Sunday, March 4, 2018

Liberations, Physical and Spiritual (Portion Vayakhel-Pekude)

Begin with degradation and end with praise.                    
-Mishnah, Pesachim 10:4

In this week’s double portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, we complete the book of Exodus.  The content of this parshah reminds us that two-thirds of that book is not about the exodus at all. Once we leave Egypt and cross the Red Sea, the emphasis shifts, first to our receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, and then to the central topic of the last five portions of Exodus: the building of the portable sanctuary that we will carry through the desert and the instructions and vestments for the priestly class (cohanim) who tend to its service.

Is there a thematic link between these seemingly disparate sections of Exodus?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides believed so.  He writes: “The unifying theme of the book of Exodus is redemption from exile, both physical and spiritual.”  For Nachmanides, our release from physical servitude comes with the exodus from Egypt, but our spiritual liberation does not arrive until we receive the Torah and then welcome God’s presence made manifest in the mishkan.

This interpretation has a timely parallel in the Passover haggadah.  The Mishnah instructs that in telling the story of our liberation at the seder, we should begin with degradation and conclude with praise.  Being Jewish, from the start, two of our greatest sages differed on which dishonorable event marks the start of this journey toward freedom.  Rav proposes we open the tale with Our ancestors were idolaters, thereby recalling our roots in the pagan practices of two infamous Arameans: Abraham’s father, Terach, and Laban, the father of Rachel and Leah.   With this approach, Rav suggests that our servitude actually commences with the intellectual and spiritual slavery of worshipping false gods, long before Pharaoh physically enslaved us.  Shmuel, by contrast, argues that we should begin with We were slaves in Egypt and move from physical enslavement to political liberation.
In good—and somewhat confusing—Talmudic fashion, the haggadah includes both Rav and Shmuel’s versions of the story.  Shmuel’s comes first (Avadim hayyenu) followed shortly thereafter by Rav’s (Arami oved avi).  Thus our Rabbis remind us that servitude comes in numerous guises, and there are many paths to liberation.
This week—as we finish the multi-faceted book of Exodus and begin our preparations for Pesach, we might well consider all kinds of exile, physical and spiritual.  Let us ask ourselves: What holds us back from reaching our goals, individual and communal?  What are the external challenges?  And which obstacles lie within ourselves?  May this sacred season move us toward liberation from all that binds us.

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