Sunday, April 12, 2009

Passover Love Song

Below is a slightly edited version of a dvar Torah I gave at my synagogue yesterday.

Dvar Torah
Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach, 5769, 2009

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach

I want to dedicate this dvar Torah to my father, Julius (Yehuda Hersh) Nestel, who died just after Passover 30 years ago.

So long ago, yet at this very time.
Bayamim Hahem, BaZman Hazeh – as they say.

My father taught me many lessons, most by example, not the least of which were responsibility and love. Some of his last words with me, a few hours before he died, were that if anything were to happen to him, I should make sure that his business was properly liquidated, and that my mother and sister were looked after. Selfless love and externally focused responsibility. He also gave me the confidence and the material and spiritual resources to make my way in this world. His is a model I try hard to live up to, even if I never fully reach it.

* * *

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesach - the Shabbat that falls in the middle of the Passover week – and our sages deemed that we should break the usual Shabbat cycle of Torah readings to read two special Passover related sections from the Torah, a special Haftarah, and one of the five Biblical scrolls – The Song of Songs.

The maftir for today is taken from the book of Numbers, and it gives the details of the sacrifices that were offered on Passover when the Temple still stood. The Haftarah for today is from the Prophet Ezekiel and it is the famous prophecy of the Valley of the Dry Bones. The dead bones’ coming to life is meant to symbolize the future revitalization of the Jewish people, thus guaranteeing us, according to Ezekiel, that just as Pesach gave us our national redemption in the past, so too would we experience national redemption in the future.

But it is not on these texts that I wish to dwell today, but rather on some of the larger themes of Pesach as illustrated by today’s “main” Torah portion and also in the Song of Songs.

* * *

Pesach has at least four names.

The first, Chag Ha’Pesach – or the Feast of Passover – recalls the fact that God passed over the houses of the Israelites on that terrible night when he slew all of Egypt’s first born, thus finally breaking the back of Pharaoh’s resistance to freeing the Israelites. It recalls both the suffering of the Egyptians and the miracle that spared our ancestors and saved us from perpetual servitude to Pharaoh and his kind.

The Israelites’ trust in God’s miracles and His saving grace are symbolized by the blood of the lamb that they smeared on their doorposts, and later by the Pascal sacrifice. Today the symbolic lamb shank on our seder plates comes to commemorate this aspect and this name of the holiday.

The second name, Chag Ha’Aviv – the Feast of Spring – recalls the fact that Pesach falls in the spring: in Israel, the season of lambing, and of the beginning of the harvesting of winter grains. The Karpas on our seder plates (as well as the lamb shank, some would argue) come to commemorate this aspect and this name of the holiday.

The third name, Chag Ha’Mazot – the Feast of Unleavened Bread – recalls the haste with which we departed slavery, and the “spiritual baggage” - the puffed up gas filled chametz - that we had to leave behind. Chametz has often been compared to both the bad character traits and the false comforts that our ancestors had to abandon in order to escape slavery, and that we ourselves must abandon if wish to achieve our own redemption. Matzah represents a clean and lean, back to basics, fresh start. And of course it plays an important part in the seder.

The forth name of the holiday, Chag Ha’Herut – the Feast of Freedom – recalls that the festival commemorates the beginning of our freedom. It is symbolized in the seder by our leaning on pillows, but more importantly by the whole edifice of the seder – a luxurious meal. Lots of wine, and time for deep discussions about history, current events, and nature of the world we live in.

While the Bible itself seems to emphasize the first two or maybe three names and aspects of the day, the Rabbis, starting at least in the Talmudic period, seem to emphasis the latter two names and aspects – Chag Ha’Matzot and Chag Ha’Herut. You only have to look in the Kol Hanshama siddur, in the festival Amidah (page 341), to see that the holiday is referred to in the liturgy, not as Pesach, but as

Chag Ha’Matzot HaZeh; Zman Herutenu

This Feast of Matzot; the Time of Our Freedom.

* * *


The question I wish to ask today is, “Freedom to what end?” Is it merely freedom from slavery? Are we merely celebrating freedom from hard work and obligations? Or are we celebrating being free to do things we could not previously do: hopefully holy and worthwhile things?

In Hebrew the word for “freedom from” or “independence” is Hofshi (as in the Israeli National Anthem Hatikvah – ‘lehiyot am hofshi’.) But Hofshi is also the word for “no cost.” Is that what the freedom of Passover is all about – we don’t have to pay? Furthermore Hofshi is also the Hebrew word for “secular” – free of the heavenly yoke – of Ol Matlkhut Shamayim. Surely Hofshiut – as in "take what you want, no obligations" – is not what we are celebrating at Passover!

And indeed the holiday is not called Chag HaHofshiut, but Chat Ha’Herut.

Herut means freedom in a different sense. It means “freedom to” – freedom to be obligated, freedom to take responsibility, freedom to love; because love can only be given freely.

But Herut also shares a root with the Hebrew word Harat – “to engrave.” Thus Passover is the holiday that engraves upon our hearts. And what is Passover meant to engrave on our hearts? I wish to argue that it is responsibility – the true luxury allowed us by our freedom. Slaves have neither the spiritual nor material resources to be responsible.

Even before we encounter today’s Rabbinically mandated Biblical readings we have had a hint that the Israelite’s liberation from Egypt is to be a “freedom to,” rather than a “freedom from.” In Exodus chapter 5, in Moses’ first encounter with Pharaoh, God instructs him to ask Pharaoh to let the people go,

for three days into the desert, to serve the Lord.

Thus the purpose of our liberation is to serve the Lord. And presumably if Pharaoh had just granted the Israelites a regular three-day weekend to serve God, we would not be celebrating Passover today. We could have continued living and working in Egypt, as long as we served the Lord. But as we know, serving the Jewish God involves myriads of obligations and responsibilities. It is fundamentally incompatible with serving as slaves to Pharaoh and all he represents.

God thus seems to be saying, that it was our all consuming serving of Pharaoh, of Egypt and all that it stands for, that was the problem He wished to solve by the Passover liberation. People, sadly, are required to work and even to work hard, - suffering has been our fate since Adam, not since Pharaoh - but hard labour and regimented lives that leave no time to serve the true God and to do His holy works must be abolished. However, neither are the People meant to use their freedom from slavery to idle around or pursue their own pleasures as they see fit – this lesson is hammered home repeatedly in the tales of our desert wandering as well those of our later life in the Land. Rather, the People must serve the Lord rather than serve Egypt. In this the Bible seems to be foreshadowing the great contemporary poet who declared:

You may serve the devil,
Or you may serve the Lord.
But you gotta serve somebody.

And Passover comes to teach us that serving God is better than serving Pharaoh. It comes to celebrate that we now have the freedom that allows us – no, requires us – to both seek God and to serve Him.

But how?

Our Biblical readings for today give us some instruction on how best to do that: on what the nature of our relationship to the Infinite ought to be.

The main Torah reading for today is Exodus chapter 33 verse 12, through Exodus chapter 34 verse 26.

These 36 verses contain exactly 2 disjointed references to rituals of the Passover holiday, and no references at all to its central events. So why are they chosen for us to read today? If the Rabbis wished only to emphasize narrow rituals of the holiday, they could have made do with a much shorter reading. But they preceded and followed the Passover references with many other verses, in order to make a wider point about the purposes for which we are to use our Passover given freedom.

The reading opens with Moses asking God
I beg you, if I have found grace in your sight, show me now your way, that I may know you, that I may find grace in your sight;
And later
I beg you, show me your glory.
Moses, as the leader of a free people passionately wishes to know God – the mysteries of the universe, the meaning of life.

And God replies

I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

And what is God’s goodness and mercy, if not His love?
And what is Love, if not responsibility?
And what is responsibility if not to respond to the needs, and desires, the secret pleadings of an Other?

God is good to his people and shows mercy, not because he has to – He is also free after all! – but rather because He loves us. An a-rational arbitrary love! And just as a parent would do anything for their child, and a besotted lover would give their very soul to their beloved, so God wants to take care of His People.

And Love is more about giving then getting. As the Hebrew saying goes:

Yoter Me’She’Egel Rotzah Linok, Rotzah Haparah Le’Haanik.

More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse.
This is the source of God’s mercy.

And how does God exemplify His essence? What does God finally show Moses to demonstrate his glory – as Moses had begged him to do? What does he show him?

Not his face. No !

That would too explicit, and once fully known might sate our future desire. (God, perhaps a coquettish lover, wants Moses – and the People – always yearning for more! Always desiring, but never quite attaining the full blown super-duper sweat soaked knock your socks off transcendent experience)

So, God shows Moses his “afterwards.” (Not “his back” as is often mistranslated.)

And what is God’s “afterward”, but His effects, his traces in this world. God shows Moses how love and caring – yearning for the transcendent connection with the Other and its concomitant responsibility, as irrational as these things are – are precisely what make our lives worth living

But in addition God wants, as all lovers do, that Moses and the People reciprocate His love. He wants the People’s love, their loyalty, and their sense of obligation in return. Freely given to be sure, but no less strongly desired. Hence, in the second half of the Torah reading, we are told of the giving of a second set of tablets, and of a second set of commandments – with their emphasis on loyalty to the-one-God-who-created-all – and flowing from that, our infinite responsibility to Him and His creations.

We are also reminded, later in today’s Torah reading, that after Pesach will come Shavuot. Today is, after all, the second day of the counting of the Omer which will end with Shavuot: the true culmination of the Pesach story: the explication of the Law and our full set of obligations to God and to man: the Infinite and the particular. Our love of God, of the general, realized through our love of, and responsibility to, particular individual humans.

* * *

The idea that the purpose of our freedom and of our very lives, both as a People and as individuals, is to allow us to love and be responsible for the Other, is further pointed out to us by the choice of Shir HaShirim – The Song of Songs – as the scroll that we read on Passover.

As I am sure you all know, Song of Songs is about love. Often quite erotic, and always passionate, it is literally about the love of a man and a woman, but it is often allegorized to be about the love between God and his People. These are not conflicting viewpoints in my opinion. They are complimentary.

God’s love is primarily realized in this world through our love for each other. Not only romantic or sexual love, but the love of parent to child, child to parent, best friends and lovers, as well as the more prosaic love/responsibility we feel for the poor, our acquaintances, our fellow citizens. Most of us, after all, would lend our friend a tool or a cup of sugar, not because we calculate that we may need their help someday. We fully pay our taxes, and refrain from murdering our neighbours and stealing their stuff not because we fear punishment. We behave this way because we feel some level of human responsibility, some level of love to our fellows.

And what is our love, if not an attempt to transcend our aloneness: to connect deeply and irrationally to another, the same urge that has the mystic seeking union with God and that had Moses asking to fully know Him? But we can unite with God, or at least get a bit closer to Him, only by uniting with the other person. When we give of ourselves to others we transcend our mundane selves and reach a higher plane. Only by focusing externally, on the other person, can we attain some proximity to the fully Other – to God. This is the meaning of

Man created in the Image of God.

This is what Emanual Levinas meant when he declares:

O’ blessed Exteriority!

* * *

The last chapter of Shir HaShirim contains one of the most sublime lines in the Hebrew Bible – a line that many commentators say encompasses the point of the whole book.

Place for me a seal upon your heart, and a seal upon your arm;
for strong as death is love, sharp as the grave is passion:
its embers, embers of fire, the flame of God!

What is the point?

First, love requires loyalty (hence “a seal upon your heart”) and love requires a commitment to doing for the beloved (hence “a seal upon your arm”). This is responsibility – loyalty to and doing for the Other.

Last, love is a manifestation of God (hence “its embers … the flame of God”)

And in the middle, the enigmatic words: “love as strong as death, passion as sharp as the grave.”

Love, and its attendant responsibility, gives death its bitterness but it also allows us to transcend death.

Why, after all, do we cry at the death of our parent, partner, good friend? Not for them. If we believe in the world to come, they are probably better off. If we believe in the darkness of the grave, then they are not conscious to suffer, to miss life, or even us. Rather we cry that we will no longer be able to give our love to them, to care for them, for us to see their pleasure at our efforts, for us to feel their love in return.

And why do we fear our own death. Again either we will be in a better place, or we will not know. Rather we dread our death because we will no longer be able to care for our beloveds. We worry for their welfare: that they will no longer experience the benefits of our loving.

That is why it is love that gives death its bitterness.

But the love we have received is also a balm for death. For those about to die, knowing they have loved fully and well and been loved in return soothes the way. For those of us who survive the death of a loved one, love is the motivation to keep their inspiration alive, to pay forward the love we have received from them. Just as a father’s love becomes the model and the engine that allows the son to love and care for his children, so all past love is the model and the engine that allows us to keep love and care flowing in this world. Love that allows us to transcend time and our alone-ness.

Shir HaShirim reminds us that at Passover we celebrate having received the freedom and the resources to love and to serve who we want, and to give of our full energies to our beloveds. Our challenge, post Passover, is to widen the circle of our love and responsibility. To pay forward the miracle of our strength and our freedom and of God’s love. Only thus can we repay Him. Only thus can we make God, our parent, proud of us. Only thus can we reciprocate his love. Only thus can we fulfill the freedom he gave us, so long ago, at this very time.

Bayamin HaHem BaZman Hazeh

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home