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Torah Sparks

April 15, 2006 - 17 Nisan 5766

Annual: Exodus 33:12 - 34:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362)
Maftir: Numbers 28:19 - 25 (Etz Hayim, p.932; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:1 - 14 (Etz Hayim, p. 1308; Hertz p. 1015)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


Pesah celebrates the birth of the Jewish people as a nation. It tells the great story of redemption - we were slaves and now we are free. The observance of Pesah began with the Pascal offering on the fourteenth of Nissan. The sacrifice was eaten by groups of families; no leftovers were allowed. It was eaten with matzah and bitter herbs, symbolizing the unleavened bread that had no time to rise, and symbolizing as well the bitterness of life in Egypt. Today we no longer offer sacrifices, but we have a special shank bone and eat a piece of matzah, called the afikoman, to symbolize the Pascal offering.

The festival of Passover begins on the fifteenth of Nissan. For seven days no hametz - items such as leavened bread and cake - may be eaten or even found in a Jewish home. (In the Diaspora, traditional Jews keep the festival for eight days, with the first two and the last two days being full festivals, with no work allowed.) All such foods are removed and nullified before the festival, and even the dishes, pots, and cutlery must be changed for it.

On the first night of Passover - in the Diaspora the first two nights - a special ritual meal is eaten. During that meal, the seder, people sit around the table reading the story of the exodus from a special book called a Haggada, and eat many symbolic foods. The Passover seder is probably the most observed religious tradition among Jews.

One day of Passover always falls on Shabbat. If it is not one of the festival days, it is called Hol Hamoed Shabbat. There is a special Torah reading telling of the events following the Golden Calf and various ritual laws. The haftarah tells Ezekiel's famous vision of the valley of the dry bones.

Issue #1 - Did It Really Happen?

"You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time" (Exodus 12:17)


  1. Did the events of Passover really happen as the Bible describes? And if the events were not as described, does that really matter? Or is the important issue what we learn from these events through the lens of our history?
  2. One explanation: scientists today speak about emergent properties. These are properties of an object that make it greater than the parts. For example, the brain is made up of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. Each individual neuron can be studied and described. We cannot see the mind in any one or even any small set of neurons. Only when we put all these neurons together does the mind emerge. The mind is an emergent property of the brain. So it is throughout the universe that properties emerge, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  3. We also see emergent properties when we study history. A number of individual events take place. Water turns to blood; maybe the red water was real blood or maybe simply the way the water looked due to red algae. Frogs multiplied in the land. A plague struck and killed many prominent firstborn sons, including the son of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. An Israelite man who grew up in Pharaoh's household had the clout to become the chief agitator for freedom for a group of slaves. A number of individual events occurred, none of which seem to reflect the hand of God. Put them all together, however, and suddenly a vision emerges. These are more than random events, just as the mind is more than a bunch of connected neurons. Put them together and suddenly we see the hand of God.
  4. This view of God's role in unfolding events fits into the modern scientific paradigm. Until Einstein, scientists were reductionists, attempting to understand the universe by breaking it down into its smallest parts. The whole was simply the sum of the parts. After Einstein, scientists realize that the whole is far more than the parts. Reductionism no longer works. We cannot understand the human soul by studying individual neurons, and we cannot understand God's role in history by studying individual events. Only by taking the broader view can we see God's role in history, that it was God who brought us out of Egypt.

Issue #2 - Valley of the Bones

"And he said to me, Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O you dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live" (Ezekiel 37:4-5)


  1. What do you think Ezekiel was trying to tell us in his vision of bones coming back to life? Why is this image so powerful to Jews? Why do we read this at Passover? (Note - Is it possible that going from the Holocaust to the rebirth of Israel in three short years could be understood as an example of the resurrection spoken of in this chapter?)
  2. There is a force of life at work in the universe. Jews have always identified God with life. At the High Holy Days, we say over and over, "Remember us to life, O King Who loves life, and write us in the Book of Life, for Your sake O God of life." If God is the force of life, how does that play out in the world of creation? Does God bring the dead to life? What about in the world of history?
  3. If there is a force of life at work in the universe, unfortunately there is also a force of death. What is that force and how does it manifest itself in our world? How can we join forces with the force of life over the force of death?
  4. What is the symbolism of the Passover song Had Gadya(One Little Kid), where in the end God slays the Angel of Death? In the end, will life overcome death? If God cannot overcome death, what does that say about God's power?

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