This week, we take a break from the chronological readings of the Torah to read the special portion for Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach – the Sabbath that takes place during the intermediate days of Passover. We move from Leviticus and return to Exodus, but we do not read the story of our escape from slavery. The portion begins, in fact, after Moses has already been up the mountain, the Jews have worshiped the golden calf, Moses has smashed the tablets, the appropriate people have been disciplined, and Moses returns to the mountain for the second set of tablets.
In Exodus 33:18, Moses says to G-d, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” and G-d replies, “I will make all My Goodness pass before you… but you cannot see my face… See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
In a D’var Torah for parshat Balak that I wrote last year, I wrote, “I don’t believe that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ but I do believe that we can FIND REASON in everything that happens.” I love this moment in Torah because of this concept. We cannot see G-d’s face in things before they happen or even necessarily as they happen, but looking back, we can often see G-d’s back if we choose to find it there.
The Passover story is one that encompasses unbelievable suffering on both sides, but also triumph and redemption. When we read this tale each year and find lessons that still speak to us today, we are seeing G-d’s back in the story, the deeper purpose that dwells there. I’m sure we’ve all heard about the new tradition of adding an orange to our seder plate. (For the true history behind this custom, click here). Each year, I hear about someone advocating for some new addition – an olive for peace, a pinecone as a reminder of mass incarceration and the work it will take to repair it, cashews to honor the troops, a pineapple for solidarity with refugees, and more. If we actually added all of these customs, we’d need an entire table just for our seder plate. But we can see from the effort, that seders aren’t dead rituals. That people think deeply about how the themes continue to echo today, and that seders come alive with meaning when we do (even if our seder plate looks traditional as ever).
As we approach the end of this Passover season, our goal is to ensure that the themes and lessons of the seders endure beyond this one week. When the haggadot and seder plates are put away, and the dishes cleaned and back in the cabinets, we can still see G-d in the rituals we have observed as we carry their lessons forward. We will welcome the stranger, “for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We will ask questions because seders remind us that life is about asking questions, engaging, and learning. And we will find ways to keep ritual alive so that looking back, we can find G-d in the actions of our days.
Cantor Sally Neff