10 Apr 2014

Ahare Mot – Shabbat HaGadol 5774: Responsible Freedom

This year’s Torah reading for Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesah, seems particularly misfit for the occasion. It has us opening Passover with a detailed description of Yom Kippur! This reading, of course, was not planned and is a coincidental result of our yearly timetable for completing the Torah, given that this is a leap year. Still, it is customary to derive correlations between the weekly Torah portions and the times in which they fall. In truth, with just a bit of examination, Yom Kippur can be seen as Pesah’s completion and culmination.

Pesah is the first of our yearly holidays[1], and it begins the cycle with issues of freedom — the most fundamental element of the human condition. Put simply, to be human is to be free.

“Just as fire rises…and the planets revolve in their orbits, and all other creations follow their inherent nature, so did [G-d] desire that man’s choice be in his hands and all of his deeds are entirely given over to him. There is nothing that forces or draws him, rather, he of his own G-d given volition and knowledge can choose to do anything that is humanly possible.”
Rambam, Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 5:4

“What light is to the eyes, what air is to the lungs, what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man.”
Robert G. Ingersoll

On Pesah we question, not only our physical freedoms in terms of being free from bondage and servitude, but also our mental freedoms in terms of being able to think, choose and create realities for ourselves. But thoughts of freedom are only the beginning. There is a high point in our yearly journey that we actually call a “high holiday.” It is only one day a year[2], and in Talmudic contexts it is simply referred to as Yoma or “The Day.” It is, Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement. The freedom of Pesah would be incomplete without the time designated for atonement that Yom Kippur presents, and Yom Kippur would not be significant or relevant without our beginnings in the freedoms of Pesah.

It is one thing for us to have the ability to choose. It is another entirely to bear responsibility for the choices we make. When, on Pesah, we accept that we can and should choose our paths in life, we also acknowledge and accept that with the freedom of choice comes ownership of its repercussions. Yom Kippur is the day we acknowledge those repercussions head-on and address them in terms of their effect on our lives and the world around us.

So while it is rare, and seemingly unrelated, to read of Yom Kippur as an introduction to Pesah, the reading nonetheless presents a wholeness to Pesah. It reminds us that in the Jewish year we do not celebrate isolated holidays, but rather, moments in time that play on, and enhance, each other. This yields an emergent, multi-faceted and multi-layered wholeness for the human condition and our commitment to G-d. The silhouette of Kippur that is cast this Shabbat over our preparations for Pesah broadens our vision for the holiday. It reminds us that in true freedom, while we are at liberty to choose what we desire, we are also responsible for acknowledging and addressing the realities that our choices create. In this, we understand that Torah brings us far beyond simple religious behavior and creates the blessed cues and punctuated moments in time that offer us the opportunities to become deeply and wholesomely human.

[1] “Let this New-Moon be for you the beginning of New-Moons, The beginning-one let it be for you of the New-Moons of the year.” (Ex., 12:2) The month of Nissan, in which Pesah falls, is the first month in they cycle of months in a year. While Rosh HaShana is termed the “New Year” it is a new year in terms of the cycle from one judgment period to the next specifically.

[2] “Aharon is to do the purging…once a year, with the decontaminating blood of purgation; once a year he is to do the purging…throughout the generations, holiest holiness it is for G-d.” (Ex, 30:10)
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Kasher VeSameach to you all,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck