Just as we began our celebration of Pesach/Passover about three weeks ago . . . the festival celebrating our redemption from Egyptian slavery . . . over 270 school girls in Nigeria were abducted from their boarding school. The terrorist leader who organized this mass kidnapping declared that the girls would be sold into slavery.
These girls need to be found and returned to their homes. Even if they were to be found this minute, it will be too late to spare them the agony of recovery from trauma, but at least they will be back in the embrace of the families who love them and who made the commitment to educate them (not a given in Nigeria).
When we gather in our synagogues around the world this Shabbat, we will be reading and discussing the parashah/Torah portion Behar. It is a Torah reading that poses profound challenges to us, especially this week, as we wait from day to day for news of the abducted Nigerian school girls. For this passage of Leviticus lays out the ground rules for the indentured servitude of Israelites and the slavery of non-Israelites. We have no choice but to acknowledge that the institution of slavery was a common and morally neutral economic reality in the ancient middle east.
However, the Israelite owner of a non-Israelite slave was permitted this relationship with very specific parameters which required care for the humanity and vulnerability of the slave. Thus, as Richard Elliott Friedman writes in his commentary on this week's parashah:
None of us watching the situation of the abducted Nigerian school girls believe that their humanity and dignity are being respected right now. We shudder to think of what is being done to them.
There is a principle of Jewish law that compels us to be as proactive as possible in bringing these girls back to safety, the mitzvah/commandment of פדיון שבויים / pidyon shvuyim / redeeming the captives. There is some controversy about the application of this imperative for it's roots are in the historic reality of the kidnapping of Jews for ransom over the years. Can we, therefore, consider it a mitzvah to redeem captive Nigerian school girls? Based on the writings of the great halachist [scholar of Jewish law] Rambam/Maimonides, I would say "yes":
We may wish that the US law enforcement experts could have arrived earlier, but at least they are there. What can we do, those of us who are not law enforcement experts on the ground?
There is so very much to be said about the religious significance of Passover: indeed, the event we mark during the festival, יציאת מצרים / y'tziyat mitzrayim / leaving Egypt, is such a core concept that we recall this moment of redemption at services every single day.
We pray that God will reach out and replicate that ultimate moment of redemption which saved us from Egyptian slavery and made possible the moment at Sinai during which we entered into the still in force covenant/brit that informs our daily relationship with God and with each other.
The seder experience reaches so deeply into the Jewish soul that everyone, secular, religious, affiliated and not affiliated, all seem to find themselves at the seder table. It is telling that the secular kibbutz movement has its own Haggadah, it's own source book for the seder night that reflects the significance of the journey from Egypt to the wilderness, from slavery to freedom, from the ideologically driven approach that there are Jews and there is no God. Search "haggadah" on Amazon and you'll find a bewildering variety of offerings: contemporary and traditional, feminist and interfaith and for kids and for scholars. Everyone has an investment in making the seder their own.
Jews who are far from their families, or who have lost their loved ones and are alone, find Passover particularly difficult, much more so than Hanukah or even Yom Kippur. We are all meant to be gathered around a table with the generations of our family to be sharing the story of who we are, how we came to be and hopefully, with children at the table, where we are going. It can be isolating to be a lone Jew on the eve of Passover.
Observant or not, the conclusion of Purim, a month before Passover, launches of flurry of seder placement activity: who is doing the inviting? who is being invited? who needs a seat at a table? It's like a game of musical chairs except that, God willing, there is a chair for everyone who needs one.
The principle of revisiting and re-experiencing that journey from slavery to freedom is compelling and the seder is brilliant because it is so experiential: we dab away the tears of slavery brought to our eyes by the bitter herb, we contemplate the cement-like charoset that, in its sweetness, hints at the promise of redemption, we chew the dry matzah and are humbled by the plenty that surrounds us and that little that so many others survive on.
But I think that what brings us to the seder table year after year is the need to touch base with who we are, to find that deeply-buried core of Jewish soul that needs nourishment once a year. I have attended and led seders in Israel and in the States, with family and with friends and as part of communal experiences, but if you say "seder" to me in a word association sort of exercise, the only place I will go is back to our family seder growing up. Listening to my grandfather sweetly chant the text of the Haggadah (which I try to replicate in at least one passage at every seder I go to), watching my grandmother toggle between the kitchen and my grandfather's side, the tiny little silver kiddush cups kept especially for my brother and me for the seder night . . . I need to revisit those seders to restore my soul.
Most of us have cherished seder recipes and aromas and melodies and stories that we bring to the table. And if we don't, then may we come together this year at seder to start creating them. The seder is a touchstone experience for us as Jews, a Jewish-soul-confirming journey that moves us to the core whether we are observant or affiliated or secular or engaged.
This week I'm writing about what the weekly parashah/Torah reading is not about! This final passage in the book of Sh'mot / Exodus describes the finishing touches to the priestly vestments. Moses checks that everything has been prepared according to God's instructions and God's presence fills the Tabernacle for the first time. All is ready for the establishment of the sacrificial cult, kohein/priest-driven, which will serve as the focal point of Israelite worship until the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.
If ever there was Jewish clergy, in the sense of an intercessor between God and the people, who facilitated atonement, who held exclusive authority to perform rites and wear specific vestments it was the kohanim, the priests, the male descendents of Aaron. If all of Israelite experience, up until the destruction of the Second Temple, had centered around the sacrificial cult, there would be no Judaism, which is rabbinic Judaism, today. The Temple would have been destroyed and without the focal point of that sacrificial system, the Israelites would easily have been dispersed and absorbed into the surrounding cultures of the Roman Empire around them.
So what saved us? What was the safety net that caught us when the Temple fell?
The saving grace of our people was a populist movement that had begun to develop almost two centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: the rabbinic movement had begun. The existence of scholars who were not kohanim/priests is extraordinary in a general culture in which the leaders of pagan cultic worship held the esoteric texts and practices of their faiths in closely guarded, limited circles. The general population had no access to the most sacred texts and instructions.
But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses decrees that everyone, men, women, children, will all have direct access to the Torah, the Instruction of God:
Everyone needs to learn, everyone needs direct access to the Torah. Extraordinary.
Those who came together to study and discuss Torah, while the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, were a populist movement. The Torah describes these men: wealthy and poor, landowners and shoemakers, with one thing in common: a commitment to exploring the depths of the Torah and making sure that the precepts of the Torah were being faithfully followed in a location and culture and economy significantly different from the place and language and culture and economy of the nomadic wandering generations who were present at Sinai. These scholars asked each other questions: What does this word mean now? How do we fulfill this mitzvah in this time and place? How do we integrate this piece of new realia into the framework of the Torah?
It is a conversation that continues until this very day on many levels . . . including, and most important, among "the men and the women and the infants", not just the scholars, not just the rabbis, but everyone who is part of the community.
There are lots of Jewish "things to do" . . . pray, give tzedakah/charity, support the institutions of the Jewish community, support one another through illness and bereavement, chose to keep the dietary laws of kashrut . . . but the Mishnah (the earliest layer of rabbinic text redacted in the 2nd century CE) declares that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם / Talmud Torah kneged kulam / the study of Torah stands equally with all the other Jewish practices and observes combined. It's a bold statement. The traditional understanding has been that it is through the study of Torah that we will learn how and why and be inspired to pray, give tzedakah, support the community, take part in the community and deepen our individual Jewish identities.
The world of Jewish learning covers as wide a spectrum as the human experience itself . . . jewish learning leads to Jewish living. And Jewish living also covers a wide spectrum of identity and lifestyle and commitment.
It is for these reasons that the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island is offering our first public event: an evening of eclectic Jewish learning. Drash and Dessert. "Drash" is the Hebrew term for the exploration and interpretation of Torah. "Dessert", well that's self-explanatory: Jews come together and there has to be food, yes?
We are proud and inspired by the wide variety of topics on offer at our Drash and Dessert event tomorrow evening after Shabbat. Whether you have sent in an rsvp or not, we hope you will join us. Click here to see the full program including time table and descriptions of our 14 different study sessions involving 16 members of our Board of Rabbis!
This week's parashah/ Torah reading, Ki Tissa, doesn't offer much tranquility . . . as we have gone from meteorological storm to meteorological storm this week, our ancient ancestors in the wilderness underwent emotional storm after emotional storm.
Moses, descending from Sinai, shatters the Tables of the Covenant just created by God. Fury, frustration, incomprehension are all packed into this moment.
In the aftermath, God tersely instructs the Israelites that they will embrace and adhere to the following:
For you shall not bow down to another god---because Adonay: His name is Jealous, He is a jealous God--that you not make a covenant with the resident of the land . . . .You shall not make molten gods for yourself. You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, which I commanded you . . . Every first birth of a womb is Mine, and all your animals that have a male first birth, ox or sheep. You shall redeem every firstborn of your sons. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Six days you shall work, and in the seventh day you shall cease: In plowing time and in harvest, you shall cease. And you shall make a Festival of Weeks, of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year. . . . You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice on leavened bread. You shall bring the first of the firstfruits of you land to the house of Adonay your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (excerpted from Sh'mot/Exodus 34: 14-26, Friedman translation)
This has a ring of the Aseret Hadibrot / Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments of course. Especially in the opening strictures of not bowing down to another God and not making molten images. Clearly, at the moment, these commandments needed repeating: the people had just contravened exactly these commandments in their building and worshipping the golden calf.
The rest of the list is interesting and does depart from the familiar Ten Commandments list:
The unique place of the firstborn of animals and humans as dedicated to God.
The stricture against blood sacrifice.
The first fruits offering.
The prohibition against cooking meat in milk.
The list is quite different from the Ten Commandments list in that the theme of mitzvot guiding the relationship among humans is missing, the "mitzvot bein adam l'havero" commandments between one person and another: there is not "you shall not steal," "you shall not murder," "honor your father and your mother," . . . Every mitzvah on this post-golden calf list is in the category of "bein adam lamakom", "between a person and God." These are mitzvot about our relating to God.
In contemplating this list, it strikes me that this is a list of mitzvot that place our consciousness of our relationship to God before us on an ongoing basis. These are mitzvot that are scattered throughout our day, our week, our year, guiding us to constantly keep in mind that we are in relationship with God at all times.
God has learned, the hard way, that among the frailties of human beings we must count short memories and lack of confidence. After the glory of the redemption at the Sea of Reeds, the awe of the revelation at Sinai . . . within weeks we were building an idol and looking to worship it. Anathema to God and a complete dismissal of the commitment (na'aseh v'nishma . . . we will do, we will obey) we had made at Sinai.
Ours is a tradition that puts our relationship with God before us all day, every day, in a multitude of ways. Ours is not a one-day-a-week tradition or a tradition that can easily be pigeon-holed. Judaism is at its richest and most meaningful and most inspiring when we engage with it every day.
This week's parashah / Torah reading, Tetzaveh, finds us in the midst of an enterprise begun last week in which God instructs Moses about the Mishkan/Tabernacle to be constructed as a focal point of the ritual relationship between God and Israel. This week, Aaron and his sons are appointed as kohanim/priests in charge of the ritual sacrificial system and as part of this discussion, God describes the vestments that Aaron and his sons are to wear as they perform their priestly duties.
From time to time, I have the privilege of participating in interfaith functions with my clergy colleagues from all over the faith map. Often, the instructions we receive include a note to wear vestments. This leaves me, my fellow rabbis and our friends the imams, in our rather bland professional clothing as our Christian clergy friends show up looking glorious in their colorful, dramatic vestments. At times like this, I admit to "vestment envy."
Rabbis are considered teachers rather than a priestly class invested with esoteric powers endowed with ordination (like the power to grant absolution, for example). The rich vestments worn by Aaron and his male progeny were not worn by Moses, since Moses' role was not a ritual one.
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the kohanim/priests lost the unique stage upon which they fulfilled their roles in offering daily sacrifices on behalf of the people and facilitating the personal thanks, purification, festival and atonement sacrifices individuals might bring. Since the destruction of the Second Temple there has not been a unique Jewish clerical uniform or vestment.
During the rabbinic period, a type of turban-like headress, called a "sudar", was associated with sages and scholars. Perhaps something like the headress on this classic rendering of Maimonides reproduced on an Israeli stamp...
In largely Christian medieval Europe, Jews lived in tight-knit communities. Medieval manuscript illuminations, like the one above, from a 14th century manuscript from Zurich, depicts a unique-shaped hat (on the right) that was associated with Jews.
For the most part, Jews have blended in and have adopted the dress and style of the surrounding culture.
Jewish tradition does not talk about a medieval Jew's hat or an 18th century Polish nobleman's fur hat . . . but it does set guidelines for us regarding how Jews should dress.
The guiding verse regarding the way a Jewish person should walk through the world comes from the prophet, Micah (6:8):
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-ה׳ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
It hath been told you, Adam, what is good, and what Adonay requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Walking with humility with God, in Jewish terms, has come to mean dressing modestly . . . avoiding dressing seductively; making sure to dress appropriately for the occasion, not dressing extravagantly or flashily. Although, in certain circles, the discussion of modest dress seems to focus most on women, the truth is that this standard of moving through the world with appropriate humility applies to both men and women.
The glorious vestments described in this week's Torah reading were only meant for the kohanim/priests as they fulfilled their unique roles in sustaining the sacrificial cult of the desert Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. None of us, rabbi, scholar, Jew-in-the-pew should aspire to so much "bling." Our challenge is to walk with humility with God in our world, expressed through our dress and our attitude.
This Shabbat our weekly Torah reading brings us to the very beginning of the second book of the Torah: Sh'mot/Exodus.
We are going to witness and relive some of the greatest moments in our history as we read our way, parasha by parasha, portion by portion, through this second book of Torah.
Right at the beginning of the parasha we see the Israelites referred to, for the very first time, as עם "ahm," "nation". This is in contrast to the Israelites at the end of the book of Breishit/Genesis who were an extended family related through Jacob's progeny. Now, in Sh'mot, the Israelites are a confederation of twelve tribes and are considered by their Egyptian neighbors to be a force to be reckoned with.
We will quickly become engaged in the quagmire and heartbreak of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the evolution of Moses from foundling to prince, from prince to refugee, from refugee to shepherd and from shepherd to national leader and God's collaborator. The sea will part. The Torah will be revealed at Sinai. The Golden Calf will emerge and enrage. The Tabernacle/Mishkan will be constructed in the wilderness and preparations will be made for the establishment of the first stage of Israelite religion: the sacrificial cult.
We will emerge at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, as a people bound to God through the salvation of Israel from Egypt and through the brit, the covenant forged between Israel and God at Sinai. Our lives will be informed by ethical, ritual, spiritual and moral mitzvot/commandments . . . through this second book of Torah we revisit our roots and our core values. By examining our beginnings as a people our appreciation for the wisdom and the richness of our tradition deepens.
Twice a day our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to recite the following verse (part of the compilation from the Psalms we call "ashrei"). As I contemplate the spiritual journey that awaits us in the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, this verse comes to mind:
Ashrei ha'am she'Adonay elohav אשרי העם שה׳ אלהיו
Blessed are the people whose God is Adonay.
The site of Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in June 2012
This week, we read a double parashah, two Torah portions are linked together: Behar and Behukotai. These two readings are comprised of the final chapters of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Vayikra has been a bit of a hiatus from the Sh'mot/Exodus narrative flowing from leaving Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle . . . and leading to the book of Bamidar/Numbers in which we will journey along with the wilderness generations of our ancestors to the end of the Torah itself.
The final verse of the first of this week's parshiot/portions reads thus:
"You shall keep my Sabbaths and honor in awe My sanctuary, I am Adonay."
Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in May 2013 on the eve of our first Shabbat service.
This coming Shabbat, our Torat Yisrael family will gather in our new sanctuary for the first time. We will carry our Torah scrolls from our interim space in the accommodating TY Middle Road house (we've been a "close-knit" community this year, for sure!) with song and praise and will deposit our scrolls in the temporary ark lovingly constructed for us by instructor Bill Scott and the Amos House Carpentry Class.
This is most certainly a week to contemplate how to honor God's sanctuary in awe.
Through all the many meetings and conversations and consultations and impossible-to-count volunteer hours that have been devoted to the goal of bringing our Torat Yisrael congregation to this moment, we have always kept in mind the purpose of this building. For the purpose of our beautiful new synagogue building is not just to exist for its own sake, but to provide foster the Jewish learning, worship, celebration and community growth of the members and friends of Temple Torat Yisrael.
The contemporary Jewish scholar and theological, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: "What does it mean to identify oneself as a Jew? The most obvious first answer is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as that may seem. There is no basic set of meaningful principles on which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.
Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.
Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.
Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.
What we are is a family. We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel.
We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another.
We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family." (Pebbles of Wisdom)
I find Rabbi Steinsaltz's image of the Jewish people as a family very compelling . . . . As an international family or a nuclear family or a communal family, like Torat Yisrael, we will always have differences of opinion, shared aspirations, a variety of talents to contribute and the desire to turn to family at times of challenge, grief and joy.
When we walked out of our 60 year old Torat Yisrael home on Park Avenue thirteen months ago, I spoke about how wrenching it is to leave the "family home" in which so many of us had celebrated, found spiritual inspiration, shared and forged close friendships, learned and grown as Jews.
Now the doors are opening to our new spiritual home and beginning this Shabbat we will again have a home in which to embed new "family" memories.
How do we honor God's sanctuary in awe? By filling this space with our presence, by coming to learn and play and pray, by coming to thank God and support our friends and "kvell" over our growing children. As much as the wilderness Tabernacle was treasured by our ancestors because God's presence among the people was so deeply a source of honor and promise, I'd suggest that our presence in Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary is our most effective means of honoring God in awe. Our family's journey to East Greenwich is complete. . . . and that, to me, is a source of awe and pride and gratitude.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
Our seder night is a brilliantly crafted experience: we are surrounded by evocative smells and flavors, melodies and pictures, all designed to draw us in to the journey from slavery to freedom. Horseradish brings to our eyes tears like those of our slave ancestors. We conclude with joyous verses of praise to God for reaching into the black hole of Egyptian bondage and pulling us to the safety of the far shore of the sea of reeds.
One sentence in the Haggadah expresses the soul of this night:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In each and every generation, each person is obligated to see him/herself as if he/she came out of Egypt.
In North African Jewish communities and in India, it was customary to pass the k'arah [seder plate] over the heads of everyone at the table in a circular motion. Encompassing all gathered in the historic experience. It was an acknowledgment that as the world turns, first we were slaves, then we became free. www.myjewishlearning.com)
The most moving collection of seder customs I have ever experienced was in Jerusalem. One year, I was asked to lead the seder at a battered women's shelter in the neighborhood in which I lived and led a congregation. Women and children from Russia and Morroco and Israel and England and Ethiopia and the United States and France and Argentina all sat together at the same seder table. Only the common denominator of having suffered violence at the hands of husbands and boyfriends and fathers could have created such a miscellaneous and yet homogenous group of people. The women had prepared the seder meal in the shelter's communal kitchen. Each woman had volunteered for a dish: soup, desserts, main dishes, side dishes . . . a Morrocan woman had said that she wanted to make her grandmother's special "seder soup." Everyone was delighted, until an Ashkenazic housemate strolled by the pot, lifted the lid and stirred and asked: "aifo hak'naidlach?" (Where are the matzah balls?). The Morrocan soup-chef asked "What's a matzah ball?" and that started a whole rebellion! All the Ashkenazic women ganged up protested: How can there be a seder without matzah balls? They came to a perfect solution: one of the Ashkenazic women taught the Morrocan woman how to make knaidlach and when we got to the soup course, our Morrocan soup-maker proudly ladled us each a bowful of her grandmother's seder soup with an Ashkenazic matzah ball floating in the middle!
Passover is absolutely about the journey: for these women and children, on their own journey from oppression to a new life of self-determination, that seder night was particularly evocative. We all saw ourselves as if we each had left from Egypt . . . and found some very moving milestones along the way.
"The Song at the Sea"
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is referred to, in the Jewish calendar, as Shabbat HaGadol / the Great Shabbat.
With so much time and energy devoted to preparation for Passover, one might wonder why we need a Great Shabbat right now. What makes this Shabbat so great?
Historically, when the role of the community rabbi was conceived differently, Shabbat HaGadol was one of very few Sabbaths during which the rabbi would give a major D'var Torah, a major sermon. The subject for this particular Shabbat was meant to be the ins and outs of Passover observance, in order to ensure that there would be no chametz found anywhere within the defined boundaries of the community.
Today, a Great Shabbat might be one in which the rabbi does not give a major D'var Torah! Sermon or no, I suggest that there is still something Great about this Shabbat.
Many of us are engaged in preparing for Passover. We're finishing up the crackers and vacuuming behind the couch. Those of us who are hosting seders are polishing the silver and hunting out last year's hit recipes.
All of this physical preparation is very absorbing, and it's pretty easy to get fixated on the small details of cleaning, shopping, switching out dishes and cooking. The huge spiritual gift that is Passover can easily get lost among the kugels.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol is Gadol, this is the greatness of the Great Shabbat: the essence of Shabbat as a day of rest provides us with a well-deserved hiatus from the shopping and chopping. Shabbat HaGadol is a day to anticipate the spiritual high of the seder. Anyone who has planned a wedding or a bat mitzvah or a fiftieth wedding anniversary party knows that the profound simchah at the heart of the celebration can easily get lost as we focus on the logistics.
The simchah of Passover is much too important; Shabbat HaGadol helps us shift our focus back to the reason for all the preparations: the simchah we celebrate on Passover is the unique, momentous moment of "yitziat mitzrayim." God, "with an outstretched arm" reached across the borders of the ancient world to scoop us up out of slavery and set us down on the safe side of the Sea of Reeds. We looked back and, like the young couple in the painting above, we rejoiced. We sang, we danced, we thanked God for this profound act of love.
When we gather this week at the seder table, amid the shining kiddush cups and the steaming matzah balls, we will, God willing, revel in the love around the table shared with our family and friends . . . and we will, because God willed it, sing and rejoice and remember that the core of our identity as a people is rooted in God's love.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.