The Numbers:13 Project
But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the LORD’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt. Numbers 9:13
A long time ago, I misread a calendar and inadvertently caused a conflict at a major university between a campus-wide party (now defunct) and Passover. Just to highlight the magnitude of my mistake, the first night of Passover that year was Friday, making Jewish students choose between four cups of wine and virtually unlimited beer.
I own the mistake, as I did back then. Every student made her or his own decision about which to forego – the seder or the concert. Except one.
This particular student called home and asked the parental units to make an adjustment. They postponed Passover to the following weekend. Initially, I thought I would be the only one rolling my eyes at the way this student was indulged. It turns out, a lot of others found the chutzpah astonishing.
In my old age, I have been taught to celebrate the persistence of Jewish identity that would make the person in question look for a way to affirm a connection to tradition. In fact, recently I took special delight when I discovered that a friend conducted a seder at 30,000 feet during an unavoidable flight (over Southeast Asia!) on the first night of Passover. But I think there is a difference between a situation beyond control and controlling the situation.
More and more I have encountered the appropriation of ritual, custom and language to serve individuals who consider their Jewish identity an enhancing element rather than a defining one. I do not deny them the right to do so, but I still believe it devalues the coin, so to speak. The function of ritual is as a vehicle for shared meaning. And while it is true that established ritual sometimes means more in the performative sense than the symbolic sense (for example, some Jews prefer to pray in Hebrew even when they do not understand the meaning of the words), I believe there to be a line between accommodation and exploitation.
The verse at the top of this brief essay illustrates what I mean. The observance of the anniversary of the Exodus – that which we now perform at seder – held great power for the escaped slaves. But some of the celebrants were prevented from participating because other ritual or geographical challenges presented themselves. The Bible makes accommodation: there is a second chance for them a month later. But the person who knows of this accommodation and decides, for whatever reason, to postpone observance for convenience’s sake, even though he would do exactly what the others would do, is sanctioned.
And it is quite a sanction, to tell the truth. The person is “cut off from his kin.” The penalty resonates with me not only in its original context, but as a sort of existential observation as well: the person who exploits community rituals or customs or language for utilitarian purposes creates a disconnection from that very community.
There were many times that I was approached as the rabbi of a congregation by people who felt guilty about their abandonment of specific traditions or their lack of knowledge that led to neglect of something they now found important. For example, distraught adult children would come to me worried because they did not know the Hebrew date of the anniversary of a parent’s death, and they had subsequently discovered the date had passed. They had missed the opportunity to recite a memorial prayer or light a 24-hour candle in memory. The solution is obvious to you as you read this: I would reassure them that it was not too late, and they could designate a near-term date to do both.
But I will acknowledge a different kind of response to my students at a Protestant seminary who sought my endorsement of a “personal shabbat,” a day of the week chosen by them to refrain from their pastoral duties. Instead, they would play golf, shop, get a massage, try a new restaurant. I was very happy for them that they understood the importance of self-care and that they were willing to set aside 24 hours for a day off. But I explained that “shabbat” was not only about self-refreshment, but about community and affirmation of the rhythm of creation – two aspects in which they were among the participants, but not the focus.
In all sorts of ways, people intent on gaming the system for their personal satisfaction will succeed. But in one significant way they will not. By stripping ritual, custom and language of their consensual meaning, they pick at the threads that weave us together as community. To my way of thinking, that’s a fatal flaw.
Please let me call your attention to a column in a different section of my website, www.jackmoline.com. I am linking it here, as well as an installment of the podcast State of Belief. Through a remarkable confluence of opportunities, my personal concerns about the fractious debate about abortion wound up being discussed by two dear friends of mine, both of them on the podcast and one of them in the New York Times. I commend them all to you.