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Archive for Abril de 2015

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.

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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?

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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.

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