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Shabbat HaGadol: Setting The Table For Passover

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Earlier this month, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, in the midst of a difficult election season, attacked both Muslim and Jewish slaughter practices, halal and kashrut. He called for Muslims and Jews to give up their "ancestral traditions" of religious slaughter, saying they "no longer have much to do with today's state of science, with the state of technology, with health problems."

Fillon's statements were part of a larger effort to appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment in the French electorate, and he ultimately backed off after visits from a rabbi and an imam. Fillon's intentions were suspect, but he raised some worthwhile questions. What is the value of seemingly antiquated religious dietary laws? Why declare some foods forbidden and others required? Why delineate feasts and fasts? Why make a religious issue out of how we fuel our bodies and feed our families?

Those questions are especially relevant as we approach the Sabbath before Passover, known as Shabbat HaGadol, "the Great Sabbath." Traditionally, this has been a day for lengthy rabbinic sermons, often devoted to the food regulations connected to the coming festival. While Jewish law sacralizes food throughout the year, Passover brings eating to a new level of complexity. Sometimes the details threaten to overwhelm and obscure the meaning. Returning to the story of the Exodus helps the message assert itself. As poet Linda Pastan says about her Passover preparations, "I set my table with metaphors."

Let me focus on one important feature -- the lamb.

The story begins in Exodus 12:3. As a final preparation before the redemption in Egypt, the Israelites are told to "take for yourselves lambs." Four days later, we learn, those lambs were to be slaughtered, roasted and eaten in family groups as a final meal on the night of the Exodus. Even before the escape is executed, God provides instructions about how the deliverance will be commemorated: "You will remember this and tell it to your children. And when the children ask what the holiday is all about, you will say, it is the pesach sacrifice of the Lord" (Exodus 12:27).

The Hebrew word pesach has two possible meanings, both of which come into play. It can mean leap or skip, giving us the English name for the holiday, Passover. It can also mean hover or protect. The slaves smear the blood of the paschal lambs on their doorposts, to protect their lives: the 10th plague brings death to the land's first born, but passes over the homes of the Israelites.

That night, the Israelites go free, but their victory is not without a cost. There is not a house in all of Egypt, however innocent, that does not lose a child. God tells the Israelites: you have been spared the fate of the Egyptians; now, you owe. Place a lamb on the altar. Acknowledge, if only symbolically, that your own first born must be turned over to God.

This year, I am struck by the connection of this story to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. While I celebrate the return of my people to our ancestral homeland, I also know that others have paid a heavy price for this dream to come true, in particular the Palestinians who were there when we came home. Tragically, both Palestinians and Israelis continue to pay dearly, inflicting great suffering on one another and offering far too many young people up as sacrifices. My obligation, especially acute as a first born, is to acknowledge the shadow side of the seder and, similarly, that of the Jewish state.

In biblical times, Jews marked the Passover festival by the sacrifice and communal eating of lambs. (Today, we place a shank bone on the seder plate and tell the story.) Later, rabbis recalled the 10th plague by establishing an annual fast for first-borns on the day before the holiday. Had we eldest children been in Egypt, our lives would have been at risk on that fateful night, hence our obligation to sacrifice. Over the years, participation in sacred study has become a way to exempt oneself from the fast. I observe the "fast of the first born" each year by engaging in the study of a religious text with fellow eldest children in the synagogue, having a quick breakfast, and heading home to complete my preparations for the seder.

The option to study instead of fast has often seemed to me at best a non sequitur, at worst a legal subterfuge. I wonder: Do I really give up anything when I study -- and eat -- in place of fasting? How can learning be, even metaphorically, a form of sacrifice?

In engaging in conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I get a glimmer of an answer. What I give up when I study is my cherished belief that I know everything. After many years of engaging in impassioned discussion and debate about Israel-Palestine with Jews and non-Jews alike, I recognize how hard it can be to listen -- to really listen -- to the opinions of people with whom I disagree. But when I do open myself to being taught by others, I create my own altar -- so to speak -- and place upon it the illusion that I already have all the information I need to be right.

As Shabbat HaGadol approaches this year, I hear the command to humbly go and learn: about the narratives of both Israelis and Palestinians, about the complexities of this devastating conflict, and about the pragmatics of working to end the bloodshed.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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