Monday, April 7, 2014

Shabbat HaGadol - Acharei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

By Rabbi Howard Cohen for Reconstructionist Jewish Communities

The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat HaGadol: The Great Shabbat. The special nature of the day is highlighted with a haftarah selected from the prophet Malachai. The words of this anonymous prophet (the name Malachai simply means "my messenger") who lived around the middle of the 5th century BCE are remarkably contemporary sounding. A closer look at what he has to say can be simultaneously comforting and frightening.

Speaking on behalf of God, Malchai says: "From the days of your ancestors you have strayed from My statutes, and have not observed them; return to Me, and I will return to you". Are we not familiar with this timeless lament? Interestingly, according to rabbinic tradition after Malachai, prophecy was taken away from Israel. God, it would seem, finally tired of complaining to the Jewish people that they were straying and left it to the rabbis to be the ones to point it out.

It is two other verses (14, 15), however, that leap across 25 centuries and are jolting in their timelessness: "It's useless to serve God! What gain is there in observing God's service...? We account the arrogant happy; the evildoers are the ones who live on; they even try God and get away with it". Has nothing changed? It seems that lack of faith and resistance to pious living according to the teachings of the Torah were as much the norm in the days of Malachai as they are today. Suffice it to say that that between the 5th century B.C.E. and now it has never been significantly different either.

So what keeps Judaism going after all these years? According to verse 16, there have always been "those who revered the Eternal". More importantly, the verse continues, the core of faithful believers "talked to each other". With this in mind, let me point out that a crucial part of any Pesach seder is to talk with one another about what the struggle for freedom means. Right after reciting the Four Questions we read:

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