Pesah Supplement 5777 - Social Inclusion and Exclusion

Post date: Apr 20, 2017 9:05:36 PM

Shabbat Ha’gadol – the great Shabbat – is the last Sabbath before chag pesach (Festival of Passover). Although pesach is a joyful holiday, filled with wine and song and feast, parshat Tzav (which is read on Shabbat HaGadol) is remarkably scary. It is filled with threats, terrible consequences, and dire warnings. Vayikra chapter 7 (verse 20) is a clear example – when talking about the different offerings (the guilt offering and the sin offering and the peace offering), the Torah reminds us: “But the soul that eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace-offerings, that pertain to God, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul will be cut off from his people.”

This consequence – having one’s soul cut off from his people – is the same one that is described for anyone who eats leavened bread during chag pesach: “Seven days will you eat unleavened bread. On the first day you will put away leaven out of your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” The threat is similarly used to when commanding circumcision (Beresheet 17:14): “And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” The verb in all cases is chaf-resh-taf – karat – to cut off or cut down.

It is worth noting that in ancient times, most people lived in homogeneous societies. If you were a member of a community, you necessarily adopted the rules and conventions of that community. If you were cut off from that community, you had nowhere to go. In other words, to be "karat" - cut off - was the worst imaginable punishment outside of death itself.

Connecting the holiday of pesach with a brit (covenant) between God and the Jewish people is easy – our liturgy makes this connection repeatedly in our daily tefilah (prayer). “For I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” occurs in the Shema, which we recite twice per day, each day. We follow mitzvot because God promised us good things (like rain at the proper season and a good crop yield) if we do. We know God will keep future promises, because God brought us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. The brit with God is predicated on us remembering God bringing us out of Egypt, and our willingness to enter in to future covenants with this protective, caring God.

So, why the connection to eating the flesh of the peace-offering? Actually, looking more closely at the text, the Torah is commanding us to eat the flesh of the peace-offering, just not to eat it at a certain time: “And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace-offerings for thanksgiving must be eaten on the day of its offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.” This passuk is clearly related to pesach – during the exodus from Egypt, the lamb, which was sacrificed and whose blood was put on the doorposts of the Israelite houses, was required to be eaten all in one night.

Why, then, is it this threat specifically – to have one’s soul cut off from his people? The Torah does not hesitate threaten death in many other cases – smiting, stoning, and more. Here, though, the threat is different. In fact, this is a solely spiritual threat – it is not that you, as a living person, will be cut off from your community – banished or shunned or run out of town. Rather, this is the intangible, metaphysical existence of a person being abandoned by a community.

How and why might this happen?

In my job, I have been asked this year to work with a family’s three oldest children. These children all struggle with any number of emotional, behavioral, and psychological challenges brought on by a perfect storm of innate, neurological vulnerabilities and environmental stressors. One by one, I have watched the school that these children attend blame them, punish them, and label them. As one child is “handled,” another becomes the problem du jour. Fault always lies with the child, the oldest of whom is nowhere near “double digits” in age.

Because all three of these children are racial minorities, I have begun to research the treatment of children of color in public school settings. The literature paints an abominable picture. African-American students are suspended at twice the rate of Caucasian students. Black boys are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than their White peers. Black girls make up 16% of the school body but more than one-third of school-based arrests.

Reading this week’s parsha, I cannot help but think that we – by this, I mean the public school system as a whole and not necessarily any specific individuals within it – are enacting God’s punishment right now. We are cutting off these children’s souls from their community. A child’s school is their work – their daily life. By blaming and punishing and labeling, we have taught these young people that they are bad, not wanted, and not worthy of our attention. We have taken their souls and pushed them so far away from our love and forgiveness that these children will soon give up trying to get back. A punishment meant to be reserved for actions that break a brit with God is being used on children nearly a decade away from puberty.

As we approach pesach, we come upon a time of inclusion and exclusion. We, the Israelites, are ready to leave you – the Egyptians. We draw clear lines in the sand, and determine who is in and who is out. Rarely, though, do situations have clear answers. Even on pesach, freedom for our community meant terrible losses for another. Everything has a cost, whether that cost is some hitting and kicking in a Kindergarten classroom or the loss of life for the Egyptian people. While we evaluate the costs, we must consider both the punishments with which we are comfortable, and the crimes for which those punishments are meted out. At what point is it acceptable to cut off an individual from their community?

-Yvonne Asher