Archive for April, 2008

Pesach: Counting and Seeing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

This weekend we don’t read a regular weekly Torah portion, because
Shabbat is the seventh day of Pesach, which is Yom Tov (a Biblical
holiday) and Sunday is the eighth day, the extra day observed by
traditional communities in the Diaspora. On Sunday, the reading
includes D’varim/ Deuteronomy 16, which reviews the “Shalosh Regalim”
[three pilgrimage festivals]: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in the fall.
Between Pesach and Shavuot [the holiday of “weeks” at the beginning of
the summer], we learn about counting the omer:

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when
the sickle is first put to the standing grain. ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy
16:9)

The mitzvah of counting the omer is also found in Vayikra/ Leviticus
23, with a bit more detail given. The basic idea is the connection
between the beginning of the season for growing grain and the earliest
harvest in the Land of Israel. Pesach is a holiday that marks the
first growing things of spring and Shavuot is the holiday of the
“first fruits” of summer. The omer itself was a sheaf of new grain
brought to the ancient Temple on the second day of Passover; the
commandment to count until Shavuot links the two holidays as part of a
cycle of thanks for the blessings of the land.

In practical terms, you will note that the verse above talks about
counting “weeks,” while the verse in Vayikra speaks of counting both
days and weeks. Thus, when we count the omer, after the first week, we
mention both the number of days and the number of weeks. Each night we
count the new day (the new day beginning at sundown) by saying the
bracha [blessing] and the appropriate number of days and weeks. If we
forgot at night, we do count the next day without a blessing, and if
we forgot a whole day or more, we pick up again without any blessing
at all- this has to do with thinking of the complete counting period
as a mitzvah.

Early in post-Biblical Jewish history, the omer became a sad period,
with customs associated more with mourning than springtime, but
personally, I prefer to see the omer as orienting us towards two
important truths:

1) The natural world around us is in a constant state of change,
growth and renewal. Paying attention to each day of springtime attunes
us to the daily miracles of creation and the cycles of birth, growth,
harvest and renewal in nature.

2) Pesach is called “zman herutenu,” or “the time of our freedom,”
while Shavuot, 7 weeks later, is the holiday of “matan Torah,” or
giving of the Torah. To me, the omer reminds that our freedom must
have a purpose in order to be meaningful. We were not taken out of
Egypt only to be free from oppression, but to serve God by enacting
compassion and justice in the world. Counting our days from Exodus to
Sinai reminds us to use our freedom, every day, not for trivial
things, but for creating the society intended by the highest ideals of
Torah.

One can also find in books and on the internet detailed calendars for
doing particular exercises of introspection and contemplation each day
of the omer, but we’ll leave those for another day.

The mitzvah of counting the omer seems rather archaic in a 24/7 world
of linked internet calendars and constant electronic communication,
but perhaps that’s the point. We are all creatures of the Earth,
living with nature, linked to its cycles, which move on a different
schedule than email and text messages. Counting the omer makes us
aware of time in a deeper way, orients us towards the small beauties
of life, asks us to let the season unfold over days and weeks and
months until we are ready for the fullness of summer.

Counting the omer demands that we take just a few moments a day to ask
ourselves: for what have I used these precious days and weeks? What I
have learned, what have I seen, what have I taken in and what have I
given back?

Seen this way, the mitzvah of counting the omer is not only about
what’s growing in the barley fields, but what’s growing in the human
spirit.

A happy conclusion of Pesach to all,

RNJL

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Shabbat HaGadol: Partners in Redemption

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat HaGadol

Tomorrow is Shabbat HaGadol- the “Great Shabbat”- so called (probably)
because of the special haftarah, or prophetic reading, always read on
the Shabbat right before Pesach. This year, it’s just a few hours
before the first Seder, but still, the idea is to get us thinking
about the meaning of the holiday in the middle of all the logistics
that go into preparing for it.

Thus the main theme of tomorrow’s haftarah is redemption- the healing
of the world from its brokenness along with justice for the oppressed.
The haftarah ends with a promise that Elijah the prophet will announce
the future redemption:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before
the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.” (Malachi 3:23)

OK, so far, so good: the haftarah reminds us to look forward to a
future day of justice and peace, which is the ultimate theme of the
Pesach seder itself. We do not- repeat, do not- recall the servititude
in Mitzrayim just to wallow in sorrow for a bitter past, but to
strengthen our faith in a brighter future by deeply reminding
ourselves that God stands with those in need of justice, and it’s our
job to be partners in the enterprise of redemption. Mitzrayim, of
course, means Egypt, but I believe it’s better understood as an
archetype of a place of oppression rather than the geography near the
Nile.

If we’re going to be partners in the work of redemption, the haftarah
reminds us to begin with ourselves:

“Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the
Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old. But [first] I
will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a
relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice
sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of
their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and
stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 3:4-5)

Pesach is about hope, but it’s incomplete without moral
self-examination. We can’t hope for a redemption of the world if we
haven’t cleaned up our ethics along with our closets and tended to the
neediest among us. The Seder is just dinner if the story of our
ancestors in slavery doesn’t promote reflection on who today needs
redemption just as much as they did.

The prophet Malachi reminds us that redemption doesn’t happen by
itself: it happens when we, the human community, internalize the
Passover message of hope, compassion and human dignity. There will
come a “great day of the Lord,” but not without human partnership.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday for all,

RNJL

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Metzora: Living Waters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Metzora

We’re reading the parsha called Metzora, which
is mostly about skin lesions (not “leprosy” as per the older
translations) and the resulting ritual impurity- which, in Biblical
times, would have kept a person with such problems outside various
sacred or regular areas, depending on exactly what’s going on. Persons
with certain kinds of scaly patches- called “tzara’at”- had to shave
and be purified in water before returning to the camp:

“On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair — of head, beard,
and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his
clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. . . . ”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 14:9)

This verse, which prescribes water as the ritual of renewal and
spiritual healing, is one of the sources from which we derive the
practice of mikvah, or ritual bath. A mikvah must be “living water,”
which means river water, melted ice, ocean or lake water, or
rainwater, as opposed to “drawn water,” which is well water or tap
water. Most modern mikvaot (plural) have the minimum requirement of
“living water” in one collection area which joins a drainable tub
which is filled with regular water- when the two meet through removing
a plug, it’s as if the entire amount of both pools is “living water.”

In post-Biblical Judaism, when the idea of ritual impurity is no
longer operable, the two main uses of mikvah have been for conversion
and the practice of “taharat hamishpacha,” or “family purity,” meaning
the refraining from marital relations during and after a woman’s
menstrual cycle, until such a time as she immerses in a mikvah. (Cf.
Vayikra 12 and 15.)

A sofer, or scribe, also immerses prior to writing the letters of a
Torah scroll. some Jewish men go before Shabbat, or before the Days of
Awe, or even daily, in the spirit of the laws governing bodily purity.
One commentator (Sefer HaHinnuch) points out that mikvah is not like
other positive commandments, in that one only has to go to a mikvah if
one wishes to be immersed and renewed. That is, the commandment is
not: you must go to a mikvah, but rather says, if you wish to rejoin
the camp, as it were, mikvah is the way to do it.

Books, articles, poems and sermons have been written on the symbolism
of mikvah, and these are widely available on the internet and any
Jewish bookstore. For today, we will merely note that Judaism is far
from the only religion which uses water as a powerful symbol of
renewal and rebirth: think of Hindus and the Ganges or Muslims washing
before prayer, for example. I believe that sacred water is a spiritual
archetype, a deep symbol of the possibility of a renewed spirit, of
forgiveness and rebirth. As such, mikvah is a practice that is open to
all Jews- not only for the practice of family purity or conversion but
as a place where our thoughts can be made new and our souls oriented
towards the deepest connections with God and all life.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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