Cantor & Student Rabbi Gershon Silins – 23 March 2018
Our Torah reading for this week is Tzav, the second parasha in the Book of Leviticus. It is in large part a description of a range of sacrifices that relate to the priests, Aaron and his sons. This is also “Shabbat HaGadol”, the Great Sabbath, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover. The name reminds us of how important that holiday is to many Jews, even if they are not particularly observant in other areas of Jewish life. WhatsApp and gmail are thick with discussions of the consumption of kitniyot at the Seder (prohibited for Ashkenazim, acceptable for Sephardim) the availability of kosher for Passover wine, the best place to find the extra special “shmura matzah”. These discussions don’t just take place in religiously observant communities or even in the communities of Liberal Judaism, but equally among Jews for whom Passover may be their only significant Jewish observance or connection. What is it about Passover that makes it so compelling?
Perhaps we can find a reason for this in the text of the Torah portion. The commandments we read here include a description of the “sin” offering and the “peace” offering, as well as the intricate details of the garments worn by Aaron and his sons as they perform their functions as priests. It is hard for a modern reader to find much inspiration in these descriptions, but they do tell us something of what our ancestors needed from the religious framework that was developing as they wandered in their wilderness environment. They wanted to feel some assurance that the inconsistencies between their own thoughts and behaviour on the one hand, and their experience of divine revelation on the other, could be resolved through actions performed with great effort and attention to detail. And they wanted to be able to trust some authority to make this possible for them. This seems to me to be the reason for the beautiful and awesome garments that Aaron and his sons were to wear, including the mysterious Urim and Thummim that were part of their vestments.
So, too, do many Jews wish for a path to a sense of religious rightness. We don’t seek an abdication of the critical faculties we use when we consider our religious connections, but rather the addition of something less intellectual and more tangible. And so we focus on the virtually obsessive rules of Passover. The excuse often given for such detailed observance at this, and only this, time of the year is that the Seder should be comfortable for the more observant attendees. But very few of the attendees in the Sederim I know are religiously observant during the rest of the year. It is rather that in this “mikdash m’at” or small sanctuary that the Seder represents, we want to find a way to bring ourselves into harmony with something we don’t fully understand and don’t wish to be critical of. For that moment at the Seder, and perhaps for the days of Passover that follow it, we want to be authentic Jews, following rules that precede our generation and bind us to the generations that we remember, and the generations that extend to a past far beyond our memories. We want to be whole, one with our people and our families. We want to find connection. And for a few moments, somewhere amidst the charoset and its sweetness, the horseradish that blinds us with tears, the multiple glasses of wine (the only occasion on which most of us would dream of drinking quite so much!) and the afikomen, we find it.
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