This week's regular portion concludes the book of Exodus, detailing the erecting of the Mishkan — the sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites during their long pilgrimage to Canaan. The selection from the second Torah is called Parshat Hachodesh.
Read each year prior to Pesach, it describes the instructions given by God to Moses and Aaron at the new moon of Nisan in anticipation of the coming liberation. These verses detail the laws concerning the Paschal Lamb, the painting of its blood on the doorposts of Israelite homes, and how this lamb was to be eaten with matzah and bitter herbs.
Usually, we picture the lamb's blood on the exterior of the Israelite dwellings as a warning to the Angel of Death. Since the Torah states that the blood "Shall be unto you as a sign," it actually was painted on the inside. After so many disappointments, those who despaired could look at the "sign" and be assured of salvation at dawn.
This message of that first Passover night has brought hope to our people during other deep nights of oppression. In Chasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach describes such a seder night in Bergen-Belsen. Paralleling Parshat Hachodesh, a group of Jewish inmates began their preparations in advance of the Holy Day. Offering to use their flour rations to bake matzah, they petitioned the camp commandant, who sent their request to Berlin.
Fearing the worst, they awaited the response. Surprisingly, their request had been granted, and they were allowed to build a small matzah oven. Rabbi Israel Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe, supervised the baking and led the seder that Pesach night.
Without Haggadot, wine or ritual items, the seder was chanted by heart. Following the Four Questions, Rabbi Spira began his answer, highlighting the query: On all other nights we eat chametz, "leavened bread," or matzah; tonight, only matzah.
"Night," stated the rebbe, "is a metaphor for exile. In previous periods of our dispersal we have tasted chametz, moments of exaltation and levity, as well as the lowliness of matzah. In the same way that we celebrate this seder only with matzah, this Holocaust has been a period of unremitting lowliness and degradation.
"Don't despair. Just as this night represented the beginning of our ancestors' redemption, so shall it mark ours as well. The Hebrew word for slaves, avadym, can be read as an inverted acronym for David ben Yeshai, Avdecha Meshichecha, David, son of Jesse, Your servant, the Messiah. Just as the prophets have promised, 'Those who have walked in darkness will experience great light.' "
With this, the rebbe kissed each child present on the forehead, while the adults were sure they could hear echoes of the Messiah striding across the blood-soaked Bergen-Belsen grounds.
If we feel less than hopeful about our world, we can draw succor from the anticipatory Pesach message of Shabbat Hachodesh. The unprecedented is possible; what is, is not what has to be.
The example of our forbears coming together that first seder night in Egypt — or those inmates sharing in building the matzah oven in Bergen-Belsen — reinforces the message we'll chant when we finish reading the book of Exodus from the first Torah this Shabbat,Chazak, Chazak, V'nitchazek — "We have been strong, and we can remain strong by strengthening one another."
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: Rabbia363 @gmail.com.