Friday, May 8, 2009

Shabbat Will Come Out, Tomorrow (D'var Torah for Emor)

This d'var Torah of mine first appeared in Torah Aura's "Learn Torah With" series, and it's repeated here in honor of the portion, and also in honor of all those who will be participating in the BCDS production of "Annie" this coming week!

It was a "Payoff Moment," one that every parent dreams of having, an instant when all the sweat pays off. For a Jewish parent who takes the Jewish part seriously, that moment often comes when a child does or says something to indicate that s/he is now looking at the world through Sinai-colored glasses. It could happen when the child goes up to read from the Torah for the first time, opens the door for Elijah at the Seder or volunteers to help out at a homeless shelter; but these enacted Mitzvot, however worthy, often lack the spontaneity of the most memorable Payoff Moments.

I've been fortunate to have many such moments, but none greater than the first. My eldest son Ethan was three at the time, and we were looking at a photo taken at his Brit Milah. In that photo, I was standing with my arm around my wife, who was cradling our tightly-swaddled, tiny bundle of joy in her arms. I asked Ethan who was in the picture.

"That's Daddy…and Mommy," he said, then hesitated a moment while scrutinizing that other thing, and then added proudly, "…and a Hallah!"


Not only was my kid looking at the world through Jewish eyes, he was living on Jewish time. His reality was glazed with the sweet flavor of Hallah and the savory week-long anticipation of Shabbat. His love for the taste of Hallah made the response almost Pavlovian.

We need to be Pavlovian Jews, salivating for salvation day by day, living each moment on the brink of Shabbat, each season on the brink of its redemptive festival. For a Jew, tomorrow is never merely the day after today. Tomorrow is the better day that we are forging, one day closer to redemption, one day closer to an eternal Shabbat. And if redemption does not arrive tomorrow -- to paraphrase that well-known song from the Israeli musical pantheon, "Machar" -- then perhaps it will the day after tomorrow.

Little Orphan Annie is not the first to have extolled the virtues of tomorrow. It's done in our portion. In Leviticus 23:15, we read about the Sefira, that seven week period of counting that takes us seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. The only problem is, when does the counting begin? The Torah says, "Mi'macharat ha-Shabbat," literally "on the morrow of the Sabbath (Fox)." O.K., so we begin counting the day after Shabbat. Not so fast.

Problem #1: Which Shabbat? The one during Pesach? The one after Pesach? Rashi and others conclude that because no specific Shabbat is mentioned, the word Shabbat is not referring to Shabbat at all.

Come again?

This matter later became a major point of dispute between the rabbinic sages and a heretical sect called the Boethusians, who interpreted the term literally, claiming that the Omer had to be brought on a Sunday, the day after Shabbat, and the counting begin then. Logic might tell us to climb on the Boethusian bandwagon here, but the rabbis faced another dilemma:

Problem #2: When does Shavuot fall? If we're to begin the count always on a Sunday, Shavuot will fall on a different Hebrew date every year. Now we're used to that here in America. Many of our holidays are set not by specific dates but by days of the week (Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, etc.). But Shavuot, as the rabbis understood it, is most analogous to the Fourth of July, which always falls on, well, the Fourth of July, and for good reason. The day marks the birth of America as a covenantal entity. The Declaration of Independence established a dramatic, new relationship between government and governed. It was the birthday of an idea. Shavuot, at least since rabbinic times (though not in the biblical period) marks a similar birth, the ratification of the covenant of Sinai, and it needed a fixed date. The only way to do that was to interpret "the morrow of Shabbat" to mean not Shabbat itself, but rather some fixed date related to Passover.

So, when is Shabbat not Shabbat? Well, some have suggested (e.g. Michael Fishbane, as quoted in Everett Fox' notes) that Shabbat originally meant "full moon," which coincides with the first day of Pesach. Therefore, we begin the counting on the second day of Pesach, on the "morrow after the full moon." But the most widely accepted rabbinic view is to see Shabbat as a verb rather than a noun, as an indication of the act of resting rather than THE day of rest; thus rendering the verse, "on the morrow of the day of resting." The term could refer to any day when we don't work. The day of resting being alluded to here would not be Shabbat at all, then, but rather the first day of Passover, when work also is prohibited.

Lovely. So the rabbis fixed this original hitch in the Jewish calendar by reprogramming the Torah at Shabbat's expense. They solved the world's first Y-Jew-K glitch by manipulating our cerebral software so that the word Shabbat would not be understood as the day called Shabbat. "Just erase that day from your memory banks, members of the Jewry,” the sages are telling us.
Is it just me, or does this form of rabbinic doublespeak bother anyone else out there?

Before we all join the Boethusian foreign legion, let me offer up a compromise solution. Here's a way to have our hallah and eat it too, with some matzah and blintzes on the side.

To quote the entire verse, using the JPS translation, "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering -- the day after the sabbath -- you shall count off seven weeks." But wait a minute, it doesn't say seven weeks; it says, "Sheva Shabbatot," seven Sabbaths." Not just seven Sabbaths, but seven Sabbaths that are complete (t'mimot). So here's what we've got: elevation, tomorrow, Sabbath, completeness. We hunger for the elevation that Shabbat brings, and the counting, day to day, week to week, tomorrow to tomorrow, makes us all the more complete.

So while we may acknowledge that the counting begins on the second day of Passover, it is a counting that must be suffused with the spirit of Shabbat. All of Jewish time is suffused with that spirit, as we count not in terms of hours, days and weeks, but by the hours, days and weeks that fulfill us only through the experience of Shabbat. And not merely through the experience of this Shabbat, but all the more through the experience of anticipating next Shabbat. To see the world with Jewish eyes is to live by the rhythm of Macharat ha-Shabbat.

My favorite day of the week, bar none, is Friday. Not Shabbat, although I love Shabbat. But Friday is better, because of that anticipation. You can smell it on Friday, especially in Israel, but even here in Galut. My Friday schedule is built around this anticipation. I finish up my weekend preparations as early as I can, visit people in the hospital or local nursing home, buy the Israeli newspapers, and of course, pick up a hallah, and then enjoy some of the afternoon hours with my kids. When I'm really lucky, I have time to take a late-afternoon bath (a Mikvah with bubbles).

Living on Jewish time means always itching for redemption. On a daily basis, that is measured by the intensity of our anticipation for Shabbat. There is nothing better than Shabbat, except for Macharat ha-Shabbat, the anticipation of next Shabbat, something that begins from the moment we make Havdalah on Saturday night and comes to a climax on Friday afternoon. Macharat ha-Shabbat is the courtship, the counting of the days. Shabbat itself is the marriage. Similarly, Passover and Sefira are the time of spring's romance between God and Israel, while Shavuot is when the two get hitched for eternity.

So if you are concerned about how alive Judaism is for your child, grandchild or yourself, hold up a photo of a swaddled infant, cradled in a parent's arms. If you don't begin to salivate, you need to build up that insatiable hunger -- for the promise of tomorrow's Shabbat.

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