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Drash on Parashat Shemini 2018

Rabbi Gary J Robuck
Sydney, NSW

Pesach’s Two Codas

Remember the first time you heard your favourite song? One of my favourites is “Spinning Wheel”, released in 1968 and popularised by the iconic band, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Following a dramatic opening brass salvo and a memorable bass line played by the piano, the lyrics lurch forward. “What goes up, must come down, spinning wheel got to go ‘round…” I recalled this line when thinking about the lonely last days of Pesach. In the same way as what goes up must come down according to the laws of gravity, what begins amid ceremony on Seder night requires a suitable coda.

That coda or conclusion has two parts; days seven and eight of Pesach, two days that are widely observed in some but not all circles. Progressive Jews, like our brothers and sisters in Israel, regard as holy just the seventh day, while others follow a long-held rabbinic precedent requiring the observance of eight full days of Pesach. Fortunately, today’s Jewish map permits and ought to encourage Australian Jews to subscribe to either position. The point is mainly: to conclude that which was begun and to finish (Pesach) what we start.

For me, I find wisdom in, and hold respect for both schools of thought, for each day has its own purpose or refrain. The seventh day of Pesach, marked this year on Friday, treats those in attendance at shule to a celebratory song of freedom, the shirat ha’yam (Song of the Sea) taken from Parashat B’shalach in the Book of Exodus. This account describes the exultation felt by Israel as they first emerge from Egyptian bondage. Dramatically, the waters part as Moshe lifts his staff high above them and tumble closed only once Israel is safely across the sea. Contrastingly, Pharaoh’s pride is humbled and the Almighty proclaimed as Israel’s “strength and song”, a warrior, incomparable; “glorious in holiness, doing wonders.” Soon after, in a scene emblematic of this joyous moment, Miriam takes up a timbrel and leads the women in a song of thanksgiving.

So it is: a day of rejoicing and gratitude for the gift of freedom.

The significance of Day 8 is to be found less in the scriptural assignment (which identifies and briefly describes the biblically ordained festivals), than in the rabbinic custom attached to the end of each festival: the recitation of Yizkor.

What genius! At their best, our Jewish festivals are times when we gather at home with family and come to the synagogue to learn and pray with our friends.   Naturally, it is also at this time when the absence of those we have loved and lost is felt most keenly, something that is especially true at Pesach. At Yizkor, we invite our loved ones, as it were, to join in our celebrations and ensure, like the drops of wine spilled at the Seder table, that our joy is properly mitigated, reflecting the holes in our homes and hearts. 

Taken together, these two days are complementary and in a real sense indicative of life itself: not entirely happy but not totally shrouded in sorrow. It is a balanced finale to the great “song of Pesach”. 

Rabbi Gary Robuck is the Founder of First Step Tutoring and Chair of Mazon, Australia, a Jewish Response to Hunger.

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