In the moving film about Colorado’s famous autistic environmentalist and animal rights activist, Temple Grandin, the final quote is: “A door opened and I went through it.”
Several weeks ago, the members of Haver in Boulder were honored by leading groups of JCC founders to put up mezuzot on the doors of the breathtakingly beautiful structure of the new JCC. As a big fan of the mitzvah of mezuzah I have thought even more about the significance of this commandment since that event, especially as it occurred so close to Passover. The Torah relates how the Israelites in Egypt expressed their faith in G-d and the promise of redemption by placing blood on their doorposts. This was a one-time act, but the mitzvah of mezuzah- a word that actually means doorpost- is a constant reminder not only of G-d’s ‘passing over’ the doorposts of the Israelites, but of our own transitions in life from inside to outside, and back again. And often much blood, sweat, and tears are spilled in those moves.
It’s interesting that in Hebrew, the word “Dor” actually means generation, hinting that the passage from generation to generation is also a doorway from the past to the future. Some have a custom, when moving through a doorway, to pause, kiss the mezuzah, and in addition recite a verse from Psalms, “G-d will guard your going and coming from now until forever!”
Many Hassidic commentaries teach that the Exodus is really a continuous experience. Hence the quip about why the Haggadah has so many commentaries: “Last year’s exodus is this year’s liberation.” But there is a deep truth to this concept which in addition, seems to shed light on other questions. Primarily, what is going on in the seven week corridor between Pesach and Shavuot, referred to as the “Counting of the Omer?”
In this interim, there is an unusual semi-holiday called “Pesach Sheini,” which is based on a section in the book of Numbers. It is a teaching where some Israelites who could not observe the first Pesach because they were in a state of Tumah, ritual impurity. They came to Moshe with the complaint, “Lama Nigara?” why should we miss out? Moshe consulted with G-d and was told that they could have a “make up” holiday a month later, on a second Pesach where they would eat Matza, but were also allowed to keep Chametz, leavening, in their homes and possessions. Furthermore, when Shavuot came around after 49 days from the second night of Pesach, they were to offer up two loaves of Chametz bread. Thus the enemy became first disarmed, and then an ally – a foe turned into a friend!
What happened to Chametz in the interim? There is a hint of the transformation in a grammatical anomaly in a verse from Song of Songs: “Mashcheini, Acharecha Narutza,” “Draw ME, and after you WE will run.” Why the switch from ME to We? Hassidic principles emphasize the idea that we have two souls = the divine soul and the animal soul. In the beginning (of history as well as of life) there is a conflict, and the two souls are pulling in opposing directions.
But it is the role of the divine soul to harness, or tame the wildness of the animal soul, to the point of becoming subservient to the naturally aligned tendencies of the divine soul. Eventually, both souls working together can accomplish wonders. And that’s what we have been doing for these seven weeks, and forty nine days. As we approach the receiving of our Torah, we have to not just flee from, but also come to terms with our limitations, our personal Egypts.
In 2008, when a serious car crash put me out of commission for about half a year with a broken leg, I wrote a series of articles entitled “AL REGEL ACHAT,” which means, “On One Foot.” I came to realize in the process that all of us are ‘on one foot,’ merely by dint of being human beings. Scientists insist that we ordinarily use only a small percent of our minds, and much time, money, research and energy are spent on attempting to increase that ratio. But how much of our souls are actualized in this Mitzrayim of a world?
The sages relate that four classes of people are considered deprived of life. They are: a metzorah (one who has contracted a specific kind of skin disease), an impoverished person, one who is childless, and one who is blind. Lest the reader jump to the conclusion that the Torah is biased against people in these sad situations, really the opposite perspective is more accurate. These four require more compassion than others, not as a form of pity, but because the four are prevented from functioning in a fuller capacity for life expression than other people.
As I look back at my life of 70 years plus, I feel I have gone through all four forms. Last year I went through a financial scam that depleted the limited resources I had till then. A few years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma. I never had children, as least not physical ones, and as I age, I find myself subject to periodic bouts of itching!
In a way, the Israelites also went through these four challenges. They were impoverished, beaten, blinded, and their children cast into the Nile. No wonder that Amram, the leader of the Jews, decided to divorce his wife Yocheved, and was followed by the rest of the people, till five-year-old Miriam stepped up and pointed out to her father that the separation of the husbands and wives were preventing any children from being born. Hope in a brighter future and a life of meaning, was then, and is now, the saving grace against a hollow existence.
A friend, to whom I was speaking a few weeks ago, came up with a realization that blew my mind. To me it summarized not just a feature of Pesach, but also the essence of our purpose in life. Here are her words: “Mitzrayim is the descent of the soul into the body, and the body is the way out of Mitzrayim.” The Hebrew word Mitrzrayim itself means “narrowness.” My friend’s premise is this: Our soul indeed has been squeezed into a container smaller than itself, but then becomes even larger by engagement with the body, the physical world and all its limitations. That idea captures much of Jewish mystical thought.
As we approach Shavuot, the holiday of Revelation, there are numerous references in the Torah to counting: The counting of the Omer, the various personal evaluations mentioned at the end of Leviticus, and the census at the beginning of the book of Numbers, which is always read before Shavuot. They all teach us that when we count something, we can transpose quantity into quality, because we can make our lives count, together with anything in our world that helps us count. This includes our weaknesses and limitations. Indeed, as Temple Grandin herself often found, sometimes the shackles themselves can bring security and even comfort. It’s as if the flow from Pesach to Shavuot has been able to pick up our debris along the way and transform the debris into “sustainable energy” to transform this material world into a space of holiness.
That is one reason why we try to stay awake and study on the night before Shavuot; rather than separation from our bodies, we need to incorporate into a Torah life, all our physical features, with all their magnificent accomplishments, as well as the aches and pains, flaws and constraints — in short, with all our “Chametz.” Only then can we transmit a living legacy to the next Dor, the next generation.
As we in Boulder watch so many children go through the doors of the new JCC this summer and beyond, on the eve of Shavuot in particular, where G-d considered the youth as the guarantors of the future of Judaism, let us pray that the beauty of the material is fused with the sanctity of the spiritual, to indeed pave the way where our entire planet will become a “Dwelling place for the Divine.”