional dominance; it has sometimes been placed during the reign of Xerxes).
Purim is the Jewish version of Mardi Gras, or May Day, or any ritual which marks the advent of spring and the ancient joy of our slow but steady return to longer, warmer days. It’s a much needed opportunity to let go, to upend the normal conventions that frame our lives for one day of rebellion against them. There’s a profound depth to this concept and more to learn – which we’ll return to next year, G*d willing.
And now it’s onward, past Purim into spring and the much more important Festival of Pesakh. This holy day period is so significant that we begin to anticipate it on Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrate the sap rising in the trees; then, even before Purim, there are special Shabbatot, marked by special Torah and Haftarah readings. Nearly every Shabbat brings us a different important detail of preparing for the hag HaMatzot, which we’ll explore as each one is upon us, Shabbat by Shabbat.
If Sukkot was the most significant festival of our ancestors in the land of Israel, Pesakh became primary for us in Exile: where once we farmers celebrated our harvest, we became wanderers seeking the meaning of our religious identity in the story of how “all those who wander are not lost.” Wandering, we need to learn, is a necessary, lifelong process of true personal growth.
Yes – but it is so very tiring and uncertain. Is it never possible to simply come home, and know ourselves there, and end this wandering? Well, no. Life continues, and G*d willing we continue with it, confronted by more questions, more challenges, and more opportunities, not despite all the horrors but within and through them, to find holiness and meaning within the uncertainty.
Spring is coming, and no doubt the social and political stress of our lives will warm with the temperatures. And then there’s Pesakh, only a month away, and much to prepare. This Shabbat is a welcome quiet moment between special maftir Torah readings, special Haftarot, and holidays. This is a regular Shabbat, the kind where you are invited to take a deep breath and become still, so that you might consider, after the long winter, where spring has found you.
In a quiet moment you may realize how exhausted you truly are; Shabbat reminds you that you must rest one day a week (to deny this is arrogance, or at least a misunderstanding of human endurance capacity).
In a peaceful moment you may wonder how you will regain your sense of energy and purpose. As we have learned, each of us is needed to hold up our piece of the universe. No life is superfluous, and therefore no matter how overwhelmed we are, none of us can simply “check out” and leave the rest of us to do the necessary work. May Shabbat remind you that you are not alone, and in our shared community of support each one of us can take turns spelling the other.
In a Shabbat moment, may you consider this eternal message from our parashat hashavua on this normal, ordinary, wonderful Shabbat:
אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶֽה
“Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; don’t let it go out.” – VaYikra (Leviticus) 6.6
Each of us has a passion for something significant; each of us is called out of bed and into life by something important. Our tradition teaches that the fire of this Torah verse really refers to that passion in you, and the altar is your heart. On this Shabbat, consider what you need to keep the fire of your heart going; what regular feeding does it need? As our days warm, may the fire of your passion grow, and may you know your own power to embrace your life, and find within it the blessing you seek, which will bless all around you as well.
hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

Shabbat and Pesakh and more, oh my!

Hag sameakh! Today and tomorrow are hagim, holy days that end our Pesakh Festival. Jewish offices are closed today and tomorrow, and Passover ends tomorrow evening at sundown with the end of Shabbat. On this Shabbat, the Shemini or 8th day of the holiday, we depart from our usual Torah parashat hashavua (reading of the week) and read from the Book Devarim. The text includes reminders of the mitzvot associated with the holiday, including travel, offerings, and inclusion. In every Jewish community, not only do we devote time and energy to its observance for ourselves, but also those who have the wherewithall must take care to ensure that those who do not have are also able to celebrate the holiday.
It’s interesting in this context to note that the Yizkor prayer for our beloved dead is recited on this eighth day of Pesakh as well. In Jewish tradition, the dead are considered impoverished – for they have no ability to do mitzvot. When we include them in our prayers we bring them back into the living circle of us mitzvah-doers, and when we give tzedakah in their memory (another Pesakh tradition) we cause good to happen in the world in their name. This is why the yizkor prayer includes this phrase: “may their souls be bound up in eternal memory.”
Today, Friday, we are in the 6th day of the Sefirat haOmer. The mystical pattern offered us for this day invites us to meditate upon the intersection of Yesod and Hesed.
Yesod is the foundation of the individual and of the world. It is associated with loyalty and reliability, as well as with generativity and with the genitalia, the seat and source of physical life.
Hesed is the emotional expression of overflowing love and the mercy it brings; the feeling of one’s arms opened wide in love and trust to the world and in generosity without stint.
It’s a lot to take in, but it comes down to one simple lesson: in the face of death, only love matters. On this Shabbat, the last day of Pesakh 5778, consider what tzedakah you can do to keep a loved memory alive; what mercy you can offer the living to increase love in the world; and who is in need of the generosity and richness you have in such abundance.
Shabbat shalom and hag Pesakh sameah,

Shabbat HaGadol: It’s the Details

This Shabbat is Shabbat haGadol, the “Great Shabbat” which is the last before Pesakh. It is traditional on this Shabbat to spend time reminding ourselves and each other of two things, that neither may take precedence over the other: the meaning, and the details. it’s quite typical in this time of ours to downgrade the details in favor of the meaning, for example to say that it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it. It’s interesting to consider the radically different ancient Hebrew approach, which insists that the more important something is, the more each detail matters.
Every year we do the best we can to balance them, and to preserve both the keva, the form of the Seder and the Passover observances we follow for eight days in the Diaspora (seven in Israel), and the kavanah, the intention and mental focus that lies behind them and is reinforced through them. Every year we discover that the more we take care with the details, the more depth of meaning we find – and of course, the converse is true: the more we care about the meaning, the more we find the details important.
May the details you observe bring meaning to your experience, and may the meaning of your experience of the Festival of Matzah bring delight to every detail.
the details:
1. All foods containing any form of hametz (wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt) should be cleaned out from your dwelling place by 10am on Erev Pesakh, Friday March 30. This observance does not encourage discarding good food, but rather donating where possible; that which is open or otherwise cannot be donated should be sealed and put in an inaccessible area (this can include putting it all on one shelf somewhere (the garage? the basement? a kitchen cupboard?) and covering the shelf with aluminum foil, a sheet, a tarp or whatever.  The mitzvah requires that you not own hametz for the duration of Pesakh. If you don’t belong to a congregation, you can still contact one and ask that your hametz list be added to theirs, which will be legally sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday and then re-bought.
2. the Bedikat Hametz (Searching for Leaven) takes place after the house is cleared of hametz on the night before Pesakh (this year, Thursday night March 29). A guide to this ritual and that for Bi’ur Hametz, burning it) can be found in most Haggadot.
3. It is traditional to recite Yizkor prayers for our beloved dead. Find a shul and ask them when they will be reciting this prayer, which is said only during the Festivals of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur. Join them and remember those you have loved and lost with a community.
the meaning:
1. the central statement of the Haggadah: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
the personal touch: do you have room at your Seder for a guest? it’s a mitzvah to invite guests if you’re hosting, or to get yourself inviting somewhere if you’re not able to host.
2. we were strangers in the Land of Egypt and homeless wanderers for many years.
both near and far: mark the meaning of this teaching by supporting asylum seekers in Israel: #LetUsHelp
3. celebrate freedom by using yours responsibly. We are most free when we are reliably faithful to that which builds meaning and purpose in our community’s life.
what you do matters not only to you but to the Jewish community: On this Great Shabbat and every day, may your Judaism inform your U.S. activism, and your U.S. patriotism be supported by your Judaism. Some of us will make the minyan, others will feel called upon to join the inspiring and wonderful student march against guns. We can’t do anything about the fact that the U.S. doesn’t check the Jewish calendar before scheduling important events, and of course it’s disappointing to be left out. No matter what you do this Shabbat morning, I hope you’ll join in my prayer and determination that marches be followed by voting, and other acts that will, we pray, bring about the change we need.

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.