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Judaism: Thoughts for Chol Hamoed (Intermediate Days)

Published: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 6:06 AM


HERALDING THE SPRING

In Israel and the northern hemisphere, Pesach (Passover) is the festival of spring. It falls in that month of Nisan which the Torah calls "Chodesh HaAviv", the Spring Month.

The slumbers of Nature are over: “Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the sound of the turtle-dove is heard...” (Shir HaShirim 2:11-12). The spring-like atmosphere calls for a reading which envisions the same spirit of renewal, hence the choice of Shir HaShirim.

But this is not all. Pesach is the end of the darkness of the Egyptian bondage, the emergence of the people of Israel into the springtime of national renewal and hope.

This is the mood of Pesach – not just the Pesach of the past, "Pesach Mitzrayim", but the Pesach of the future, "Pesach L’Atid", when the people of Israel and the entire world will emerge into the messianic redemption in which all the Universe will see the flowers appear and the birds sing.

SONG OF SONGS ON FRIDAY NIGHT AND THE INTERMEDIATE SABBATH OF PASSOVER

Among the Sephardim and some Ashkenazim, Shir Hashirim is chanted through on Erev Shabbat. The reason is linked with the Shabbat hymn, "L’cha Dodi". The hymn calls upon the Beloved to join in welcoming the Shabbat Bride. It is read on the Intermediate Sabbath of Passover.

The link is not merely that both focus on the word "dodi", "My Beloved". It goes deeper. If taken allegorically, the sometimes daring imagery of Shir HaShirim depicts the yearning of the spirit for the ecstasy of spiritual union – with Shabbat, with the Torah, with the Land of Israel, with God Himself.

In the M’chilta, Rabbi Akiva says, “I speak of the beauty and praise of God before all the nations”. They ask Israel, ‘What is your Beloved more than any other beloved one?’”  An answer is given in Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabba, “Rabbi Yehudah bar Illai said, ’He sings of me, and I sing of Him’...The congregation of Israel say to God, “Lord of the Universe, all the ills that You bring upon me are only in order to make me love You more.”

On Friday night, being the climax of the week, all the loves in a Jew’s heart come together.

THE BOOK OF SOLOMON

The first verse of Shir Hashirim calls the Book "LiSh’lomo", “Solomon’s”. Without going into the historical question of the authorship of the Book, the Midrash reads Shlomo as a reference to God, "Mi shehashalom shelo" – "The One to whom peace belongs".

"Shalom" – here and elsewhere in Hebrew usage – is more than the absence of conflict. It is from a root that means completeness or perfection. God is the One who is complete and perfect, and He creates and engages the people of Israel to bring about perfection upon earth.

The connection with Shir Hashirim? If human beings earnestly, zealously, lovingly, work on bringing about a climate in which there are no jagged edges or deficiencies, the world will (in the words of the prayers) be “established as the Kingdom of the Almighty”.

LEAVING IN HASTE

What a disappointment it must have been for our ancestors. After centuries of hard, broken bits of biscuit they dreamed of soft, edible leavened bread such as the well-heeled Egyptians ate, but it was not to be.

They left Egypt in haste and as they went the dough baked hard and it was the same of bread of affliction again, except that this time they knew the good times were about to unfold and the next time they would eat rich man’s bread. Matzah, therefore, was two things at once – the memory of affliction and the promise of redemption.

But why was all the haste necessary? More time spent on planning and the Exodus might have been a more triumphant experience. Or then again it might not have been. Had the people dawdled the moment might have passed and the opportunity would have gone. Maybe that is why the haste was necessary. When opportunity beckons one has to respond immediately.

Not in all circumstances; the Talmud advises exactly the opposite when it comes to finding a marriage partner. Pir’kei Avot also advises taking your time if you are a judge and have to reach a fair and just decision. But in so many other departments of life, opportunity knocks but once and we dare not delay in opening the door. Especially when it comes to freedom: when the gaol door opens, off you go.

I'VE GOT MY RIGHTS

The Festival of Freedom has its downside. It’s a great thing to cherish the hope of freedom, an even greater thing to find the dream come true. But freedom can be taken too far. To claim that I ought to be free to be or do whatever I want is an unwarranted extension of the concept.

“I want to be free to worship God!” is what Moses told Pharaoh. What he didn't say was what we constantly hear around us, “I want to be free to take drugs, I want to be free to hate whoever I choose, I want to be free to hurt you, rob you, run you over, force you into my opinions”.

If all that I say is that I want these things, I am making a revealing statement about my personal psychology, my emotions, my appetites and priorities. But when l say I have a right to be or to do something, that’s a worse problem.

There are three issues:
*  What is the content of the “right”?  
*  What is the source of the “right”?
*  Who, if anyone, recognises and/or protects the “right”?

The three are intertwined. If I decide on my own that I have a “right”, why should anyone else approve? If a particular group or class of which I am a member decides that a certain “right” exists, why should any other group or class, or society as a whole, recognise or protect it?

So we come back to the issue of the source of a supposed “right”. How did I get the “right”? Did God give it to me? Did society? Did any outside power or authority? If I have to say in the final analysis that I or my group or class invented the right, what “right” do I or we have to create “rights”?

*  If neither God, nor society, nor the State, is prepared to protect your “rights”, do your “rights” have any legal or moral foundation?
*  If you tell me that you are competent to invent rights, and that you can claim a right to do X, then I can claim an exactly opposite right to do Y, and we will end up killing each other in the name of rights.

There is a further problem: the partnership of rights and duties. Lord Jakobovits marked the beginning of his chief rabbinate of Britain by an address to the Institute of Directors in which he emphasised that the Bible does not speak of rights but of duties. Not, “I have a right!” but “I have a duty!”

On this basis the whole discussion may be using the wrong word. Note what the Ten Commandments do: they do not establish Ten Rights, though rights are able to be inferred (when they say, “Do not kill”, they imply that every human has a right to live): what they establish above all is duties.

Paraphrasing an American President, the question we have to ask on Pesach and at all times is not, “What can my community/society/country do for me?” but “What can I do for them?”

There are of course broader theological implications: as religious people our question should be, not so much “What can God do for me?” but “What can I do for God?”

REMEMBERING THE EXODUS EVERY DAY

Q. Since the Torah tells us to remember the going out of Egypt all the days of our lives (Deut. 16:3), why do we need a special festival of remembrance?

A. True, we should remember the Exodus every day, not just on Pesach. But remembering is not our only duty. There is also the duty of telling, which is what the name “Haggadah” literally means. The remembering is for every day: the telling is especially for Pesach.

Rav Chaim of Brisk used to say there were several differences between the two duties. Remembering is an individual act: you can remember the Exodus by yourself. Telling, however, is a community act: you put the story into words and share it with others. Remembering is a process of thinking about the general nature of an event; telling requires you to recognise the sequence of the development of the story.

Two further points can be made. Remembering can be academic, but when you tell the story you become personally involved, so that you feel you are there, feeling the pain of the enslavement and sharing the joy at the redemption. In addition, after remembering and telling, you instinctively want to praise God for His miracles and his deliverances.

This suggests a new translation of a well-known passage in the Haggadah, “The more one tells of the going out from Egypt, 'harei zeh meshubbach'” – though these words are usually rendered, “the more he is praised”, they could be translated, “the more God is praised”.