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!
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Shabbat Tzav: The Boss Of Me

You know what Reform Jews call it? The Ten Suggestions.

That joke lies at the heart of a quandary that all Liberal, Progressive, Modern and Post-Modern Jews share, including those of us who call ourselves Independent: Heteronomy vs. Autonomy. Or, in other words, obedience to something outside myself, vs. “you ain’t the boss of me”.

Heteronomy, “the state of being influenced or ruled by another,” means that I am obedient to something outside myself. 

Autonomy, “the state of freedom from external control or influence”, means that I am self-governing. 

This week’s parashah is called Tzav, “command”. It is the heart of the word mitvah, “commandment” or “obligation”, the very opposite of “suggestion”. Yet somewhere, we moderns decided that they are all, really, just that – optional suggestions. That is because our Western, modern world is founded philosophically against the Church of Europe, and holds up the ideal of a freedom that comes with autonomy. We Jews who live in the West have taken on that culture as our own. It sets up a rather fundamental conflict with Judaism, which is founded upon a heteronomous reality, in which we are committed to a Covenant relationship with a G*d who is m’tzaveh, giver of mitzvot, “commands”.

Autonomy is defined as a capacity for independent decision making, or, more often perhaps, “an inchoate desire for freedom in some area of one’s life”. As such, our culture is understood as being against heteronomy, which makes it, among other things, anti-religious. However, it is probably more accurate to define it as anti-religious institution, and anti-coercion. 

The funny thing about that is that the Who are still right: Meet the new Boss. Same as the old Boss.

The song is taken as cynical, perhaps, but it’s a cultural truth: none of us are really autonomous, and none of us is without a Boss – and yes, we will be fooled again, and again, into believing that we make our own decisions and have control over our lives. and we may indeed free ourselves from some identifiable influence or commander, but we will immediately seek out some other influence. Mass marketers know this and depend upon it, but so do leaders of mass movements. The question is not whether we are commanded, but are we aware of the commanding influences upon us?

Addiction? Anxiety? Fear? Ego? …. or Justice? Love? Compassion?

We are herd animals right down to our DNA. We cannot really live alone and independent of all others. That is the insights behind the midrash in which the G*d of the Israelites tells us I took you out of the slavery of Egypt; now you are free to serve Me. Out of this conundrum Isaiah Berlin created the concept of “freedom from” vs “freedom to”. We must first free ourselves of that which enslaves us. Only then can we choose that to which we will commit ourselves, with all the power of which we are capable in our empowered obedience to the highest possible ideal, rather than the lowest levels of temptation that entice us, scare us, and pull us down.

Tzav is a parashah that comes to ask you a very simple and profound question. What commands you? Are you proud of it? Can you do better?

Shabbat haGadol: Preparing for Today

This is the last Shabbat before we leave. Grab what you think you can take with you, we have no idea, really, what we’ll be facing, only that we’re leaving.

בכל דור ודור חייב אד לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים . In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.  (Mishnah Pesakhim 10:5)

This mitzvah, this obligation, is at the heart of our celebration of Pesakh, the Festival of Matzah. And on this last Shabbat before Pesakh we are to prepare, and to help each other to prepare. But here’s the paradox: the moment itself, should we reach it (may we reach it in peace!), will be something we cannot be prepared for.

How shall we be prepared for that which we cannot prepare for? The regular parashah this week, parashat Tzav, holds a clue to the answer. Among the directions for maintaining the newly established sacrificial system we find the following:

  אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה.

Fire shall be kept alight upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Lev. 6.6)

We find that the Jerusalem Talmud comments, “continually—even on Shabbat; continually—even in a state of spiritual unreadiness.” (PT Yoma 4.6)

In a very real way, this is still our daily work: to keep the fire burning. The mystics teach that every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary, within the soul of the Jew. Your heart, they teach, is that altar. Our most important task is to keep the fire – of passion, of love, of joy – burning. 

How do you prepare for the unknown that Pesakh commands us to face? by keeping your inner fire bright. That which you do to take care of that inner fire – even on Shabbat, even when you are distracted, bored, not “spiritually ready” – that will keep you prepared, even for that which you cannot imagine in your future.

In this context we note that the name here for the continually burning fire is eysh tamid, from which we get the ner tamid, that light in every Jewish sanctuary which is misunderstood as the Eternal Light. The only thing eternal about it is the regular daily dedication of those who were tasked with keeping it going, regularly, all the time! Once that was the priests on behalf of us all, but since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, we act according to the Torah’s teaching that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19.6). We are all priests now, and that fire’s regular light depends upon all of us to keep it going, not only for ourselves but for each other.

The Talmud records the teaching: “the one who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith.” (BT Eruvin 54a) This is not meant to encourage you against future planning – only to understand that essentially we cannot control tomorrow, but we can act upon today. Especially upon ourselves. Worry about yourself today, the Sages suggest, and you need not fear tomorrow. Keep that fire going for today. One day at a time. Right now.