Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:1
Igor Stravinsky famously developed a style of composition that limited the number of notes he could chose from in any piece he penned. In so doing he created a revolutionary approach to tonality and rhythm that has not only endured, but to this day, has continued to influence many other great composers.
Our celebration of Passover recalls another revolutionary change, one that has influenced the song of our people for thousands of years and continues still today. Pesach is our Festival of Freedom, and more than any other Jewish holiday, Passover resonates with our North American sensibilities. ‘Freedom,’ however, is one of those words like ‘justice’ that we all use, and yet means different things to different people. What is freedom in Jewish terms?
Surprise! Part of the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion. The verses in chapter 16 describe in detail how the festival is to be observed within the context of the sacrificial cult. It makes sense to read these verses on the last day of Pesach. Yet, our portion also contains a full chapter and then some of commandments that seem to have no connection to Pesach: laws about the tithing system and the sabbatical year.
Why did the sages want us to read all of these verses rather than just those dealing with Passover on this day? For that matter, why does Torah place these verses right before the laws of Passover?
There is a link between the tithe, the sabbatical year and Pesach. Freedom does not mean that we can just do whatever we wish; that is the way to anarchy. Free societies are predicated on the concept of mutual responsibility, meaning we have to balance our own wants and needs against our responsibilities as community members. When we do this, the hierarchies of power are flattened and we all become significant contributors to the welfare of our community.
This is the paradox of freedom: free nations must be governed by law, and those laws by definition place limits on our freedom. Stravinsky, overwhelmed by the choices before him imposed limits on the material he could use for composition, and thereby became free to create with genius.
So Torah commands that we give 10% of what we have each year as a tithe to support the needy (which by the way also includes the Levites, who in the interest of creating balances of power and flattening the hierarchy, are forbidden from owning their own property). And Torah commands us to free those who have sold themselves into slavery and to forgive the debts we are owed during the Sabbatical year.
True freedom can only be created collectively, mutually, cooperatively. “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh BaZeh - All of Israel, each is responsible for the other!” (Talmud Bavli, Shavuot 39a). This is the freedom proclaimed and celebrated at our seders. When Passover comes to an end, let’s not merely feast on bread. Freedom’s call requires action from us all, and the land of promise beckons.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras