Shabbat Pesaḥ - 2016 - 5776

Post date: Apr 21, 2016 3:06:07 PM

“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” -Groucho Marx

This week’s parsha (Torah portion) is taken primarily from Shemot (Exodus), recounting the end of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The maftir comes from Bamidbar (Numbers), describing the observance of Pesaḥ. The haftarah (additional reading) for Ḥag Pesaḥ is the fifth chapter of the Book of Joshua, which discusses the circumcision of the Israelites who have been wandering in the desert. We are told that, while all the Israelites who originally came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the Israelites born in the desert were so.

There is an interesting dynamic explained – God clearly explains that all of those who came out of the land of Egypt ”Lo shamu b’kol adonai” – they did not listen to the voice of God, and therefore were not permitted to enter the land of Canaan. Specifically, the transgression that the old generation had committed was that they felt themselves inferior and unworthy (Numbers 13:33).

So the Israelites who left Egypt – presumably the only home they knew – wandered in the desert for many years but were openly and publicly denied entry into the Promised Land. However, these men were circumcised – they were signatories in blood, if you will, to the covenant. By the end of 40 years, their children have become strong and fiercely independent. We have achieved a sense of worthiness that God wants us to own, and so before conquering the Promised Land, God wants us to “join the club” - to sign the contract.

There is another interesting textual connection between the haftarah and the genesis of the Israelite nation in Egypt. At the end of chapter 5, Joshua meets the Captain of the Host of the Lord. This Captain is holding a sword, prompting Joshua to ask if he is an enemy. When he tells Joshua who he is, Joshua falls to the ground and prostrates himself. The Captain of the Host of the Lord then tells Joshua to take off his shoes, because the ground he is standing on is holy. Recalling back to Exodus 3:5, this is the same thing God told Moses, when Moses stood in front of the burning bush. Both prior to when Moses steps up to his role as leader of Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, and prior to the Israelites stepping up to the role of becoming an independent country, we see the same narrative.

Both the passuk in Shemot and the passuk in Joshua beg the question of why God (or, God’s angel) must explicitly tell Moses and Joshua what to do when they are standing on holy ground. Do they not know already? Plenty of our forefathers encounter God or God’s angels and need no instruction – Abraham has three strangers come to his tent and washes their feet and gives them food and water, Jacob encounters the angel and wrestles with him until dawn. Why in these encounters does God (or God’s angel) so clearly direct Moses and Joshua what they should do?

I think here we are seeing the formation of a reciprocal relationship between God and the people Israel – a relationship where both parties care deeply about and give of themselves to the other. This is the kind of relationship described in Jewish mysticism as being partners with God in creation.

Look for a moment at this act that comes both at the beginning and at the end of this formative process. A leader of the Israelite people removes his shoes in the presence of God. This is an incredibly concrete, behavioral act. It is not a spiritual act of prayer, but rather a humbling act of altering something related to one’s own physical body. It certainly makes sense – taking off one’s shoes on holy ground. But, again, why does God have to ask so explicitly for it to be done?

In my experience, we don’t always realize right away the kind of person (or being) that we are encountering. Moreover, we often don’t know how to make others feel honored and respected. The same is true in reverse – the others that we encounter often don’t know what to do to make us feel honored and respected. I think here, we see God modeling how to enter into a reciprocal relationship with another. I need respect, and I need you to show it by taking off your shoes. God doesn’t presume that Moses and Joshua know what to do. God tells them.

This is one place I find it particularly difficult to be b’tzelem elokim – created in God’s image. In relationships, particularly reciprocal relationships, where both parties are giving of themselves to the other, making one’s wants and needs known explicitly can be challenging. We often think, as we do of Moses or Joshua, “They should just know!” Moses is looking at a bush burning but not consumed – how could he not know that he is encountering God?! But God shows us here that even when confronted with hints or clues, we must never take for granted that people show us love, honor, and respect in the ways we want it shown. We have to say, out loud, “Hey – take your shoes off!”

The point is especially relevant when we have guests over for Pesaḥ. We can't just expect people to know our particular kind of rituals - when to stand or sit, what to eat with a blessing or without a blessing, the deep mysteries of a kosher kitchen.

Personally, I have struggled many times in my life between thinking of humility as a virtue and thus not wanting to be demanding, versus feeling disappointed and disrespected when my needs are not met.

This is often a challenge couples have with intimacy. We are so indoctrinated, at least in America, not to talk about intimate things, individuals are often left frustrated and unable to get what they want or need out of their partner in a relationship. We have to learn to ask.

This simple act of telling Moses or Joshua to take off their shoes models for us an important way to be in a reciprocal relationship - both to ask for what we want and to respect our partner's wishes.

In both these instances, the Jewish people were ready to achieve a new level of freedom and independence. We went from subservience to self reliance.

This is the gift we celebrate on Passover - our independence. When we rise from being dependent (on pharaoh in Egypt or for manna in the desert) we may need to be reminded of these lessons. Those whom we emancipate do not necessarily know what we expect unless we ask. Conversely, when we have been granted a new freedom, it is incumbent upon us to learn the respectful parameters of that relationship.

The scary part about making your needs known is that the other can say no. They can deny what we want or need, and then we feel sadness, shame, or rejection. That risk is the price for a mature relationship of peers. The risk is present even for God in relationship to the people of Israel. Moses could have rejected God’s plan to free the Israelites, the Israelites could have rejected the Torah at Sinai, Joshua could have heard God’s plan to conquer Jericho and not followed through. But, in each case, we chose to remain in a relationship with God.

Not taking this for granted, God continues to ask for deference and respect, clearly and explicitly – you are standing on holy ground – please take your shoes off. Sometimes it takes only a simple, behavioral act to show love, respect, and honor to those with whom we remain in relationship. And often, all we need do is to ask. The risk is there for sure, but the return, over time, is a deeply rewarding relationship.

Shabbat shalom and Ḥag Kasher v'Sameaḥ,

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher