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The Fullness Of Jewish Dilemmas

The Fullness Of Jewish Dilemmas

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candles: 7:25 p.m. (Fri.); 8:28 p.m. (Sat.)
Torah: Exodus 13:17-15:26 (Sat.); Deut. 15:22-16:17 (Sun.); Num. 28:19-25 (both)
Haftorah: II Samuel 22:1-51 (Sat.); Isaiah 10:32-12:6 (Sun.)
Havdalah: 8:29 p.m. (Sun.)

Passover is the Jewish people’s annual Spring Break from workaday worry, and it came especially late this year.

The issue is our Jewish calendar, which measures months by the moon but years by the sun. Since 12 lunar months (at 29.5 days each) are about 11 days short of the 365¼-day solar year, Passover (always the same in lunar time) arrives earlier and earlier (in solar time). When it threatens to be here before spring, we add the extra winter month of Adar II to delay it.

Given our recent cold weather, at least here in New York, we needed the time. The shining message of Passover hope works best with the confirming evidence of long-awaited sunshine, warmth and flowers.

That positive message permeates Passover’s Torah readings. Day One recalls the deliverance from Egypt. Day Seven has us crossing the sea on dry land — the twin biblical examples of unexpected miracles.

But in between Days One and Seven we strike a negative note: we begin counting the Omer, the name we give to the period between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. Traditionally, the Omer is a time for positive soulful introspection, within a state of near mourning: no public celebrations, no weddings, no musical performances, not even haircuts. Tradition treats the Omer ominously — like a dark alley in time, with promise at the end (Shavuot), but a difficult road to get there. It’s a Jewish obsession, perhaps: never let your guard down.

Still, the Omer aside, Passover itself is insistently messianic. Medieval Jews actually expected Elijah to arrive when they flung open their doors on seder eve. In case he dallied, the Eighth Day Haftarah [Isaiah 10:32-12:6] envisioned a time when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” when human rulers, imbued with wisdom and God’s spirit, would “judge the poor with righteousness.”

But Passover ends with wolves still eating lambs, righteousness in short supply, and Elijah’s wine poured back into the bottle. The ongoing Torah narrative that we then resume — Achrei Mot (After the Death) — provides crushing evidence that our “Spring Break” is over. It is a reminder that Aaron’s two sons have died, and we’re only half way through Vayikra (Leviticus) — we have to trudge all through Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy) before getting to the Promised Land.

“April is the cruelest month,” said T.S. Eliot. Had he not been an outright anti-Semite, he might have gotten that from Jewish neighbors reflecting on Passover’s limited fulfillment of its promise: a return to reminders of sons dying young, lambs eaten by lions, and poor being devoured by the rich.

Had Eliot asked me, I would have championed the message as a measure of Jewish honesty: Both Passover’s springtime promise, along with our counting through the alley of the Omer, are equally real.

T.S. Eliot also said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and he was wrong on that one. Humankind has been bearing too much reality since Adam and Eve were forced from the Garden. The question isn’t whether we bear it, but how, and the Jewish calendar incorporates the “how” within its Passover/Omer contradiction.

We bear it by our heroism, not the classic variety of heroism going all the way from Achilles and Odysseus to Batman and Superman, but through the Jewish heroism that inhabits the contradictions, the fullness of life’s dilemmas: the Exodus — and Aaron’s sons; the Messiah who hasn’t come yet — and the one who might arrive tomorrow; the governments we have — and the ones we still can hope for. Jewish heroes count the Omer, heading toward Sinai, but wary of the world along the way.

It is no small thing to get up each day with echoes of Passover joy despite the knowledge that we may someday be Aaron, grieving for our children. Elijah’s coming and Isaiah’s vision may not immediately materialize, but they are not just gossamer deception. They are the stuff of Jewish heroism, reminders of humanity at its best, the humanity we actually can become, even while doing our daily counting through life’s interminable Omers.  

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College. He lectures widely around the country and is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing). 

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