April 2011

The coincidence of parashat Acharei Mot and the Shabbat before Passover (Shabbat HaGadol) prompts comparisons between Yom Kippur and Pesach. Acharei Mot provides the basis for Yom Kippur, a day of innui, affliction. Pesach, which arrives Monday night, is when we eat lechem oni, the bread of affliction.

Yom Kippur is a deeply personal holiday in many respects. It is the day when we each, individually, account for our actions and renew our relationship with God. It has a national aspect as well, but this is in large measure subordinated to the personal—this despite the fact that the holiday is generally observed in large communal settings, most notably synagogue. Passover, by contrast, is our national holiday. While there is an important individual aspect to it, the thrust of the holiday is national renewal and remembrance of the national narrative. In contrast to Yom Kippur, Passover is observed primarily in the home, not in the synagogue.

Whereas the Yom Kippur ritual is fixed and essentially unchanging from year to year, the Seder invites and encourages play and change within its structure. The Kohen Gadol performed the same ritual year after year in the ancient Temple, and we read the same words about his activities year after year. But the Haggadah of the Seder is reprinted with new commentaries, new midrash, new ideas every year, and no two seders ever look the same.

The Mishnah draws a further comparison between the two holidays in analyzing the preparation undertaken for each:

We do not worry that a mouse may have dragged hametz from house to house or from place to place, for if we did, we would have to worry that hametz had been dragged from courtyard to courtyard or from city to city, and there would be no end to the matter. (Mishnah Pesachim 1:2)

Seven days before Yom Kippur they would take the High Priest from his house to the Palhedrin Chamber. They would appoint another priest to act in his stead in case he became unfit to perform the service. Rabbi Yehudah says: They would even appoint another wife for him, in case his wife died, since the Torah says, “And he will atone for himself and his household” (Lev. 16). His wife is his household. The Sages replied, “If so, there would be no end to the matter.”

The discussion of the Rabbis in both these cases elaborates on one of the challenges common to both Pesach and Yom Kippur: the yearning for finality and the insecurity of uncertainty. Despite all our cleaning, despite all our preparations, nothing is static—hametz could land on our doorstep as we begin the seder, something could happen to the High Priest’s wife as he enters the Holy of Holies. These things are beyond our control, and yet we worry lest they happen. The position of Rabbi Yehudah, and the unspoken position rebutted by the Mishnah in Pesachim, give voice to these doubts and uncertainties: batten down the hatches, take every possible precaution, you can never be too prepared. But then the voice of reality sets in, and the Sages rule: If so, there would be no end to the matter.

We are likely not worried about mice, and we are not concerned today that something might happen to the High Priests. Yet our insecurities remain: Did we clean enough? Did we ask for forgiveness from everyone whom we wronged? We can always do more. Yet the Torah responds to human needs on human scale: At a certain point, we have to say enough is enough. At Yom Kippur, that exercise is known as accepting forgiveness, truly believing that God has granted selicha and mechila. At Pesach, it comes in the form of bitul: on the morning before Passover, we relinquish ownership of all our hametz, such that, as Maimonides says, we could see a loaf of bread on our dining room table and have no thought that it belongs to us.

Yom Kippur and Pesach are two moments of our most intense encounters with the Jewish calendar, when we are challenged to find the point of integration between ourselves and the larger covenantal community of the Jewish people throughout space and time—a community that includes Jews throughout the ages and the God who took us out of Egypt and forgives us year after year. Each holiday emphasizes a different dimension of this process, but the endpoint in both is renewal and temimut, integrity.

Chag sameach.

A student of mine, Alyssa Petersel, was inspired by the This I Believe project, and has started her own This I Believe blog. She invited me to contribute, and I wrote this piece for Passover.

I believe in freedom. Not as much freedom from as freedom for, the idea of positive liberty.

I believe that the first step of freedom is casting off the yoke of oppression. The Torah, our people’s eternal account of its ongoing life in history, brought us the world’s most enduring story of the injustice of slavery. The punishment of Pharaoh and the exodus of the Israelites has become the template for liberation movements across the globe, inspiring Enlightenment reformers and civil rights crusaders. V’hotzeiti, v’hitazlti, v’ga-alti, v’lakachti—“I will take them out… I will save them… I will redeem them… I will take them to Me…” (Ex. 6:6-7). These words spoken by God to describe the liberation of the Israelites have become the bywords of freedom for humanity. I believe in them.

But I believe that this is only the first half of freedom, and I believe we too often neglect the second half.

Click to read the full post.