Shabbat Hol ha-Moed Pesach
It’s Pesach. An unusual Pesach, but Pesach, nonetheless. Our prayers refer to this holiday as chag ha-matzot ha-zeh, the holiday of matzah, and also as z’man heiruteinu, the time of our freedom.
How are you thinking about freedom this Pesach? Are your thoughts different this year - when we are not free to go outside, not free to visit with our loved ones, not yet free of this scourge of a virus that is the source of our affliction this season? What aspects of freedom are most precious to you, that still feel so very precious at this time? In what ways do you feel free during this holiday season?
On the Shabbat of hol ha-mo’ed Pesach (the Intermediate Days of Pesach), we read the part of the Torah that takes place just after the incident of the Golden Calf. In it, God dictates and Moses writes the second set of Tablets. We read it because it contains a list of the all the Festivals in the Jewish Calendar, including Passover. But for me, the earlier part of the story takes on new meaning this year.
Moses asks God, “Let me behold your Presence!” But God answers,
“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name – the holy name of God – and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My face….” [Exodus 33:18 – 20].
Indeed, Moses stood in a cleft in the rock, and saw the back of God, but not God’s face.
This is interesting, because just a few verses before, the text tells us,
“God would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” [Exodus 33:11]
There are times, it seems, when God is accessible, and times when it seems as though God’s face is hidden. ‘Where is God?’, we ask when times are tough, like they are now. How could a benevolent God let this plague come down upon us? Surely, it feels that God has hidden God’s face from us.
At the same time, we can find things that we can be grateful for, even in the midst of troubled times. A neighbor who delivers food to our door, a grandchild reciting the Four Questions on FaceTime, the healthcare workers who show up, day after day are some examples.
If you are feeling down, make a list of those things for which you are grateful, and let these blessings be for you as for Moses, who, unable to see the face of God, yet, he was able to see God’s back. Sometimes we must work a little harder to see those blessings, but “the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show” - are there for us to find.
Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach.
This Shabbat we begin the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus.
It is primarily concerned with the Temple service, the Priestly class, and the rules that govern the bringing of sacrifices, also called offerings, to the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, those rules could no longer be followed fully. Many generations have, nonetheless, been able to find meaning in the words of Leviticus for their own lives, and it is up to us to do the same.
One thing we notice immediately about Leviticus is that it is very organized. It describes with great exactitude what to bring as an offering, who is to bring it, why it is to be brought, and how it is to be offered on the altar by the High Priest. It is quite reminiscent of the organization that we see in the Creation story: enumerating what God did on day 1 of Creation, day 2, day 3, etc.
Both the Creation story and Leviticus are also about making distinctions – another form of organization and exactitude.
In the Creation story, God separates between the upper and lower waters, between dark and light, between the sea and dry land, and, finally, between the six days of Creation, and the 7th day, Shabbat, on which God rested.
In Leviticus distinctions are made between ritual purity and impurity, between kosher and non-kosher animals, between allowed and forbidden sexual relations, between Israel and the other nations.
In the Creation story, by creating a world, God is imposing order and organization on the chaos that existed prior to the creation of the world.
In Leviticus, there is a place – the Mishkan (Sanctuary) – where everything proceeds in order, where the rules are as clear as can be – a place of refuge for the Israelites from what must have been a chaotic and terrifying experience, of leaving slavery and trekking through the unknown in the wilderness.
What about us? Well, we are living through times of uncertainty. The entire world is dealing with a new virus, and we don’t yet know exactly how it will behave, exactly when we will be able to resume our normal lives. In the meantime, we long for rules, for instructions about how we are to conduct ourselves in these uncertain times. And we take some comfort when our health care officials give us rules and tell us: stay at home, go out only for necessities if at all, maintain appropriate social distancing, wash our hands through two singings of “Happy Birthday”.
Also, some of us find that it is helpful to impose a schedule on our days, even though we are home and the tasks and events that usually define our schedule have been cancelled.
There is comfort in orderliness, and we can understand a little bit of how the Israelites must have felt about the prescribed routines of the Sanctuary in the wilderness.
In the words of Rabbi Shai Held (of Machon Hadar in NYC):
“To read Leviticus, then, is to enter a different kind of world, a small pocket of reality in which God’s will is heeded and perfectly executed, in which chaos and disorder are kept at bay …”
Food for thought:
Do you find comfort in orderliness - in general, and in our current circumstances?
The word ‘Seder’, and the word ‘Siddur’ both are derived from the Hebrew word for ‘order’. Why do you think that is? What role might this ‘order’ contribute to your life as a Jew?
We finish up the book of Exodus with a double parashah, describing the building of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) and the ordination of the Kohanim (priests). We have read all this before, in almost the same words, and with the exact same juxtaposition of the commandment not to work on Shabbat with the description of the sanctuary.
The text tells us:
These are the things that God has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a shabbat of complete rest. [Exodus 35:2]
The Rabbis of the Talmud believed that this juxtaposition of Shabbat with building the sanctuary is there to teach us something. So they examined the text closely, and noticed that the Hebrew word for “work” that is used here is NOT used any place else in the Torah, except for the story of Creation.
When God finished creating the world in six days, he rested on the seventh day from all the “work” that He had done. On Shabbat, we too rest from doing that specific kind of “work”, (called “m’lachah” in Hebrew).
But the Torah never defines this word. What kind of work is m’lachah? The Rabbis derived their answer from the juxtaposition with the description of building of the sanctuary. They deduced that the work involved in constructing the sanctuary must be what defines the kind of work we must rest from on Shabbat.
And if you look at the categories of work that had to be implemented in order to make the materials that went into the building of the sanctuary, they include: agriculture, textile-making, raising animals, writing, building, fire-making, and carrying. All the skills involved in building civilization, in taming the world and harnessing its power for human needs.
Another clue is the person selected to build the sanctuary:
…Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. [God] has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft… [Exodus 35:30-31]
In other words, Bezalel is someone who can create. It is no coincidence that the meaning of his name, Bezalel, is “in the shadow of God”. Bezalel, like God, is a master-craftsman, a creator.
Put this all together, and what do we learn?
The type of work that we should rest from on Shabbat is the work of creating, of changing the world to meet the needs of humans. Six days we do this work and it is good, but on the seventh day, we look at the world as it is, and we see it for what it is. We look at the natural world. We notice the sun rising and setting. We hear the birds singing. We talk and listen to our families and friends. We have time to consider whether the world we are building on the other six days is heading in the right direction, or if adjustments are needed. We take a deep breath, and we are refreshed.
And together we say: "HAZAK HAZAK V'NIT-HAZEIK -
Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened"
These words, said when we complete a book of Torah, seem especially pertinent in these
challenging times. But we will come through, and we can be strong together, even as each of us stays in our own homes. Shabbat Shalom!
*Thanks to the writing of Rabbi Michael Hattin in his book “Passages” for inspiration for this D’var Torah.
Parashat Ki Tissa
“And God said to Moses: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, has made you holy. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from his people.
Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.” [Exodus 31:12 – 17]
Food for thought:
What does it mean to you that Shabbat is a “sign” between God and the children of Israel throughout the generations that God has made you holy?
What does Shabbat mean to you? Why is it important for you and for the Jewish people?
How are we to understand these verses that tell us that the punishment is death for doing work on Shabbat?
What a coincidence that on the very day that we are unable to spend this Shabbat together as a congregation, that Shabbat itself is the topic of this week’s parashah!
I invite you all to respond to the first two questions by email. With your permission, I will collect questions and comments and share them with those who are interested, after Shabbat. If you are interested in participating, send me an email to that effect, so I will have your email and your permission, and we can keep our Torah conversation going.
Meanwhile, I will tackle the third questions above.
By making performing work on Shabbat a capital crime, the Torah is indicating to us just how important Shabbat must be to the Jewish people. But we are not the first to be troubled by the severity of the punishment. The rabbis of the Talmud struggled mightily with this issue. And then they dealt with it in two ways.
They built a fence around the Torah, by prohibiting things that were minor violations (Rabbinic law), so that you would not even come close to violating a major violation (Torah law).
They narrowed the applicability of the Torah law to specific, hard to meet, circumstances.
In yesterday’s daf yomi (study of a page of Talmud a day), is a discussion of violating Shabbat by performing a specific, prohibited act. I will spare you the details. But I’d like you to see how they dealt with the punishment.
If the act was done in error (the person didn’t know what the law was, or he forgot it was Shabbat), then the punishment was bringing a sin offering to the Temple and not the death penalty
Even if the act was done on purpose, the person had to have been warned about the violation immediately prior to committing it, and two witnesses had to testify to the violation. If these conditions were not met (and they almost never were), then the punishment would be “cutting off” – which was usually interpreted as punishment would be left in the hands of God, and not in the hands of the human courts.
It was only if the act was committed on purpose, despite being warned about it just before it was done, and was observed and testified to by two qualified witnesses, would the person who committed it be put to death by the court.
In summary, the way the rabbis dealt with Torah laws that they considered extreme was to create legal barriers around it. So, the Torah law still stood, but it was almost never put into practice. In this way, the Rabbis preserved important values from the Torah (Keep Shabbat!), but mitigated punishment when the ethics of society changed such that the original punishment was no longer acceptable.
The following quote from the Talmud makes their intentions clear.
“A Sanhedrin (rabbinical high court) that puts a man to death once in seven years is called murderous. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘even once in 70 years’. Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva said, ‘If we had been on the Sanhedrin, no death sentence would ever have passed.” [Mishnah Makkot 1:10]
By the way, the third paragraph of the quote from the Torah at the beginning of this Torah teaching is the English translation of V’shamru, which we sing together at Shabbat morning kiddush. So, L’chaim!