The Ultimate Hope of Passover

As we approach the end of Passover this weekend, we think further on the meaning and direction of this glorious festival. Yes, it is about freedom, of course. But it’s not just about freedom. We looked last week at the idea that Passover leads to Shavuot, to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. We count the days on this journey from redemption to revelation, as if to say we were freed from the yoke of Egypt to take on the yoke of God.

But we learn something new this week. The very last reading from the sacred text on the eighth day of Passover tells us a great deal about the ultimate trajectory of this holiday. The haftarah reading for the eighth day is from Isaiah 10:32-12:6,  which is copied below from chabad.org for you to read. It is here where Jews see hope for the messianic age, where all peoples will come together at the mountain in service to the one God. Christians see in this text a premonition of Jesus.

The key idea in this text is that God is the source of our salvation – in the past, in the present, and in the future. Yes, this is our freedom from Egypt (in Hebrew, “narrowness”), but it is so much more. It is also our freedom from meaninglessness through living life as guided by God’s truth. Indeed it is even more than that. It is freedom from death, as we learn from the lovely song at our Seder table, Had Gadya, in which the Holy One smote the angel of death. But there is a hope even greater than that – it is that God is the source of salvation for all, and through eternity.

 

This very day he will halt Nov; he will shake his hands against the mountain of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.

Behold, the Master, the L-rd of Hosts, shall lop the bough with terror and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled.

And he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Levanon shall fall by a mighty one.

And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stem of Yishai, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

And the spirit of G‑d shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of G‑d.

And his delight shall be in the fear of G‑d; and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears.

But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed, their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the viper’s nest.

They shall not hurt nor destroy all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d, as the waters cover the sea.

And in that day it shall be, that the root of Yishai, that stands for a banner of the peoples, to it shall the nations seek; and his resting place shall be glorious.

And it shall come to pass in that day, that G‑d shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, that shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, from Patros, and from Kush, and from ‘Elam, and from Shin‘ar, and from Hamat, and from the islands of the sea.

And he shall set up a banner for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel; and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.

But they shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines toward the sea, they shall spoil the children of the east together; they shall lay their hand upon Edom and Moab, and the children of Ammon shall obey them.

And G‑d shall utterly destroy the tongue of the sea of Egypt; and with his scorching wind he shall shake his handover the river, and shall smite it in seven streams, and make men go over dry shod.

And there shall be a highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria; as there was for Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.

And in that day you will say: I offer thanks to You, O G‑d, that You were wrathful with me; Your anger is turned away, and You do comfort me.

Behold, G‑d is my salvation, I will trust, and not be afraid ; for G‑d is my strength and my song, He also is become my salvation.

With joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.

And in that day shall you say: Praise G‑d, call upon His name, declare His doings among the people, make mention that His name is exalted.

Sing to G‑d, for He has done great things; this is known in all the earth.

Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion; for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

For What Purpose Did God Free Us From Egypt?

 

Was it simply to relieve us from the burdens of slavery? It is deep in our nature to despise slavery and to love freedom. We begin the book of Exodus in great pain as we read the horrifying tale of degradation and death visited upon the Israelites by Pharaoh.  And, then, with equal relief and gratitude, we read of God’s salvation of Moses and the people in a miraculous deliverance. It is no surprise that this story of redemption has served as a source of inspiration for freedom movements ever since.

Yet, when we finish recounting the tale of freedom, say, at the end of the Haggadah, how often do we persist with the the rest of the story? Do we understand that it doesn’t end with the festivity; indeed much just begins there. We were freed, but for what purpose? Essentially, we learn through the journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai that God took off the yoke of Pharaoh so we might take on the yoke of God.

We leave Egypt stamped with duties born out of the freedom granted us by God’s saving hand:

• We are always to remember and re-live God’s redemption of us from Egypt;

• We are to take on the responsibility of counting the first month and all months, using our time in service of God;

• We are to remember to have God’s teaching in our minds, in our mouths, and on our hands;

• We are to draw upon the story of our redemption and our awareness of our having been created in God’s image to serve as redeeming forces in the world; and

• We are to love the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt.

What’s the Big Deal About “Leprosy” In The Bible?

 

Let’s dig a little deeper into the mysterious disease of these two portions, tzara’at – what is represents, why it worries God and should worry us, and what we should do if it manifests itself. Here’s a short Q&A study that may help get to understanding.

 

1.Let’s start with the verse where my Bible translates tzara’at as leprosy. Does yours? My oh my. I have handed out an article on leprosy. For those of you who have read it and all these verses, help us out: is the condition described in the Bible leprosy? Is the condition on the garments leprosy?  If it’s not leprosy, what is it?

 

(No, it’s not. Scholars have attempted to identify each of these conditions as other diseases, generally with limited success. And to the extent they appear to be close to other maladies, what still do we make of their identification here as leprosy? Is this simply a reaction to fear of a range of possible diseases that have these characteristics? Or do you think there might be something else at work?

 

Let me help by informing you there are three notable cases of Biblical figures who were afflicted with tzara’at: 1) Miriam, after she spoke ill of Moses, 2) Gahazi, who was duplicitous with Naaman in obtaining a reward that Elisha had already turned down (2 Kings), and King Uzziah, who burned incense on the altar, though that was a role reserved exclusively to the priest.)

 

 

2. So, let me ask again: what are your thoughts about this “spreading affection” that concerns God and the community so much that it necessitates an examination by the priest and a separation, if diagnosed, along with some process that we’ll talk about in a moment for reintegration into the community? Don’t be afraid to be metaphorical!

 

(This is very complex material with a real mystery to it. And it does most likely reflect an anxiety about physical disease – whether real or imagined. But I believe, and as I will point out in a moment, I’m not alone in where I’m headed, I believe this is fundamentally the most metaphorical language we will encounter in Torah.

 

I see this whole discussion at its deepest level to be about something of the absolute greatest concern, something that really does operate beneath the skin and has very much of a spreading character. I believe this is a very powerful and rich and metaphorical discourse about sin – one that reflects concern, indeed fear, about how it forms, how it spreads, and how it can take over a person and taint, and even damage or destroy a community. And there is a special anxiety about it coming in, in whatever state it has evolved in a person, to the space where we encounter the Divine.

Sages think first of the sin of slander. That’s what was what brought on the malady for Miriam. Indeed it follows nicely the concern from the last portion about what goes into the mouth. Here it is crucially about what goes out of the mouth.)

 

 

3. Let me ask this: how does slander itself correspond so well to the metaphor of a spreading affection?

 

(The idea to slander another generally forms in the mind out of an unhealthy emotion or intention to do harm. Then, after planning, the actor moves into action, likely feeling justified and “honest” to start, with a “justifiable” purpose. Generally, the malice and the hurtful speech pick up steam, and then it’s out and causing harm. Once it’s out, it’s out, and cannot easily be retrieved, and the damage has had its impact and is hard, if impossible, to repair. Now that’s a spreading affection to worry about!)

 

4.. By reflecting on what I told you about Gehazi and Uzziah, what other sins clearly fall into the set of what concerns God here?

 

(We see theft in a surreptitious manner, and see a quietly and perhaps hidden expropriation of another’s God-designated role. The sages add haughty eyes, a mind that hatches evil, a vain oath, inciting brothers to quarrel, and miserly behavior, among others.)

 

5. How would these actions fit into a set of worrisome spreading affections?

 

(They begin in a quiet place in the heart, and the actor may not fully understand or believe it’s wrong, or at least that he’ll get caught. In fact, it’s hard to detect and hard to punish, yet it can do real damage. Further, once others realize it can happen and the perpetuator can get away with it, the temptation grows, and it becomes likely that others will do it. Finally, they typically involve a small bending of the rules that tends to lead to a larger bending, with the need to excuse expanding with the offense.

 

6. This idea of searching out the symptoms or pre-conditions of emergent sin is not new to our study of the Bible. Let’s read Genesis 4:6-8. And then I’ll ask why do I mention this passage.

 

(There are signs in Cain of a spreading affection. We have warning signs!

 

This is more of a spiritual disease, no? It has to do with emotional imbalance, ethical weakness. Yet, it has outward, even physical manifestations. They show in his face and his anger. God sees it (as the priest does in our portion), and God beseeches Cain to treat it, for, if he does not, sin is crouching at the door, waiting to actualize what is still nascent, yet emerging. And, of course, we see the awful end of this affection, when not controlled and allowed to spread to its full measure. Isn’t this exactly the same phenomenon that we see in our portion?)

 

Conclusion

 

We have continued this week our exploration of sacred space and its place and purpose in helping us prepare to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Today we went on a journey – mostly – through, I believe, the remarkable, metaphorical land of tzara’at. This trip is an important one in its teaching us about the nature and treatment of sin. At its core, I find that the wisest sages seem to see through all those clothes and all that body a picture of the evil inclination – its nature, the danger it poses, the ways of detecting how it works, and God’s asking us to overcome it and giving us gifts to us to do so.

There’s an insight in the lovely Artscroll edition of the Midrash Leviticus with which I want to close today:

“It is wrong to think of sin as something external or peripheral, as something that can be cast aside at will. Every sin leaves a mark, and that mark is commensurate with the sin. Some sins are similar to the tzara’at spot that need only be sequestered and then, after the passage of time, can be pronounced pure. Others are like the tzara’at affliction that must be healed, and if not it deepens and spreads.

Rambam writes that the soul is subject to health and sickness just like the body…..

The lesson of the metzora is clear: Sin is reality – a real sickness. But the Healer of all flesh and spirit has provided the antidotes and remedies as well. He has given us the means to return our souls and spirits to vigorous health, for now and for all eternity.”