(tell story about everyone bowing in synagogue … )
We do things that we're used to. We have a “usual” drink at the coffee shop, we sit in the same seat at meetings and conferences ... we tend to go to bed around the same time every night. Our lives are filled with regular patterns of behavior - some conscious, some subconscious.
And Judaism is no different. During Shabbat, we want to sing the songs that we grew up with - the melodies that our grandparents sang with us. We say the exact same prayers at almost every single service. The repetitive nature of Jewish ritual and prayer solidifies our minhagim, our customs. It's not a surprise then, that deviation from our habits can cause strife. Intellectually, we know that change is hard, but necessary. But emotionally and spiritually, it's difficult to let go. In times like these we may exclaim, Who moved my Matzah?!
Passover is a complex holiday filled with friendship and joy, spirituality and lots of kosher for Passover foods. Passover teaches many things. It teaches about freedom, and our responsibility to be a light onto the nations as we help insure freedom for others. It teaches about the importance of history - the entire holiday is a historical remembrance to Moses and the Israelites that fled Egypt. Pesach is also a tribute to God, praising and thanking God for freeing us with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand. The holiday focuses on the exodus from Egypt, Mitzrayiim. In Hebrew, the word Mitzrayiim is a combination of three words – Mi, Tzar, and Im. Mi means from, and im signifies something plural. The word tzar means narrow place. Mitzrayiim means “from the narrow places.” On Passover, we do not only celebrate the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt. We also allow emancipate ourselves from the shackles of our own narrow places. Above all its messages and inspirations, Passover both allows us and teaches to break from some of our habits - our Mitzrayim ... This is clear if we think for a moment on the central question that we ask at the seder table: Why is this night different than all other nights?
The Exodus is not a one time event. Each of us is imprisoned.. Perhaps we are trapped by our own expectations, and do not allow ourselves to see beyond them. Perhaps we are trapped into continuing a pattern of strained relationships and resentments.
Habits are good. Judaism with its 613 Mitzvot teaches us that habits are necessary. But whatever the habit is, if we continue to do it, it needs to be for reasons that are relevant and meaningful now, and not because that's the way it's always been done.
And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion. Within this parsha located in the middle of Leviticus, we read what has come to be known as the holiness code. It is a section of Leviticus in which God commands mitzvah after mitzvah. Some are moral, some are ritualistic, and some are theologically problematic. Toward the beginning of this holiness code, our Torah says the following:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to the Israelite people and say to them:
I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you
dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
My rules alone shall you observe.”
Even after the Exodus, after the joy of freedom, God still commands us.
Judaism is not about complete and utter freedom. Being Jewish, Reform Judaism included, does not mean that we can think and do whatever we want. Our holiday of freedom, Passover reflects this. Passover moves us along a journey toward something other then freedom. 49 days after Passover we will celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. Passover leads us toward Shavuot, in which we celebrate the responsibility of performing God’s laws. Freedom is only the beginning of our journey.
There’s something else here though. In the above verses, God commands, but there is more to it than “Do my laws or else.” God cautions us from being like the congregants in the fabled synagogue of our joke, bowing without insight or knowledge. God's words urge us not to be trapped in the Mitzrayiim of habit, of rote ritual, and of sheer obedience to the power of "what we're used to."
There's an interesting bit of wordplay with regard to the Hebrew word, minag, meaning custom. It's letters are mem, nun, gimmel. If we reverse the letters, using gimmel, nun, mem, we have the word gehenom, which is akin to the Christian conception of hell. This wordplay reminds us again that whereas traditions and customs are extremely important, sometimes we must allow room for change ...for a new tradition. Otherwise, we are trapped.
During the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot we count the omer. This period is a bridge of time spanning the two holidays. The laws in our Torah are also a bridge between the reliance on the past and the beginning of new insights and rituals for our future. As we celebrate Passover in just a few days and begin counting toward Shavuot, let us make that bridge as wide as possible. Let it lead us toward new insights, new traditions, and new minhagim for our faith and community. And let it lead us to the holiness of Mount Sinai and to our Torah.