“The entire settlement of the world rests under one star.”
Pesachim Tracate is all about second chances. I entered the Tractate with great relief that Eruvin Tractate was behind us, but also with some hesitancy about how much patience I would have for a discussion on Pesach that will last for four months. I should have known better from the prior three Tractates – the Rabbis can turnover a topic so many times that your head is left spinning. And there are digressions on top of digressions and through the process there are readings that size the entire world. It took several months to finally get a seat at the Passover table, and along the way there were many discussions about establishing the right time to rid one’s home of all leaven.
The Tractate started with a discussion of the word “or” which the notes in the Koren Talmud says means light. There are many themes of light and darkness, kindness and impatience, charity and predatory behaviors, miracles and gremlins throughout the text. There is the initial discussion of the borders between night and day in the context of searching a home for remaining crumbs of leavened bread right before the start of Passover, which establishes the theme for many of the later readings.
The difficulty factor was quite high, and the reading was tough going through many days of discussion of levels of ritual impurity. As we continue to cope with the consequences of a global pandemic, it was not difficult to make the connection between ritual impurity and the devasting numbers of sick and dying from the coronavirus. There is so much uncertainly in what we continue to live through, and there are lessons deep within the text about living with so much heart-breaking pain.
I learned that there are two Pesahs which is where the second chances come into play; the second Pesah serves as a symbol for “do-overs” and the opportunity to make amends for where we may have transgressed. If one is not able to complete all the obligations of the first Pesah, including the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, because they were traveling, an outbreak of impurity, or they simply forgot, there is the opportunity to celebrate the second Pesah a month later.
Fire plays a prominent role in the Passover rituals. The preferred way to get rid of leftover leaven is to load everything up into a big pit and burn it during the sixth hour of Passover Eve. And the proper way to prepare the Paschal lamb is to roast it on a fire. It cannot be cooked through warming of a pot of water or any other method. The Paschal lamb must be fully roasted and the fire that it rests upon is important to the mitzva. We are told that this is critical due to the text in Exodus that stipulates that “you shall only eat it roasted with fire.”
Intention matters and over and over again, we have returned to the discussion of intention and its sister, attention. We discussed the intention behind the performance of a mitzva. If a mitzva is performed out of self-interest, does it count? Has a mitzva been performed if is motivated by personal interest? We are told in fact, that if a mitzva is performed out of self-interest, it still counts, because the deed itself is of importance as are our actions in the world. This is contrary to everything I learned concerning the reason we do good deeds which is to give back, to think broader and reach beyond ourselves.
This is the Talmud. There is always another interpretation and another opinion. We are provided with insight into how the Rabbis rationalized differences. The voice of the Gemara often steps in and explains that in fact, the Rabbis are discussing very different scenarios and things are not what they appear on the surface. Abaye often appears as mediator and creates intellectual bridges between the debating Rabbis.
The women in the Talmud – those with names and those that are unnamed and those hidden deep within the text – deserve to be found and seen. While the Rabbis were busy arguing about whether to burn or scatter leaven, the women were in the kitchen hauling cisterns of water back and forth and kneading matza. We must name them and give them a voice because it is how women find their place in the ancient text.
I was horrified when I read about death by molten lead for unnamed women who could be accused of adultery and punished with the pouring of burning liquid down their throat. I am told that this rarely occurred if at all. But the words and image are there on the page and even if they are only there to instill fear in a young woman from straying from the fold, they represent intimidation and terror. And I am left wondering if generations of men sat in yeshivas reading these words without perceiving the harm they pose to the well-being of women.
We were presented with many miracles in this Tractate which sometimes appears to diverge from the main theme of the text. We are told about the miracles performed by the prophet Elisha who brought back to life the son of a Shunamite woman. And central to the miracles of resurrection is the concept of renewal. The resurrected include the aged who will dance in the streets and the wounded who will be healed from the pain of their past. This resonated with me as the pandemic has in many ways hit the oldest among us the hardest. Many are isolated, living alone, and losing precious time to the pandemic.
In addition to miracles, we encounter dangerous spirits in the journey through this Tractate. We are presented with a dark shadowy world where one must walk on a straight path. We are told that there are several dangerous and very specific scenarios that can expose someone to witchcraft. But we are also told that we are safe on Passover. We were protected from the plagues that rained down on Egypt during this night and the protection against such harm has continued through the centuries.
I have always thought of Passover as a somber holiday, even though the Exodus story is one of freedom and salvation from a shackled life. I found the recitation of the plagues at the seder table terrifying and it was hard to find much unbridled joy in the ritualistic meal after that, even if we were to somehow figure out how to recline at a table packed with relatives. There were the plagues and all that darkness and death and dipping one’s finger in dark red wine that set the tone for the meal.
Pesachim Tractate ends right before the start of our 2021 Passover holiday. What I learned from these months of delving into the specifics of how Passover was observed all those centuries ago when the Temple stood, and later, at the time of its drafting of the Talmud, is that the Exodus story is a personal one. It belongs to all of us. We are told in the Tractate that each generation must say “this is what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”
We conclude the Tractate at a time when there is still so much pain and suffering in world from a year of living through a pandemic. 2.7 million people have lost their lives worldwide from the coronavirus, with 554,000 deaths in the United States. The loss of 2.7 million lives is unfathomable. I have lost friends, while others survived terrible illnesses. We have all lived through a near-death experience, with the loss of family and friends, or the fear that each and every one of us could become sick and die.
Many of us were in shock when Passover came around last year with the constant drone of ambulances in the streets, and hospitals being set up in convention centers and parks, and trailers housing dead bodies. A year later it feels like the mood is one of weariness from living with this virus for so long. At the same time there is the hope that we found through the miracle of modern science which is as miraculous as the parting of the red sea. Our salvation out of this terrible period rests with a vaccine that is becoming more readily available to some of us each day and with hope, to most of us within the next few months.
We need to work as a global community to save all of us – not some of us – but all of us. For each of us is worthy of living our own Exodus story.