toesTzav vs. the Seder: Historical and Personal Symbols (5773/2013)

Parshat Tzav helps me understand why I love the Pesach Seder so much. The Seder’s symbol system is personal and accessible. Tzav’s is historical and obscure.

Tzav tells us that Aharon and his sons are welcomed with a meaningful ritual. Before they start their work as priests, carrying the people’s emotional burdens, they will prepare with a full week of retreat. Yes, spiritual preparation is important, and so are symbols.

But what do these symbols mean: a drop of blood on Aharon’s right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe? My home edition of Mikraot Gedolot, Torah with commentary, showcases six outstanding medieval commentators. Only one of them even attempts an interpretation. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) says, “Blood touching Aharon’s toe atones for Aharon. Torah itself explains that “’blood atones for a person.’” And, he adds, “After Zipporah circumcises her son, she touches her husband Moshe’s feet with blood – this meaning is similar.” However, Torah itself does not explain why blood atones, and gives no context at all for Zipporah’s unique ritual. Understanding either of these meanings requires significant research into comparative ancient Near Eastern religions.

At the Seder, however, we encounter symbols with easy personal connections. The bitterness of Maror is tasted. The quick last minute baking of Matzah is understood through its frustrating crumbly texture. Even something as humorously obscure as the egg is easy to interpret through personal experiences: watching new life hatch from an egg, enjoying the freshness of morning while gathering from chickens, learning to cook a first simple recipe. Our joy in sharing these personal meanings helps renew the Seder year after year. And, over time, we weave gradually changing collective meanings.



Moshe is the MAN!  (2012/5772)

Parshat Tzav begins: God spoke to Moshe saying, “Instruct Aharon and his sons…” (Vayikra-Leviticus 6:1). Why does God not speak directly to Aharon? Perhaps because Aharon is not installed as cohen gadol until the end of Parshat Tzav. Or perhaps, to emphasize the greatness of Moshe, a prophet claimed by several religious traditions.

Christian Gospel writer Matthew establishes Jesus as a spiritual disciple of Moses. Torah says that Moses was “with God for forty days and forty nights. He ate no bread and drank no water.” Following this model, Matthew’s Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness on his spiritual quest. (Matthew 4) When Satan tempts Jesus, Jesus responds with Moses’ words from Devarim-Deuteronomy: “A human being does not live by bread alone” (8:3). “Do not put God to the test” (6:16). “Serve only God” (6:13).

Qur’an highlights Musa as the inspirational paradigm of a prophet who accepts a mission, takes a risk, and follows through. In the Qur’an’s midrashically inspired telling of the Exodus story, Musa tries to teach the self-absorbed Pharaoh to see signs of the One God everywhere. When Pharaoh and his courtiers respond with skeptical cynicism, Musa asks God to strip the Egyptians of their wealth and ease until they crack spiritually and see the Presence of God. (Sura 10)

Our Haggadah focuses on the greatness of God and makes little mention of God’s servant Moshe. And yet, as we examine our own roles in responding to political and spiritual calls for freedom, the humble Moshe keeps popping up as our role model!

What aspect of Moshe’s work do you want to bring into your life this year?


Continuous Atonement (5766/2006)

Adapted from Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams

“This was the purification offering for the altar [that] made it holy, so atonement could be made by it.”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:15)

The altar was at the center of every camp the Israelites set up during their travels in the wilderness. Why?  So that we should not think, “the world would be a much better place if everyone else would just engage in atonement.” And so that we should think, “Atonement — reflection, reparation, and renewal – is at the center of my life.”

The Talmud says, “Three things call a person’s sins to be presented before God for immediate judgment: walking next to a shaky wall, being pompous in prayer, and calling down God’s judgment upon someone else.”  (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b)

Only a person convinced that their own righteousness protects them from harm would deliberately walk next to a shaky wall.  Only a person certain that all their petitions will be accepted would be pompous in prayer.  Only a person sure of their moral superiority would dare to wish that God judge another immediately.  Such certainty about one’s own perfection, the Talmud says, brings down God’s judgment.

The inner practice of atonement ought to take place all year round.  Those who make a regular practice of reflection, reparation, and renewal are trusted by God to get through the year.  Thus, God reviews their cases only on Rosh Hashanah.  But anyone too arrogant to atone is judged by God immediately, in order to provoke the desire to atone.

  1. Memorable moments of recognition and realization from our family seders:
    — Once, when we came to the part in the story commenting that when we had left Egypt and were crossing the desert, we read that had we NOT crossed from mitzrayim and made our way to the new land, “YOU,” emphasized my husband, “YOU would not be here today!!!” Our younger son, looked up at me, stricken and with eyes wide open, “Mom, is that true”!!!! and then his face told us, slowly the understandiing dawning, that it was, indeed, true.
    — At one seder in later years, when we were about to ask the fi-re kashes, the Haggadah reader said, “and for this job we need to find the very youngest person here.” Our four-year-old grandson son looked up with a joyful smile of recognition on this face, “That would be ME!” he almost chortled.
    — My sister-in-law wrote a section in our family Haggadah asking that anyone who wanted to, could tell us about the great heros in their own life. Our older grandson said, “It’s my friend Jonathan, because he found out he has Diabetes Two and he had to learn many ways to keep himself well and safe.”

    1. Really beautiful moments, Martha! And some of them sweetly funny. May this year also include the creation of beautiful memories. All the best to you, John, and family.

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