Shabbat HaChodesh: Reconstructing Passover

by Rabbi Mordechai Liebling
5772

Shabbat shalom, it is an honor, a privilege and a pleasure for me to be here; a wonderful occasion to celebrate. This is Shabbat Hachodesh and our extra torah reading is from Exodus, the initial commandment and description for observing Passover. The rabbi’s inserted this reading to remind us to prepare for the holiday. Today I am suggesting some additional preparations.

Passover is the quintessential spring holiday it is about the birth and renewal, of our people, of the earth and of freedom from oppressive power.

Passover began over 3000 years ago with the combination of two ancient Canaanite spring nature holidays along with the commemoration of the Exodus that we read about today. The two nature elements are: one, from the shepherds spring celebration hag ha pesah, the sacrifice of a lamb to mark new births; and the second from the farmers, hag ha aviv- the holiday of spring or more precisely of ripening barley, also know hag ha matzot- the feast of unleavened breads, before the farmers would cut the new grain they would perform a ritual of discarding all sour or fermented dough which was used instead of yeast for fermenting bread- some think to prevent the new crop from being infected by an old crop. These two holidays were celebrated at different times during the month of Aviv. These two were then merged with the feast of the pascal lamb recounted in the book of Exodus. The result was that all 3 festivals were celebrated as one holiday on the full moon of Aviv.

Remember that the Exodus story itself is wrapped in the symbolism of birth. It begins with the midwives saving the Jewish babies, Moses is withdrawn from the water, Egypt is mitzrayim the narrow place understood as the birth canal, we come through the waters of the sea to be born. The number 40- is also about birth, the gestation period is counted as 40 weeks from the last menstrual period, thus the symbolism of 40 days on the mountain and 40 years in the desert- the gestation of something new. The Exodus is about our birth, no wonder the authors of the bible chose the time of the spring holidays of birth to mark the Exodus. They were creating a new religion, a new identity, their need was to fuse a new conception of God with popular rituals and celebrations.

I want to look more closely for a moment at the word aviv, we are told in Exodus 13:4 and 23:15 to celebrate Pesah in the month of aviv. In exodus 9 31-32 in describing the effect of the plague of hail on the crops we can learn that aviv is a stage in the development of the barley crop, that is vulnerable to damage by hail. We know from agriculture that is the stage of the plant 15- 21 days before the barley can be harvested- hold that piece of information. Aviv is of course Hebrew for spring. In the Babylonian exile the name of the month was changed to Nissan which meant first fruits.

As you may know the Hebrew calendar is a 19 year cycle, and seven of those years contain an extra month of Adar, in order to keep the lunar and solar calendars in synch. Prior to the mathematical computation of the calendar in the 4th century CE it was done by observation. In the Talmud the rabbis taught that quote “ For the following three things a leap year is made: because of the late arrival of spring; of the unripeness of tree products; and for the late arrival of the equinox.” Pesah had to come after the equinox and the barley had to be ready. The bible instructs that the cutting of the first barley sheaves had to take place during Passover, thus it had to be ripe. On the last day of Adar the barley would be inspected if it was not yet in the stage of AVIV 2-3 weeks from ripening , an extra month was declared , hence adar sheini.

The Jewish calendar was dependent on the stage of the crops, in order to fulfill our rituals we had to be in synch with the earth. The biblical approach was to create a watchful balance between history- linear time, and nature cyclical time, or as understood by Kabbalists between the masculine and feminine principles.

As the rabbis replaced visual observation with mathematical computation, which happened after the temple was no longer standing and the barley did not need to be brought to the temple, the nature aspect of the holiday began to dwindle in consciousness and importance- which may have been the intent of the rabbis as we will see from other changes.

The central text of the traditional Haggadah is Deuteronomy 26 5-8 beginning with ‘arami oved ani’—“my father was a fugitive” or more popularly translated “wandering Aramean.” These 4 lines are the briefest encapsulation of the Exodus story in the bible. The focus of these lines is the oppression and pain of the Jews and a powerful God saving us, persecution and redemption. Most of the traditional Haggadah is a commentary on these sentences. However, these lines from Deuteronomy chapter 26 are ripped out of context.

The original text beginning with 26:1 “when you enter the land that God is giving you as a heritage and you possess it and settle it…” This text reads as a homecoming story. The Israelites are told to take the first fruits on Shavuot the feast of weeks- seven weeks from pesah when the barley and spring wheat harvest were completed- and bring them to the temple and make this declaration to the priests which focuses on the bounty of the land and thankfulness for the harvest. In the Mishna, in Tractate Bikkurim we read a lively description of what this ceremony was like on Shavuot. There was a procession led by an ox with horns covered in gold and by flute players. Tens of thousands of people attended. These verses are about coming home to Israel and about gratitude for the harvest.

These 10 verses were among the most well-known by the masses of people, because they recited them at the festival. This all changed with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, without the temple the agricultural rites could not be observed, there were no longer processions, and home was no longer such a safe place. The rabbis completely transformed Shavuot, it was spiritualized and historicized changed into the holiday celebrating the torah, it’s nature component barely recognized. But what of the verses that were well known and in the hearts of the people?

This was also the time when the seder was beginning to be formulated. The rabbis took these very popular verses from the one of the most joyous celebrations of the year and placed them at the center of the Haggadah and intentionally reinterpreted them. The focus is no longer coming home and thankfulness for the harvest but now is persecution and redemption. The rabbis were clear about the theology and lessons they thought were necessary for that historical moment.

In the haggadah they willfully mistranslate “my father was a wandering Aramean” arami oved avi to “my father was destroyed by an Aramean,” “arami ibed avi” understanding the word oved-wandering - as ibed - destroyed, changing the vocalization of the word. They then see Laban, Jacobs father-in law, as the Aramean, and claim he destroyed “my father” (Jacob) which is not in the biblical story. Many traditional Jewish commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Rashbam reject this interpretation as being grammatically incorrect. The rabbis want to make this a story about the threats to the survival of the Jewish people. They want to emphasize persecution and redemption, they were under Roman rule.

They sought to minimize the nature roots of Pesach and Shavuot and make them into events celebrating God’s might and revelation. They could not completely ignore Pesach as a spring festival, but they could significantly minimize it.

We see that in computing the calendar mathematically and in focusing on the historical and theological significance of Pesach, the rabbis moved away from the celebration of nature festivals. Christianity, arising in the same period, moved even further from the celebration of nature festivals. And the arc of the last 2000 years of western civilization has moved further and further away from appreciating and treating as holy our relationship with the earth, thereby creating a great imbalance.

As is my wont, I looked at what Mordecai Kaplan had to say. He goes back to the original biblical intent of celebrating nature and freedom. He writes in my favorite book of his, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion:

“Both the creative powers in the physical world and the spiritual forces in the human world that make for personal and social redemption are treated as manifestations of the divine.

Not only are both forms of energy thus accorded an equal degree of importance in the scheme of life BUT THEY ARE DECLARED BY IMPLICATION TO BE INTERDEPENDENT.” He goes on to write that there are not separate festivals for history and nature they are combined.

WHAT can it mean that they are INTERDEPENDENT- one meaning is that for one to be healthy they each have to be healthy, for one to be respected they both have to be respected.

Kaplan is specifically teaching that the spiritual energy that leads to personal redemption – defined as the fulfillment, actualization of each of us and that also leads to social redemption defined as a world of justice and freedom is interdependent with the physical energy of nature. The spiritual and physical energies are both divine and mutually dependent.

There is symmetry here, balance, a prescription for a healthy existence that recognizes the interdependence of the natural world with human fulfillment. Today we have an unhealthy existence, as evidenced by global climate change. If we look at justice, global climate change effects the poor suffer most severely, there are already tens of millions of climate refugees; there will be no justice, no redemption as Kaplan understands redemption, if we do not act to slow global warming. Pesach as a holiday celebrating both nature and justice can call our attention to this.

Later in the paragraph he writes, ‘The function of religion is to cultivate such appreciation of the material blessings that fall to our lot as would evoke from us a sense of moral responsibility for the use to which we put them.” Kaplan understands redemption as both individual and social, individually many of us think about the moral responsibility of our blessings, and we need to think about the collective moral responsibility as well. I’d like to focus on this for a moment.

The United States uses up a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources, if everyone on earth lived as Americans do we would require every year the resources of more than 5 planet earths. We contribute 25% of the greenhouse gases which change the earth’s atmosphere. Our way of life is destroying the earth’s ecosystem- how do we take moral responsibility for our blessings, collectively and individually, when some of our blessings are contributing to destruction?.

On an individual level, we can engage with the concept of hametz. There are many teachings beginning with the early Hassidim that identify hametz with excess material possessions. We live in a culture that is constantly pushing us to consume more; and the earth cannot sustain this level of consumption, we have to change. Traditionally we clean our house before Pesach to get rid of all the hametz. One new practice for us is to look at what we own, room by room, closet by closet, do we really need it, if not give it away- maybe it will stop someone else who does need it from having to buy a new one- reusing is the highest form of recycling. On Pesah we begin counting the Omer, a 49 day period to Shavuot, we can have as an Omer practice becoming more conscious of our consumption patterns, perhaps not buying any new non-consumables (things that we use up like food). During the Seder we will sing Dayenu- it would have been enough. This is good time for us contemplate how much stuff is enough. We can use Pesah for the cultivation of a new sense of freedom from a culture of constant consumption.

Matzoh is the epitome of simple food, unadorned, basic. Some people have taken to calling Hag HaMatzot (lit. “Festival of Matzoh”) the “holiday of simple food.” I know when I was young there was a fairly limited amount of food one could buy for Pesach, and every year I am astounded by the new things that are available. It’s as if the deprivation of some things for even a week is intolerable. Can we use Pesach as a time for more simple eating? Perhaps the items we buy for the seder plate or even the meal can be locally grown or organic.

A word about haroset. Arthur Waskow teaches that the ingredients are drawn directly from foods mentioned in the Song of Songs: apples, wines, nuts and spices, and Sephardic recipes include dates and figs as well. The Song of Songs is the book we read during Pesach. It celebrates nature, fertility and passion. Let’s move away from haroset as being bricks and mortar, and delight in the pleasures of the natural world.

Traditionally we have interpreted the salt water used for dipping as the tears of our ancestors. Perhaps this year as we dip the greens into the salt water, we will understand it as the tears of the earth. In the Exodus story the liberation begins when God hears the cry of the Hebrew slaves, let us hear and taste the cry of the earth.

Individually we do need to change and yet, it will come to naught unless there are collective changes in our society, structural and policy changes.

Pesach of course is about The Exodus story, the abuse of power, a hardened heart and freedom.

Pharaoh had his heart hardened; he did not have free will, so in some way he was a slave as well. A slave is someone who doesn’t have the freedom to act, today we talk about being a slave to one’s addictions, someone who knows the negative consequences of an act but is powerless to stop doing it. Pharaoh couldn’t stop despite seeing that his acts brought plagues and suffering. Our society is addicted to producing and consuming more and more material goods and addicted to oil, that leads to global climate change- we are seeing the effects: flooding, species extinction, desertification, climate refugees and more- these are surely formidable plague the last year’s flooding in Pakistan was repeatedly described as of Biblical proportions. There are many hardened hearts among our political and corporate decision makers- contemporary pharaohs.

According to the World Health Organization climatic changes already are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually.

That estimate includes deaths as a result of extreme weather conditions, changes in transmission patterns for many diseases and changes in patterns of food production leading to malnutrition. There is further evidence that unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions would increase disease burdens in the coming decades. These diseases mainly affect younger age groups, so that the total burden of disease due to climate change appears to be borne mainly by children in developing countries. The risks are concentrated in the poorest populations, who have contributed the least to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

2010 was the hottest year on record, capping the hottest decade. The plagues have already begun, the canaries in our collective coal mine are dying- amphibians are the most sensitive creatures to environmental change and there is an increasing number of extinctions. Our tradition is one of reinterpreting holidays according to how we need to be called to redemption in that historical moment. This moment requires that we hear the cry of the earth. In the last sentence of the Kaplan quote he writes that we have not yet fully learned the lessons of our material blessings. This is the time.

Ten days ago I was in Harrisburg, the capitol of Pennsylvania, at the quarterly meeting of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the SRBC. On the agenda was the approval of over 60 requests for water withdrawal from the river, most of them from the hydro-fracking industry. Hydro fracking known commonly as fracking shoots a mixture of water combined with up to 400 chemicals at very high pressure to loosen natural gas from shale rock. Fracking leads to serious environmental degradation and harm to people in the surrounding area. I have been very involved in trying to halt it in PA. We had managed to prevent the SRBC from approving requests the previous quarter through acts of spontaneous civil disobedience. This time they issued strict rules saying that anyone who disrupted the meeting would be ejected and subject to arrest.

I had to decide if I was willing to risk arrest. I’ve been arrested before for civil disobedience before, always related to an issue related to war or potential war. Jewish morality teaches that we can break laws to save a life. Was I willing to be arrested for protecting the earth? What was my commitment to the earth, to Creation? What would the tradition say? One understanding of God is that God is the life of the universe, hai haolamim, the ongoing process of the development of the universe or the force of all life that is- creation itself. Surely that is a life worth saving. The rape and destruction of the earth by the extraction industries is a violation of life. With that understanding I decided to risk arrest. The authorities were cleverer than us. When we stood and began chanting, “I pledge to protect the Susquehanna,” they just ignored us. They spoke into their microphones and within minutes approved all of the requests and adjourned.

The freedom tale of the Exodus begins with acts of civil disobedience by the midwives Shifra and Puah, who refuse to follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill male Jewish babies, they are our role models. Pesah is our call to appreciate, honor and care for the earth and to stand up to the powers that despoil it. We need to advocate in every possible forum the need to enact policies that protect the earth and reduce our production of greenhouse gases- the plague of our day.