Today we celebrate three occasions in our Torah service.
We celebrate starting a new book of the Torah – Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus – the book that in traditional communities is the first book of Torah students study.
We celebrate the next of the 4 special Shabbatot before Passover, Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, Shabbat of the New Month – the moment we recognize the beginning of time for our ancestors as they prepare to go free. The first month is this Month, the Month of Nisan. When we go free from Egypt, we begin to live on our own calendar.
And today is also Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the month, the day that our ancestors assembled the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
And as we prepare for Passover, these three celebrations, these three themes, are the core of the Passover spirit.
Pesach was originally based upon a sacrifice, the sacrifice of a lamb to God to bless the season and the hopefully growing flocks. Sacrifice and holiness are the centerpieces of Leviticus.
On Rosh Chodesh we recite Hallel as we do at the Seder – Passover is a day of singing out our gratitude to God.
And the calendar is a celebration of freedom – me’avdut l’cherut, we go from slavery to freedom, and we re-experience that journey each year.
It’s the third point that stands out for me today as I’m looking at the variety of Haggadahs available for Passover.
Which Haggadahs do you use?
There are over 1,000 editions of the Haggadah since the first edition of the Haggadah was printed in 1482.
The Escape Velocity Haggadah is one of the most surreal. Stanley Aaron Lebovic’s artwork is reminiscent of Salvador Dali, and his commentary is a deep personal and mystical reflection.
The title of his Haggadah itself is a reflection on the journey to freedom. In Lebovic’s words: Escape Velocity is the speed an object must reach to escape the gravitational pull exerted upon it by another objects, thereby allowing it the possibility of an autonomous existence, unburdened by outside influences and free to soar untethered and unencumbered by the restrictive confines of a subservient orbit.
Lebovic is suggesting here that our people must achieve escape velocity to free ourselves from the confines of Egypt.
We literally have to spring into action, and into the future.
But there are so many forces that push us in the opposite direction – as we know, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
For our ancestors, even freedom was not sufficient. They want to see and interact directly with God, and that’s in party why they create the golden calf.
Now, in Leviticus, as we begin this new book God delivers a subtle and essential lesson. The only tangibles in our relationship to God are the sacrifices, the korbanot, what we choose to give – ourselves, our energy, our time, our heart and the relationships we build with each other. It’s ironic that this book that is so little about ancestor stories and families is the place where we find perhaps the most central teaching of the Torah when it comes to relationships ve’ahav’ta l’re’a’cha kamocha, love your fellow human being as yourself.
Rashi explains the book of Leviticus opens with one of the essentials of the Torah, God instructing us to be holy, and then later on love your neighbor – love God, bring holiness into the world, and love one another.
Our people have to reach escape velocity first though, otherwise they will never be able to go free in order to pursue these goals.
We, on the other hand, can start with them – we seek to love God despite a world around us that is too often violent and chaotic – we mourn with the families of the victims of school violence, of the bridge collapse in Florida. We seek to bring holiness into the world because we know deep in our hearts that as rough as the world around us may be there are sparks of light within it, that redemption is possible. And we seek to love one another – at the Seder this year, try and picture that the people sitting next to us are not just family, friends, our guests, but that they are the people walking out of Egypt next to us, and that we are encouraging each other to reach escape velocity – to go free, reach for the stars, and to only remember Egypt as a launching place – when we decided to pursue the dream that were not dependent on any one piece of land on earth.