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Diversity and Unity

Torah Talk for Shabbat Final Day of Passover 5779

Because of how Passover falls this year, having begun last Friday night and continuing through the end of the week, we have an interesting bifurcation of Torah readings this coming Shabbat.

In Israel, all Jews celebrate seven days of Pesach, while in the Diaspora there is a difference between Conservative and Orthodox Jews, who celebrate eight days of Passover, and Reform Jews, who celebrate seven days. For Jews who celebrate the eighth day of Pesach this Saturday’s Torah reading is taken from Deuteronomy and includes the commandments for celebrating the Passover in Biblical times as well as other festival celebrations. In contrast, Jews in Israel this Shabbat will read the Torah portion of Acharei Mot from Leviticus, the regular weekly portion. Reform Jews outside of Israel officially—if one can say anything having to do with the Reform movement is ever official—do something quite odd: they divide the weekly portion of Acharei Mot into two parts and read one section this week and the next section next week.

This means that for a few weeks now the Torah as read in Israel will differ from the portion read in most Diaspora synagogues. It all evens out eventually, but this year not until August 10th, after we combine the Torah portions of Matot-Masei the week before. Frankly, that’s a long time when we Jews will be reading different Torah portions on the same Shabbat…

In any case, since in our congregation we will be reading the 8th Day Torah reading this Shabbat, we are reminded of the fact that Passover, like Shavuot and Sukkot, was a pilgrimage festival, a time when our ancestors walked to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday as a national community. Three times a year we were supposed to travel to the central shrine, the Temple, and observe the rituals of the festival in the holiest place on earth. It’s doubtful that all but the most pious—and likely the wealthiest—Jews actually fulfilled this mitzvah thrice each year, but it’s equally likely that most did so at least on one of these festivals annually, or certainly over the course of their lives.

Although Israel was never a huge country, walking to the capital city from the north or south nonetheless would have taken several days. It must have been quite an experience: traveling from their farms, orchards, fields and towns across the length and breadth of Israel to journey up to the city of peace, Jerusalem. Once there, they had to make the preparations for the festival, acquire a lamb to roast, matzah and bitter herbs to eat, provisions for themselves and their families. Without the benefit of they had to find accommodations in a city that was no doubt bursting with pilgrims, and then at the proper times make their way to the gleaming Temple to make their own individual offerings, as well.

In some ways, it wasn’t so different from our own Pesach preparations, the cleaning and cooking and buying and preparing that are central to this holiday today. Still, it would have been something to have been in Jerusalem in those long-ago days and feel that everyone was connected to this shared experience of celebrating freedom together. Even today it is wonderful to be in Jerusalem on Passover or Shavuot or Sukkot, to feel the energy of everyone readying themselves and then celebrating the festival throughout the city.

There are times when it is reasonable to wonder just how connected the Jewish people really is today. Heck, we somehow contrive to have different Shabbat Torah portions for more than two months… But it is festival times like these, especially Passover, when we can feel most connected to our people and our heritage. And that is something special and sacred.

When 107 people gathered for our inaugural First Seder at Congregation Beit Simcha that feeling couldn’t be missed. May we contemporary Jews find the means to imitate the extraordinary ways our ancestors connected on these pilgrimage festivals at many other times, as well.

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