Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 2

March 30, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Re-eih | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

In the Hebrew Bible, Passover appears to be a conflation of three holidays:

* chag ha-aviv (“festival of the new ears of grain”), a one-day celebration of spring on the 15th of the month that was called Aviv until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E, then renamed Nissan.

lamb 2* chag ha-matzot (“festival of the unleavened bread”), a seven-day period of refraining from eating, or owning, any leavened food.  This period fell at the beginning of the barley harvest in the spring.

* pesach (“skipping over”), a one-day observance in Aviv, in which a lamb or goat kid was sacrificed, and the meat was roasted and eaten in one night.

Some modern scholars speculate that the Torah combines an ancient festival of matzot (when farmers cleared out their old grain products in preparation for the new grain) with an ancient festival of pesach (when shepherds celebrated the spring lambing by sacrificing a lamb and performing a skipping dance)—and then incorporates both spring holidays in the story of the exodus from Egypt.

Thus the special Torah reading for the first day of Passover, Exodus 12:21-51 (in the Torah portion Bo), begins with Moses’ instructions to the Israelites for the night of the tenth and final plague in Egypt: the death of the firstborn.  Each family must slaughter a lamb as a pesach offering, paint the blood on the lintel and doorposts of its home, and stay indoors all night, eating the roasted meat, while God “skips over” the marked houses and kills only the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The Torah adds that the Israelites shall continue to re-enact this ritual every spring.

Then, after describing the final plague and Pharaoh’s command that the Israelites leave at once, the Torah says:

The people picked up their dough before it could become chameitz, their kneading-troughs wrapped up in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot… And they baked the dough that they had taken from Mitzrayim in rounds of matzot, because it was not chameitz, because they were banished from Mitzrayim and they could not delay, and they had not even prepared provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:34, 37, 39)

chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.

Mitzrayim (מִצְרַיִם) = Egypt.  The dual form —ayim (ַיִם) probably refers to the combined kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first three letters, מצר, might be related to the word meitzar (מֵצַר) = narrow strait, constriction, confinement, bondage.

Egyptian kneading trough

Egyptian kneading trough

I have always found the above explanation of the festival of matzot unconvincing.  If the Israelites normally made leavened bread in Egypt, then they would always have a jar of sourdough starter bubbling in the house.  Why not bring that jar along with a kneading-trough and flour?  The story in the book of Exodus smacks of a post-hoc, invented rationale.

Nevertheless, one of the special Torah readings for intermediate days of the week of Passover, Exodus 13:1-16 (also in the Torah portion Bo), makes the festival of matzot an essential part of the observance of Passover:

Moses said to the people: Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  For with a strong hand God brought you out from this, and you shall not eat chameitz.  Today you are leaving, in the month of Aviv… and it will happen when God brings you into the land…then you shall serve this service in this month.  Seven days you shall eat matzot, and on the seventh day [will be] a festival for God. Matzot shall be eaten these seven days, and chameitz must not be seen with you, and se-or must not be seen with you in all your borders. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying:  Because of this, God acted for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:3-8)

se-or (שְׂאֹר) = sourdough starter; any leavening agent.

Throughout history, religions have connected their new holidays to pre-existing holidays.  Sometimes the only real connection between the new and old holiday seems to be the time of year.  Spring is certainly a good time of year to celebrate both the promise of new grain and the concept of liberation.

But the connection between the festival of matzot and the story of liberation from Egypt may be deeper than that.

In last week’s post, Tzav & Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 1, I wrote about the symbolic meanings of matzot and chameitz proposed by Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. and by Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch in the 19th century.

Philo considered how leaven makes bread rise and puff up, like an arrogant person.  He wrote that eating matzot is a reminder of our humility before God.

Hirsch wrote that chameitz is the bread of independence, and matzot the bread of dependence.  Among other arguments, he cited a verse from the special Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17 (in the Torah portion Re-eih):

Seven days you shall eat matzot, the bread of oni, because in hurried flight you went out from the land of Egypt—so that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:3)

oni (עֹנִי) = misery, wretchedness; a state of dependence due to poverty.

By eating matzot in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery, Hirsch argued, we acknowledge that we did not escape from poverty and oppression by our own actions, but only because of God’s actions: the ten plagues or miracles, and the warnings God communicated through Moses.  We rose to the independence represented by chameitz only because God lifted us out of Egypt.

That is as far as Hirsch went.  But I wonder:  Does leaven itself represent one aspect the divine?  What if God is the fermentation in our souls, and in the world, which leads to liberation and expansion?

During Passover we might acknowledge that without the divine spark, we would be as flat as matzah.  We could not escape from Egypt, Mitzrayim, or the constrictions in our own souls. We would be slaves to our genetic predispositions and to all the psychological complexes we have acquired during our lives.

But if the divine spark in our souls bubbles up like the se-or that bubbles up and makes bread rise, and we are inspired with an insight, then we can make different decisions. With a holy insight, we can push open some of the narrow places in our psyches, and expand into a new life of more freedom and independence.

But we cannot change from matzot into chameitz through sheer willpower. It takes a touch of leavening, and that is a gift from God.

matzah001

The festival called Chag ha-Matzot, Pesach, or in English, Passover, lasts for seven days in Israel.  By Jewish tradition, Passover lasts for eight days outside of Israel (to make sure that those who live far away will be observing Passover during all of Israel’s seven days). This year in the diaspora, Passover begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Saturday evening the following week.  That means we will study the special Torah portions for Passover—including the ones in this blog post—for two weeks.

So it will be two weeks before I return to the annual cycle of Torah portions, and post my new thoughts on Shemini, the next Torah portion in the book of Leviticus.

May all my Jewish readers have a happy Passover! And may some divine insight bubble up in everyone during this change of seasons.

Bo: Impenetrable Darkness

January 18, 2015 at 9:43 am | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Blood.  Frogs.  Lice.  Insect swarms (“wild beasts” in earlier translations).  Pestilence.  Boils.  Hail.  Locusts.  Darkness.  Death of the Firstborn.

These are the ten “plagues”—miraculous calamities—that God inflicts on Egypt before the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go.  Jews recite the ten plagues every spring during Passover/Pesach, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. We also read about the last three plagues in this week’s portion, Bo (“Come”).

Most of the plagues inflict pain on humans, kill livestock, and destroy crops. The last plague kills humans. But the ninth plague, darkness, seems harmless at first glance.

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

Seder Haggadah shel Pesach: Plague of Darkness

God said to Moses:  Stretch out your hand against the skies, and it will become choshekh over the land of Egypt, and the choshekh will be felt.  And Moses stretched out his hand against the skies, and it became choshekh of afeilah throughout all the land of Egypt, for three days.  No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.  But for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings. (Exodus/Shemot 10:21-23)

choshekh (חֹשֶׁךְ) = dark, darkness.

afeilah (אֲפֵלָה) = cut off from any light, complete darkness, impenetrable darkness.

The three days of total darkness terrorize the Egyptians so much that Pharaoh makes his best offer yet to Moses: the Israelites could go with their women and children, leaving merely their livestock behind. (Moses rejects this offer, so that God can produce the final plague and Pharaoh’s complete capitulation.)

What is so terrible about this darkness?  If it were merely three days of blindness, the Egyptians might be able to wait it out.  They would have to feel their way around, but they could still talk with each other. They could cooperate to make sure everyone got food and water.  They could comfort each other.

But the plague of darkness is not physical blindness; it is psychological darkness.

This darkness can be felt.  The Midrash Rabbah (a collection of commentary from Talmudic times) explains that the darkness has “substance”.1  Maybe when the Egyptians grope around to find things they cannot see, all they feel is “darkness”. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that groping means uncertainty, and in the impenetrable darkness of afeilah, everything seems uncertain and doubtful.2

In this condition, stray thoughts that a person would normally dismiss in an instant become obsessions.  What if there is no god?  Does that person wish I were dead?  What if I don’t really love them?  Is my whole life meaningless? What if I am insane? A person living in spiritual darkness keeps groping for true answers, but feels only darkness.

The Torah adds: “No one could see his brother”.  This is the darkness of extreme egotism, exemplified by the Pharaoh.  As the plagues roll through Egypt, Pharaoh’s advisors and the Egyptian people protest that it would be better to give Moses and his god what they want than to put the land through more plagues.  Pharaoh ignores them because he cares only about himself and his own pride; he does not recognize anyone as a “brother” human being.

Thus he is cut off not only from affection, but also from any possibility of enlightenment; he is incapable of learning from others.  Similarly, the afeilah cuts off the Egyptians from any possibility of light.

At first, Pharaoh hardens his own heart.  Over time, it becomes a habit from which only a divine intervention could shake him loose. But God keeps his heart hardened, so Pharaoh does not change. In the plague of darkness, all the Egyptians experience Pharaoh’s immobility.  The Torah says “and no one could get up from under” the darkness.  The Midrash Rabbah explains that anyone who was sitting could not stand, anyone standing could not sit, and anyone lying down could not rise up.3  Like the Pharaoh, the Egyptians cannot change their positions—or their beliefs.

Imagine experiencing a “dark night of the soul” or spiritual crisis so impenetrable that you cannot distract yourself by looking at anything; you cannot trust anything you feel; you cannot care about anyone else, or believe anyone cares about you; and you cannot get a new idea, or see life from a different perspective.

The plague of darkness terrifies the Egyptians because for three days, they experience what it is like to be the Pharaoh.  Maybe it terrifies the Pharaoh himself because at the end of the three days, when the darkness lifts, he sees a glimmer of what his own soul is like.  But it is only a glimmer; his habit of hardening his heart is too strong for actual enlightenment.

As I write this, my eyes are filling with tears for some people I know who appear to be living in a psychological darkness, unconsciously isolating themselves from others because they can neither trust nor respect them, and immobilizing themselves because they cannot change their perspective.

stars in blackAnd I know that any of us can fall into a temporary state of darkness.  I pray that whenever healthy uncertainty turns into doubting everything, we find the power to stop our obsessive groping.  I pray that whenever we fall into the trap of justifying our own behavior instead of noticing and appreciating what others are doing, we realize that we are isolating ourselves, and make an effort to see our brothers and sisters.  And I pray that whenever we are so depressed that change seems impossible, we follow any glimmer of light that gives us a view from a different perspective.

May every human being escape from the plague of darkness.

  1. Shemot Rabbah 14:1, Soncino translation.
  2. Samson Raphael Hirsch, p. 144-145.
  3. Shemot Rabbah 14:3, Soncino translation.

Bo: The Dog in the Night

January 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

To me, dogs are pets. Most dogs have appealing personalities, and the love between dog and human is real. I rarely cry, but I cried when our dog died.

In the Torah, dogs are bad news. The ancient Israelites did not domesticate dogs until late in the First Temple period, even though their neighbors had long been training dogs for hunting, herding, and guarding. So most of the 24 references to dogs in the Hebrew Bible view them as disgusting feral scavengers. Calling a man a dog (or worse, a dead dog) means that he is the lowest of the low.

The first appearance of the Hebrew word for dog, kelev, is in this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”).

Moses said: Thus said God: In the middle of the night, I Myself will go out in the midst of Egypt. And every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn beast. Then there will be loud wailing in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has never happened, and the like of which will not happen again. But as for all the children of Israel, not a dog yecheratz its tongue against man or beast; in order that you shall know that God makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Exodus/Shemot 11:4-7)

yecheratz = will cut, will use a sharp instrument, will decide

On the night of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, not a dog will use its tongue as a sharp instrument against the Israelites. In other words, while God is killing Egyptians, not even a dog will growl or bark to threaten the Israelites.

The verses translated above include two contrasts between the highest and the lowest. First, God says all the firstborn of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones. The phrase “slave-woman behind the millstones” is a translation of a phrase that an Egyptian document uses to indicate someone of the lowest possible social class. In other words, God will make no exceptions; everyone belonging to Egypt will suffer, regardless of social position, and regardless of guilt or innocence.

Next, the Torah says that everyone belonging to Israel will be safe from all threats: from the highest power possible–God Itself–to the lowest danger–dogs. In the middle of the night, while God is killing the Egyptian firstborn, and the Israelites are eating their Passover lamb, roaming dogs  will not bite any Israelite humans or beasts. They will not even bark.

This reminds me of the dog that did not bark in the night in “Silver Blaze”, a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspector Gregory asks Holmes, “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident.”

Sherlock Holmes has deduced that the guard-dog was silent in the middle of the night because the intruder was not a stranger, but the dog’s owner.

The passage in Exodus/Shemot contrasts the loud wailing of the Egyptians with the silence of the dogs. Dogs get agitated when their owners start screaming and wailing, and they respond by whimpering and barking. The dogs who will not growl or bark during the night of the death of the firstborn clearly do not have Egyptian owners. The Israelites who wrote down the Torah thought of dogs as ownerless wanderers, so the silent dogs do not belong to the children of Israel, either. Whose dogs are they?

And it was at midnight when God struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on this throne, to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon, and every firstborn beast. (Exodus 12:29)

God goes from house to house in Egypt that night, skipping over only the houses of the Israelites. But the dogs roaming in the streets are silent, like the dog in “Silver Blaze”–because they recognize their owner.

I want to be like a dog. I don’t want to be the lowest of the low. But I do want to recognize my owner.

I have often wondered why the scout in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar who argues that the Israelites should go ahead and enter Canaan, and trust God to give them the land, is named Caleb, Kaleiv in Hebrew. His name comes from the same root as kelev, “dog”. Yet Caleb’s actions are all virtuous, not base and low, the way most dogs in the Torah behave. Perhaps Caleb is named after the dogs in Egypt—because he, too, recognized God.

Bo, Beshallach: Clouds and East Wind

January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | 1 Comment

This is the d’var Torah I delivered as part of my graduation as a maggidah:

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Livestock disease. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.

Today’s Torah portion picks up with the plague of locusts, goes into darkness, and brings death to the firstborn. Then, finally, Pharaoh releases the children of Israel.

Why locusts? One morning when I was in college in California, I stepped outside and—crunch! The ground was blanketed with crickets. They covered the lawns, the sidewalks, the flowerbeds. Their bodies were so close together, you couldn’t see the ground. Every time somebody opened a door, crickets jumped inside the building.

Those crickets on campus didn’t eat a lot of vegetation before they died. They were a wonder, but not a plague. They were amateurs compared to the locusts in Egypt. The Torah says:

And Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a an east wind into the land, all that day and all the night … (Exodus/Shemot, Bo, 10:13)
And the locust-swarm went up over the whole land of Egypt … (Bo, 10:14)
It covered the sight of all the land, and the land went dark. It devoured all the vegetation … and all the fruit … that remained after the hail. And there was no green left, in the trees or in the field, in all the land of Egypt. (Bo, 10:15)

Now that’s a plague.

You can watch a locust-swarm flying on YouTube. When the sun shines on it, millions of locust-wings glitter like a sea of sparks. And when the locusts swirl in front of the sun, they make a dark cloud, like a gigantic billow of smoke.

This reminds me of how God manifests as a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, in next week’s Torah portion. While the pillar of cloud and fire is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army after them. They meet at the Red Sea. Then the pillar of cloud and fire circles back, to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, the Torah says,

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind, all the night … and split the waters. (Exodus/Shemot, Beshallach, 14:21)

Both times, God humbles the Egyptians and frees the Israelites with a moving, swirling cloud that sometimes glitters and sometimes darkens.

Both times, God also brings in a ruach-kadim. Ruach means wind—or spirit. Kedem means east—or the place of origin. So the “east wind” is also the “spirit of the beginning”.

The first east wind brings in a vast cloud of locusts that finishes off Egypt’s plant life, and dooms Pharaoh to rule over a dead land. This east wind is Pharaoh’s enemy because he cannot accept the “spirit of beginning”. He is unable to change his ways and make a fresh start.

The second east wind parts the sea so the Israelites can escape from the Egyptian army and live. The east wind is their ally because, once they get over their initial despair, they embrace the “spirit of beginning”. They leave Egypt, ready to make a fresh start.

I think the holy “spirit of beginning” touches our lives, too—whether we see the swirling cloud or not. When we are really stuck, unable to choose anything new, we risk being devoured by a cloud of locusts. But—we have the ability to cast aside that mood, and follow the pillar of cloud and fire instead.

May each one of us receive the strength to embrace the spirit of beginning, and make a fresh start.

Bo: Serving God with Possessions

April 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Bo | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on January 17, 2010.)

And also mikanu will go with us—not a hoof will remain—because we will take from them to serve Y*h, our god; and we ourselves will not know with what we will serve Y*h  until we come there.  (Exodus/Shemot 10:26)

miknanu=our possessions, our property—usually livestock

Moses does not ask Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go free.  He only asks Pharaoh to let them go out into the wilderness for a three-day holiday to serve their god.  The implication is that then the slaves will all return to their jobs in Egypt.

Yet God has told Moshe that in the end, after the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh will drive the Israelites out of Egypt altogether.  Then God will lead them to the promised land.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Come), Pharoah reacts to plague number nine, darkness, by telling Moshe that all the Israelites can go to serve God in the wilderness, even the children—but they must leave their livestock behind.  Moshe refuses with the explanation—or rationalization—that “from them we will take to serve Y*h, our god, and we ourselves will not know with what we will serve Y*h  until we come there”.

The Israelite slaves do not possess much except for the descendants of the cows, sheep, and goats their ancestors brought down from Canaan.  But Moshe insists they must take all their possessions with them for the three-day holiday.  Pharaoh rightly suspects his slaves are planning to escape, instead of return.  He also seems to suspect that worshiping their god with sacrifices is merely a pretext for leaving.

In that, I believe, he is mistaken.  Moshe makes sure that the exodus focuses on religious service, not for three days but for forty years.  And the Israelites do worship God with sacrifices.  As well as sacrificing livestock, they sacrifice their security.  Even a bad situation seems secure if it goes unchanged long enough.  Now the Israelites exchange their familiar Egyptian masters for a new and unpredictable master, a god who can create terrifying plagues, a god who might ask anything of them.

Today, many of us serve God by following ethical rules, praying at the right times, and observing other rituals.  This kind of service can be a conscious effort, even a sacrifice.  Or it can be lip service, not service of the heart.  What do we do when our inner world changes and we need to hear and follow the call of the divine, but we don’t know how anymore?

We can look over our possessions, and ask God what needs to be sacrificed.  Are we too attached to our “livestock”, our material goods?  Are we clinging to our present status—high or low?  To the security of our present life?  To something else that keeps us enslaved in a narrow place?

What do we need to sacrifice in order to free ourselves to leave our Egypts and enter a new world?

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