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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Parashat Tsav - The Haftara

Parashat Tsav – the Haftara
Malachi 3:4 – 3:24
Reading date: 4th April 2009 – 10th Nisan 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
"I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Eternal" Malachi 3: 23

Passover orients us towards that great day of redemption for all the world.

The second portion in the book of Leviticus continues last week's descriptions of the sacrifices with instructions for the kohen- a 'priestly manual' on how to perform the sacrificial service. Our parasha of Tzav, as it often does, falls this year with the Shabbat before Pesach, and once again, a special Haftara from Malachi replaces the regular assigned reading from Jeremiah. To connect to the parasha, the haftara indeed begins with: "Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to Adonai as they were in days of old, as in years long past." (3:4). However, the passage from Malachi connects more to the upcoming festival of Passover than it does to the Levitical passage.

The name of this Shabbat, 'Shabbat HaGadol' (the Great Sabbath) may get its name from the concluding verse: "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the ‘great’ and terrible day of the Eternal" (3:23); this penultimate verse is re-read after verse 24 to avoid ending on a negative note. Others suggest the name comes from the fact that this was the one Shabbat that the Rabbi spoke at length (usually on laws concerning Passover); sermons are a relatively recent innovation.

Malachi, which simply means 'My messenger,' is more of a title, than an actual personal name. The anonymous individual we call Malachi was the last of the prophets, and lived in the middle of the 5th century B.C.E. before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. (Some sources in fact identify him as Ezra.) At that time, Judea was still a province of Persia. While it seems that he lived at a time when the Temple had been rebuilt (515 B.C.E.) religious performance was perfunctory. Malachi calls for a religious revival.

The Moadim or holydays can be thought of as the DNA of Torah. Irving ('Yitz') Greenberg writes in the introduction to his volume on the Holydays: The Jewish Way, "Grasp [the holy days] in your hand and you hold the heart of the faith in your hand. The holy days are the quintessential Hebraic religious expression..." Every holyday has a central theme, and while we might reflect on religious freedom at Chanukah, or our commitment to study on Shavuot, most holydays celebrate an event that happened only once, a long time ago. But not Passover. The festival of Passover is really three holydays in one. (And here I am not referring to the ancient farmer and shepherd festivals that were combined into the historical exodus from Egypt). But rather, I mean, that the Passover celebration of the exodus is simultaneously a holyday that remembers the past, is recreated in the present, and is a model for the future.

The exodus from Egypt may have been a one time event, but it permeates Hebraic life. It would be hard to exaggerate its importance: we are commanded to remember the exodus daily; the exodus is recited daily in our prayers, and is included in the Friday night Kiddush. Tzitzit, (the fringes on our tallit) serve as a reminder that YHVH took us out of Egypt. The first line of the Ten Commandments identifies YHVH as the God who took us out of Egypt.

But Passover does not only celebrate the exodus from Egypt as an event that occurred in the past. The whole point of the Seder and the ritual foods and the storytelling on Passover night is to reenact the story. Some communities go so far as to dress up: taking a staff and walking around the table. Perhaps we should pack our knapsacks or our suitcases and have them ready, next to our Seder tables. (What should we pack could be an interesting discussion for the Seder itself). Have you ever been to the theatre where the performance so moved you that you were 'breathless?' The purpose of this night of 'dinner theatre' is not only to think about the past, but to actually go through the experience yourself. The Haggada is explicit: In every generation a person must see themselves as if they themselves had left Egypt. What does this mean? Most of the time we understand 'Mitzrayim' literally narrow places, metaphorically; even without going to Egypt, then, the Seder is an opportunity to consider how we are enslaved in the present.
But that's not all. Passover is not only about the past and the present. It is also a model for future redemption. Yitz continues: "The central paradigm of Torah is redemption." And there is no holiday that is more focused on redemption than Passover. Passover seems to say, "If it happened once, it can happen again." Before the exodus from Egypt, the world ran on the principle, 'same old, same old.' There was no escaping fate. Unlike other animals, humans do not live only with the past and in the present. Human beings can anticipate future redemption and work to bring it closer. Humans are future-oriented, and Yitz calls the exodus "an orienting event." Just like we use a compass to orient ourselves if we get lost, humanity must check with the exodus from time to time, to make sure we are on the right path.

What was the most significant event in human history: the invention of the printing press, the Industrial Revolution, the Internet? Yitz argues that it would be the exodus. Not only is it the primary event (that is, if it hadn't happened, none of the other events would have happened), but its message of redemption continues to reverberate as the single most powerful declaration of hope in human history. Passover celebrates the ultimate (and one hopes imminent) day when Elijah the prophet will herald the ultimate liberation from oppression.

Which brings us to our haftara. Because we associate Elijah the prophet with the Seder, the mention of Elijah in the haftara is often thought to be the connection between Malachi and this Shabbat that precedes Passover, but the tradition of Elijah's cup and Elijah at the Seder are a later tradition. Malachi describes the ultimate liberation of Israel from oppression. Malachi's main message is to return back to YHVH, to do teshuva. Then that 'Great Day' will come, the great day that Passover orients us towards, the day of redemption for the entire world.

Happy Passover and Shabbat Shalom

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