Sermon: Keep on Walking – First Day of Pesach 2011

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 20 April 2011

Perhaps it is reminiscent of the argument that Hillel and Shammai had about Chanukkah lights (Talmud Shabbat 21b).  The School of Shammai used to light eight on the first day, seven on the second day and then down to one on the last day.  They did this to parallel the sacrifice of bulls on the festival of Sukkot, the festival for which the Maccabees were making up when they celebrated the first Chanukkah.  The School of Hillel would light one light on the first day of the Chanukkah and then build up day by day to eight – just as we do now.  They did so in order that the journey through the festival would increase in holiness and awe and not decrease!  As do the faces of our children as they reach the last night of the near inferno with nine candles ablaze on the Channukkiah.  This must have been even more effective in pre-electricity days gone by when the brightness would be so much more than any regular evening offered.

We do the same on the Alyth Israel trip for B’nei Mitzvah pupils each year – we increase in holiness and awe.  We begin the week in Haifa at the Leo Beack Center, work down the country through Akko, the Kinneret and Kibbutz Degaanya, the Negev, the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi, then a day in Tel Aviv before we finally arrive in Jerusalem – and look out from the Tayelet promenade.  As the young people walk through the Old City from our coach stop just outside the World Union for Progressive Judaism building there is real sense of Shir Ha’Maalot – as song of going up until their first view of the Temple Mount.  This is the great privilege of being a Rabbi because for most of the young people at twelve years old it really is their first ever view of the Temple Mount and I get to witness the sense of holiness and awe that comes over them.  We walk down the steps to the Cotel and the young people are instantly respectful and prayerful.  Then we walk on to the Southern Wall where we can again be together as equal young men and women as God, if not the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate intended.  There we climb the rough hewn and then smooth steps to the outlines of the gates that were once there to allow Jewish pilgrims to come by foot into the Temple on a day such as this.

You can understand why we absolutely do not drive the kids by coach to right by the Cotel!  That last walk is very important.  I hope and I am pretty sure that it succeeds in giving a sense of the meaning that the Temple Mount had in the past of our people.  The place where Jews in their hundreds of thousands, if the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus is to be credited with accuracy, would come on each of the Shalosh Regalim – literally the three foot festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. They would come with their offerings to make at the Temple, a lamb for Passover, first fruits of all different kinds for Shavuot and the best of their harvest for Sukkot, or if travelling with the animals was too difficult they could bring money and purchase what they needed in the shops around the Temple Mount, remnants of which are still there at the South Western Wall.

The journey to Jerusalem must have been highly significant for so many cominng to celebrate the Chag.  Perhaps it was not carried out every year by all due to the expense and time needed away from home.  Perhaps Jewish pilgrims had the same thrilled and pious expectation as the set out on the Journey from home to the Temple as do the white clad Muslim pilgrims who you see at airports at the time of the Hajj to Mecca – some returning as the do every year – more going for their first time.  Of course Hajj and Chag are etymologically the same word.

It is a peculiarity of Judaism that our Chagim – these Shalosh Regalim, the festivals by foot – celebrate and commemorate not the arrival or completion of a special time or event but rather the journey that we have been making.  As Rabbi Elliot Kleinman points out, in the hands of a triumphalist people the Haggadah would surely have recounted Joshua’s conquering of the Promised Land, when our freedom was complete – not the journey from Egypt.  The Hallel Psalms are about Israel coming out of Egypt – not Israel coming into the Promised land.  Shavuot does not celebrate the completion of the Torah but rather focuses on the beginning of the Halachic process – the Ten Commandments at Sinai, in the wilderness at the start of the journey of Jewish responsibility.  Sukkot  too celebrates the journey in the desert through the fragile structures in which we spend the festival – yet Sukkot was the festival on which the Temple itself was dedicated originally and rededicated after the return of the Exiles from Babylonia– and still we do not celebrate the grand and, and least thought of at the time, permanent structure in Jerusalem – just the journey.

The festivals which were introduced later to the Jewish calendar are more conventional in celebrating the completion of a process – more like the other peoples around us – Chanukkah celebrates the Maccabee victory, Purim Esther and Mordechai’s triumph over Haman in saving the Jews and Yom Ha Atzmaut the establishment of the State of Israel after two thousand long years.  But the core festivals which mark the turning of the Jewish year, the Shalosh Regalim celebrated in your Machzor in your hand today are meant to keep us journeying – footstep by footstep.

For Christians salvation is achieved, the Messiah has come – and so the completion can be celebrated.  For Muslims Mohammed has made his journeys, received his revelation, founded what they consider to be the final and complete faith for all humanity – and so this completion can be celebrated.   Our secular festivals – Royal Weddings, Trafalgar Day if it will be held also are celebrations of finishing something – getting there – finally!

But for Jews the journey is the thing. That is because Elijah has not come yet – and at our Seder last night did not come through the door and nor I assume through yours.  We know that no one is going to finish it for us – there is no final prophet to tell us all that God wants – we must continue the task of trying to establish God’s will for us here now – the Halachic process requires people to continue to interact with the traditions of our past and the knowledge of our day.  For Jews there is no saviour who has established the destiny of humanity – instead for each one of us the journey of each year must be brought to account on Yom Kippur and our deeds and decency measured up against our potential.

Not long from now we will be able to go back into the Bet Tefillah where Alyth members have prayed for the past 78 years.  When we return I am sure that we will be thrilled with beauty and elegance of our new Bimah and the possibilities that it will give for us to worship together.  But it won’t be absolutely complete.  The final Aron ha Kodesh, the Ark will still need to be installed and finished by the craftsmen.  The new chairs for the Bimah will need to be made and then a great opportunity will present itself for us to make them more beautiful with the handicraft skills of our community.  We will be a major step on the journey towards a very special Bet Tefillah – but it won’t yet be completed – and as is Judaism’s tradition, being able to complete the journey together will make it more ours – it will no longer belong to the Architect – but to us as a people to complete together.

As our ancestors once did – it is time on this first morning of Pesach to begin our walk from slavery into freedom and then to responsibility.  One footstep at a time.