Throughout most of Jewish history since rabbinic times, the vast majority of Jews have lived in foreign lands, barely a step from slavery or annihilation. The focus of the Haggadah reflected that reality. It is only in our day that we can retake the narrative and change its emphasis to living free in our own land. A new Haggadah does exactly that, by adding back into the text a crucial part that was left out during the Babylonian Exile.
One of the more perplexing aspects of the Exodus story is the repeated “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. This phrase—together with another that is equally mysterious—is the key to understanding the true miracle of the Exodus.
While the Book of Esther bears all the literary marks of a fairy tale, the underlying themes are far from trivial. At what point does a ruler become unfit to rule? When is civil disobedience not only allowed, but imperative? Why continue to believe in social justice in a seemingly unjust universe?
Tisha b’Av is an intentionally triggered “national flashback”. Any survivor will tell you that the anniversary of a traumatic event is the time when one is most likely to relive it. Rather than trying to “get over it”, we allow ourselves to acknowledge the loss. We acknowledge that there are some things that we should not just “get over”.
What does the mitzvah of Hanukkah teach us about Jewish survival in a world of declining nation-states? And why does the Gemara never even mention the historical circumstances of Hanukka—the military victory and the re-establishment of a Jewish state? It turns out that these two questions are bound up together in some surprising ways.
The seeds planted on Tisha b’Av, a poem by Ovadya ben Malka: “A curse and a blessing were laid on us that day. Having lived the curse, can we doubt that blessing will come as well?”
Tisha b’Av is a kind of “Bermuda Triangle in Time” for the Jewish people. Most people know that both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed on that day. That would be enough to qualify this day as a day of misfortune. But what is less known is how far back it goes.
Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Holidays mandated by the Torah, and yet the text tells us very little about the holiday or how it is to be observed. Even the date on which it is celebrated is left undefined. Instead, Shavuot is described only by reference to what came before it. The nature of the holiday became the subject of intense debate among rival factions during the Second Temple era.
In fact, this controversy was part of a much larger debate which threatened to split the Jewish nation along sectarian lines. The split hinged on a major difference of opinion over the nature of Jewish society and its foundation texts: Is the Torah a fixed text, unchangeable for all time, or is it a living document meant to be reinterpreted in the light of changing circumstances?
Lag b’Omer’s rising popularity and increasing religious attribution is a good indicator of how holidays evolve in our national consciousness. We seek meaning, and if meaning is lacking, we draw on our collective memory of transformation to supply it.
The juxtaposition of Yom haZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and Yom haAtzmaut, the Anniversary of Independence, is startling. On Yom haZikaron, we remember those we’ve lost, and we mourn what might have been. And the next evening, the somber atmosphere of mourning suddenly gives way—too suddenly for many of us—to the exuberance of celebration. The transition seems too abrupt; is it really fitting? Can we be expected to shift gears so suddenly?
And yet, there are reasons why this abrupt switch may be fitting after all….