You Shall Pursue

January 4, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Bo

Filed under: D'var Torah, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 12:42 pm

My family is very particular about food. On Thanksgiving, my aunt always brings sweet potatoes, and I always bring pie. On Rosh Hashanah, I make my grandmother’s Jewish apple cake. Dinners with my aunt always involve her brisket, made the same way every time. And on Hanukkah and Passover, my mother makes matzah ball soup with chewwy matzah balls, big pieces of chicken and vegetables, and parsley, not dill. And I’m sure some of you are imagining my mother’s chicken soup and protesting in your heads that the soup should be made with clear broth, or with dill, or with big pillowy matzah balls. But matzah ball soup that is different from my mother’s, or brisket that is different from my aunt’s, or any pumpkin pie that I did not make from the recipe in the Silver Palatte cookbook just feels wrong to me, somehow. Every family has their rituals; a particular way of doing things that, if they were to try something different, the holiday or the time of year would just feel wrong.

And this portion, Parshat Bo, is about that very same issue of ritual. This portion is the first time that the Israelites are given a law to follow. A ritual of sacrifice and strange food, of family togetherness and telling of the story. Everything must be prepared just so; the same type of meat, cooked and eaten the same way.

But why are the Israelites commanded to do it? It is a ritual commemorating gratitude to God. God protected us from judgment and pain, and led us out of Egypt, and in exchange we ritualize and memorialize that protection every year throughout the generations.

How do we demonstrate gratitude? It is not enough, sometimes, to say thank you. Sometimes, the only way to properly express the depth of one’s obligation is through our actions, our rituals, our social habits. A gift does not feel like a proper gift unless it is given wrapped in pretty paper. A holiday does not feel like a holiday without that one particular recipe.

I was an anthropology major in college, and a theorist named Marcel Mauss teaches that gift giving, and the obligation that it brings, is what binds a society together. That when we are given a gift, we feel the need to give in return, and that endless cycle of giving and receiving is what helps to foster strong relationships. And these gifts to not only need to be the gift of a new sweater or an iPad. We are obligated in moments of vulnerability, of love, of compassion. When a parent died, and our friends organized food throughout the Shiva. Or when we were sick in the hospital, and our friends came to visit us every day with silly jokes and flowers. Or even when we were having a hard time, and some person took a moment to listen, to share the burden of our grief and anxiety. Those moments of genuine human connection and love are the gifts we give to one another, which keep our society moving.

So, I ask again, how do we express our gratitude? The first step is realizing that we are truly, deeply blessed. Cultivating thanks for our gifts of strength, and talent, and knowledge, and good health when it exists, and loving family when it exists. And the next step is to make use of those gifts. To show through our actions how much we love our community. To use our talents for making the world a better place. And to use our relationship with God, our Jewish community, our ancient teachings, to make the world a better place.

This is what the Israelites are commanded to do. They are given this ritual, in order to express their thanks for their salvation. The ritual of Passover is our gift to God in exchange for protection, love, and relationship. But it is not only one generation that gives God the gift of the Passover sacrifice. It is every generation thereafter. The most important part of the ritual is that it serves as a teachable moment for the children, and the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren, to come into relationship with God and all that God has done for the Jewish people.

And, like the gifts we give to the people around us, our gifts to God also help us to construct societies and relationships. Our gifts to God come in our celebration of Shabbat, in the Passover seder, in the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, in fasting at Yom Kippur. Every penny we give in tzedakah, every line we study of Torah, every mitzvah that we perform, is a gift to God in exchange for the blessing and the gift of life. And as we give those gifts, we give to one another. We form bonds with our families, and our friends, and our broader community, and the world, that make our human society a better place to live.

And so my wish for all of us this Shabbat is for gifts. The gift of seeing the blessings that are in our lives. The gift of feeling profound gratitude. And the gift of using all that we have been given to continue to give back in return.

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