This week we have commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Survivors came out from hiding, from the forests where they had been fighting in the resistance and from the camps of horror from which they had been liberated. While finally free, they were not fully safe – thousands were murdered upon return to their homes. Liberation led them to discover the losses they had suffered, often the only ones left alive from hundreds of members of their families. To this day, we struggle how to process this tragedy, this affront to humanity.

With this background, we read Parasha Sh’mini, telling of events just months after the Exodus from Egypt. After liberation from slavery, our people have also stood at Sinai, experiencing the presence of God and the learning of Torah, and have erected the Tabernacle exactly according to the instructions given to Moses. The book of Exodus ends on a glorious and harmonious note echoing the beauty and order of the story of creation with which the book of Genesis opens. Leviticus, the third book of the Torah opens with a discussion of the service of the priests in the Tabernacle. Parashat Sh’mini opens with the ordination of the priests and the dramatic dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. This is the pinnacle of our people’s experience since the time our ancestors have been promised to be a great nation in the holy land. It is the moment where “the glory of God” will appear to them.

Just at the height of the ceremony, being conducted by Aaron’s four sons, two of them, Nadav and Abihu, die suddenly. The community is in shock. Some try to blame, some try to explain. In fact, for thousands of years there has been much rabbinic commentary analysing the event. Some blame Nadav and Avihu for doing something wrong, from being transgressors who have been punished with death. And others speak of them as being so holy that at this exquisite moment they leave their bodies behind, their souls ascending directly to God. Aaron remains silent.

Silence is sometimes the best and most authentic response. After the Shoah, as with the death of Nadav and Abihu, there were also many who jumped in to offer their explanations of the event. There were rabbis who said punishment occurred because of the sins of the people; there were others who said “God was dead”. Perhaps more than an explanation of “why” it is important to remember the book by Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When tragedies occur, it is better not to explain with words, but to respond with deeds.

At this time, when recall the horror of the Shoah and bear witness to this day of the horrific deeds continually perpetrated by humanity, we should recall our obligations: to comfort those who are bereaved and to protect with justice those who are still persecuted. There is a time to speak with deeds, not words.

In 1846, a group of rabbis convened in Breslau to debate various reforms to Judaism. Among the numerous issues under discussion was the length of Pesach and the other festivals. Why was this an issue? Regarding Pesach, the Book of Exodus states:

This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to God throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread… You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all should be done on them.”

(Exodus 12:14–16)

It seems pretty clear that Pesach was to be observed for seven days.

However, with time, as with all the chagim, Pesach became extended. Our early sages decided that this was necessary as Jews began to spread out through the diaspora. In ancient times each new month of our lunar calendar was determined by observation. Witnesses would testify that they had seen the new moon to judges in Jerusalem. Once the judges verified the correct phase of the moon, a pronouncement about the start of the month was sent out to communities throughout the Land of Israel. However, it would take far too much time for the information to reach communities of Jews outside of Israel. Therefore an extra day was added to the observance of Passover and the other festivals for Jews living outside of Israel in order to prevent people from accidentally beginning or ending too soon.

Today, and throughout history, everyone in Israel observes Pesach for seven days. However, outside of Israel, the eight-day custom of observance has remained, even after the switch was made to a calculated calendar in the fourth century. The Babylonian Talmud (Beitzah 4b) advises Diaspora Jews to maintain the “the custom of your ancestors” and continue the practice of extended festivals, just in case the knowledge of how to calculate the calendar is somehow forgotten.

Which brings us back to our rabbis in 1846. At the Breslau conference the reformers, reflecting on the technological advancements that allowed for a clearly fixed universal calendar, concluded that “The second days of the holidays… have no longer any significance for our time according to our religious sources… Therefore, if any congregations abolish some or all of these second days, they… are thoroughly justified in their act.” With this determination, a return to the biblical seven days of Pesach became standard practice within Progressive and Liberal communities throughout the diaspora, while traditional diaspora communities maintained the rabbinic eight days of the festival.

Ultimately, each of us decides what is right and meaningful for our families and ourselves. But, in this case, we have two options which each maintain the full authenticity of our tradition, both biblical and rabbinic. So, for how long will you be eating matzah?

As we gather around our Seder tables this Shabbat, we will be celebrating humanity’s oldest festival championing freedom. We have told it for thousands of years and hundreds of generations, and now, “let my people go” has become a catch phrase for all on this planet who still suffer — and we must recognize that there is still far too much suffering on this planet, especially for women sold into slavery and children forced into war. In our own country, we continue to put into detention unaccompanied children who crossed the border flying away from gang violence. Around the world, minorities suffer; domestic violence and child abuse plagues us. These are just some of the larger problems we all face on this planet before redemption -peace and freedom for all – comes. But nothing will change unless we change our ways, reflected in the stories we tell and the deeds we do. This is true on the universal scale, as well as the national and personal.

As Jews, we have a specific narrative of redemption that derives from the traditions of the Torah and our prophets. There are five promises of redemption originally foretold to Moshe, just after his encounter with God at the burning bush, italicised in this following Torah:

I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord.”

(Exodus 6:6-8).

The Etz Chayim Torah commentary states: “The stages of Redemption: ‘I will free you’ from physical enslavement in Egypt; ‘I will deliver you’ from the psychological mindset of being a slave, which might persist even after you have been physically liberated; ‘I will redeem you’ so that you will think of yourselves as free people; and ‘I will take you’ into a special relationship with Me, for that is the ultimate goal of your liberation. Finally, ‘I will bring you into the land which I swore to give Abraham’. Only when the Israelites have their own land can they become the special people they are summoned to be. Only there will they have the duty and the opportunity to translate the ideals of the Torah into the realities of daily life and fashion the model society from which all nations will be able to learn.”

(Etz Chayim Commentary, page 352).

This is our story, and we need to look at it closely. In the Pesach Haggadah we know we drink four glasses of wine for the first four promises of redemption, as mandated in Chapter 10 of the Mishnah of Pesach. Over time the fifth cup of Elijah has been added to our Seder tables, heralding the “messianic time” when we will be brought into our land. Our story of redemption, as told through the symbols of Pesach, as reiterated daily in our Amidah, as highlighted through so many other rituals and teachings for 2,000 years, centres on our return to our land as a free people. We have returned to our land, but the cup of Elijah remains undrunk, for redemption is not yet complete. According to the story we have told, the highlight of our redemption is the rebuilding of Jerusalem (that is why we all conclude Seder night singing “Next year in Jerusalem”), including the construction of the Third Temple. Until last century, this narrative held us together as a people. Now that we live that narrative, with our successful return to our land and rebuilding of Jerusalem, we must ask, when will redemption come and what do we mean by being a model nation? How we answer this question has real implications for our people, in the land and around the world that will be lived out in the years ahead.

The literal received tradition of thousands of years of tradition indicates we should have exclusive sovereignty over the land of Israel, including all of Jerusalem, where we should rebuild the Third Temple. How are we to deal with the other peoples who have migrated to the land these last two thousand years, establishing religious shrines and centres of their own? Irrespective of all the complications regarding the issues of Shia-Sunni conflicts, or the Palestinian Arab question itself, we as a people must first come to terms with how we will read and tell our narrative of redemption. In a nutshell, we will be challenged with which comes first – peace or the rebuilding of the Third Temple? The answer to that question will not guarantee that peace can be achieved for our people in our land, for there are many other factors that come into play. But how we answer that question indicates how we understand our story and how we wish to transmit our narrative for the generations who follow us.

At the same time, we cannot become so consumed with a narrow reading of our own narrative that we forget the suffering of others around the world. The Torah has us remember Pesach more than any other event of our people’s history, but not for a self-serving reason. Rather, because we were strangers, we should remember the stranger, we should respond to the suffering of the oppressed.

This Erev Shabbat, this first Seder night of Pesach, we will drink our four cups of wine and consider the following. We are physically and psychologically removed from slavery; we think of ourselves as being free as well and are open to considering what it is to have a special relationship with the source of life itself. And what of the cup of Elijah? What of redemption itself? What questions do you wish to ask this Pesach, and what answers can you suggest that lead us to our people’s ultimate goal, that all humanity should know peace and freedom? The challenges within Israel and among humanity let us know we are a long way from achieving redemption. Pesach is our core story; how do you wish to tell it? Your narrative reflects your work to bring peace and freedom.

This week is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach. In ancient times it was one of two occasions in the year when the rabbi would give a sermon. The aim of the sermon was to remind the community about the forthcoming festival of Pesach and to expound a little about the laws and customs of this time of year, as the community prepared to celebrate Pesach.

This year, Shabbat Hagadol coincides with parashat Tzav, the portion where we read about the fire burning on the altar, a fire which must never go out. Rabbi Amiel gave an alternate interpretation of this command, suggesting that instead of the fire burning “on it” (referring to the altar), it can also be read as the fire burning “in him” (referring to the priest). Based on this reading, the passage then talks about the fire we should all keep burning in our souls and our spirits; a fiery passion for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Pesach is the most celebrated festival in the Jewish calendar. More than Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, Pesach is the time when the largest number of Jews make a connection with our people and traditions. It is the time that the fire is stoked and the flames burn brightest within. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the universal message of the seder and its celebration of freedom, equality and justice for all. We are taught that each one of us should move through the seder from degradation to uplift, from slavery to freedom, to each feel that we have been redeemed from Egypt. The seder teaches that the more we tell about the Exodus, the more we are praiseworthy. This passage is not about the number of times we tell the story but rather the depth with which we do so. In recounting the story as if we were there, we are provided with the opportunity to really meditate on what it meant to be a slave and what it now means to be free. It is an opportunity not just for sympathy but for empathy. Know that there are others who suffer like we suffered and commit yourselves to helping bring about their exodus.

We need to do more than read the words; we must internalize the teachings and then go out into the world and take action. It is not enough to be sympathetic to the plight of others; we are enjoined to take steps to make the changes we want to see in the world to feel empathy and be motivated to action. God did not redeem us from Egypt to do nothing; God redeemed us and then gave us a challenge: to follow the commandments, to change the world, to create the future we want to see. Ralph Barton Perry wrote: “There is no boredom like that which can afflict a people who are free and nothing else”. We cannot be free and nothing else. We are free in order to bring freedom, to end oppression and to create the future of which we dream and for which we pray.

Pesach is the time that the Jewish fire within us is kindled; our passions are aroused, moving us to use our freedom to shape the world we want to see.

Let us use the Pesach seder as inspiration to live each day as people who are committed to bringing freedom, hope and peace to others. Our challenge is to keep tending the fire burning within us throughout the year; to feed our souls and our spirits with the learning, beauty, delight and joy of Judaism and changing the world.

This week we begin reading from a new book in the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, Sefer Vayikra, is referred to by the rabbis of the Talmudic period as “Torat Kohanim” because of its overwhelming concern about matters related to the priesthood and their facilitation of sacrificial worship in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Perhaps the most arcane book of the Torah in terms of how we practice our Judaism today, Sefer Vayikra none-the-less presents some deeply profound teachings about the nature of Jewish worship and how we relate to our God. The challenge, of course, is to make these most ancient of teachings relevant to our contemporary religious experience.

For over 2000 years the main mode of Jewish worship has been through prayer. It is well entrenched. So how can we relate to the commanded concept of animal sacrifice today?

This question has been asked for a very long time. Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbinic scholar, addressed this concern in his monumental work, The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides begins by asserting that God always considers human nature when interacting with humanity. A significant element of human nature is that human behaviors and attitudes cannot be suddenly and radically altered. Changes must be made gradually, without haste. Applying this notion to animal sacrifice, Maimonides suggests that God’s objective for Israel was to develop the people into a nation devoted to divine service – worship – and acts of loving-kindness. Emerging out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were used to animal sacrifice as the common and established form of worship. The immediate command to abandon sacrifice would have represented a radical change of behavior for the people at a very vulnerable time. Our later Prophets make it very clear that God does not require our burnt offerings. However, at the time of the exodus, a concession was made to human nature. The familiar and accepted form of worship was preserved, but with very specific parameters in order to differentiate Israel’s form of sacrificial offerings from those of the other pagan nations. Where, when, what and how to sacrifice were all clearly controlled and the priesthood became the standard-bearers of this newly commanded form of worship and of what was acceptable to God.

While traditional Judaism still maintains a messianic ideal of a return to sacrificial worship in a rebuilt third temple, there are others who suggest, like Maimonides, that, as a concession to human weakness, the original Levitical mandate of animal sacrifice was never intended as an eternal command. Many have proposed that the evolution from animal sacrifice to prayer based worship was an intended transition, moving the locus of offering from external to internal. When we approach the altar with our korban (“offering” – based on the root meaning of “to draw near”) we bring to God something that is outside of ourselves. In truth it is the animal that is making the greatest commitment. At the deepest level, sincere authentic prayer makes a much great demand on the worshipper. With prayer we bring an offering of the soul. We look deep within ourselves, sacrificing our egos and all the self-rationalizations and baggage we manifest in order to protect ourselves. We render ourselves vulnerable, opening ourselves up to truth and connection with the Divine. With prayer, the korban is you.

So what, then, do we do with the Book of Leviticus? Like the idea of the korban, we take the detailed commandments of the priestly handbook and we move its instructions inside. Animal sacrifice becomes a Midrash, a metaphor about how we are to engage in our efforts to commune with our God today. We embrace its call to spiritual purity and the kavanah (intention) of ritual. We move the altar into our homes and we become an entire nation of priests, drawing nearer to our God through our deeds without blemish and the mindfulness of our actions.

As finite creatures bounded by time, how we consecrate space and time are major ways that we create meaning in our lives. As far as we know, we humans are the only ones of the animal kingdom who live with a long term understanding of our physical limitations, our impending death, the memory of our early days and the passage of time between. As we come to the dramatic conclusion of the book of Exodus, with parashiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei, we hear of the people faithfully building the Tabernacle where God’s presence will be encountered. Additionally, we are again commanded to keep the Shabbat, the central marker of time for the Jewish people, the focal point for the opening of the Torah and the story of creation.

Our sages have noted the parallel between the opening of the book of the Torah, with the story of Shabbat at the heart of creation, and the conclusion of the book of Exodus, with the construction of the Holy Tabernacle. Just as in our first story of Genesis there are seven passages describing the creation of the universe (culminating with the Shabbat), so too in the final story of Exodus there are seven passages concerning the construction of the Tabernacle. Counting six days and then resting one, to make a week, is an extraordinary way to mark time — not based on any astronomical event like all other aspects of time, but requiring the ability of the human mind to count and so to make a difference. As far as we know, the seven-day week with the day of rest is a gift of the Jewish people to humanity. God is Eternal, ever present, yet for us to encounter God in time we need to stop from daily activity — Shabbat is the Hebrew for “stopping”.

Similarly, the Tabernacle that centers our understanding of space is a metaphoric parallel to the universe of God’s creation: it represents the meeting place for people and God. (The Hebrew word Mishkan, translated as tabernacle, means dwelling.) While God is present in and beyond all space, we as humans need to create sacred space to enhance our encounter with God. This parashah reminds us that to create this space each Israelite “whose hearts so moved them brought freewill offerings to the Lord” (i.e., to create the Mishkan, the holy space.)

We brought those gifts a few years ago to create a sacred and unique space for our religious practice — one in which ultimately we have a small chapel and large sanctuary used for our egalitarian services, our learning and our communal gathering. Our vision remains and continues to be achieved thanks to our heartfelt, freewill offerings. The stories we read this week inspire us to hold fast to our dream of creating sacred space.

The conclusion of the book of Exodus is a perfect parallel for the opening of the book of Genesis: beyond the specific regulations of Tabernacle and Shabbat comes the larger lesson: by creating sacred space to commemorate sacred moments, we add significance to our lives, so limited by time and space. Our contemporary synagogue becomes a place where finite ones can glimpse the Infinite One.

Our tradition teaches us that contained in the Aron – the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried through the wilderness – were the two sets of tablets that God gave to Israel at Sinai. There was the one complete set, on which was inscribed the words of the Ten Commandments, and then there were the shards of the first set, which Moses had smashed out of anger when saw the people dancing around the golden calf. Both the whole and the shattered were considered equally holy, equally important. The undamaged and the broken equally received the same honor. From this teaching we can learn much. The smashing of the tablets is described in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, gives an alternative explanation about how the original tablets were destroyed. When God saw that the People of Israel had constructed the golden calf in the camp, God tried to grab the tablets away from Moses on the top of Sinai. But Moses, the Midrash explains, was strong. A tug of war ensued between God and Moses and, as a result, the tablets were shattered.

The rabbinic commentator then asks: why did God never rebuke Moses for breaking the tablets? Obviously, under the circumstances, God would have preferred to keep the tablets rather than hand them to an idolatrous people. But it was better for Israel that the tablets be smashed on the earth rather than remain complete in God’s hands. If Moses had not brought the first tablets down and smashed them to the shock of the people, there never would have been an opportunity for Moses’ return to the mountaintop to fetch the replacement tablets for a redeemed Israel. The breaking of the tablets provided the opportunity for the “stiff-necked” People of Israel to renew their relationship with God and reaffirm their covenant through Torah. This is the concept of “Lo ba-shamayim hi — It is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), which suggests that God’s commands are not overwhelming but rather close to human hearts and capabilities. The whole point of Torah is to direct the human spirit and meet human needs. There is no need for Torah in the heavenly realm.

The breaking of the tablets also provides another insight into the ongoing struggles of life. The shards of the broken tablets remind us of the continuous opportunity for growth and renewal. There is always another chance to redeem ourselves; always the possibility of repentance.

This is the message of our Jewish tradition: life is never perfect. But that realization need not lead to despair. Rather than focus on some ideal afterlife or messianic perfection, Judaism has always been more concerned with our imperfect human state and providing guidance for healing and repair — Tikkun. This is our strength: we have learned to value and embrace the pieces and from them construct something even stronger.

We see this reflected in some of our best-known Jewish rituals. At the end of a wedding ceremony we break a glass to remind us that a shattered marriage can never be put back together in the same way. Marriage is never easy but from the shattered glass we learn to value the pieces, the moments of greatest intimacy, partnership and support, and on that foundation we can build a relationship of holiness.

When we become mourners, we perform Keriah — literally “tearing”. As we suffer a tear in the fabric of our lives we identify ourselves as mourners through a tear in the garment we wear. Symbolically, the message is that the time will come when we can sew the garment back together again. The tear is never permanent. We can repair the damage. We can become whole again. It won’t be perfect and it will never be the same, but it can be fixed. The scars on our bodies and souls will begin to fade, but the scar tissue that remains is often stronger than the unblemished tissue it replaced.

We desperately want to believe that everything is going to be all right. Perhaps there is a place somewhere in the divine realm where that is true. But we live in this world and here the truth is that there are times when things come apart. But, as we grow and mature, we come to learn from these experiences; we learn to appreciate the pieces. The most beautiful mosaics are made from broken pieces, as are the most beautiful lives. The most important lesson in life is not how to avoid becoming broken. It is to learn how to recycle the pieces and rebuild.


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