PASSOVER PORTIONS – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Biblical portions we read during the week of Pesach are every bit as tasty as the edible portions on our Seder plates. And they offer real variety.
The first day, of course, we review the story of the original Exodus – starting with the plague of the first-born, during which the Egyptian public saw that no Hebrew children died. In fact, here we see the origin of this holiday’s very name. By putting blood on the doorpost – the mezuzah – our ancestors signaled the Destroyer (call him an Angel of Death) that this was a Jewish house, and he would pass over – pasach – that house and hit the Egyptians. So they were ready to give the slaves all kinds of things to encourage them to leave the country, and a whole crowd of Egyptians even followed the Hebrews out.
On the Intermediate Sabbath, Shabat Khol haMo-ed, we read Moses’ prayer and G-d’s answer. Key words here dramatize conditions and attitudes that mark our history. What Moses asks for his people is v’nifleenu – “let us be distinguished from all the other nations.” In return, he gets the message: “you have found favor in My eyes… I will show you my goodness, and will call the Divine name before you; and I will favor those whom I will favor, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” But somehow politics enters even such a lofty scene, as the Divine voice warns Moses: “Watch yourself, lest you make a treaty with those who inhabit the land I am giving you, for [the treaty] can become a trap in your midst.”
In the Haftorah, the prophetic reading for that day, Ezekiel proclaims his vision of the dry bones, brought back to life by Divine power and destined to be returned to “the soil of your land.” Reading this vision today, we cannot help thinking of Holocaust survivors rebuilding modern Israel.
The Seventh Day finds us singing the Song of the Sea, Shirat haYam, celebrating our ancestors crossing the Red Sea “on dry land” and turning to see the pursuing Egyptian chariots sink in the churning waves. Is that miracle hard to believe? Consider that just a few years ago some archeologists found a raised sandbar under the Red Sea, and what did they discover there but the gold covers of Pharaoh’s chariot wheels. The wooden wheels themselves were long since decomposed, but the gold “hubcaps” survived!
Perhaps the most beautiful of all these famous and dramatic readings is in neither the Torah nor the Prophets. Each festival has a megillah – a scroll – from the third part of the Bible called K’tuvim – the writings. Most familiar of these scrolls, of course, is Megillat Esther that we read just a few weeks ago for Purim. But the one chosen for Pesach, traditionally read in most congregations on the Intermediate Sabbath, is Shir haShirim – the Song of Songs, credited to King Solomon. Most emotional of all love songs, with female lines and male lines, romantic and graphic and idyllic, the verses of this Megillah truly belong in the spring, the season of Pesach, when “the rains are over and done, flowers appear on the earth and the time of singing has come.” After all, the Torah calls this month not Nisan, the name we use, but Aviv – Spring. So our rabbis adjusted our lunar calendar to make sure Pesach always occurs in the spring. Some commentators interpret the love expressed in Shir haShirim as representing both the passion of man and woman, and the devotion of G-d and Israel. Certainly this song, its ancient poetry and gentle melody, should be a major highlight of the Pesach week. In the spring the synagogue, like a young man’s fancy, turns to thoughts of love.
So you have a few days to recover from Seder. Enjoy King Solomon’s love song this Shabat!