Passover a Chance to Find Sweet Spot Between Mitzvah and Menschlichkeit

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By Rabbi Gerald R. Fox 

Parshat Tzav

In the midst of our often-frantic preparations for the Passover holiday, we can get lost in the fragrance of the details and forget to eat the meal. It is human nature to get distracted by our joy of beautifying a mitzvah, particularly the many connected to observing Passover (or any holiday, for that matter), rather than focusing on the fundamental meanings of the holiday.

We may feel that we are being judged by our level of adherence to every logistical detail of our Passover observance, but this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, reminds us of the depth of meaning behind what is, after all, a festival about rebirth.

An examination of intimacy, of connection, of a kind of spiritual (and emotional) cleansing, is found in the Torah portion, which describes, for the most part, God’s delineation of different kinds of offerings to be made in the Tabernacle. We are reminded, as each different sacrifice is named and described, that there are different pathways to liberation, but that all of them involve devotion and sacrifice (the act of giving up some measure of what is precious to us).

These, in turn, help us to realize the reward for this is connection and intimacy. Even the Hebrew word for sacrifice, “korban,” has a lesson to teach in that its root is shared with the word, “keruv,” or closeness. When we give up something, we become attached to its recipient; sacrifice and devotion cannot help but force us outside of ourselves.

I learned an important lesson when backpacking through Europe for the first time as a young man in my early 20s: Covering more ground does not always translate into more understanding. I began my trip desperate not to miss a single museum or monument.

At the end of my journey, however, I could not help but think that I had seen so much, but experienced so little. This idea gnawed at me until I realized that if we want to cultivate a depth of understanding and meaning in life, we need to slow down and grant each moment its due.

While my first backpacking trip through Europe had been about fleeting connections with people, mainly on trains while heading to different destinations, just a year later, my second trip was about engaging with the local culture wherever I went. It yielded two intense journals and five times the number of photographs than the first trip did, not to mention much more intense personal connections.

Contrary to what I had thought, I discovered that many of the important things in life are often not the most obviously so. Translation? A wonderful seder or holiday dinner certainly sets a good mood, but honest conversation that builds lasting connection is the sweetest afikomen.

This year’s exceptional relevance of the core values of the holiday of Passover cannot be lost on us. Each year, we re-live our ancestors’ experience of the Exodus and we make it our own. Jews, in recent years and over the millennia, like all human beings, have wandered not for the sake of wandering but to find a place of their own — a place to be able to realize everyday dreams as well as a safe place to quiet our minds and to liberate our souls.

Let us remember that our heritage honors self-sacrifice and the intimacy that grows from it as high ideals just as it does the preciousness with which we should treat the stranger.

And, if you’re still worried about carrying off your Passover seders and meals flawlessly, ask yourself if you can see through the eyes of the stranger, the misunderstood, and those in need; ask yourself what raises your spirit and brings you closer to others and then do that. Within sacrifice and the resultant intimacy is where we find our humanity.

Ah Zissen und ah Koshern Pesach — may you taste sweetness in the words of your neighbor and may your focus find its rightful place, in the service of the intersection between mitzvah and menschlichkeit

Rabbi Gerald R. Fox is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine, N.J., and the president of the South Jersey Board of Rabbis and Cantors. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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