27 March 2010/12 Nisan 5770 Shabbat Tsav — “Altered States”

03/04/2010 at 22:15 Leave a comment

“Altered States”

What does it mean to sacrifice?    Among other things, it means to lose something – to take a loss, to diminish an inventory, to have a negative gain, etc.  It also means to make space for something new, to have opportunity for additional choice and to reconsider one’s own circumstances and reality.  A sacrifice can be a reboot or a restart for something new.

On this Shabbat, named Shabbat haGadol, or the Great Shabbat, because it is the Shabbat just before the Festival of Pesach, it is customary to reflect on the observances and the practices of Pesach – generally, we speak about preparing our homes – cleaning our spaces, removing hametz and stocking up on foods eaten during Pesach.  How much of our preparation is a sacrifice, either positive or negative?  Very often I hear that the time before Passover is both the best of times and the worst of times – in the midst of our work, many of us dream of just locking up the house and letting it be, while we celebrate Pesach in a place of leisure – a hotel or on a cruise ship and indeed, these are desired and valid destinations for many in this eight day period.

So, what does it mean to do the work, to immerse ourselves in the preparation for this challenge?  What does it mean to have our rituals affect us, to inconvenience us, to put us out, to spend our money?  Rather than a happy and obedient companion, sometimes our tradition makes demands on us that asks us to choose between the comfortable life that we have set for ourselves and the rigors of bother and hassle.  For what purpose?  When I am asked, why do I keep kosher, or why do I keep Shabbat or why do we line our countertops with aluminum foil and scour our steel sinks and madly scrub our oven and our cooktop during this time of year – is my answer to be, “I don’t really know?  It’s tradition, it’s what my parents did,” or can I answer somewhat cryptically that it’s about my preserving a Jewish identity – how satisfactory and delicious it is to be in counterpoint to a larger society and to be different from the more dominant rhythms of the year?

And God?  And depth of change?  And potential for my own growth?  This is where our efforts connect with sacrifice.  I imagine that performing sacrifice in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was not a recreational activity, or something done nonchalantly or casually – and I would hope that it was not something delegated to others to perform on another’s behalf.  Rather it took effort and largely because of the effort it took, it meant something substantial.

The Talmud explores this concept – during one of the sieges of Jerusalem, everyday the inhabitants of the city paid an incredible amount of money to their attackers for the lambs that were needed for the daily offering (Baba Kamma 82b).  There would be an exchange – money for sacrifice, even in wartime.  Could you imagine this – why did our ancestors do this?  When we are under assault or threatened, what are some of the first things to go?  Where is the reward or even the wisdom in this?  What are we rooted to?  What would we quickly and perhaps gratefully abandon?

If it became impossible that we no longer could prepare our kitchens and our homes for Pesach, who would clandestinely rejoice?  Who would think that that prospect would be the greatest thing since sliced bread?  Sacrifices demand that we feel the life that we have made – not merely as a tax deduction or as something that will bring us a gain down below on our bottom line.  Sacrifices too are not only social capital, performed to demonstrate to a community the baseline, or the parameters of philanthropy or giving.  A sacrifice should bring us into an altered state, a time of difference.  Through a sacrifice we can depart from the established routines that we set for ourselves, we can break free from the convenient truths that we tell ourselves and take a step ourselves into the wilderness, where the wind whistles a bit unpredictably.

Let us not close the book on our own development – no matter our age and our experience.  We can chase away our fears about our own mortality and our own worth by recognizing how much there is yet to learn and to see that the way that we do things is just one way of many – and the certainty that we hold about our world can always use a little tempering through simple consideration and then, action.

Beyond the dazzle of well expressed arguments and rationale for and against, is the act of doing – Pesach becomes special and consequential if we can find a power of meaning that helps us to express our actions, as we tell our stories.  Embracing and implementing sacrifice is a life’s journey, as well.

Things and people are so rarely all good or all bad if we recognize that people, like animals, just act in their most basic interests with common biases when trying to make objective decisions. Therefore, we do not have to be carried along by the hametz of our social circles or news cycles – proclaiming heaven or herem about someone because of their latest remark or position or attitude.  Cleaning out the hametz means recognizing and getting rid of our accreted opinions and worldviews that bring damage and distance, and exchanging them for reason and perspective and creative thought.  We can bring incredible meaning to the acts that we do if we dare.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Relating with/to Israel — post from Rabbi Menachem Creditor 3 April 2010/19 Nisan 5770 — Shabbat Hol haMoed Pesach — “Bling”

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