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Archive for Març de 2013

Pesach

Believing in the Power of God

 

Every year on Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, (the intermediate Sabbath of Pesach) we read a selection from Ezekiel 37 as our Haftarah. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet finds himself placed amidst a valley filled with bones. The bones are very dry, and the prophet wonders if the bones will ever live again. God challenges Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, predicting that God will be able to bring the bones together, cover them with flesh, and form skin over them (37:5-6). Soon thereafter, the bones take the shape of human forms and come to life (37:10).

 

Ezekiel’s experience is not merely an episode from a horror movie. Rather, the image of dry bones coming to life symbolically represents the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. God breathes life into dry bones and God will ultimately redeem the Jewish people. Such an occasion will enable Jews who are living and dead, Jews who reside in Israel and those who live in the Diaspora, to gather together at the moment of Messianic Redemption.

 

To our post-modern sensibilities, the ideas of resurrection and ingathering may seem a tad distant. But in the most literal interpretations of traditional Judaism, Jews pray for both an ingathering of exiles and the resurrection of the dead many times a day. Prior to the Sh’ma in the morning service we read, v’havienu l’shalom me’arba kanfot ha’aretz, gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and in the second passage of the Amidah we praise God’s power to give life to the dead (m’chayye ha-meitim). The ideas of resurrection and ingathering to the land of Israel are retained in our liturgy and ideological structure.

 

Yet taking these ideas literally is only one way of approaching traditional theology. To say that God gives life to the dead is a difficult concept for many of us to grasp. But affirming that belief in God may provide comfort, shelter, inspiration, and guidance in times of difficulty and tragedy is quite powerful. To say that God will, one day in the future, carry Jews from all corners of the earth and resettle them in Israel is also quite an esoteric idea. But affirming that belief in God may act as a vision of hope for the unity of our people and the redemption of the world is a spiritually nourishing idea.

 

We are often told that prayer without action and faith without praxis are both utterly meaningless. But the story of Ezekiel 37, like the story of the Exodus, is one of belief in the awesome power of God to redeem and heal. Ezekiel 37 is presented as a reminder of the presence of God in history, and the continued presence of God in our midst. We need only to open ourselves to the possibility of God in order to discover God’s beauty and power.

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Shabbat haGadol

The Great Shabbat before Pesach

 

Shabbat Hagadol, “the great Shabbat”, is the name given to the Shabbat before Pesach, receiving that name perhaps because of the greatness of the festival. Pesach celebrates our redemption from Egypt and the beginning of our national consciousness. Pesach becomes the seminal event for us – our shared experience of slavery, of freedom, of service to God. Our leaving the oppression of Egypt is the event that more than any other gives the rationale for our mitzvot, especially those concerned with doing right by others.

 

Other reasons for calling this Shabbat “hagadol” have been given: it was just before Pesach that we boldy – and some say miraculously – took the lamb for the sacrifice from our Egyptian slave masters without being molested, a sign of our impending liberation; others say it may be called great in that it is the day that the rabbi gave a particularly long sermon on the laws and traditions of Pesach. One other suggestion is that the special haftarah reading from the prophet Malachi speaks of the “great day” of the Lord on which the Messiah will appear.

 

Pesach, with its great theme of redemption in the past naturally becomes the setting for the messianic redemption of the future. We set a cup of wine on our table for Elijah who heralds the coming of the messiah; this cup of wine is for the unfulfilled fifth promise of redemption “I will take you into the land”, mentioned in Exodus 6:7-8 (the series of promises of redemption forms the core text for the four cups of wine that we drink on Seder night.) Our understanding of redemption requires the return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel – that story forms the basis of the daily amida, our most important prayer, said 5 times a day (including quietly and with public repetition.) It is the reason that in the prayer for the State of Israel most congregations include the words “Israel, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

 

This Shabbat indeed is great – it gives us the opportunity to think about all the traditions we have in preparation for Pesach, from cleaning our homes of leaven, to making contributions to those in need, to reflecting on our incredible journey of redemption we have taken as a people, from leaving Egypt to rebuilding Israel. Shabbat HaGadol and the festival of Pesach present us the great challenge of what we mean by redemption. When we open up the door for Elijah these Seder nights, when we read the words of the haggadah that challenge us to think of a better future, let us take some time around our tables discussing not just our visions of redemption but concrete ways of achieving them.

 

Shabbat Shalom

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This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, the central book in the Torah and many would suggest, the most significant. Much of the book details the sacrifices and the duties of the priests who ministered them. It was the first section of Torah taught to young children when they begin their study of Torah which seems to be a very unusual choice: what possible relevance could the details of the sacrificial system have to our youngest minds? This section of the Torah appears to be the one which is least relevant to our world today, the one with which we could potentially have the most challenge finding a connection. But I love the book of Leviticus, the minutae of the sacrifices and in some ways, I believe it is the most relevant of all the books in the Torah. Although we no longer see sacrifice as a path for us to connect with God, there is incredible wisdom in the system from which we can draw and apply to our world today.

 

First, we must consider the purpose of bringing a sacrifice to the Temple. We know it was not for God’s benefit, many places in the tradition say that God has no need of sacrifices, so what then was their purpose? Ellen Frankel, in her book The Five Books of Miriam, describes the process of bringing a sacrifice. She says (page 153):

 

In a very real sense the ancient Israelite system of sacrifice served the same function as psychotherapy serves today. Those plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression and other “sins” harmful to our souls, seek out women and men specially trained in the art of expiation, who for a sacrificial fee help us to surrender these burdens to god and reach a new psychic balance. We too must still right the wrongs we have committed but we no longer need to drag it along behind us like a fattened ox or sheep, unintentional or imaginary sins. These we can turn over to God”

 

This, I think, is the power of the sacrifices. It provided a ritual means by which people could acknowledge and mark moments in their lives. It provided an outlet, enabling people to let go of guilt or shame from wrongs they may have committed. It gave them a chance to do something which would wipe the slate clean and enable them to move forward. At times of celebration and happiness, it provided a means of giving thanks, of acknowledging good fortune, counting blessings. It was a system which cared for the psychological well-being and health of its participants. There is great benefit in being able to work through these moments and to have a means of connecting at those times with yourself, in the context of community and in the presence of God.

 

I have been incredibly privileged in my rabbinate to see the power of ritual heal and help people to move forward with life. I have experienced it myself. Being able to acknowledge hurt, pain and suffering, difficult decisions, moments of struggle and desperation, is part of the healing process. It helps to recognize the enormity of what has happened to us. It can nurture our souls when we need it the most. And such rituals are needed not only for times of pain but also for moments of happiness and joy, gratitude, blessings and goodness.

 

Acknowledging the beauty in our lives and in our world also was an important part of the sacrificial system and a crucial part of the role ritual can play in our lives today. Marking significant moments while surrounded by community, by God, by family and friends can help us to restore balance in our lives, bring harmony and wholeness to our core and to draw us close to one another and our traditions.

 

So as we go on our annual journey through the book of Vayikra, I hope we can find connection and meaning in the holy act of bringing sacrifice and recreate those moments through our rituals.

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To Proceed with Purpose

 

Late on Tuesday evening, I began the daunting task of preparing the chanting for this week’s Torah reading, Vayakhel Pekudei HaChodesh. Vayakhel and Pekudei are the last two sections of the book of Exodus and when the calendar requires that they be read together (usually the case every two out of three years), the reading contains a whopping 214 verses. As this week is also the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan, we add a reading called HaChodesh, which introduces us to the redemptive narrative of our approaching Pesach festival. Whereas most maftir (concluding readings) passages are between 3 and 5 verses in length, HaChodesh weighs in with an additional 20 verses bringing our grand total to 234 verses, the second longest “Torah reading experience” in the entire calendar year!

 

I often advise my b’nei mitzvah students that the only way to learn a passage from the Torah is through practice, revision, more practice, and more revision. It isn’t easy to transfer from the tikkun text (with vowels and cantillation markings) to the script of the Torah with no points of assistance. So I sat in bed, doing just that, chanting out loud, chanting to myself, making reminder markings on my page, and finding myself a bit bored.

 

Wait a second. Did I just write that? Did I truly feel that way? Yes, and I think it’s appropriate to mention it here in our synagogue blog. I have often encountered people (congregants and non-members alike) who tell me how bored they feel when they come to synagogue, how they find it so difficult to find an entry point, a place of connection and meaning. So what could it mean for a rabbi, a spiritual and communal leader, a (usually) passionate Jew, to admit that he encountered some ennui (notice how I hesitate to use the word “boredom”) in preparing to read from our most sacred ancestral text?

 

A possible response to such feelings can be found in this week’s parashah. Vayakhel and Pekudei tell us of the beautiful, detailed construction of the Tabernacle, and the design of the priestly garments (concepts introduced to us a few weeks ago in Terumah and Tetzaveh). At one stage, Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel…and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills…And God has given both him and Oholiab…the ability to teach others.” Bezalel and Oholiab then lead the construction of the Tabernacle, putting all of the voluntary gifts given by the Israelites to good use.

 

In our ongoing search for meaning in our lives, it is often possible for us to lose a sense of our purpose. But perhaps the reminder of this week’s parashah is to remember and be aware of the skills that God has given us, to appreciate our own wisdom, our own understanding, as well as our ability to teach and to guide others. Recognizing all of the gifts that God has given us enables us also to appreciate the greatest gift of all – the gift to inspire other people and help them to find meaning in their lives too.

 

Being part of the synagogue community, where we regularly have the chance to reflect and to learn, helps us to internalize the beautiful messages of our tradition – and often to overcome the doldrums that may seep into our lives, without our even knowing.

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