I wrote to wish Reverend Daniel Meeter a Happy Easter on Sunday morning, figuring he'd pick up the text on his walk through Prospect Park to worship on Sunday morning. He wrote back, "God bless you and thank you. Psalm 114."
That's my favorite from the Hallel. Seas flee; rivers turn backward; mountains skip like rams, hills like young sheep. What's not to like?
In the midst of the Matzah Fast, it's important to remember the joy associated with the Festival and the particularly monumental and engaging texts the Sages chose for framing the experience of remembering the Redemption from Slavery.
Part of Passover's particularly American expression is that families will often invite non-Jews to the Seder as a symbol of Elijah's message of welcome. Of course, the Medievalists initiated Elijah's coming to the Seder as an expression of messianic hope to free the Jews from the evil and violent persecutions of the Crusades ("Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You and on the kingdoms that do not know Thy name") but in America, where religious freedom is encoded in the Constitution, Elijah gets to channel less wrath and more love.
In Rachel's family, their non-Jewish friend Roger Peterson, a lapsed Protestant turned atheist intellectual, of blessed memory, used to love to read and laugh at the metaphor of hills skipping sheep.
Psalm 114's opening line, "When Israel came forth from Egypt, the House of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion." The Sages, in the Midrash to Psalms, have a good time with this. "There are those who say that Egypt was happy when Israel left. Rabbi Berachiah said, "It's like when a man is riding his ass. The man says, 'When is this trip going to be over,' and the ass says, 'When is this guy getting off of me!' When they finally reach their destination, I can't tell who was happier!"
Sometimes people are just happy to be rid of one another; and sometimes, centuries later, they become best friends.
This year I was particularly taken with the beauty of Song of Songs, which Rabbi Akiva claimed was merely channeled eroticism offered up as metaphor for God's love of the people Israel. But watching men and women of different ages, at different stages of relationships of their own, read it aloud made me think it's also a text about love, and renewal of vows, and how the Jewish calendar invites the Jew to "touch base" (hey, baseball season opened yesterday so let's go with that metaphor) with himself and those implicated in his world.
Toward the end of the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Passover, the community hears the end of the story of the Golden Calf, when Moses asks to see God's face and when the people receive the second set of tablets. In one particular place, the line "you must not worship any other god" has the scribal innovation of enlarging a letter--כי לא תשתחוה לאל אחר--where the "resh" is enlarged so that it not be confused with a "dalet," which would make one read the line as, "you must not worship *one* God."
There's humor in that. Since everyone knows, certainly in my shul, that most people barely have time to worship only One God, let alone two or three.
I marveled at the Haftarah that Shabbat morning--Ezekiel's stunning vision of resurrected bones, of dust re-animated, of a people returning to its land. While a huge believer in keeping religion out of Zionism, read as a purely historical text I am continually in awe of the Jewish people's facility with making ancient words come alive and renew, year after year, an ancient people.
Maybe this is just a way of saying to you readers out there--even if you don't believe, it's an excuse for coming to shul and reading while others are praying. The insights are stunning and filled with surprises.