Parshat CholHamoed Pesach

Torah Reading for March 24-30, 2013

“Reflecting on the Second Tablets: a Second Chance”
By Corinne Copnick, C.M., M.A., AJRCA Fourth Year Rabbinical Student

“A G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (The Thirteen Attributes, Ex. 34: 6-7).

This year I am truly welcoming the days of reflection that begin on the second night (in the Diaspora) of Passover and end seven weeks later on the night before Shavuot, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai. In particular, I am thinking about the four days between the Seders and the last two days of Passover. These in-between days are called Chol HaMoed, and, while they have more relaxed rules of conduct, they mark an important spiritual purpose: to begin a reflective journey to Sinai by Counting the Omer (in biblical times, a way of marking the passing days by counting barley sheaves) for 49 days of meditative preparation to receive the Torah.[1]  So Passover does not end with the Exodus from Egypt. It is also the beginning of the journey to Sinai. As we take the story of liberation further, we learn from this parsha that freedom without boundaries may invite transgression – and swift retribution — yet it may also elicit Divine compassion and forgiveness. It involves giving people a second chance.

That is the story implicit in the angry breaking of the first tablets by Moses after the Golden Calf incident, when the Israelites – and even his brother, Aaron – transgressed by worshipping an idol of their own creation. Moses had to work hard to carve out a second set of tablets, but, in the end, G-d forgave the Israelites for their transgression. He gave them a second chance. They could see for themselves the light of G-d’s love reflected on Moses’ radiant face as he came down the mountain bearing the second tablets.

Are there also second chances for people who have not transgressed, who are suffering through no fault of their own? Perhaps second chances are intended especially for such people. This is at the top of my reflective list at Chol HaMoed this year. My son-in-law (as dear to me as a son) has thankfully survived his first year and a half of treatment (radiation, continuing chemotherapy) for a brain tumor deemed incurable. He has resolved to spend whatever life span he has left living, not dying. To that end, our entire family has been actively creating happy occasions, small and large, so that there is always something to look forward to.

Last year at this time, it seemed impossible that we would be sitting down together as a family at a Passover Seder once more, celebrating our spiritual liberation with remembrance of the physical Exodus from Egypt. Yet this year, we are intent on savoring the words of Psalm 119: 24:“This is the day that the Lord has made– let us exult and rejoice on it.” And, as we begin our familial reflections during Chol HaMoed, we recall that the thirteen attributes of the Divine cited in Exodus 34 include a G-d who is compassionate, kind, and slow to anger.

We understand that, with G-d’s compassion and kindness (and the best of medical science), our family is being given a second chance to be together, for as long as it lasts. My son-in-law is still alive at Passover 5773. There is good reason to sing the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim, the erotic love song traditionally read at Passover; it seeks intimacy with the same Divine Radiance that Moses experienced at Sinai.

As I begin my own Mussar-style reflections, I realize that I am very, very proud of my family; we really pull together. Through the years, we have assembled regularly on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner, for Passover, for other Jewish holy days. Now we do it more purposely. As we gather, we pray to this G-d of Compassion silently, each with our own thoughts, to make the life of someone we love meaningful to the last moment. We want him to feel surrounded by our love, for him to experience that G-d’s love resides within him, and for his spirit to seek higher reaches. Love is a two-way street, taught Rabbi Abraham Heschel in his famous book, God In Search of Man, one of my all time favorites, and it grows.

For my family, what love takes to grow in 2013 is stamina, faith that G-d will give us strength to withstand, the courage to go forth, and — echoing Divine attributes – sharing the kind of radiant love that reaches out and embraces, permanently marking its recipients. And the understanding that we firmly support one another, that we stand together on our journey. We are starting with Chol HaMoed, reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses on the way to Sinai.

[1] According to the Koren siddur (with translation, and commentary by Sir Jonathan Sacks), “The forty-nine days, connecting the exodus from Egypt with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, are a time of preparation and growth – of leaving a world of slavery and getting ready to enter a world of personal, social and spiritual responsibility. The Jewish mystics attached special significance to this period of the year as one in which the various facets of the soul were cleansed, one by one.” (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 284).