By Rabbi Betsy Forester
As I write, the Shabbat prior to Passover, known as “The Great Shabbat,” calls us to cease the routines of our quarantined lives and re-orient to a more soulful way of life. I would like to offer an inspiration based in the Torah portion we would have read if were able to gather for synagogue services this Shabbat. There, Aaron and his sons undergo an elaborate set of rituals as part of their ordination to become priests. Following those events, just when we might have thought they would be ready to assume their official duties, the family of almost-priests is sequestered inside the Tabernacle for seven days. It seems that Aaron and his sons must turn their gaze inward before they can be ready to assume the trappings, rituals, and public presence their new office will demand.
The almost-priests have one week to turn their gaze inward. And with the coming of Pesach, we, too, have the opportunity to enter our own week of soulful contemplation, both individually and collectively. This is when we contemplate our individual journeys toward redemption--what we need to leave behind, how we navigate the wilderness of our own lives, the truths we receive, and the ways of being present in the world toward which we are called, and toward which we strive. Pesach cloaks our contemplation in hope and gratitude for the sacred journey of all human life, symbolized by the Exodus from Egypt.
At our seder tables this year, we can say, “This year, we may not travel. Next year, may we be free to travel to Jerusalem--or anywhere we might want to go. This year, we have a pandemic. Next year, may we be well.” But if we choose not to go deeper this year, we will miss a profound opportunity to probe, internalize, and be empowered by the lessons this frightening and tragic time offers us.
We must embrace the opportunity of this moment as we remember that our ancestors were liberated at night, in fear and darkness. They crossed the Sea under dark skies and howling winds for the chance to commit to a life guided by enduring truth and abiding love.
Can really sit cloaked in hope, authentically and responsibly, this Pesach? What will we mean when we sing wistfully of “next year?” What works for me is to acknowledge that we can yet find the Divine and the miraculous in a world filled with suffering and disease that strike regardless of our virtue. Eating matzo is a perfect way to symbolically level the playing field. None of us is so great that we do not fear for our lives and our livelihood. When tales of self-absorption and failed justice pepper the daily news, none of us is so rich that we can say we have attained redemption.
Redemption actually takes a long time. Let us also not forget that the biblical journey toward redemption does not happen all at once. It takes 40 years of transition and transformation to learn how to be free--and then, there is backsliding, and exile.
The biblical world view and understanding of how God works in the world was different from what we experience today. Our Talmudic sages understood that when they taught, “The world proceeds along its course.” Whatever symbiosis between morality and the natural order our Bible portrays belies our lived reality. Our experience of God is different from that of Aaron and his sons.
I urge us all to walk the path toward redemption together, girded by inspiration tethered, however tenuously, to assumptions we trust. I choose to do that “b’tzelem Elokim,” “b’yad hazakah uv’z’roah n’tuyah”--in what I believe to be God’s image, with the strength of my own hands and the love of my outstretched arms. Even if our hands must type and our love must come through screens, however constrained my efforts must be at this time, we will build momentum from what we are learning about the human condition. That is how we will make the goodness and light of the Eternal One shine in our world. I urge us to unite in the hope of a world in which God’s presence delights to dwell--starting in our own hearts and with our own hands.
Wishing you all a Passover of hope and inspiration.
Rabbi Betsy Forester joined Beth Israel Center as their spiritual leader in 2018. She is a master teacher and religious leader skilled at helping people build meaningful lives through transformative Jewish experiences rich in authenticity, depth, empowerment, intellectual rigor, sacredness, and joy.