Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: On seeking clarity amid pain

Shabbat Ha-Hodesh

Vayakhel-Pekudei

Exodus 35:1-40:38; 12:1-20

Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

On Purim, a friend told me her children's Jewish day school had let students decide whether or not to wear costumes on the holiday — a day that, this year, was utterly marred by news of the latest and most heinous terrorist attack.

My friend's sage 9-year-old reasoned that it would be a mitzvah (good deed) to wear his costume because his class was planning to visit a senior citizens' home later in the day and the costume would give pleasure to the residents.

But the boy's 6-year-old sister was honestly perplexed. My friend, who is a wise woman and a fine parent, affirmed her daughter's confusion, saying that all of us are mixed-up right now.

In the end, the little girl decided to wear her costume to school, but to bring a set of regular clothes along in case the costume started to "feel wrong" later in the day.

This Shabbat we make the liturgical transition from Purim to Pesach. With Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hodesh Nisan, beginning the month in which Passover falls, the period of preparation for Pesach begins in earnest. The Maftir reading for the day begins in majestic tones: "Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim; This month is for you the beginning of months; it is the first of the months of the year for you" (Exodus 12:1).

It proceeds to describe the korban Pesach, the ritual of the paschal lamb, until we can practically taste Pesach between our teeth. It describes the drama of painting the doorposts with blood in anticipation of the plague of the smiting of the firstborn. Normally, the story makes the heart race, and makes us virtually salivate for the taste and drama of the seder.

But this, of course, is not a normal year. I cannot move from Purim to Pesach just yet. I read Exodus 12 and all I see is the blood, the slaughter, the image of the Israelites running for their lives. I am reading the Pesach story through the lens of Purim, 5756.

And, like my friend's daughter, I am confused. Normally I am clear about these things, about the Jewish yearning for peace, about the longing to witness a new day in the history of our people, when we are not only safe from oppression but also are spared the burden of ruling over others.

But now nothing is clear. I still see everything through the chaotic, topsy-turvy lens of Purim. I am not ready for Pesach's thundering clarity and certainty, not yet ready to perceive the unmistakable hand of God in history.

The greatest comfort for me during Purim came not from the parashah, but from our people's favorite source of comfort throughout the ages: the Psalms.

A colleague told me that Jews in Israel were reciting five particular psalms in the aftermath of the Purim attack: psalms of rage, of protest, of despair, of seeking faith and solace. These psalms do not suggest to me that we should passively wait for a divine message explaining how Israel should combat terrorism, nor that we should seek a simpleminded faith in a Big-Daddy God who will magically make it all better.

These psalms are beautiful and sophisticated religious literature, written as a gift to our people in times of despair. Knowing this, and knowing that Jews in Israel were reciting these too, brought me a measure of comfort.

"O God, how many are my enemies; so many rise up against me. So many say to my soul, `There is no help for you in your God'… Now I can lie down and sleep and then awake, for God sustains me. I need not fear the myriads who are gathered against me. Arise, O God and save me. You crack the cheekbones of my enemies, you break the teeth of the wicked. From You, O God, is deliverance. On Your people place Your blessing" (Psalm 3).

I hear the voice of fear, of protest, demanding God's protection. I sense that the psalmist well knows that faith does not remove all danger, does not obliterate all fear, does not even always calm the sleepless night of terror and of unspeakable grief. Mature faith does not even offer answers. But it helps. Calling out to God can channel the terror, soothe the shock and horror, ease the pain of the gruesome images and the unbearable losses; it can sustain us as we move through the rage, the despair, the morass of chaos and confusion.

May we be sustained and strengthened in our collective time of mourning. May we be led somehow to the clarity and majesty of Pesach. May we be ready to hear the voice of truth when it speaks. Amen.