a vivid painting of a goat in the desert
"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854

Ready or not, here are (another) Four Questions

1. Why on this Shabbat are some eating challah and some are not? 2. Why are there different Torah readings for the Shabbat morning of April 27? 3. Why should I care about sacrifices? 4. Why are Obi-Wan Kenobi, Janis Joplin, the Carpenters and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this column?

This will be quick.

Jews living in the Land of Israel — and Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish communities — observe the biblical number of seven days for Pesach. Post-biblical proto-rabbinic Judaism enacted eight to adjust for diaspora communities outside of the Land of Israel that might not have received the official word from Jerusalem to start the new moon countdown to Passover (or Shavuot and Sukkot).

Stay with me.

But there is more! This scheduling difference affects the Torah reading cycle. Communities observing seven days of Passover will read Acharei Mot (literally, “after the death”) twice not to throw off the entire community: part 1 on April 27 and part 2 on May 4. The haftorah for both is from Ezekiel, 22:1-14 and then 22:6-19. In Acharei Mot, holiness happens through individuals who publicly act faithfully to fulfill various communal requirements. One of those requirements is the ritual of sacrifice.

Steady.

Communities observing eight days of Passover will observe the eighth day on April 27 and do two (yes, two!) readings: Deuteronomy 14:22–16:17 and Numbers 28:19-25. The haftorah is Isaiah 10:32–12:6. These readings describe the annual cycle of festivals, their special observances, and the offerings and sacrifices brought on these occasions to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Their Torah reading for May 4 will be (wait for it) … Acharei Mot! We are in sync. May the fourth be with us! (Obi-Wan Kenobi, as promised).

Cool, now on to Karen Carpenter, Janis Joplin and Abraham Joshua Heschel, as promised.

Nearness, karuv, based on the root kuf-resh-bet, has a wide family of meanings: what is near, an offering of sacrifice, kor-ban, as well as social interactions and interpersonal relations. In the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, we find, “Hillel’s patience brought us closer together ker-va-nu beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.” As the Carpenters sang it, “Just like me, they long to be, close to you.”

Korban: Experiential Judaism.

Imagine, a very long time ago, that you are standing south of the Temple of Jerusalem during the festival of Passover. You have climbed out from the mikvah and your hair is wet. You are carrying your offering and your heart is beating. You climb up the steps to the tunnels leading up to the Temple plaza. You emerge onto the plaza and your eyes blink in the sunlight.

The Levites are chanting psalms. You are in line with everyone dressed in white and heading to the flame and smoke. It’s your turn, and you lift high your offering for korban, and the Kohen wordlessly guides your hands over the flame, and you drop your offering, and the heat and aroma and smoke and sizzle overwhelms your skin and nose and eyes and ears, and your arms drop in relief, and you turn and walk away spent and fulfilled.

Your offering was returned to the world as heat and ash and smoke. It is no longer yours, never really was, it is now carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, the four most common elements in life. You are lighter. You were as close to the God of creation as you will ever be in this life. You are elated.

As Janis Joplin said, “I just want to feel as much as I can, it’s what ‘soul’ is all about.”

Vicarious Judaism.

In 1953, in his book “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Our services are conducted with pomp and precision. The rendition of the liturgy is smooth. Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: Life. One knows in advance what will ensue. There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden burst of devotion. Nothing is going to happen to the soul. Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays. He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives. Our motto is monotony. The fire has gone out of our worship. It is cold, stiff, and dead. Inorganic Judaism. True, things are happening; of course, not within prayer, but within the administration of the synagogues. Do we not establish new edifices all over the country?”

Sounds like 1953 wasn’t so long ago. Heschel’s prophetic voice rings true: every synagogue, Jewish communal organization, family foundation or educational institution must ask themselves how close are we to Hillel, bringing us closer together ker-va-nu beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is the chief program officer and senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@lehrhaus.org.