Rosh HaShanah 5778 – the Shofar’s call: Get Woke

 Shanah Tovah!

 

Tomorrow we will gather to experience one of the most important spiritual moments of this day that we call Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. That experience is the sounding of the Shofar. Although it may not seem to us to be the ultimate purpose of our sacred gathering, the sounding of the ram’s horn (or antelope, or kudu) is actually the oldest ritual associated with this day.

 

The Torah calls today shabbaton zikhron Teru’ah, mikra kodesh, which we translate as:

  1. a Shabbat-day, meaning a day of rest no matter what day of the week it is
  2. a day to remember the sound of teru’ah, one of the three Shofar sounds we will hear tomorrow
  3. a day for a holy gathering

 

 וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying:
 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן–זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ. Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, the first day of the month shall be a holy day of rest for you, a remembrance of the teru’ah, a day for a sacred gathering.[1]

 

Interestingly, today is not the first day of the Jewish calendar year. When we call it Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, we are asserting the significance of this day. But we get the emphasis wrong: we don’t sound the Shofar because it’s the beginning of our spiritual year: it is the beginning of the year because we s0und the Shofar on this day.

 

Our tradition[2] declares this the day on which the world itself is born, and born again, and born anew. That’s not because we can calculate the physics back to the big bang, but rather, it’s an aspirational statement. An ancient Talmudic story promises us that this day can be the beginning of the world for each of us, and for all of us – if we learn to listen to what we must be able to hear in order to bring about such a blessed renewal – and, apparently, also manage to remember what we have heard. Zikron teru’ah, the remembrance of the sound of the Shofar.[3]

 

But what are we to remember? Our Tanakh attests to the importance of the Shofar at peak moments such as this in our history. Its different sounds all demand attention. The Shofar is a sound of alarm; it declares a moment of great intensity. The sound of the Shofar accompanied the great moment when we became aware of the presence of G*d at Sinai[4] – and according to one old story about that day, the Shofar served, literally, as a wake-up call, since our ancestors had fallen asleep in the meantime.[5]

 

The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, or, as we call him, Rambam, teaches that meaning of the shofar is this: WAKE UP. Or, as it is said on the streets of the United States in these days, it’s time to “get woke.”

 

This term, which is associated with the Movement for Black Lives, is defined as “a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices, and the overall status quo through complete awareness….the phrase itself is an encouragement for people to wake up, and question dogmatic social norms.”[6]

 

Rambam would have agreed. He writes that the shofar calls to each of us saying: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! Consider your deeds…do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows, and waste their years seeking after that which is empty.” (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

 

The Shofar calls to us to be sensitive to what is true and what is not. It calls us to wake up to see how we can be socially manipulated, and how our acts, thus influenced, participate in oppression of ourselves and others. The Shofar calls us to wake up to our own potential to act to heal the world.

In short, the Shofar is calling upon us to get woke, to act woke, and to stay woke.

 

  1. Shevarim: Get Woke

 

It is written: * The Presence of G*d was manifest upon Mt Sinai, and the voice of the shofar was heard, sounding louder and louder through the thunder and smoke.[7] *

 

Consider the voice of the shofar, this strange and harsh sound. By Jewish law we are not allowed to mellow the sound by affixing a mouthpiece to the simple animal horn; there is to be no artificial barrier between breath and lips and horn and sound.

 

It’s not easy to make a clear, clean sound come from this simple instrument. It would be so much easier with a mouthpiece, like that from a bugle. But when this horn sounds, it is a sound like no other – it is a sound like the sound of the truth, when you hear it.

 

Sometimes the truth we need to hear is terrible to hear. Ancient midrash describes the shevarim notes of the Shofar, three “broken” notes, as yelalah: a Hebrew word describing the sound of unanswered anguish. This is a cry that echoes in a silent, cold, uncaring void. It is a wail of hopelessness.

 

The midrash offers a painful interpretation of what our people remembers when we hear the shevarim call of the Shofar. This interpretive midrash relates to the Torah reading, the one we find so terribly difficult to understand: the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The Torah relates that Abraham hears G*d commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and at the last moment, his hand is stayed by a messenger of G*d, an angel. A ram is sacrificed instead. The story is terrible enough, but of course there’s more – we need to know where was Sarah? As it is, the next story the Torah relates is that of her death. The midrash fills in, using the figure of the satan, the personification of the evil among us:

When Abraham came from Mt Moriah, the satan was furious that he had failed to realize the sacrifice of Isaac. What did he do? he went off and found Sarah. “Ah, Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?” She replied, “no.” He said, “your old husband has taken the boy and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness.” Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She …wailed three times, corresponding to the broken notes of the Shofar. Then she died, and Abraham came home and found her dead.[8]

 

In this midrash, the satan creates fake news, causing Sarah to imagine this horrible scene, and as a direct result, she dies, in agony. Sarah imagines Isaac’s death cries, cries of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. The shevarim is the sound of the living creature that cannot be saved from death. Sarah, also held by an anguish that she cannot survive, echoes his cries.[9]

 

According to the midrash, it is these cries that we re-enact in the ritual of the Shofar. The text concludes that “the Shofar blasts on the New Year transform Sarah’s death into atonement, because the broken Shofar tone is a sound of groaning and wailing.”[10]

 

This atonement comes through hearing, and through remembering. The Shofar calls in the voice of the murdered. The shevarim reminds us that we have heard the hopeless wail of the tragically bereaved – it challenges us to remember that we have heard it, in the world, and in our own community.

 

The Torah’s version of the Akedah seems to offer some veneer of comfort over the horror of the story, since Isaac was saved and a ram was sacrificed in his place. But Sarah was not saved, and in her mind Isaac is not saved, and thus the cry of her despair, and his, is retained in this ritual, as “atonement” for her descendants.

 

The requirement of atonement is that we get woke to the terrible truth: children are dying. The hand that holds the knife is not being stayed. There is no comfort for this pain, and there can be no atonement that allows us to turn away from it.

 

  1. Teru’ah: Act Woke

 

The second sound of the Shofar is the teru’ah. According to Jewish tradition,

 

* It was because of the sounding of the Shofar that the wall of Jerikho fell, as it is written, “when the people heard the kol shofar, they shouted a teru’ah gedolah, a “great teru’ah,” and the wall fell down flat.”[11] *

 

In this account of the fall of Jerikho, the Shofar is sounded, but it is the people who make the sound called teru’ah, the staccato blast that is the second sound of the Shofar. Just as Sarah gave voice to the shevarim, so do her descendants call out the teru’ah. The voice of a mother who died helplessly in a cry of pain is answered here by children who remember that pain, and who call out their response, their connection.

 

Our makhzor includes this line from Psalms about the teru’ah: “happy is the people who know the joyful sound.”[12] In our so far rather horrifying investigation of the meaning of Shofar sounds, we might well be justified in asking WHAT joyful sound? So far the voice of the Shofar seems to evoke nothing but death and destruction.

 

But the teru’ah is a call quite different from the brokenness of the shevarim. The shevarim is a cry of anguish, and the teru’ah, in our tradition, is the sound of a cry of two states of being, both a shriek that knows loss, and a cry that seeks connection despite loss, through the experience of loss.[13] Rather than a cry of helpless hopelessness, it is a cry of pain and outrage. Outrage is, after all, the first step toward changing one’s situation – or the world’s.

 

To cry out in teru’ah is to hear a call of helplessness and to respond; it is to act woke. Acting “woke” is to behave in a way that, according to one source, “is radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”[14] But not so as to sit back in cynical detachment – no, for Jews, acting woke must mean to act.

 

This does not necessarily mean that all will rise up to act together as one. As the teru’ah is made of nine separate notes, so we, as we raise our voices, do not all sound the same. That is why there is such a diversity of organizations that have formed to lift up the voices and concerns of different groups in our society. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts it, there are (at least) four ways of acting woke, just as there are four children of the Haggadah. There are: (1) the one who is overwhelmed, (2) the one who laments, (3) the one who negotiates, and (4) the one who resists. All four face the same reality: “Right now in America, we’re living in dangerous and unacceptable times. It’s precisely in times like these when we discover who we are as a people, as a society, as a nation. We don’t get to choose the historical moment we live in, but we do get to choose how we respond.”[15]

 

To learn from the Jerikho example, to act woke is to do what is necessary to tear down walls. There are stubborn personal walls of believing too much of what we read and hear in our media, in our government institutions, and in our own circles that we call progressive, and just. There are strong political walls built of our assumptions regarding the responsibilities of citizens for the acts of government. And there are massive social walls built out of our habits of work and play, of consuming and discarding, of comfort and convenience.

 

To act woke as an act of teru’ah is to find a way to hear and to remember the terrible shevarim that shatters our comfort, and also to be able to hear “the joyful sound.” It is at one and the same time to seek a compassionate balance between our understandable desire to live happy lives, and the understanding that some are denied that basic human desire. That is the teru’ah, the sound that responds to shevarim with recognition and affirmation, and yet insists on the hope that we can find a way to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, according others the respect and freedom of choice we seek for ourselves. In so doing we are woke if, in the Rambam’s words, we do the work to look beyond the shadows, toward the truth.

 

  1. Tekiah: Stay Woke

 

Now, you may be one of those who is annoyed by the halakha which directs that the Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat. After all, you might say, if the Shofar’s sound is so integral to the meaning of the holy day, it should be sounded no matter what day of the week it is.

 

It is the poignant truth that it was only after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple that the sounding of the Shofar was restricted. According to a 14th century source, there was one place where the Shofar was still sounded on Shabbat until the 11th century, and that was in the community of the great Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. The 19th century Rabbi of Kotzk explained this based on a Talmudic teaching:

 

From the day of the destruction of the Temple, the Holy Blessed One has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakha. The four cubits of halakhah take the place of the Temple, in which the Shofar was sounded on Shabbat; and in the days of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the entirety of the four cubits of Jewish meaning in the world were concentrated in his community.[16]

 

The voice of the Shofar hasn’t been heard on Shabbat since. For us to assert that we ought to blow off a millennium of tradition and sound the Shofar on Shabbat, then, we would have to have the hutzpah to say that the four cubits of meaning in our day are concentrated in our community. Better, maybe, for our hopes for atonement, to maintain the humility of a tradition that reminds us that the world is not yet redeemed, and that we are not yet all woke.

 

It’s not all humility, brokenness, and sin on this day, though. On this day of Rosh HaShanah we hear one more sound, and that is the Teki’ah. Teki’ah is a term used for celebration, as in another Psalm quoted in our makhzor: tik’u bakhodesh shofar, bakeseh, l’yom hageynu, “sound the Teki’ah at the new moon, in its hiddenness, for the day of celebration”[17]

 

It is interesting to note that this verse is not talking about something we can see and celebrate, such as a full moon, but rather the celebration of something which is hidden – a moon mostly lost in darkness because it is yet new. We can’t see it yet, but it is there. Jewish mysticism teaches that “there is an outcry within the heart that the lips cannot speak….this is the meaning of the verse ‘sound the shofar on the new moon, in the hiddenness of our celebration’.”[18] The Teki’ah calls us to celebrate something new, something hidden that cannot yet be fully seen – the answer we do not yet have, the happiness we have not yet seen, the justice we have not yet known.

 

There is a source cited in search of the earliest antecedent for the term woke. In 1940 the Atlantic Monthly ran an interview about a mineworkers strike in which an African American United Mine Workers official said to a reporter, “Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”[19]

 

At this time of renewal for the world and ourselves, it might well be said that for Jews to stay woke is to be newly open to the horror, as well as the beauty, of this world – to hear the terrible grief in the shevarim, and the teru’ah of responsive hope, and the teki’ah of celebrating that which can yet be. On Rosh HaShanah the Shofar urges us to see that the way to atonement is not through forgetting, nor turning away from pain and discomfort. There’s a reason why most Jewish legends are in the form of quests, and difficult ones at that: justice and wholeness do not come easily to us. Yet these quests all have miraculous moments, when it seems as if all the forces of good support our efforts, if only we make them.

 

There’s a final Shofar sound that we will hear during these days of Awe only twice, once on Rosh HaShanah and once to end Yom Kippur: the Teki’ah Gedolah, the great Teki’ah. * It is said that, at the End of Days, this sound will announce the end of homelessness in the world: “a Teki’ah gedolah shall be sounded, and they shall come that were lost in Assyria, and those who were dispersed in Egypt, and they shall all come home to Jerusalem, and give thanks.”[20]

 

On this Rosh HaShanah let the Shofar call you to remember the joyful sound of being able to respect the reality of both sadness and hope, and to respect their rightful places in your life’s beliefs and practices. Let the Shofar’s call awaken you to rededication to the vision of a world in which everyone is home, everyone is safe, and everyone is free to seek the birth and flowering of the holy potential of each of our lives.

 

It will take a lot of wakefulness to get there from here. There are a lot of walls to bring down, and many tears yet to dry.

 

The Shofar calls to us: wake up. Get woke, act woke, stay woke.

 

Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu, may you be written for a good year.

 

[1] Leviticus 23.23-24

[2] BT Rosh HaShanah 27a, among others

[3] BT Sanhedrin 98a

[4] Exodus 19.19

[5] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 41

[6] Raven Cras, “What does it mean to be Woke?” Blavity https://blavity.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke/

[7] Exodus 19.19

[8] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 32, cited in Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, 124

[9] Zornberg, ibid.

[10] Midrash Aggadah Bereshit 23.17

[11] Joshua 6.20

[12] Psalm 89.16

[13] Yalkut Tehillim 89.16

[14] David Brooks, How Cool Works in America Today”, New York Times, July 25, 2017 //www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/how-cool-works-in-america-today.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

[15] http://www.jewishaction.us/sites/default/files/bend_the_arc_-_4_responses_to_unacceptable_times.pdf

[16] S.Y. Agnon Days of Awe (NY 1948) 80-81.

[17] Psalm 81.4

[18] Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, 345

[19] Redding, J. Saunders (March 1943). “A Negro Speaks for His People”. The Atlantic Monthly171, p. 59

[20] Isaiah 27.13

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Shabbat Ekev: What Happens When You Listen

This week our parashat hashavua (parsha, “section”, of the week) is named Ekev. The word literally means “heel”, as in Jacob/Yaakov’s name, given to him because he emerged from the womb holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. This same word ekev paired with another conjugation of shema leads the Jewishly attuned ear to an entirely different place, that of the Akedah – possibly the most troubling Torah text of all, with which we struggle on Rosh HaShanah. Ekev, ekev, because of, due to, on account of…..

Parashat Ekev begins with this verse (Deut. 7.12):

יב  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר י-ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

It shall be that because you listen to these just teachings, and guard and do them, that the HaShem your G*d will guard for you the Covenant and the Covenant-loyalty sworn to your ancestors

V’hayah ekev tish’meh’un, “it will be on the heels of your listening”. The expectation here is that listening leads to a real result. One might see it as “hear and obey” but the great teachers of our tradition offer us much more to consider.

One insight is based upon a very close look at the first few words: “According to the joy and a person’s desire to fulfill the mitzvot, so one merits to hear, to attain, and to fulfill them….If you take the responsibility for the mitzvah upon yourself in joy, by means of this you will be able to listen.” 

This teaching from the Sefat Emet takes an ancient Talmudic comment connecting the word V’hayah with joy, and invites us to consider that v’hayah is for each of us a relative concept, linked to the satisfaction we take in the mitzvah.  מצוה גוררת מצוה – “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” In the moment when we are to recite the blessing before doing the mitzvah, we have the opportunity to become mindful of this amazing idea: that every moment is pregnant with meaning, if we are able to listen.

This is the ultimate salve for the burnout some of us begin to feel in our weaker moments. Not thanked enough? not having the work noticed enough? We all have that kind of childish moment when we want to be noticed doing a good thing. At that moment it is up to our more grown-up self to reassure the child within: stay in touch with the joy of the mitzvah, have fun with it because it is a mitzvah, and, as the Sefat Emet teaches, we will finally understand the meaning of the Shema, “to love G*d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources.”

This ancient Jewish teaching is the source of the Western ethical idea that whatever we do, we should do our best to do it well. Whatever we are doing is not only about our small self, but has an effect, as we know, on the larger shared Self of the World within which we live our lives.

First, one must learn to listen carefully. Not simply waiting until another has finished speaking so that we can say our truth, but listening in such a way that it has a real effect. Maybe it allows you to be a better listener, not defensive or dismissive; maybe it allows you to begin to consider trading in your truth for a better one. A possibly apocryphal but still great quote attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes can lead our way: when accused of changing his position on some important issue of economics, he is said to have replied, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

If we listen, only if, says the Torah, then something good will happen. It is an interesting test. How do you change when you really, really listen? It’s something we can practice at any moment. Sometimes we need to listen to ourselves, sometimes to something outside.

We are promised that alert, respectful, careful listening will lead to something – to change, and, finally, to growth of the spirit – when, finally, one comes to a place where one truly feels that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the sense that one is closer to the Source of the mitzvot. And you will know when you are there, because you will feel the joy.

Shabbat VaYeshev: Choices and Exile

In this week’s parashah we follow Joseph down to Egypt. This is a time of terror for him: his brothers sell him as a slave and he is taken far away from home. He is bought by a minister to Pharaoh and seems to be doing well; he gains his master’s trust and is put in charge of the household. The future is beginning to look brighter; maybe he will be able to become free, or at least become a higher rank of slave….

Then, one day, his master’s wife tries to seduce him. The story goes that Joseph was a very good looking young man, and like many young men is, well, not uninterested in sexual advances. Joseph knows it is wrong to sleep with his master’s wife, but, according to the midrash, he is, naturally, tempted.

How does he manage to refuse? According to a fascinating teaching by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger,

….there are two sorts of trials. One sort can be overcome by a person’s own efforts. The other trial is the greater one, in which sheer strength cannot be victorious at all. In a case like this, the pure desire and the honest and just heart of the righteous person allow choice to be removed all together, thus avoiding the trial. This is considered divine intervention.

This is what Joseph is really saying where in the Torah it is written, He refused, saying to his master’s wife: My lord knows nothing of that which I do in the house; all that is his he has placed in my hands (Gen. 39.8). G-d gives us choices in all we desire to do, asking only one thing of us: that we remember the yoke of G-d’s kingdom, recalling that all comes to us from G-d. This much we surely have to keep in mind.

Now understand this meaning within the words of Joseph: “…he [He] has kept nothing from me, except for you insofar as you are his wife.”

In this way Joseph was able to avoid having to choose; he remembered that choice itself is given by G-d. In this way, even though he could not overcome the temptation by his own strength, the pain he felt over this helped him to access G-d’s help in overcoming this trial.

This was our first preparation for exile, since Egypt contained within it all of our exiles. The essence of exile is that it makes for additional choice. If there were no need to choose, humanity would be truly free. When we are able to avoid choosing we will come to complete redemption.  

(from Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, p. 56-57)

Choosing, for the Sefat Emet, is a trial of exile – and exile is wandering, lost among competing claims for meaning, without an orienting compass to help distinguish between them, distant from a sense of certainty and a clear path. On this Shabbat, consider this insight into the halakha, the path of Jewish going. Its guidance may seem constricting, but within the certainties one is liberated from a basic level of choice. Consider the discipline of exercise; if you don’t have to waste time deciding if you’re going to, you’re already ahead. Similarly, What might you do with that extra energy if you weren’t using it deciding whether or not to do mitzvot?

Shabbat Shoftim: לא אנחנו ולו אנחנו

the Hebrew phrase in the title of this message is a play on words: lo anakhnu with an alef means “not we ourselves” and lo anakhu with a vav means “we are His”. This play on words comes from Psalm 100. In verse 3 it is written: “G-d has made us and not we ourselves”, but in the oral hearing of it, it can also sound as if we are saying “G-d has made us and we are His”. What does lo and lo have to do with the Torah this Shabbat, which, by the way, is the first Shabbat of the month of Elul?

 

Lo and lo, spelled lamed alef and lamed vav, are the four letters which spell Elul in Hebrew. “Not ourselves” and “we are His”. The Torah offers the same insight, as explored and interpreted by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Rabbi of the Sefat Emet, also known as the S’fas Emes in Eastern European Ashkenazi Yiddish inflection). We turn to it now, with one preliminary disclaimer:

 

Sorry about the gendered pronoun for G-d. It’s impossible to get around in this instance – but not impossible to rise above, which I invite you to do with me now.

 

This week’s parashat hashavua is Shoftim, “judges”. The first verse reads “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land.” The Sefat Emet suggests that we see these two terms as qualitatively different. A judge is one who thinks, considers, applies knowledge, and comes to a careful decision. Nothing is done by rote; each judgement is unique, even though we apply precedent to guide us. An officer is different; officers uphold law by enforcing it, often coercing a person to stand before a judge. Officers create the conditions for judgement, but they do not judge. 

 

This is a wonderful lesson for the beginning of Elul, the month of reflection and of preparation for the Days of Awe which conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement. Here we are at the beginning of Elul, and the Torah command to “appoint for yourselves judges and officers throughout your land”, applied to our own efforts at self-improvement (repentance, said in Jewish) means this: appoint, or create, within yourself two types of inner control, throughout your land, that is to say, your life. The two types of inner control are lo anakhnu with an alef, the officer that forces us to turn away from the material distractions of our lives, and lo anakhnu with a vav, which links us to G-d, the Source of all Life.

 

The more a person can negate the self (“not ourselves”) the closer that person can draw to G-d (“we are His”). These are the two parts of the service of G-d. First we have to negate [discipline] the body and the corporeal world. For this, we need officers who can force the body to change its ways, to “turn from evil” (Psalm 34.15). Then one can draw near to the Creator “and do good.” For this we need to be judges, to take hold [of G-d] with our minds…. Sefat Emet 5:72, trans. Rabbi Arthur Green

 

Yes, you can freely choose to eat all the ice cream you want, but that is not really free will. It’s the powerful control over us that the body has. Those who are recovering from abuse must be similarly careful not to give the body undue control over their lives as they recover; from either direction, privileging the body causes us to risk sinking into narcissism. Disciplining the body so that one can learn, consider, and hear the mind’s careful thinking, we reach the lo anakhnu, the true place of service to G-d, where we use our G-d-given brains to their fullest and best extent.

 

The month of Elul comes to remind us every year: not because of ourselves, but because we are G-d’s, we are precious, unique, and irreplaceable: when we set officers and judges over ourselves, we can fulfill our potential of being, truly, G-d’s gift to the world.

Pesakh: You Must Remember This

The following is a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet, a book of his insights into the parashat hashavua and also the Jewish holy days. This is an edited paraphrase of one of his Pesakh teachings:
 
Of Pesakh it says, “this day will be a remembrance for you” (Ex.12.14) and “so that you remember the day you came out of Egypt” (Deut.16.3), and “Keep the [holy days of] matzot” (Ex.12.17). Memory is a point within, one where there is no forgetfulness. It has to be “kept” i.e. guarded lest it flow into the place where forgetting occurs. That is why “keep” and “remember” are said in the same single utterance at Sinai.
Every Pesakh the Jew becomes like a newborn child again, just as we were when we came out of Egypt. The point of remembrance within us is renewed. That primal point within is like matzah, which is just the dough itself, simple, with no fermentation or expansion. On this holiday of matzot the inner point, simple, unchanging, pure, is renewed. We do the work of Pesakh when we fulfill the command “keep the [holy days of] matzot” by taking time to renew the point within, the point of memory. We ask questions of others who remember what we remember, what we need to remember in order to guard that inner flame that keeps and guards us, as we keep and guard it.
 
It is striking that in this teaching, it is very clear that human free will, and human agency, are vitally important to human wholeness. We are not meant to passively sit back and wait for Divine grace to shower down upon us, nor to spend all day praying for it. Abraham, the quintessential Jew, defines that identity by his act of moving forward into uncharted territory – purposeful movement toward meaning is itself part of the creation of that meaning. During Pesakh we are reminded that in order to become the Jewish People, the communal equivalent of Abraham’s journey had to be repeated. Once again we ventured forth, purposefully moving toward meaning, into an unknown future that we would summon by our own act of moving forward.
 
As it is said, nishmat adam ner Ad-nai, “the human soul is God’s candle”. As one Rabbinic commentary observed, it is as if God said to Abraham, “go, and light the way before Me.” As we move forward into the future, as we choose the acts that make our lives meaningful, we bring illumination not only to ourselves, but to God as well. We are partners in a Covenant that truly calls upon us to keep and guard the meaning of our people’s memories through our own actions – and the meaning of those memories will stand or fall upon our willingness to take on that responsibility.
 
May our acts bring the illumination of our memories to bless our shared future.
hag Pesakh sameakh v’kasher, may your Pesakh celebration be joyful and fit.