Shabbat Metzora: Take a Breath Before You Commit

Ever since just before Purim we’ve been encountering a series of special Shabbatot which are meant to get our attention and focus us upon the fact that Pesakh is coming. There is much to do to greet the Festival appropriately: house cleaning, Seder planning, tzedakah giving…. there are so many details and such a rush (and sometimes, such family dynamics) that it might remind you of the preparation before a wedding day.

And that, of course, leads to a midrash offered by the Rabbi Leibele Eiger, a disciple of the Ishbitzer Rabbi (who wrote the popular Torah commentary Mei Shiloakh). He writes that this Shabbat, unlike last week and unlike next week, is not one of the Arba Parshiyot, the weeks of the special “four Parshas” that we read in the run-up to Pesakh.  This Shabbat has no special extra designation; it is Shabbat Metzora, a regular Torah reading. For that reason it is known as Shabbat Penuyah, the “open”, or “uncommitted” Shabbat.

Rabbi Eiger points out that the word penuyah can also be translated “turning”, and as “single woman”. In these grammatical nuances he weaves a vision of us as a woman turning away from a former life and toward the Covenant, even as the people of Israel turned toward G-d and at Sinai entered into the Covenant as a woman enters the huppah. G-d is our partner, goes the midrash, and we are meant to live in G-d’s presence in joy and unconditional love – and complete commitment.

But first we have to be ready, to prepare ourselves, to take the time to let the ritual mean what it can mean for us. And that is what this Shabbat, I suggest, might usefully offer us. Shabbat Penuyah, the “free” Shabbat, can be designated by us the Transition Shabbat: the pause before the Big Day, a necessary moment to breathe between the preparations and the ritual itself.

When I officiate at a wedding, I require of the couple that they write me a letter telling me why they are getting married to the person they love. They are not to write it far in advance, but during the week before the wedding, when they are the most hassled by the myriad details and family dynamics and things that go wrong. It provides a moment for a deeper thinking, and feeling, about what is about to happen to their lives.

Before this Pesakh, take time to experience the transition offered you: between winter and spring, between darkness and light, between bare trees and blossoms – what does it evoke in your own soul? what does it feed in your own spiritual experience? Check in with yourself, and figure out where you are standing. Only then can you turn, with your community, toward a deeper sense of G-d’s presence, and what it really means for you to be part of this Jewish people.

parashat hashavua: Shelakh-L’kha: They Might Be Giants

This week’s parashah teaches about the challenge of going forth into uncharted territory. This, of course, is what we face all the time; but many of us fear it, avoid it, and do a bad job of coping with it despite the experience we all have of change in our lives. 

High school seniors look at college freshman as giants; a new apprentice or trainee sees the seasoned workers around her in the same way. The new toy may be attractive, but the new reality creates anxiety and fear. So it was for our ancestors when they reached the edge of the Promised Land, as the Torah records this week in parashat Shelakh. 

Yes; this week. If only we had made the crossing here, the book of Numbers would end now. But we did not make the crossing. We peered in from a distance,and as a first step, we sent scouts to do reconnaissance. They reported:

And they showed them the fruit of the land. “We came unto the land to which you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey, but the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; …. ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.  And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'”(Numbers 13.26-33, excerpted)

We seemed like grasshoppers to ourselves next to those giants; we can’t possibly go in there! Note that the Torah calls it “an evil report” – why? certainly the scouts are only being cautious, and pointing out the possible difficulties on the way. Isn’t it best to be conservative when dealing with the unknown?

The answer given by Torah commentators and interpreters is that it depends on the unknown; and in the final analysis, it depends on your faith. G-d had already assured the people of Israel that they would be able to enter the land, but when the scouts asserted that they could not, the Israelites, moved by their fear of the unknown, chose the fearful option, rather than the faithful one. They were not ready to take a leap of faith and trust G-d; they were not ready to be free people. They still had a slave mentality.

It’s still true that we are sometimes required to step into uncharted territory in our personal lives and in the life of our community. There are really only two choices about how to react to the unknown future into which we must move: either with fear, or with faith. In the case of this parashah, fear bought our ancestors thirty-eight more years of wandering, after which they came to the exact same place and were confronted with the exact same reality. The only thing that had changed in the meantime was them, and their ability, finally, to make that leap of faith.

They might be giants; but so will we be when we act with faith – with love, a willingness to learn, and most of all, to see ourselves as more than grasshoppers.