Thoughts Before Passover
By Julia BlumMarch 25, 2021No comments
My dear readers, I am facing a real challenge this week. The reading for the last week consisted of two Torah Portions, therefore I was supposed to comment on two Parashot, and not one. I did not have enough space for the second one, though, and therefore, the last Portion of Exodus is yet to be discussed. Meanwhile, we started not only a new Torah Portion, but a new Torah Book; and on the top of all that, the Passover – Pesach – is fast approaching (as some of you probably know). Therefore, I have a threefold task in this post: to comment on Pikudei (the last portion of Exodus), to discuss Vayikra (the first portion of Leviticus), and to share some thoughts regarding Pesach.
The final portions of the book of Exodus, in their entirety, describe the efforts of Moses and all the people of Israel in building the Tabernacle – the wonderful portable sanctuary that was to accompany the Jewish people throughout their long journey in the wilderness, and was to be set up in the Land of Israel when they finally arrived there. Finally, in the very last chapter, the concluding verses of the Book of Exodus inform us about the completion of this Sanctuary: “So Moses finished the work”. What happens next?
“Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting… And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it“ A thick cloud covered the newly built Sanctuary. Because of this cloud, Moshe himself was unable to enter the Sanctuary. Can you imagine? After all the effort, which had gone into this building, it was covered by a cloud and seemed to be totally inaccessible and totally useless.
Yes, of course, everyone knows NOW that it was not just cloud: it was God’s glory! God’s presence covered the Sanctuary! However, think of that first moment when it happened: how could they know exactly what this cloud was? I am sure that Moses had faith, and didn’t doubt or question God, – but I am also quite sure that there were many there who were grumbling, wondering why in the world they had spent so much time building the very thing that now seemed to be so useless! It is always our choice: to praise God for His presence covering the Tabernacle – or to grumble about the untimely cloud, interfering with our plans.
In an amazing way – like everything in Torah – this choice is reflected by the very first word of our portion, “VaYikra”. I wrote about it already, but I think it’s worth mentioning every time we come to the Book of Leviticus – Vayikra. In the original Hebrew text, the first word of this Portion and of this Book – the word Vayikra – has a peculiar feature: it is written with a little aleph at the end. There are three sizes of the letters in Torah – intermediate, oversized and miniature – and every time we see a letter of a different size, we should look for a profound explanation. So, why do we have this miniature aleph here?
Our sages have offered different explanations, mostly to do with humility: they said that Moses had attained the highest level of humility, and it was expressed by the miniature aleph of Vayikra. There is, however, another explanation, that I love and always share. The word “VaYikra” without the aleph would read “VaYiker”, which means, “and it happened”. So, when we begin to read this book in Hebrew, we first read: “it happened”; but then we see this little Alef –and understand that the message here is completely different. There is a huge and truly ontological difference between the worldview based on Vayikra – “and He called”, and the worldview based on VaYiker – “and it happened”. A Jewish commentary says that when the Red Sea split, all the seas in the world split at the same time—because the Lord always leaves us a choice to perceive His miracles as some natural event that “just happened”. Once again, we always have this choice: to recognize the presence of God, the hand of God, the voice of God – or to see a cloud that ‘just happened’ to come at a bad time and became an unfortunate obstacle in our worship.
Preparing for Passover
Lately, I heard an interesting story. Some great rabbi in Israel (I won’t mention his name), while talking about cleaning his house for Passover (Nikayon Pesach), said, “However, the most important cleaning is of course the cleansing of the heart”. When asked, whether he knows who had said it before him, he answered: Of course! It was Paul! Thus, the Jewish rabbi knows about Paul and Paul’s exhortation to cleanse the hearts from the leaven; do the Christians readers know about Jewish Nikayon Pesach and Bedikat Hametz? When you read Paul’s words speaking of unleavened bread: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened.” – do you know what the original background of this famous verse was?
A modern Christian reader would probably see in these words only spiritual reality: believers, being saved and purified from sin (leaven), become the unleavened bread. However, there is no doubt that while writing, Paul had in mind the Jewish Passover and that his words refer to a very practical bedikat chametz – the ceremony of “searching for leaven”. This ceremony probably existed in the time of Jesus, and it still exists in Jewish homes today, both in Israel and in the dispersion: after weeks of thorough cleaning (Nikayon Pesach), on the evening before Passover, the entire house would be solemnly inspected for any occasional crumbs of leaven. Here is what David Baron writes: “I well remember the interest with which as a boy I used to follow about my father on the evening before 14th of Nisan… after uttering the prayer: “Blessed are you the Lord our God, who has sanctified us by Your commandments and commanded us to remove the leaven”, he proceeded to search all the likely and unlikely places all over the house for leaven”. This ceremony, completing the cleaning of the house, has always been considered necessary and final preparation for the Feast. Undoubtedly, Paul’s words refer to this custom – however, as it happens often in the New Testament, Paul reveals a new spiritual layer beyond the traditional custom.