Burn On, Not Out: What Parashat Tzav Has to Teach Us About Observing Pesach

Parashat Tzav 5781 / פרשת צַו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1-8:36 

If a person today were to measure their standards of Passover preparation and observance against this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, that person would most likely be paralyzed with fear. Unlike last week’s reading which discussed sin offerings intended to atone for a variety of sins committed unintentionally, this week’s reading offers no such out. For sins involving sexual depravity, wanton disregard for mitzvot, and defilement of sacrifices in the Tabernacle there was no expiation. The Torah is very clear that the person who commits these particular sins is “to be cut off from his kin.” The term for “being cut off” is karet, in Hebrew, and it can mean anything from an untimely death for both body and soul, natural death in which the soul is banned from the World to Come, or untimely death in which the soul is given its place in the world to come.

If any of us thought our bodies and souls were on the line when we go to clean our homes for Passover or adhere to the strict dietary laws of Passover, we would either freeze or run in the other direction. 

Fortunately, the laws of Passover as we know them are nowhere to be found in this week’s Torah portion. In fact, most mitzvot relating to Passover, short of eating matzah, remembering the Exodus from Egypt and telling our children about what God did for us in bringing us out of Egypt, are not found in the Torah at all. They were developed by later generations of rabbis over hundreds of years. So if you think by not covering your countertops with contact paper you are violating Torah from Sinai, you are not. Breath easy.

When it comes to the rabbinic laws, there are more than I could possibly explain to you while standing on one foot. There are many, in fact, that I have yet to learn. Even so, are we to judge ourselves or others by the very high standards of the most halachically observant, those who strive to follow Jewish law to the nth degree? Of course not. No such thing is expected of any of us by our neighbors, our families or by God. (I can’t speak for other Jews in ultra-Orthodox sects.)

We are entitled to be authentically Jewish in ways that are relevant to us, meaningful and, perhaps most importantly, achievable. If you find no meaning in the requirement to eat kosher meat, there are other ways to show spiritual discipline, regard for life and connection to the Jewish people. Can’t find that kosher for Passover grape jelly. It’s okay!

I am clearly of the camp that says do what you can do under the circumstances in which you are living and be satisfied.

In adhering to this position, I take a cue from another part of this week’s Torah portion. In order to maintain the sacrificial system the priests had to put wood upon the altar each morning in order to keep a perpetual flame going. It is referred to as an “esh tamid.” A perpetual fire. They could not let it go out.

Maintaining the fire did not fall to one person. It was a collective effort. Not only that, it was sufficient to put only enough wood on the altar each morning to keep the flame lit. The priests were not charged with creating a perpetual conflagration or a massive bonfire. They had to do enough. And that was enough.

As Jews we are inheritors of that obligation to keep the flame lit. It is incumbent upon us to make Judaism relevant, meaningful and achievable for our children and their children in perpetuity. I believe there is something beautiful in Judaism that makes it worthwhile to perpetuate. I believe our calling to repair the world makes it essential to perpetuate.

But we are not alone. Each of us has a role to play according to our mindset and ability. We are to do our part in keeping the flame alive. If we are not able to rid our homes of every single crumb of hametz, the Jewish people will survive and probably thrive. The same with all other aspects of preparation and observance. If you buy a can of tuna or drink a Diet Pepsi that isn’t labeled “Kosher for Passover,” God won’t be offended. You won’t be cut off from your kin. And still, the flame of Judaism will continue to burn. 

I would suggest, in fact, that if any of us were to observe the laws of Passover too stringently, we would burn out. There’s no Jewish future if we all burn out. If we burn out, the fire of the Jewish People burns out. So we stoke the fire gently, within our means, and without fear of retribution or judgment from our rabbi, other Jews or from God.

In order to have a truly kosher and joyous Passover — a chag kasher v’sameach — we need to be able to relax and actually enjoy the holiday. We need to be like the Romans the ancient rabbis tried to emulate, leaning, relaxing, celebrating our freedom, soaking in the return of new life that comes with spring, and be available to one another as loving family members and supportive members of a community.

I wish each and every one of you a happy and health Pesach, no matter how you choose to celebrate the Festival of our Freedom.

Shabbat Shalom.

A Moment and A Life of Watching

Parashat Bo / פרשת בא
Torah Portion: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our reading this week, Parashat Bo, marks the end of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. We read about the final three plagues that God brings upon Pharaoh and his people: locusts, darkness and death of Egypt’s firstborn children and cattle; it is this final plague that finally prompts Pharaoh to declare: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31). Though Pharaoh is caught by surprise by this final plague, the Israelites are well-prepared: they have marked their doorposts with the blood of the pascal lamb, the pesach offering, so the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. When they finally get the word from Pharaoh to depart, only their bread hasn’t risen; they, on the other hand, are up and ready to go.

This night of terror and liberation is referred to as “leyl shimorim,” “a night of watching” in our reading:

Leyl shimorim hu ladonai l’hotziam me-eretz mitrayim. Hu ha-laila hazeh ladonai shimorim l’chol bnai yisrael l’dorotam.

It was a night of watching of God to take them out of the Land of Egypt. That very night was to God one of watching for all the Children of Israel (Ex. 12:42).

Why does the Torah employ this term “leyl shimorim” to the night of Israel’s liberation? Whose watching is it: Israel’s or God’s? What exactly is God or Israel watching out for? As with most questions arising from a close reading of Torah, there is more than one answer. In fact, we learn here that the night of watching is both that of God and of the Israelites, each watching for something different.

On the face of it, it appears that the night of watching belongs to God. That’s the plain meaning of the Hebrew. God is watching over Israel, guarding and protecting God’s people. As the Angel of Death wreaks devastation upon the Egyptians, God checks the doorposts of the Israelites for the blood of the pesach offer, making sure that the Angel of Death stays far away from those homes. Thus, the leyl shimorim is one of God’s watching God’s own agent of destruction pass over the Israelites.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi, however, posits that the night of watching belongs to Israel. The Israelites had waited 430 years for this moment, so on this night they remain awake, eating their pesach offering with “loins girded and sandals on their feet” (Ex. 12:11). The Israelites eagerly anticipate God’s ultimate act of redemption. More accurately, they anticipate God becoming manifest through their own liberation.

On Passover, we are to emulate Israel’s readiness to be saved on that night of watching. The haggadah – the prayerbook we follow during the seder, the typically home-based evening meal and service – tells of five sages who stay up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. As the sun begins to rise, their students interrupt their discussion and remind their teachers that the time to recite the morning prayers has arrived. The sages had become so engrossed in their learning that they lost track of time. Or, perhaps, they were reliving the night of watching experienced by their ancestors hundreds of years earlier, a night of anticipating Divine salvation. Perhaps they were modeling a vigilance that we should maintain all the time.

In our own day, not just during Passover but everyday, we are wise to put ourselves in the sandals of our biblical ancestors and to follow the lead of our rabbinic sages. Jewish religion aims to ingrain within us a readiness to behold God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of those moments of awe, majesty, and beauty that point to the One God, to witness God’s might. Judaism teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day in part to keep us alert to God’s nearness.

Let ours be not a night of watching for a wondrous sign of God’s love, but a life of watching out for all kinds of manifestations of godliness in our lives, manifestations both magnificent and mundane. And may we do so with the faith that God continues to watch over us as God did for Israel during the night of our liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.

From the Moment of Liberation, A Life of Watching

Parashat Bo / פרשת בא
Torah Portion: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our reading this week, Parashat Bo, marks the end of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. We read about the final three plagues that God brings upon Pharaoh and his people: locusts, darkness and death of Egypt’s firstborn children and cattle; it is this final plague that finally prompts Pharaoh to declare: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31). Though Pharaoh is caught by surprise by this final plague, the Israelites are well-prepared: they have marked their doorposts with the blood of the pascal lamb, the pesach offering, so the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. When they finally get the word from Pharaoh to depart, only their bread hasn’t risen; they, on the other hand, are up and ready to go.

This night of terror and liberation is referred to as “leyl shimorim,” “a night of watching” in our reading:

Leyl shimorim hu ladonai l’hotziam me-eretz mitrayim. Hu ha-laila hazeh ladonai shimorim l’chol bnai yisrael l’dorotam.

It was a night of watching of God to take them out of the Land of Egypt. That very night was to God one of watching for all the Children of Israel (Ex. 12:42).

Why does the Torah employ this term “leyl shimorim” to the night of Israel’s liberation? Whose watching is it: Israel’s or God’s? What exactly is God or Israel watching out for? As with most questions arising from a close reading of Torah, there is more than one answer. In fact, we learn here that the night of watching is both that of God and of the Israelites, each watching for something different.

On the face of it, it appears that the night of watching belongs to God. That’s the plain meaning of the Hebrew. God is watching over Israel, guarding and protecting God’s people. As the Angel of Death wreaks devastation upon the Egyptians, God checks the doorposts of the Israelites for the blood of the pesach offer, making sure that the Angel of Death stays far away from those homes. Thus, the leyl shimorim is one of God’s watching God’s own agent of destruction pass over the Israelites.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi, however, posits that the night of watching belongs to Israel. The Israelites had waited 430 years for this moment, so on this night they remain awake, eating their pesach offering with “loins girded and sandals on their feet” (Ex. 12:11). The Israelites eagerly anticipate God’s ultimate act of redemption. More accurately, they anticipate God becoming manifest through their own liberation.

On Passover, we are to emulate Israel’s readiness to be saved on that night of watching. The haggadah – the prayerbook we follow during the seder, the typically home-based evening meal and service – tells of five sages who stay up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. As the sun begins to rise, their students interrupt their discussion and remind their teachers that the time to recite the morning prayers has arrived. The sages had become so engrossed in their learning that they lost track of time. Or, perhaps, they were reliving the night of watching experienced by their ancestors hundreds of years earlier, a night of anticipating Divine salvation. Perhaps they were modeling a vigilance that we should maintain all the time.

In our own day, not just during Passover but everyday, we are wise to put ourselves in the sandals of our biblical ancestors and to follow the lead of our rabbinic sages. Jewish religion aims to ingrain within us a readiness to behold God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of those moments of awe, majesty, and beauty that point to the One God, to witness God’s might. Judaism teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day in part to keep us alert to God’s nearness.

Let ours be not a night of watching for a wondrous sign of God’s love, but a life of watching out for all kinds of manifestations of godliness in our lives, manifestations both magnificent and mundane. And may we do so with the faith that God continues to watch over us as God did for Israel during the night of our liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.