Behar/Emor: Consistently Inconsistent

I’ve returned to Israel, where this week’s Torah reading is B’har. Back in America, though – and everywhere in the Diaspora, – this week’s Torah portion is Emor, which was read last week here.  

The divergence resulted from the celebration of Pesach (Passover) for seven days in Israel but eight days chutz’ la aretz.  During Pesach, a special reading (or readings) interrupt(s) the progression of the weekly Shabbat Torah portions.  This year, Pesach covered two Shabbats in the Diaspora, but only one in Israel. Thus, only one Torah portion was “displaced” here, but two were abroad. The Diaspora will “double up to catch up” next Shabbat by reading the last two portions of Vayikra (Leviticus), at which point all of worldwide Jewry will again be on the same stretch of Torah scroll animal hide for the start of B’midbar (Numbers).  

Why was Pesach celebrated “only” seven days in Israel but eight abroad? The Torah (Exodus 12:14) calls for a seven-day celebration (that is, once Pesach was combined with the Festival of Matzoh).  In ancient days, declaration of the month and holidays – commanded at Exodus 12:1 -- was dependent upon observation of the moon.  By the time the declaration reached the Diaspora, the month or holiday, with attendant observance requirements, was already in effect.  Due to the uncertainty before the declaration was received, and so as to not inadvertently transgress, the practice developed of extending the special period for an extra day. 

Today, of course, we have atomic clocks and precise calendars that predict the onset of months and holidays hundreds (or thousands) of years into the future.  In fact, mathematical calculation of the calendar dates from at least the 4th century C.E.  So, the Diaspora doesn’t need and hasn’t needed the extra day for a very long time.  Yet, the rabbis of the Talmud (Beitzah 4b) decreed that the Diaspora should continue to follow minhag avoteichem (the customs of your ancestors) and observe the extra day.  [Some say this was also the inspiration for the Beatles’ song Eight Days a Week, although this claim is disputed].  

And so the practice in the Diaspora has remained … except, that is, in the Reform movement (and the minority of Jews among other non-Orthodox groups).  Already in the early days of Reform, in Germany, the movement reverted to observing only seven days of Pesach and one day of Rosh Hashanah….just as in Israel.  And yet, the Reform movement has continued the Diaspora practice of “displacing” two readings when what would be the eighth day of Pesach falls on Shabbat.  In other words, Reform observes Pesach for seven days for one purpose but continues to regard it as eight for another purpose.  

Consistency (such as praying three times each day) is highly valued in Judaism, because of its many benefits.  We are and we become what we consistently do. Still, is inconsistency wrong?  Is it counter-productive? 

Each of us faces choices between continuity and change.  Often, our choices are inconsistent, even regarding a single issue, although we may not realize it.  After time, we may notice and decide that the inconsistency works, and keep it.  Or, that it doesn’t, whereupon we reverse course and revert to “tradition” or we more fully commit to change.

Shabbat is an ideal time to stop and assess where we are with changes we’ve made … that we’ve allowed to happen … or that we need to make.  If new or further inconsistencies result, that may not be all bad.  Two well-known quotations regard inconsistency positively:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."  Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  F. Scott Fitzgerald 

This Shabbat, think about your life decisions and path.  Has holding onto traditions been productive?  Have changes been positive?  Are there “traditions” you wish to bring back, or add, to your life.  Which new changes should be made?  How is the balancing act going?  Discuss matters of significance with family members and friends, or just take a long walk and contemplate the week.. and, hopefully, the years ahead. 

Inconsistency may just be part of our human condition… and, as Emerson and Fitzgerald said, even desirable.  But it can also be dangerous, when "each fresh move is only a fresh mistake," as Robert William Service pointed out in one of my favorite poems, The Man Who Don't Fit In

Inconsistency may be good or bad, but insofar as it’s possible, it should be intentional.

Shabbat shalom, and blessings from Jerusalem!   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb