Monday, April 12, 2010

Yizkor Drasha: Pesach 5770

It is a jarring juxtaposition to have Yizkor during a chag. Chagim, of course, are devoted to simcha, while yikor is at least tinged with sadness. Why is it that we bring up memories of the departed on chagim?

I would like to suggest an answer based on another strange Jewish event. It is the odd ritual of Pesach Sheini, which is described in Bamidbar chapter 9.

4 And Moses spoke unto the children of Israel, that they should keep the passover. 5 And they kept the passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at dusk, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so did the children of Israel. 6 But there were certain men, who were unclean by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day. 7 And those men said unto him: 'We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the children of Israel?' 8 And Moses said unto them: 'Stay ye, that I may hear what the LORD will command concerning you.' {P}
9 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 10 'Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD; 11 in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs; 12 they shall leave none of it unto the morning, nor break a bone thereof; according to all the statute of the passover they shall keep it. 13 But the man that is clean, and is not on a journey, and forbeareth to keep the passover, that soul shall be cut off from his people; because he brought not the offering of the LORD in its appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. 14 And if a stranger shall sojourn among you, and will keep the passover unto the LORD: according to the statute of the passover, and according to the ordinance thereof, so shall he do; ye shall have one statute, both for the stranger, and for him that is born in the land.'”

Two questions:
  1. Why this strange request? There must have been people who could not participate in rituals on Sukkot or Shavuot. Why did lack of participation in the Pascal sacrifice seem so unacceptable, as opposed to other rituals?
  2. How is the solution meaningful? After all, we might feel bad for those members of the community who missed Pesach, but one would assume that nothing could be done. Pesach commemorates events on a certain date, and if you miss then you miss it. Even Moshe cannot think of a solution. Why does God's answer make any sense?
Rav Mordechai Breuer suggests that the Paschal lamb is not a commemorative mitzva. It is a self contained ritual that we happen to observe on the anniversary of its original observance. What is it's purpose? As servants of the King, we are invited to eat at His table. In a sense, while all of the sacrificial practices express a facet of our relationship with God, (thanks, repentance, etc.) the korban Pesach is the expression of the relationship itself. It is the proto-korban, a meta-korban, the ur-korban.

That explains the request. They had not missed a particular mitzva among many. What they had missed was an essential mitzva that symbolizes the place of the Jews as servants of the King. In fact, they are not quoted as saying, “We missed the korban Pesach”, rather they said, “We missed the korban Hashem – the offering of the Lord.” This choice of words is evidence that supports Rav Breuer's suggestion. It also explains the solution, since the date of observance of this ritual is of secondary importance.

But then why was Moshe so hesitant? Why didn't he simply tell them to go ahead and offer the korban when ever they wanted? Rav Breuer also points out that there is another strange aspect of this mitzva. It is the only korban that is both a korban tzibbur, (communal) and a korban yachid (individual). Every other korban is either brought by the cohanim on behalf of the people, or brought by individual people. But the korban Hashem is brought by individuals to the communal event of being invited to the King's banquet. The whole is made of the parts, and each part is as precious as the whole.

This idea, that the corpus of kenesset Yisrael is made of individuals of infinite value is also expressed in the rules that none of the korban should be left over, and no bones can be broken. The family unit must come together in order to finish the whole unbroken meal. The family is a primary unit of kenesset Yisrael. When we sit at the banquet, we can't help but notice the empty chairs of those from the family who we remember having been with us before.

In a sense, it is less jarring to have yizkor on a chag, than it is to have a chag without our loved ones. It is an inevitable consequence of our awareness of the infinite value of every human life, and our sense of loss and longing for the individuality of those who we love and are now missing. The idea of committing to give charity in their name is the attempt to have ripples and echoes of their existence on earth still matter and have consequence in the real world.

Although I presented these ideas somewhat differently, due to the different needs of writing vs. public speaking, these are the basic ideas. It is not lost on me as I post this on Yom Hashoa, that this has grave implications for our memory of the six million. Our lives must continue to be a denial of posthumous victories for the Nazis, and ensure a great victorious future for Am Yisrael. We, who brought the idea of ethical monotheism into the world, along with the idea of the infinite value of every individual life created in the image of God, must become the great light for the nations. That is the mission that we must struggle toward.

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