A member of my congregation sent me this beautiful passage by Rabbi Yisrael of Chortkov, a Hasidic rebbe who lived in Ukraine in the 1800s.
He wrote: “When the wheel of fortune has turned for someone and they are down, when they see no way to keep their head above water; they have lost all hope and are despairing – then they should ponder a tree. In winter, its leaves have fallen, its moisture has dried up, it is almost a dead stump in the ground. Then suddenly, it begins to revive and to draw moisture from the earth. Slowly it blossoms, then brings forth fruits. People should learn from this not to despair, but to take hope and have courage, for they too are like a tree.”
The rebbe was correct. But these things take time, and it is easy to lose heart while waiting for spring and summer to come. And this cycle of near death and renewed life is not one that we humans crave. In a perfect world, we like things to roll along, getting better and better.
Of course it’s not a perfect world. And today more than ever, we are acutely aware of this. We are just days away from Passover, a Passover unlike any other. Around the globe, Jews will stay home. This festive holiday is custom-made for gatherings of family and friends, but this year we can only pretend to be together by using computer technology.
This Shabbat, which falls immediately before Passover, is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. In the Torah portion that we read, called Tzav, Moses gives an overview of some of the sacrifices that Aaron and his sons will perform when they become priests.
But what caught my eye was a comment near the beginning: “A fire must always burn on the altar; it may not go out.” (Leviticus 6:6).
Our sages taught that in addition to the physical fire there was a spiritual fire. Simply following the Torah’s detailed instructions about the physical fire was not enough. The priests were also tasked with maintaining a fire within themselves.
Today, we are challenged with a similar task. We must comply with the requirement to stay home, to avoid catching the coronavirus or transmitting it. This means that we can’t worship together, can’t have a seder with friends and family, can’t perform the rituals that Jews are supposed to do.
These rituals are not meant to be performed in a vacuum. Our tradition has an additional requirement, that we simultaneously feed the spiritual fires within. This is a difficult task, especially if we are accustomed to routinely participating in the activities of communal Judaism. Difficult, but not impossible.
This new reality forces us to look within, to uncover the yearnings of our own souls. To spend time in communion with our own hearts, our own longings, our own deep-seated beliefs. We can ask new questions this Passover, questions that we didn’t think to ask in the past. And perhaps we can discover new answers to the old questions.
It will not be easy. My prayer is that the difficulty will be worth the learning that we uncover, the spiritual fires that we feed.