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Ends and beginnings

April 5, 2012

In a sense, Passover and Easter seem like a culmination.  Easter is of course the most important holiday in the Western Christian calendar – the culmination of the extended Lent period.  Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism (although, with the temporary absence of the Temple, the pilgrimage requirement is suspended – except for the Samaritans who make the pilgrimage to Mt. Gerizim), and a holiday that requires extensive preparations of cleaning – to remove any scraps of leaven.

And, after the holidays, it all seems a bit like a letdown.  But of course, it is not. 

Indeed, on the second day of Passover, the counting of the omer begins.  This ancient tradition, mandated in Leviticus 23:15-16, counts the seven weeks (forty-nine days) between Passover and Shavuos (“the festival of weeks”) – another pilgrimage festival.  And the Christian calendar has preserved that tradition through the period of Eastertide.  The Greek name for Shavuos was Pentecost (“the fiftieth day”), and it is by this name that Christians celebrate their version of this holiday.

Passover was the day of freedom from oppression; Shavuos is the day on which the Torah was received.  In the present day, the holiday is celebrated with continuous study – an all-night vigil.  It seems as if it were foreshadowed by the episode in the Haggadah, where Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azarya, Akiva, and Tarfon were discussing the Exodus at a Passover seder in Bnei Brak.  They became so absorbed that their students finally had to interrupt them and tell them that it was time for morning prayers.  The study connections go further than that.  Rabbi Akiva is said, by tradition, to have begun studying very late – at the age of 40, and yet became one of the major figures of the Talmud (according to some accounts, he is even the star of the Talmud.)  And it is a widespread custom that a chapter of Pirkei Avos, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” (a portion of the Talmud [Mishnah]) is studied each week between Passover and Shavuos.

In Christian tradition, of course, Pentecost became a mystical holiday – one where the barriers of language were suddenly transcended.  There are a wide variety of Christian traditions, but it is often the case that study is also a focus:  many Christians participate in spiritual retreats in preparation for the holiday.  Perhaps my favorite literary reference to the holiday is from Romeo and Juliet:  Capulet and his cousin discusses how long it has been since he last danced (with a reference to mumming and dancing):

Capulet: 

Welcome, gentlemen! Ladies that have their toes
Unplagu’d with corns will have a bout with you.
Ah ha, my mistresses! which of you all
Will now deny to dance? She that makes dainty,
She, I’ll swear, hath corns. Am I come near ye now? […]
A hall, a hall! give room! and foot it, girls.
More light, you knaves! and turn the tables up,
And quench the fire, the room is grown too hot.
Ah, sirrah, this unlook’d-for sport comes well.
Nay, sit, nay, sit, good cousin Capulet,
For you and I are past our dancing days.
How long is’t now since last yourself and I
Were in a mask?

Capulet’s Cousin: 

By’r Lady, thirty years.

Capulet:

What, man? ‘Tis not so much, ’tis not so much!
‘Tis since the nuptial of Lucentio,
Come Pentecost as quickly as it will,
Some five-and-twenty years, and then we mask’d.

For me, even the “endedness” of this season is overwhelmed by the promise of an even more exciting season – one in which everyone – regardless of education or background – engages in study and learning.  The cyclic nature of this study – ever spiraling towards greater understanding, recalls to my mind Vico’s New Science (standing in juxtaposition to Cartesian theorizing – synthesis versus analysis) with its endless circular structure so famously in captured in Joyce’s “riverrun”: 

A way a lone a last a loved a long the

[the book restarts here]

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

So, on the threshold of these two great holidays – from two religions so tied together in history and animosity and also love – allow me also to wish you a happy beginning – a happy counting to Shavuos or Pentecost.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2012 12:44 am

    As a Catholic, I grew up with the explicit connection made between Easter and Passover — tonight we heard the instructions for the Passover meal in Exodus, and at Easter Vigil we will sing “This is our Passover feast, when Christ the true Lamb is slain”. But I’d never heard of Shavuot until a couple of years ago, and was very excited to realize that the giving of the law at Sinai, celebrated at Shavuot, was precisely analogous to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (The miracle of the languages was a sign testifying to the presence of the Spirit.) The covenant at Sinai marked the birth of the people of Israel as the people of the LORD, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit marked the birth of the church.

    For this reason, Catholic churches that are not named for a saint observe the feast of Pentecost as their particular feast day, and it’s become a custom in some parishes to have a little celebration with birthday cake after Mass on Pentecost.

  2. April 6, 2012 8:53 am

    Thanks for that illuminating post! It’s very interesting to see the connections between Shavuot and Pentecost, and also inspiring to consider that Passover and Easter, seemingly Judaism’s and Christianity’s most religiously particular celebrations, falling as they do almost in opposition to each other at the same time of year, both lead to celebrations emphasizing the kinship of those who wish to serve God. That’s not to minimize the religiously particular characteristics of those later holidays: as Gaudetetheology points out, the legal contract of Torah initiates “Judaism”; the spiritual events of Pentecost found the Church. But these are both widening visions. The story of Ruth, read on Shavuot, conveys something of this, I think.

    And of course Shavuot is also “a mystical holiday – one where the barriers of language were suddenly transcended”—what better definition of the giving of the Torah!

    Yet the prophetic reading that day is Ezekiel 1, a kaleidoscope of “דמות”, an extreme instance of the inadequacy of language.

    In contrast to the clarity of the Sinai revelation, centered as it is on such mundanely intelligible statements as “Do not steal,” Ezekiel can only relate his vision with strings of similes—something like a q like an x like a y like a z, an appearance of a semblance of a metaphor.

    Here’s a sample from the JTS translation:

    26 Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. 27 From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber — what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face. And I heard the voice of someone speaking.

    Ah, and then he heard the voice! It didn’t come with the vision, but after—the barriers were not fully transcended. In that vein, Midrash proposes that a maidservant present at the spitting of the Sea of Reeds saw more than Ezekiel, despite the acknowledged greatness of his prophetic vision. That is to say, the sea at Passover split within material reality, just as the words of God at Shavuot broke through into material reality.

    All this is echoed in the Shavuot recitation of the liturgical poem “Akdamut.” Written as an Aramaic double-acrostic in 11th century Worms, its themes (so say commentators—I don’t pretend to understand the poem myself) include the inadequacy of language to describe God and the cyclical nature of Torah study. They also include the darker topic my comments opened with: the opposition of the Nations to this mission of the Jews, and the ultimate messianic redemption of that opposition. Indeed, the poet, Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak, is said to have been murdered in the Crusades.

    This is not a thought I wanted to end on, but somehow it’s all bound up together. Back to Celan’s “Speech –Grille,” and language as a barrier that connects. The desire for communication as the significant factor in whether communication is achieved?

    In any case, I have officially been at the computer too long, and need to finish getting ready for my family’s seder tonight. But it seems right to post this now, as Passover night approaches, despite/because of its central confusion. May all of our different holiday observances bring us blessings of freedom for closeness to God!


    By the way, Akdamut can be found with interlinear translation from medieval Aramaic to modern Hebrew at http://www.piyut.org.il/textual/english/717.html. My computer automatically “Google-translated” this page for me from “Hebrew” (which it took the Aramaic to be) to English—and I have to say it is really worth clicking that yourself for a truly funny “found poem” experience.

  3. April 6, 2012 1:29 pm

    Victoria and Courtney, thank you both for your wonderful and inspiring comments.

    Your messages are both pregnant with many ideas and connections, and I desperately want to draw out some of those ideas and connections, but unfortunately, for today (and indeed, for the entire weekend), I am out of time!

    In particular, both of your posts drew on mysticism. It seems fashionable to distance oneself from that mysticism, and it seems to me that neo-Cartesians (whether as misnagdim or rationalist Christians) often downplay the essential mystical features essential. But Victoria’s reference to the Third Person and Courtney’s reference to the Merkabah show how bound both Judaism and Christianity are to mysticism.

    I have so much more to say, particularly about “Akdamus”, but I am now officially out of time, so instead, let me simply wish every reader of this post freedom and a joyous, inspiring holiday.

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