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Inconvenient but Important Sermon

Sermon by Melanie Rabbi Aron

Saturday, April 5, 2014

It can’t have been convenient for the ancient Israelite to leave home for a week, to wait outside the camp to be cleansed of Tzaraat, and only then to rejoin the community and return home. The Kohen, the priest, was also probably put out by the need to leave the sacred precincts, travel to the home of the afflicted person and spend the time necessary to discern whether or not this was tzaraat.

When there are difficult or complicated rules in the Bible, scholars question whether they were ever practiced, or whether the framework the Bible is providing is just theoretical. Historians wonder, for example, whether the  Sabbatical and Jubilee year laws were actually put into effect since they don’t appear in any narrative.  But in our case, the rules concerning tzaraat, the skin affliction for which a person was quarantined in ancient times, there is corroboration in stories found in the Bible, where these rules were in fact practiced.

The Haftarah portion for Metzora, which Sarah has spoken about, begins with the four lepers outside of the camp, evidence that the rules from the book of Leviticus were known and practiced among the Israelites in the period of the divided monarchy.

We also have the story of Miriam, from the book of Numbers, which Sarah mentioned, which concludes with the people waiting for a week before moving on, so that Miriam could return to the camp and travel on with them.

Finally, also in the book of Numbers we have the law concerning the second Passover. This was the opportunity to offer the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, a major event in ancient times, one month after Passover. Why was this necessary? It was an opportunity for those who, at the time of the holiday, had been in a state of ritual impurity, through being in contact with the dead, or being afflicted with Tzaraat, or other issues of ritual impurity which made it impossible to celebrate Passover properly at its right time.

This spring with Passover falling on a weekday night, some families have wanted to create their own Pesach Sheni, second Passover, as issues of convenience have conflicted with traditional Jewish observance. Doesn’t it make more sense just to move the Seder to some other night- preferably a weekend, when it will be easier for everyone to gather? The ancient rabbis who established the Jewish calendar as we know it, rigged it so that Yom Kippur could not fall on a Friday or Sunday because of the difficulties that would present. What about our making our own accommodations?
Here in the United States we have accommodated convenience with many of our civic holidays- very practically turning Washington’s Birthday into Presidents Day, and in general creating long weekends whenever possible. The idea of obligation for obligation’s sake is long gone in our generation- only when we understand the reason and appreciate the meaning of an obligation, do we take it on.

In years like 2014 with Seder on Monday night, Shavuot on Tuesday night during high school exam week no less, and Rosh Hashanah on Wednesday night, it is a bit of a struggle to be Jewish. For some people that’s a reason to move to Israel, where society is in synch with the Jewish calendar. For those who chose to stay in the Diaspora, it means having to make decisions over and over again about what is most important, and sometimes making sacrifices.

Personally I find meaning in being part of the entire Jewish community worldwide, sitting down to seder on the same evening- a date fixed on the lunar calendar, coming at the full moon of the spring month. It is not just about my schedule as an individual, or even my family’s complicated comings and goings, but of a greater unit to which we belong, am Yisrael, the people of Israel. It’s not about trying to do everything, but of doing something that is important to me, with commitment and care.

Yes if someone were in the hospital or in the armed services and away from home, under conditions in which Passover could not be celebrated, having a second Passover for them would be appropriate. But for most of us, celebrating Passover at its proper time, with the rest of the Jewish world,  is within reach. Even when travelling, it is possible to make seder on the road or to join with the Jewish community where you are. I remember some years ago when spring break fell over Passover and one of our congregational families were travelling to Hawaii. In this case it was their daughter who was upset about missing the seder. We helped them connect with the Reform congregation in Maui and they had a wonderful time. Others travelling in Italy, Hungary or even Shanghai have had deeply meaningful experiences when they made the effort to join with the local Jewish community for Passover or other holidays.

Life in Silicon Valley is busy and we are pulled in many directions. There are so many wonderful opportunities. But there are also rewards in focusing on those things that are most important to us. Across America, the Passover seder is one of the most practiced of Jewish rituals. More Jews attend a seder than fast on Yom Kippur or even than light Hanukah candles. That’s a measure of the importance this holiday continues to have and its enduring meaning.

Yes, with all its complicated food practices, and falling according to the lunar calendar, Passover does create a measure of inconvenience, but that is more than balanced by the powerful  memories it creates. The rabbis had a saying- according to the effort so too is the reward.  Ken Yehi Ratzon- so may it be for us.

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