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,
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.
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.