By Rabbi Jill Maderer
The Four Special Torah Portions Prepare Us for Pesach
On what day of the week do we start to wish our friends a “Shabbat shalom”? On Wednesday!
When does the process of High Holy Day repentance begin-Yom Kippur? Rosh Hashanah? No! The High Holy Days actually begin an entire month before the High Holy Days begin-the Hebrew month of Elul is our introduction to the introspection of the Days of Awe.
Jewish time involves anticipation and process. We savor the meaning of our holidays by looking ahead and preparing for the next sacred occasion. Now, the Hebrew month of Nisan is here and the festival of Pesach, around the corner.
Technically, our Pesach preparation began, not last week when we made our grocery lists for seder, but more than a month ago, when our calendar started to prepare us for redemption.
In the six weeks before Pesach, we observe four special Sabbaths each with a special Torah reading; the four weeks are knowm as “arbah parshiot” meaning, “four portions” for these special portions from the Torah. In addition, on the Sabbath immediately preceding Pesach (this coming Shabbat!), we celebrate Shabbat Hagadol, “the Great Sabbath.” Legend says it was called “Shabbat Hagadol because the rabbis sermon, concerning household preparations for Pesach, was so very long!
What is Our Half-Shekel?
In ancient Israel, every adult male Israelite was obligated to contribute a half-shekel each year, to the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. The deadline for these dues was the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. So six weeks before Pesach, is Shabbat Shekalim. In addition to the regular Torah portion of the week, tradition prescribes that Exodus 30:11-16 should be read. This portion’s description of the first proclamation of the half-shekel might have served as a reminder in ancient times.
Today, the weeks before Pesach are a wonderful time to look inward and consider our relationship with our community and our obligation to maintain it. We ask ourselves: What gifts do I have, that I may bring as my half-shekel? Do I have talents to offer? Compassion to express?
How Can We Be Commanded to Remember to Forget?
The second special portion that leads up to Pesach is Shabbat Zachor, meaning, Shabbat of Remembrance. This Shabbat lands right before Purim in our calendar. The special Torah portion for Shabbat Zachor, Deuteronomy 25:17-19, tells of the Israelites’ battle with Amalek during the wanderings in the wilderness. Amalek, an Agagite and therefore related to Haman, symbolizes evil and hatred toward the Jewish people.
The Torah commands us to always remember to blot out the name of Amalek. Of course, it’s a strange commandment. If the goal is to blot out evil, why are we to remember? Why isn’t the obligation, just to forget? Perhaps evil, in the world and in our own hearts, can never totally be blotted out. We are, after all, human. And so, we must remember to control it. During this time before Pesach, we look inward to consider our personal downfalls. We ask ourselves: How is it that I bring cruelty or hurt into this world? What is the Amalek within myself, that I need to try to control?
How Can Our Spiritual Preparation Be Unique?
The Third of the four special Sabbaths is Shabbat Parah. In addition to the normal Torah portion of the week, tradition prescribes that we read Numbers 19:1-22, which describes the laws of the red heifer. The ritual involving the red heifer was meant as a spiritual purification for ancient Israel. Biblical life included a variety of ways to purify oneself, but the ritual of the red heifer was unique. So, without the red heifer option today, perhaps our purpose is to seek out a spiritual preparation for redemption that is unique-only for this time of year.
During these weeks before Pesach, we might try to identify a specific spiritual goal that we don’t get to in other times of the year. We ask ourselves: in what way is my spiritual life lacking? How can this time of year serve as a unique time of focus for my spiritual life and relationship with God?
What is Our Next Liberation?
The fourth and final special Sabbath, Shabbat HaHodesh, includes the reading of Exodus 12:1-20. This Shabbat celebrates the arrival of the month of Nisan, the month of the liberation of the children of Israel. With celebration in our hearts and liberation in our souls, it is time to consider any liberation that has yet to be completed.
Sometimes, it takes a celebration to highlight any parts of our lives that lack completion. We ask ourselves: what global or personal freedom is yet to be realized?
In this last week before Pesach, we still have time for a crash course of preparation. In addition to the important practical tasks involved in bringing together friends and family for seder, take this time for spiritual contemplation. Consider: What gifts can I bring to my community? How can I bring less hurt into this world? In what way is my spiritual life lacking? What freedom is yet to be realized?
May our spiritual reflection prepare our soul for an inspired Pesach celebration!