Thursday, January 6, 2011

Home, Family, and a Rulebook

Parshat Bo

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In the midst of the tumult surrounding the last of the plagues we are given our first dose of the mitzvot. The Israelites in Egypt were instructed to take what is commonly translated as a "hyssop" branch, dip it into the pre-gathered blood of the lamb, and paint the doorposts and mantle before staying indoors for the rest of the night. (12:22)

In 12:24 we are told to "guard this thing as a statute for you and your children forever," but the Talmud (Pesachim 96) clarifies that this statement refers to the commandment of the Paschal lamb, which rounds out the end of 12:21.

The rest of the fifth aliyah, which concludes with 12:28, speaks of the conversation that will ensue with your children one day when you continue to practice these everlasting laws when you'll be living in the land. Perhaps these verses are a hint to the practice that is arguably most widespread in Jewish life: having a seder on Passover.

The Torah's narrative returns to the tale of the final plague before concluding the chapter with more instruction surrounding how the holiday is to be observed. "It must be eaten in one home. Do not bring any of its meat outside of the home…" (12:46)

The set of rules essentially concludes with the most important of all. "There shall be one law for the native and the proselyte who lives among you." (12:49)

There are two points in this depiction of the first seder that are extraordinarily compelling.

The first is the focus on the family, and on what goes on indoors, inside the protection of the home. While it is understood that in Egypt, on that evening, it was dangerous to go outside, sometimes we are confronted with the reality that every venture outside of the home is dangerous. I speak not of physical danger from a "supernatural destroyer" or even from law-breaking citizens. Frankly, we are all at risk every day of being involved in an automobile accident, G-d forbid, yet we know this will not prevent us from going outside.

When we leave our homes, and when we bring outside influences into our homes, such as certain magazines, advertisements, and different kinds of media, we lose the protective strength of the walls of our home.

The Jewish family is meant to be a unit which certainly "eats" together, but which also learns and grows together. Everything that is brought into the home that does not strengthen the walls has the potential to weaken the family bond and the Torah foundation that is meant to tie it all together.

The meat of the Paschal lamb is not to be taken outdoors because some things cannot survive outside of the home. Rabbi Menachem Recanati, the author of a Kabbalistic commentary on the Torah, writes that the meat remains in the home so that "the blessing will remain there,” since “blessings only remain on modest things."

The essence of the Jewish home is governed by modesty. Modesty in how we behave, how we think, how we talk, how we relate to others, how we view ourselves in relation to G-d, and how much we allow outside influences (non-Torah oriented or Torah-originated) to dictate who we are and how we live our lives.

The second lesson to be derived from the first seder is that there is one rulebook, and that all are equal in the eyes of the law. This is not to suggest that there is no room for accommodation and for doing what we can to make others comfortable. However, in a sense, the Torah is suggesting that once we give everyone the same rulebook, and once everyone is on a level playing field, there is no room for affirmative action. No one gets a free pass on account of ignorance, and no one gets privileges on account of being members of a particular group, unless it is expressed otherwise in the rulebook.

"One law for the native and the proselyte" means all are treated equally, and everyone must play by the same rules. Education is available to all. What do we do with the education opportunities? Participation is available to all – governed by a set of rules. In what way do we choose to capitalize on our participatory opportunities? Weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, brisses ought to have a shared significance across the spectrum of Judaism. When the perspective is lost as to how these events are to effect our lives, impact our Jewish experience, and further commit ourselves to Godliness, we begin to wonder when, where and how we lost our way. Bar and Bat Mitzvah, for example, have become an industry, where the significance of responsibility and accountability to God, Torah and the Jewish people is largley misplaced.

May we merit to see a time when all the Jewish people follow the same rulebook, when the choices that are made are understood for what they were meant to be.

The seder is one ritual that still has it right, because the focus is on the family unit. It brings everyone together, under one roof, to share a tradition that goes back thousands of years, that remains a link to our heritage that crosses all boundaries.

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