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    How can we say Shehecheyanu at this time?

    April 5th, 2020

    How can we begin Pesach this year with the Shehecheyanu blessing?

    Things are gloomy and it’s hard to rejoice. But if we accentuate the positive, our debits have not overwhelmed our credits.

    There are three things that Shehecheyanu tells us:

    1. “God has kept us in life”.

    His greatest gift is life. We can smell the fresh air, enjoy the trees and flowers, know how blessed we are in those we love. We rejoice in His (and our) miracles, not least the medical profession who watch over us on God’s behalf.

    Sometimes like Jonah we want to give up on everything, but we wake up the next morning and know that there are wonderful things to enjoy and good deeds to do.

    2. “God has preserved us”.

    Life is sometimes dangerous. Thank God we generally get through the day safe. We will surmount this time too.

    3. “God has enabled us to reach this season” – even with its limitations and challenges.

    And though some may have to pay a heavy price, almost all of us will get through the crisis and see the new age.

    Chag Same’ach!


    The little things

    April 5th, 2020

    Kitniyot, “the little things”, are excluded from the Ashkenazi diet on Pesach because they are thought to resemble the grains which we call chametz.

    In a broader sense, the observance of Pesach and indeed the whole of Judaism requires close attention to the little things.

    The Torah devotes many chapters to little things, insisting that it can never be enough to assert broad principles without the detailed bricks that make up the whole edifice.

    The Talmud makes this clear when it speaks of carrying out the search for chametz by the light of a candle (Pes. 7b/8a), enabling us to find the littlest pieces of chametz.

    On Pesach little pieces can make a difference. On Shabbat little actions can have an effect. In kashrut, small things matter.

    In the spiritual and ethical life, little deeds cannot be ignored.


    Egypt & Mitzrayim

    April 5th, 2020

    Mitzrayim is the Hebrew word for Egypt.

    It derives from metzar, a word we know well from Hallel where Psalm 118:5 says min ha-metzar karati Y-ah, “Out of the straits I called to the Lord”.

    The root denotes distress or constriction; its opposite, found in the same verse of Hallel, is merchavyah, “enlargement”. A person in distress feels hemmed in and calls upon God to give him room.

    Why Mitzrayim has a dual plural ending recognises two zones – upper and lower Egypt. The original Mitzrayim was the second son of Cham who settled in Egypt and gave his name to the country.

    Spiritually Mitzrayim denotes someone who is hemmed in because of the forces of evil which prevent him from exerting his personality and expressing his real self.


    The tale of Reb Ber

    April 5th, 2020

    Reb Ber was an old man from White Russia who came to shule every day humming tunes from the davening and repeating the Yiddish for “While you are alive you have to live”.

    Now we know what he meant: you might not know the exit date, but you have to keep going.

    That’s this Pesach.

    We don’t know when the crisis will end (it will).

    In the meantime we have to say Baruch HaShem – thank you, God, for the things we did not always appreciate in the past…

    God, while we are alive we are going to live, we will sing, we will think, we will read, we will talk to You.

    Thank you, God, for the brains, talents and devotion of the medical profession and all the other heroes that look after us in so many ways.

    Thank you, God, that You are there to love us and help us through.

    Thank you, God, and have a Chag Same’ach!


    The Pesach of the future

    April 5th, 2020

    Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, by Gustave Dore, 1866

    The Haggadah reminds us that, inspired by the Pesach of the past, there will be another Pesach redemption some time in the future.

    Tradition has it that Ezekiel 37, the passage about the dry bones, will be activated on Pesach.

    The sages discussed whether this will literally come true.

    Some rabbis said that the vision did come true in the past, in Ezekiel’s own days, with the dead rising from their graves, donning t’fillin, getting married and having children (Sanh. 92b).

    Similarly, the future redemption will see the dead resuming life and its earthly activities.

    A foretaste of this future redemption has actually happened in our own time, with the curse of death in the Holocaust followed by the blessing of life in Israel.

    This thought explains why Rav Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and the author Shai Agnon inserted in the prayer they composed for the State of Israel the belief that Israel is reshit tz’michat ge’ulatenu, “The beginning of the flowering of our redemption”.