On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, while we are wrapped in prayers, quivering with remorse, begging forgiveness, and promising to be oh so good in the upcoming year, the high priest faces two “se’irim”, fairy he-goats: one, he will sacrifice on the altar, and the other – send to the desert as atonement for the misdeeds of the Children of Israel. The goats are practically identical. The choice which one is going where is decided by a drawing, a lot.
Why is it that davka on Yom Kippur our central worship focuses on something that is out of our control, like drawing a lot? Indeed, Yom Kippur is the day we’re judged on our actions, but just in case we get the illusions that everything is dependent on us and what we do, here’s a reminder.
The section about the high priest’s task on Yom Kippur is read twice in the year: once, on Yom Kippur, and once, just around Pesach.
Wait, but why? Shouldn’t we be reading the stories of the Exodus right around now? We are still in Leviticus, struggling with priests and sacrifices? But I thought on Pesach we celebrate freedom? Which way is it, freedom or prescribed destiny and random lots?
David Ben Gurion, in a famous quote from 1939 said: “We must fight the war as if there was no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there was no war”, referring to fighting the British White Paper and laws on Jewish immigration to then Palestine while simultaneously supporting the Brits in their efforts against the Germans. This has always been who we are: able to hold two conflicting ideas at once.
In the back of our minds we remember that some things are beyond us. We were born to a certain family, at a certain time. We have certain qualities. But Pesach takes front and center stage, asking us to ignore all that just for now, pack our stuff and once again leave our personal Egypts.
Because for me, Pesach is not just a historical – national celebration; it is also a very personal challenge. How do we achieve true freedom? We laugh at ancient people, worshiping wood and stone, while we drag our gods in: power, prestige, pleasures, progress, personal gain, youth, and some. Our gods are mostly invisible, giving us the illusion they don’t exist, and the smoke from the sacrifices we bring to them covers our eyes and blinds us.
Wait, what’s wrong with progress, one wonders, or with pleasure?
You’re right, they are not bad by themselves, until they take over our priorities.
The Torah teaches us that freedom lies within discipline. In Hebrew, mishma’at (discipline) shares its root with mashma’ut (meaning). Only within a strict structure, one can be truly liberated. But aren’t we exchanging one slavery for another? Yes. That’s all we got. Real freedom, says 11th century poet, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, is choosing who is our master, nothing more. Nothing less.
And in the spirit of “in haste we left Egypt”, some shorts:
Acharei Mot, this week’s parasha, gave us the most important 2 words in the Torah: vechai bam. You shall live. That’s what S/He said. Enjoy.
Pesach Cleaning: No, it cannot be done “symbolically”. Roll up your sleeves and scrape that gunk from under the fridge’s drawer.
Pesach food: Pasta, cereal, cakes, and now even blintzes, Kosher for Pesach?? Once a year, just give me my matza please!
The Haggadah: Yes, it’s meant to be read. Yes, even the pages in the middle. Study, discuss, sing, imagine, elaborate on, play with it, debate it, enjoy. That is the main course. The rest is commentary.
Shabbat Shalom & a very meaningful and happy Passover!
From the Prince of Egypt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Kr4aCUYg8A