Monthly Archives: March 2021

Feel the Love this Pesah: Shabbat HaGadol 5781

What’s love got to do with it? We are accustomed to thinking of Passover as the festival of freedom, of liberation from enslavement, the march from Mitzrayim to Sinai, and on to the Land of Israel and national independence. The themes of Passover are those of justice, moral purpose, resilience and strength. Its foods symbolize toughness—flat breads for the road, maror and salt water to remind us of our bitter experiences, haroset to approximate the mortar the ancient slaves used to build edifices for their oppressors. Many of its melodies are survival songs, not celebrations of plenty. Yes, we relax into the seder, reclining and eventually eating and drinking luxuriously, but it is the meal of survivors, akin almost to the se’udat havra’ah eaten by mourners after a loss. What’s love got to do with it?

Love is the hidden emotion in Pesah,  but it is there if you seek it. Our greatest love poem, the Song of Songs, has been associated with Passover for well over a millennium. Tractate Sofrim, a composition from the land of Israel edited around the 8th century, remarks that it is chanted on the final two nights of the festival, but does not provide a reason. Later texts such as Sefer Abudraham (Spain, 13c) provide a link between the Song and Passover. In Chapter 1, verse 9, the male lover states, “I have likened you, my darling, to a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots” לְסֻסָתִי בְּרִכְבֵי פַרְעֹה דִּמִּיתִיךְ רַעְיָתִי. We must admit that this link feels tenuous, and one wonders how it even works as a romantic image. True, other ancient texts from Greece and Arabia likewise compare beautiful women to horses (for example Helen of Troy in Theocritus, and Lyde in Horace’s Odes–See Marvin Pope’s 1970 essay).

Michael Fishbane prepares us for the oddity of the Song’s romantic imagery, here comparing a young woman to a fancy horse, but advises, “a modern reader must pause and let the images have their primary effect—which is to create a strong sensual association between a feature of the human body and the world of nature (animals and topography). In so doing, one must try to cultivate a literary competence that appreciates the sensibilities of a shepherd’s heart over the theological sense of the (modern) interpreting mind” (JPS commentary, Introduction xxvi). There you have it—Passover challenges our imaginations, not only to experience enslavement despite our own happier circumstances, but also to feel love as it may have seemed to an ancient shepherd.

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Confessions of Joy: Vayikra 5781

The Hebrew word “semikhah” in various forms alludes to drawing close, leaning into or supporting another, or laying on of hands. In that purposeful contact there is a transfer of energy and the establishment of connection between two living beings. When Moses lays hands on Joshua, he confers spiritual power, ordaining Joshua as his successor. Like one candle lighting another, there is no sense of diminishment in the power of Moses as he ordains Joshua.

At other times, however, the practice of semikhah (or the transitive hasmakhah) is understood to transfer a quality from one being to another. This week we read that the priest is to lay hands on the burnt offering, “that it may be acceptable on his behalf, in expiation for him” (Lev. 1:4, trans. NJPS). How exactly does this work? It seems from another context, Lev. 16:21, that physical contact was not the only component of the ritual. There was also a spoken intention, a confession of sin, that effected the transfer of negative energy, allowing for the priest and the community that he served to achieve atonement.

This brings us to the role of confession in the ritual offering. One would expect to find this verbal pairing only with regard to the hattat, or purification offering (and the similar asham). After all, the other sacrifices such as olah and minhah are about dedication, while the shelamim are about thanksgiving. For such offerings it would seem that confession is inappropriate. And yet, our text about the burnt offering implies a confession even if it is not explicit. Moreover, in Second Chronicles 30:22, we are told that in the days of King Hezekiah the Levites offered sacrifices of well-being (shelamim) and “confessed to the Lord.” Maimonides understands this not to be so much a confession (for wrong doing) but rather an expression of praise. But it is the same word!

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The Festival of Education: Shabbat HaHodesh 5781

Passover is sometimes called “the festival of education” (חג החינוך). I have been unable to find this expression in pre-modern sources, but it accords with classic rabbinic approaches to the holiday. For our sages the art of pedagogy includes multi-sensory inputs of sight, sound, touch and taste, as well as differentiated instruction for various learning styles, as seen in the questions of the four children.

The sages imagined Moses as a student struggling to understand the very first commandment that he receives in Exodus 12:2, “this month is the first of months for you, for the months of the year,” until God provides a visual cue. The word “this” (הזה) is understood by the Rabbis to imply a visual image. In Mekhilta D”RY we learn that Moses struggles to understand how to declare the new moon until God, as it were, points it out in the sky.

The Talmud (RH 20a) asks rhetorically whether later sages might fix the calendar by adding a day to the month just as they do by adding a second month of Adar seven out of every nineteen years. It immediately rejects this possibility based on our verse—when you see the new moon in the sky, you must declare the new month without delay. This implies that education requires a reality check—there is a danger that bookish learning can draw the student away from natural phenomena. The appearance of the moon in the sky impels a ritual response. Therefore, the sages need to station themselves outside to examine the night sky, and not seclude themselves entirely from the natural world.

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Purification after Violence: Parah 5781

Tony Hicks was fourteen years old in 1995 when he shot and killed a college student named Tariq Khamisa in a gang-related robbery. Hicks was convicted of murder, and was imprisoned until 2019, but meanwhile something quite unusual occurred. Five years after the crime, Tariq’s father Azim visited Tony in prison, and gradually the two men became friends. It took another fifteen years, but eventually Tariq’s sister Tasreen also visited Tony in prison, in 2015. They too became close friends. You can hear their own description of the first meeting in a new episode of Storycorps. It is now 26 years since Tony’s terrible crime, and the painful loss that he caused remains forever. And yet reconciliation of Tariq’s family with his killer has proven redemptive in all of their lives. Tony says that getting to know Tasreen’s children—the nephews and nieces of the man he killed before they were born—adds layers of sorrow for his terrible mistake. But layers of forgiveness have also accrued, allowing all of them to grow in their humanity, to honor the memory of Tariq Khamisa.

I tell this story by way of introducing Shabbat Parah, the week when we are commanded to read Numbers 19, the description of the red heifer ritual. I understand Parah as an antidote to Zakhor, the special Shabbat preceding Purim when we are commanded to remember the vile attack of Amalek, and paradoxically, to wipe out the memory of the very people we are remembering. Zakhor is a Shabbat dedicated to remembering and combatting evil. If Amalek murdered Israelites, then Israelites should wreak revenge by killing Amalekites, as Samuel does with King Agag in the haftarah, and Mordecai does with Haman and his sons in the Megillah. There is a cruel realism to this commandment—genocidal hatred remains in the world, and this fact requires recognition, remembrance and forceful response.

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