Pesach: On Holy Ground

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

Now, onto the business at hand- which is quite a bit, actually, since
with Pesach falling on Thursday and Friday, we have the unusual
situation of three “haftarah days” in a row- the first and second days
of Pesach, then Shabbat, also with a special reading for Pesach.
You’ll find all the relevant texts at the link below, but for today,
we’ll just look briefly at the haftarah for the first day of Passover.

This haftarah picks up where the Torah itself ends: at the beginning
of the book of Joshua (well, chapter 3, to be precise), with the
Israelites crossing the Jordan River and beginning their journey into
the Land of Israel. The text makes clear that Yehoshua [Joshua] is
truly the heir of Moshe [Moses]:

1) Just as Moshe was told to purify the people at Sinai, Yehoshua is
told to purify the people before they cross the river, which is
stopped up so they can walk across as if it were dry land. (This part
of the story is not part of our haftarah.)

2) Just as Moshe and the people make a Pesach offering and eating
matzah, so too Yehoshua and the people make a Pesach offering and
eating matzah.

3) Just as Moshe has an unexpected encounter with the Divine at the
burning bush, so too Yehoshua is surprised by an angel:

“Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man
standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and
asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” He replied, ‘No, I
am captain of the Lord’s host. Now I have come!’ Joshua threw himself
face down on the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, ‘What
does my lord command his servant?’ The captain of the Lord’s host
answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place
where you stand is holy.’ ” And Joshua did so. (Yehoshua/Joshua
5:13:-15, JPS translation)

The parallel with the burning bush is obvious: Yehoshua is told to
remove his shoes in recognition of the holiness of the place, and he
does so. (Cf. Exodus 3)

So our next question is: if the Bible goes out of its way to portray
Yehoshua as symbolically living out the key events in Moshe’s life,
why choose this text as the haftarah for people (that’d be us) who are
not leading the people out of slavery or into the Land?

To me, the story above, of Yehoshua and the angel, is so fitting for
Pesach precisely because it’s about encountering the Sacred when you
least expect it. Remember, when Moshe encountered the burning bush, he
was a fugitive, working as a shepherd, on the side of some unimportant
hill that could have been anywhere. Yehoshua, too, when he encounters
the angel, is just “near Jericho”- not expecting any great theophany,
not having any great dramatic moment (yet.)

This is the deeper meaning of the Pesach story: that we recall our
history precisely because it can be a symbolic template for our own
lives. We may not be leaders of armies or makers of great miracles,
but all of us are commissioned for a spiritual task, the unique work
of our lives. We may not be confronting Pharaoh, but all of us have
the capacity to be liberators, of ourselves and others who may be
stuck in a dark and dismal place. We may not be leading our people
across seas and rivers, but all of us have the opportunity to lead
others from darkness to light, from constriction to freedom, through
the power of our compassion and generosity.

Both Moshe and Yehoshua took off their shoes on holy ground not
because the ground was holy in itself, but because their experience
and renewed spiritual consciousness made that moment holy. That’s
what’s important: any ground can be sacred if we experience rededication and
uplifted vision there. Pesach is all about movement, growth, change and hope;
these things can start right now, wherever you are, because the place you are
standing is holy ground.

A happy and healthy Pesach to one and all,

RNJL

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