As Hillel educators, we frequently use our students’ experiences as the starting point for a reflective “Jewish conversation” that helps them discover the meaning of the experience in the context of their lives and its connection to their Judaism. Jewish tradition similarly engages us in “conversations” that ask us to reflect on both personal and national experiences and to discover in them new meanings and Jewish connections. (The Pesach Seder may be understood as the longest and most popular of these “Jewish conversations,” but it is by no means the only one).
One such “conversation” concludes this Shabbat with the reading of the fourth in a series of special selections designated as the week’s Maftir. [Note: Usually, after the weekly Torah portion is completed Shabbat morning, the last few verses are re-read to honor the individual who will be chanting the haftorah. This individual is called the maftir, as is the reading itself. On special occasions like holidays and the four special Shabbatot that conclude this week, a different reading is designated as maftir and a second Torah is taken from the ark for that purpose].
The first of the four Shabbatot was Parshat Shekalim and was celebrated the week before the Rosh Chodesh Adar. That Shabbat, the maftir was read from the book of Exodus (12:1-20). It told of the commandment for each Israelite who left Egypt to be counted among the Jewish people with the symbolic contribution of one-half shekel for the maintenance of the Tabernacle.
The second of the four was Parshat Zachor and was celebrated the Shabbat of the week of Purim. The Maftir was taken from the book of Deuteronomy (25:17-19) and detailed the commandment for Jews of all generations to remember the wickedness of the Amalekites and to act to destroy them.
Last week was the third of the Shabbatot, Parshat Parah. The maftir was from the book of Numbers (19:1-22.) It spoke of the imperative to strive for spiritual purity and detailed how the Red Heifer was used to achieve such purity during Temple times.
Finally, this week is Parshat Hachodesh. The maftir will be read again from the book of Exodus (12:1-20) and will tell us the details of how the Israelites in Egypt prepared for the first Pesach and their exodus from Egypt.
Rabbi Judah Lowe, the Maharal of Prague, understood Pesach and its preparation as the basis for a conversation intended to prepare us to achieve a future redemption. The Seder and everything leading up to it, he taught, are not only reminisces of a historical exodus, but a blueprint for bringing Geulah, future redemption. By reflecting on the experience of the exodus, identifying and internalizing the lessons the experience has for our lives, and acting on those lessons, we can fulfill our collective potential to bring about a more perfect world.
The four Shabbatot which conclude this week and the themes struck by the Maftir for each Shabbat may be understood in this context. Individually, they each provide a clue as to how we achieve redemption. Taken together, they provide the opportunity to reflect upon steps that each Jew can take to build towards our collective goal of redeeming ourselves and the world:
• First is the lesson of Parshat Shekalim. We ready ourselves to participate in redemption by actively choosing to be Jewish and to be counted among the Jewish people with participation in a communal project;
• Second is the lesson of Parshat Zachor. We consider the values and principles of Judaism and prepare to defend them, if necessary, in the face of those who would destroy us for them;
• Next is Parshat Parah. Redemption requires self-reflection and the aspiration for individual purity. We cannot work to improve the world if we are not constantly striving to improve ourselves.
• Last is Parshat Hachodesh. Overarching plans for bringing “redemption” and dreams of a more perfect world are important, but they become meaningless unless we focus also on the details and hard work that will get them done.
These four steps: choosing to identify and affiliate as Jews; recognizing that Jewish affiliation brings with it adherence to certain principles and values; reflecting upon our own, personal standards and being determined to raise them; and acknowledging that, whatever our personal understanding of Judaism, it requires us to pay attention to the details of how we go about our daily lives, may be understood as the message of the four Shabbatot. They are worthy guides for our own Jewish conversations and may serve as goals for the conversations we hold with our students.