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Thursday, April 9, 2009
Chol HaMoed Peasch - The Haftara
Reading date: 11th April 2009 – 17th Nisan 5769
I would like, for your interest, to include a little about the history and traditions of Pesach.
The History of Pesach
Pesach, the springtime holiday of Passover always begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. Like all Holy days, Passover begins the evening before, so the first seder is held on the evening of April 8. The basic theme of the day is the exodus from slavery in Egypt; the various rituals and texts associated with Pesach help us to establish and understand this crucial narrative of communal memory. The basic story is found in the book of Exodus, chapters 1-15. Chapters 12-15 contain details of the observance of the holiday itself.
The name Pesach comes from a Hebrew word meaning "to pass through" or "to pass over". It refers to the story of how YHVH "passed over" the houses of the Hebrews during the plague of the Death of the First Born. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. Pesach is also sometimes called the Chag Ha-Aviv "Holiday of the Springtime," or Zman Cherutenu "the Season of our Freedom."
On the first night of Pesach (first two nights for many traditional Jews outside Israel), there is a special meal filled with ritual to teach us the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a Seder, from a Hebrew word meaning "order." There is a set of texts that are to be discussed in a specific order. The Seder also includes rituals of eating matza and bitter herbs, singing holiday songs and asking questions. The texts, prayers and instructions for the evening are found in a volume called the Haggada, which means 'telling.' The point of the evening is not to read the Haggada, but to use it as a springboard to 'jump off the page.'
The most well-known observances of Pesach are the holding of the Seder meal on the first night (or nights) and the prohibitions against the eating of Hametz - leavened foods. Leavened foods include anything made from five basic grains: wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats. This includes anything made from these products, including beer and grain alcohols. The only acceptable way to eat these grain products is in the form of Matza, or unleavened bread, which is baked very quickly so that the dough does not rise. This helps us remember the speed with which the Israelites left Egypt. The Bible says that they did not have time for their bread to rise. Other kinds of foods can be made from ground-up matza, including cakes and confections, but these are prepared especially for Pesach.
Jews of Ashkenazi (European) descent often also refrain from eating a category of food called kitniyot. These are products made from seeds and beans, including rice, corn, and legumes. The concern is that the prohibited foods may be confused with these items in processed form. Many Sephardic Jews will eat kitniyot, but customs vary widely.
Biblically, Pesach lasts for seven days, but, since Rabbinic times, many communities observe eight days. The prohibition against eating leavened foods lasts until sundown after the final day of the holiday.
Our highlighted Haftara text
"Then God said to me: Mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say: Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off [from life]! Therefore prophesy to them and say: Thus says the Elohim: I am going to open your graves, My people; I will lift you out of your graves and bring you [home] to the land of Israel."Ezekiel 37: 11, 12
Nothing is wasted in nature or in love.
The Shabbat that falls in the middle of Pesach interrupts the weekly cycle of Torah readings, and like first and second day, the holiday readings describe the celebration of Passover and the sacrificial offerings. Ezekiel's haftara begins comparing Jerusalem during the festivals when they are filled with flocks to Israel's ruined cities that will be filled with people. The Haftara is probably one of the most famous passages from the prophets: Ezekiel's image of the 'dry bones.' The idea that Israel would be restored was a message of consolation and comfort to the exiles of Babylonia. Different communities read slightly different verses: some read from Ez. 36:37, 38; 37:14; others read 37:1-17).
The prophet Ezekiel lived during the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE) and was exiled to Babylonia. In the first half of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet warns of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem; in the latter half, he preaches a message of consolation and restoration. While Ezekiel still had hope that the Northern Kingdom would be restored and then united, in fact, this prophecy did not come to pass. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians over a hundred years earlier (722 BCE), and has disappeared from history.
The holiday of Passover marks the 'birth' of the Children of Israel. The exodus narrative is filled with birth imagery: the midwives in Exodus, the narrow birth canal of the Red Sea, and the 'breaking of the waters.' Spring is also about birth; the natural world around us is filled with signs of life. In ancient religion, rebirth, fertility and resurrection are themes associated with springtime. With the holiday of Passover, Israel's hot, dry summer season begins. The rainy season that began at Sukkot is now over. Dew, the only source of daily moisture for plants becomes associated with this rebirth. Starting on Passover, we replace the blessing "who makes the rain fall" with "who makes the dew fall" in our daily liturgy. The prayer for dew is inserted in the 'Gevurot,' the second paragraph of the Amidah, the prayer that speaks about reviving the dead.
Where does this idea of resurrection come from? The Torah certainly does not mention resurrection explicitly, or even any belief in an afterlife. In Genesis, Adam is told, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19b). But the Torah does not have the final word. Slowly, the idea that death may not be the final stop evolves. By the time of Ezekiel, his prophecy of the dry bones becomes interpreted as a depiction of resurrection: dry bones reassembling, sinews and flesh appearing. His graphic description reads like science fiction, and I can just imagine how this could be realistically portrayed today with computer digital animation. Wow, what a special effect! Over the centuries, Ezekiel's message has been understood by many quite literally. Traditional Judaism, to the extent that it has any official 'dogma' considers belief in the resurrection of the dead as a key tenet. Maimonides lists it in his thirteen articles of faith, and it appears in the liturgy in the closing hymn of Yigdal: Meitim yehayeh eil...
But this may not have been Ezekiel's intent. He was addressing the exiles in Babylonia. The Temple had been destroyed. Their lives in Israel were over. Was this to be the end of the Jewish people (like it was the end of the Israelite northern kingdom which has vanished)? Ezekiel reassures them that their lives still have meaning. They can live with hope that although they are 'like dead', Israel will be revived. Today we have seen with our own eyes Ezekiel's vision on the national level come true. Six million Jews were murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) and yet the State of Israel was re-established. Our bones have come to life.
Ezekiel can be read allegorically--as national/political renewal; we don't have to believe in a literal physical resurrection if we don't want to. The liberals say, resurrection is often understood metaphorically, and 'who gives life to the dead' is changed to 'who gives life to all' (mehayeh hakol instead of mehayeh meitim), although newer liturgies are retaining the traditional language.
Passover's message is that just as the earth continually is renewed, our lives too have the potential for redemption. Our festival of liberation teaches us that as life goes on, nothing is wasted in nature or in love.
Happy Passover and Shabbat Shalom