Many people know the saying “Is the glass half full or half empty?” Which really means, do we look at something and see the negative, or do we focus on the positive? In light of our upcoming holiday of Passover where we celebrate with four glasses of wine, I want to share some thoughts on this past week’s momentous occasions, and how we can shift our focus when we only see what’s missing.
Many or most people here in Israel spent Tuesday of this week doing something fun, or possibly something necessary for the upcoming holiday. Why this Tuesday? It was Election day, a special day in that it’s both a ‘holiday’ and yet not a holiday, in our country. I remember working for the Board of Ed in America, having to take off for Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur, then Succot, then Simchat Torah. Well, no—in New York City, where they would have lost half of their teachers or possibly more, they did close school for Rosh Hashanah at least. I remember how the other teachers, my co-workers, used to look at me somewhat jealously, or maybe condescendingly-as if I was lazy, to take off so many days. They said, “Have fun!”, sometimes even right before the 25-hour fast day of Yom Kippur. They weren’t being mean; they simply had no idea what these holidays were about. They didn’t know that, as the name says, they were Holy Days, meant to spend time in synagogue and with family, for which we cleaned and cooked and prepared before, and then cleaned some more after. Never mind Pesach–how could I explain that it was more than a month of exhaustive (and exhausting) spring cleaning? So I didn’t. But here in Israel, life is different. As much as I still miss Sundays, a day to do what you want to or need to that isn’t a workday or a day before a holiday for which we have to prepare [or the holiday itself where we can’t go on a trip or do any real housework], one of the main reasons I wanted to live in Israel is precisely because the holidays are all part of the daily life here, part of the nation’s heartbeat; we live on our calendar, celebrate our holidays, and don’t have to explain to anyone that this “vacation day” may be nice, but it needs effort and is not so much of a vacation. But I digress.
Election Day here is one of those rare days we have to do our own thing, whatever that is. So many of us go on trips or out with the family, or even just stay home and vegetate, which we don’t often have time to do. I didn’t look at much of the news today, so I don’t know the percentage of voters in the whole country, but I do know that in my town, 85% of the people who could, voted. We can look at that in a few ways: People went to vote because they wanted a change, and hoped their vote would help make that change; or because they wanted those in charge to stay there, so they voted hoping to make sure that happened; possibly just because they *could* vote, so they felt they had the responsibility to do so; or maybe just so they could complain later if they didn’t like how the country is being governed. Maybe even some people, like Rabbi Moshe Alpert (who talked about how special it was to take part in the very first vote in Israel in 1949), felt that they had to vote since finally, after all this time, we have our own country in which to vote for a government that would consider the rights of our nation, rights we, a persecuted people, did not have for so long. Rabbi Alpert dressed in fancy Shabbos clothing, and treated this holiday as a very holy day indeed. All of these reasons (ok, most) have one common denominator. That underlying reason, even if covered by anger or frustration at some injustices being done, is hope. When we have hope, we don’t throw our hands up, say whatever happens will happen, I can’t do anything about it. We don’t go lie on a beach, or stay home and chill, letting the day go by without doing the one small thing we can do, not taking the action we can take. We figure out what our values boil down to, even if our vote just goes toward the other guy not winning, even if we don’t think it will really *do* anything. We go and vote. In our country, because we finally have a country after all this time.
In just a week (sorry to remind you how close it is), we will put down our dust rags and cleaning supplies, we will take out the Seder plate and the matzah, we will say, we have done what we could and now the time has come to sit down and celebrate our freedom. We will raise our glasses of wine (or grape juice), and see how full they are, because we are a free people. We were freed from Egypt long ago, but now our nation has come full circle, back to our land with the right to self-determination.
Many jokes go around about how we feel the freedom for real only because of this cleaning frenzy. Some rabbis point out that this is not about spring cleaning, not really. It is really about removing the chametz from our soul. About doing a deep search to see where we stand—were this Egypt again, would we have merited being taken out? Were we standing at the bottom of Mount Sinai, would we have been allowed to hear the voice of G-d, to be given the weighty responsibility and privilege that is the Torah?
Shoshanah Judelman explained this week that we need to think of Yitziyat Mitzrayim (the Redemption from Egypt) every day. We remember it in Shema, said in the morning and at night. This time’s preparation for the upcoming holiday is also time to cleanse ourselves so that we can bring holiness into the world. We are not meant to stay away from chametz all year. But next week’s step back from all of that is what helps us remember that there is a way to look at everything and find what’s holy, to ask ourselves daily “What is my Mitzrayim today?”—what is holding me back from freedom, from improving myself? We were taken out of Egypt, but as we learn from the Dor Hamidbar- the generation that lived through the trip from Egypt to Israel in the desert – it is not so easy to take the chametz, the slavery mentality, from our souls. They were the holiest generation, allowed to directly hear the Voice of G-d, yet they still they sinned, still they struggled with themselves with faith. If even they questioned, after seeing the miracles upon miracles in the redemption, we can understand and give ourselves compassion when we don’t do our best, when the connection is shaky. But then we take a step back, reflect on where we are and where we want to be, and go on. Even if we have four (or more) questions, we are on the right track when we search for answers.
This holiday is also known as the Spring Holiday. From the time of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the beginning of this Hebrew month (two weeks before Pesach), we have a special mitzvah—a special bracha (blessing) we can say on blooming fruit trees. Why trees? Didn’t we celebrate that back in Shvat, when we planted them? Yes, but now is spring, the time for renewal, for growth. This is the time we celebrate our rebirth as a nation, by taking a step away from the rest of the world and looking at how and where we need or want to grow. Trees blooming also symbolize new life, and along with that, hope for a brighter future.
This week’s parsha (portion of the Torah [Bible] read in synagogue] is Metzora, about what a person must do if one is found to have tzaraat, which is a disease of the skin similar to leprosy, although it is really meant to show one’s spiritual imperfection more than physical. The first part of the punishment is to separate oneself from everyone else, staying outside the camp of Israel for seven days. Next, there is a whole purification process so the person will be able to rejoin society. Part of the process mentions sacrificing an animal, and even in this there is compassion for the one who has sinned- they have a choice of animals according to what they can afford. It is beautiful to me that even while someone has to be embarrassed and alone, they know that there is something they can do to change their status, and there is even consideration for the sinner’s means. This commandment, also, is immediately mentioned in connection with our land–Moshe and Aharon are told how it will be handled once we “arrive in the Land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession”. We are told that before the ultimate punishment of finding it on their skin, the sinner will first see it on their house, possessions, and clothing—a warning to change their ways before it goes further, another instance of compassion for the sinner. In most years, which are not leap years, this is read together with Tazria, the portion before it. That one explains about how we become contaminated, while Metzora gives the instructions for purification. The main reason given for getting punished with tzoraat is lashon hara, slander- talking badly about others, whether true or untrue. It is a hard thing to remember not to do, given how common it is. Yet it is among the commandments we are expected to try and live up to, because just like the punishment separates the sinner, the sin itself separates people from each other.
The Torah is heavy to carry. In this book, there are all the laws about being holy and what to do when we cannot live up to that standard. Many nations take offense when the Jewish Nation is referred to as being “the chosen ones”. But much like others who have been “chosen,” it is often a burden, a mantle set on our shoulders to bear, a high standard to live up to. We are only as special as we make ourselves, when we model the right behavior.
Last night Israel attempted to land on the moon—and almost made it. What did we do when our landing module crashed instead? What was our response to this colossal disappointment? We sang our national anthem, Hatikva- The Hope. Yes, we also made jokes- maybe next time we’ll make it, maybe it was Israeli drivers. But in the first few minutes right after, our newly re-elected head of state, Prime Minister Netanyahu, vowed to extend every effort to build again, to try again. We are a people who gets up. A rabbi (sorry I do not know who) once said, the righteous man is one who falls seven times—and gets up seven times. We have been beaten, we have been persecuted, we have had more than two-thousand years outside the camp to think about what we have done wrong and how we can fix it, how we can improve ourselves, how we can get back to our homeland. We have held the two-thousand-year Hope of redemption for our Nation. In one week, we will celebrate that no matter what has happened to our Nation, whether we were being threatened or murdered by Pharaoh, Haman, the Greeks, the Inquisition, ongoing pogroms, the Holocaust, or our own infighting at times, we are here, in our land. We are deciding our fates, we are free, we can hope for and work towards a brighter future for us and for the whole world.
The point is, we have a glass.