Thursday, April 28, 2016

Passover and Dreams of Jerusalem

People often ask me why some celebrate seven days of Passover and others eight. Should we eat matzah for seven days or eight, celebrate one seder or two? The Torah specifies that Passover be celebrated for seven days. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread…” (Exodus 12:15) In Israel the holiday is observed for seven days. In diaspora communities such as our own it is celebrated for eight days with two seders. Why the difference?

Millennia ago when the rabbis established the calendar they insisted that witnesses attest to the beginning of the new month. Despite the fact that they had already developed mathematical calculations to make this determination, they asked for witnesses to come before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. “Where did you see the new moon?” they asked a witness. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:6) Once they were satisfied by the testimony they declared the next day Rosh Hodesh, the first of the Hebrew month. Beacon fires were set on hilltops to declare the news throughout the Jewish diaspora, which at that time stretched throughout the Middle East.

But even then the Jewish people did not get along with each other. The Samaritan sect for example began to light the signal fires at the wrong time in order to sow confusion. So the rabbis resorted to sending messengers to even such far away Jewish communities as those in Egypt and Babylonia. But obviously a messenger takes much longer to deliver this message than a signal fire.

Thus the rabbis established “yom tov sheni shel galuyot—a second holiday day for the diaspora.” Those living outside of the land of Israel were told to observe two days of holidays. In essence this ruling was a safety measure to ensure that people were observing the holiday on its proper day. This custom persisted even after the calendar became fixed and was no longer dependent on the testimony of witnesses or a declaration from Jerusalem.

Centuries later the Reform movement argued that two days of the holiday no longer made sense. Especially in an age of computers when we can determine with extraordinary accuracy and speed the dates for holidays this custom should be cast aside as a relic of the past.

And yet the Jewish tradition has always viewed the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem as the ideal place for a Jew to live. These were always the places associated with our Jewish dreams. Despite one’s judgments about present realities in Israel this dream has remained unchanged. It was from Jerusalem that our holidays were proclaimed. It is the land of Israel’s seasons that continue to dictate our prayers for rain or for that matter the logic of a new year for trees in the middle of our New York winter.

The early Reform rabbis argued that America is our new Zion. They sought to replace the ancient Jewish dream with a new one that revolved around where they presently found themselves. For all my love of America, and my deep commitment to Reform Judaism, I am hesitant to let go of the age-old Jewish dream. Too often we seek to adjust our dreams and ideals so that they match with our current practices and lives. In order to better achieve self-fulfillment we let go of past dreams. We are counseled to adjust our goals so that we can find satisfaction and contentment, so that we can discover present day fulfillment.

I prefer instead to hold on to my people’s age-old dreams, even those I suspect I will never achieve. I observe Passover for eight days if for no other reason than to remind me that my dreams should never remain mine alone. My Jewish dreams must always be tied to others. The ideal place is the land of Israel. The city of our dreams is Jerusalem. This is my people’s dream.

As much as I love living here in New York, as much as I remain enamored of the democratic values the United States represents, my Jewish dream is elsewhere. Our Jewish dream is in another land.

That is exactly how we concluded our seders on Friday and Saturday, nights. L’shanah haba-ah beyurashalayim. Next year in Jerusalem!

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