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April 14, 2017

Chol HaMo-eid Pesach

Peter J. Rubinstein

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I was in Jerusalem for a wedding just over a week ago overlooking the Western Wall Plaza with the Temple mount and the Dome of the Rock above it, the Mount of Olives in the distance across the valley and some slight vision of the Jordanian Hills to the east. Just as the wedding began the bells of the Churches began to signal the turning of the hour and simultaneously the muezzin began the Muslim call to prayer from the minaret of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

It was a metaphoric, if not literal meeting of the three Abrahamic faiths just as the sun was setting bringing on the intersection between day and night.

In the course of a single instant, I captured a mental photograph of the couple under the Chupah and the tombstones on the Mount of Olives reflecting the setting sun. Therein was the intersection of the past signaled by those laid to rest on the Mount of Olives and future embodied by the hopes and aspirations of the couple under the Chupah.

For me that snapshot was instructive. It compelled me to realize that I am always at the intersection between my past and my future. We all are.

And therein is the message of Passover.

The Pesach holiday during which this Shabbat occurs magnificently embodies the profundity and prevalence of those transitions. At the Seder table, we are at the intersection between past and future.

We look around the table and it is about memory. We recount how we used to practice the traditions when we were children. We talk about those who are no longer with us at the Seder.

And it is about the future as well. We put every bit of energy into making the Exodus story and the Hagadah sensible and meaningful for the next generation, to help them learn about the stranger and the enslaved and the hungry, to teach them to ask questions and take nothing for granted.

It is also an exquisite opportunity for us to be self-reflective, to take account of our own past and willfully to break free from its shackles by abandoning lethargy and intentionally adding to creation; by withholding harshness, swallowing pride, subduing ego, reining in our tendency to lash out and deciding to do what is good and right and decent at every moment because each moment is an opportunity to do better.

I’ve recently been asking people whether they think that being kind is an innate quality with which we are born, is it implanted in our DNA, or is it a learned attribute taught by experience and upbringing. Most people believe kindness is a learned attribute.

On this Shabbat, during Pesach, we hear the Torah’s special reading for the holiday. The words are familiar because they’re also recited during the High Holidays when before the ark the Cantor recounts God’s attributes. According to the Torah, these qualities are enumerated by God in response to Moses’ request that God allow Moses to know God’s ways and behold God’s presence. God’s self-description includes attributes of compassion, graciousness, anger management, kindness, faithfulness, and forgiveness.

But the honesty of the Torah is that it narrates God’s fits and starts in portraying these qualities. At times God is not compassionate at all, nor kind nor forgiving. For God, these attributes are more aspirational than they are accurate descriptions of God’s consistent behavior.

Yet, in the end, they give us hope. It is no different for us as it is for God that each moment is an opportunity to define and redefine ourselves, to develop a self-portrait of the values for which we would be known or want to self-define ourselves. Do we desire to be known for our kindness, or patience, or humility, or decency? Those are decisions we can make and goals for which we can strive.

The challenge for us at each moment of our lives, at each intersection between past and future, is to refocus on whom it is that we want to be

On the Jewish calendar, this month is the beginning of a New Year in the counting of the months. This is a season of rebirth not only for nature or in the history of the Jewish people. I believe the holiday of Pesach is intended for us to shake off the fetters of past habits and to take steps forward on a journey to freedom, the freedom to decide for ourselves how we want to live and be known. We don’t need to wait for Rosh Hashanah. Right now, we can do better than we have. What an amazing opportunity, Let’s use it well!