Friday, April 6, 2018

Parashat Shemini // End of Passover // 7th day of the Omer

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach to those still observing one more day of Pesah! Before talking Torah, it is also time to count the Omer. The blessing and counting formula can be found on page 570.
ברוך אתה יי אלוקינו מלך/רוח  העולם אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציונו על ספירת העומר
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech/ruach  ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.
Blessed are you, adonai, our God, ruler/spirit of the universe, who sanctifies us with commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer.
היום שְׁבִיעִית יום שהם שבוע אחד בעומר.
Hayom shevi’it yom, she’heim shavuah echad b’omer.
Today is 7 days, that is one week of the omer.
The mystical realm of this day of the omer, is Malchut sh’b’chesed, or majesty within love. Rabbi Jill Hammer assigns this day and this realm to the Shunamite woman of II Kings, who assists the prophet Elisha and insists she needs no reward or repayment. Still, Elisha prays to God that she be given a son as an honor due to her regal treatment of him. She does indeed bare a son, and he grows up, but one day while still young, he gets sunstroke and dies in her lap. She doesn’t ask Elisha for anything more, but merely reminds him that she had insisted she didn’t need anything. Now, she has heartbreak.
This story of a prophet is not the Haftarah for this week, but as I was reading from The Five Books of Miriam, a commentary offering imagined insight from the silent women of the Biblical stories, on the Reform Torah reading for this week, it struck a chord. For those who observe an eighth day of Passover, this Shabbat remains a holiday reading. The Torah reading comes from Deuteronomy and the Haftarah from Isaiah. For the Reform movement, we have returned to the Torah-proscribed seven days of Passover, which means the holiday concluded tonight at sundown and the Shabbat reading picks back up where we left off in the chronological Torah readings. The Parashat Shemini is broken into two halves to be read on this week and next, as is the Haftarah from II Samuel. In Parashat Shemini, two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, bring an offering of “strange fire” to the newly constructed and finally finished Mishkan. They have been given very precise directions about the sacrifices to be made at the Mishkan, and they have watched their father, the High Priest, do it just so. And yet, in their passion or their haste or whatever it is that possessed them in that moment, they chose to bring forth something that was not within the specific set of rules about the sacrifices. A fire of God bursts forth from the altar and consumes them. The Five Books of Miriam wonders how their mother, Elisheva, felt. She is rarely mentioned at all throughout the Torah, and is conspicuously absent from the scene and the ensuing scenes in which Aaron and his two remaining sons are told by Moses not to grieve publicly for Nadav and Avihu. In the modern Midrash, she wonders about Moses’s command to her husband and sons: does it apply to her? Is she allowed to mourn? She shoulders her burden with grace and all the women of her tribe sing songs of lamentation for her and with her. She does not cry out in anger against God or Moses or pray for her sons to return to her. She behaves with the same majesty as the Shunamite woman. It is notable that this is Midrash and we can never really know how Elisheva mourned. We know how the Shunamite woman handled the death of her son, yet we don’t know her name or that of the boy. The information doled out in the text is sometimes just enough to elicit further questions, interpreting, and deeper understanding. That is why we are commanded throughout the days of Passover, year after year, to retell stories we think we know, to ask more questions, to interpret, to reach new understandings.
The nameless Shunamite woman is further honored when Elisha revives her son from the dead, yet Nadav and Avihu remain dead. We can never know why they were punished so harshly, just as we can never know for certain if there were Egyptians among those who suffered the Plagues that were abolitionists. But we can ask our questions, learn more deeply, and honor our ancestors by living with the same measure of grace, majesty, and wisdom that the women of our stories often demonstrated.
As we conclude our holiday, let us always hold room in our hearts and minds for nuance, remembering that there will always be mysteries to us. We can never be all knowing but we can always know more, and in that knowledge and wisdom, we can find a wellspring of hope and support from our tradition and faith. We cannot shield ourselves from the harshness of life, even the unintentional consequences of well-meaning actions can turn our worlds around, but we have the strength and merit to push forward, as Jews have always done for millenia. May we go forth with majesty in love and kindness. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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