Shades of gray

[This is the d’rash I gave this past Friday night at services.]

One of the many things I love about Judaism is that it recognizes shades of gray.

Black and white is easy. In westerns, good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats. The good guys eventually shoot the bad guys, and that’s a happy ending. Similarly, if you smash something precious and shatter it to pieces, that’s bad.

But that’s not how Judaism sees things.

I realized this year that my favorite concept in the Haggadah is actually a teaching from the Talmud. For those of you playing along at home, it’s Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b:

When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. G-d silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”

My Haggadah, which is actually the Reform Haggadah, explicates the point in what I consider beautiful language:

Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt, and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe, as the wine within the cup of joy is lessened when we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.

The pouring out of wine for the ten plagues precedes the second cup of wine. The promise signified in the second cup is, “V’hitzalti etchem mei-avodatam,” “I will deliver you from their bondage.” G-d isn’t promising us, “I will crush them and destroy them.” It’s a promise of deliverance for us, and I think G-d would have much preferred it if Pharaoh had never hardened his own heart against the Children of Israel, and if our redemption could have come without bloodshed. The downfall of our enemy is not something to celebrate – this, our sages teach, is why we don’t recite the full Hallel (psalms of praise) each day of Pesach, as we do on Sukkot. For the second through eighth days of Pesach, we recite a shortened version of Hallel, as a reminder to ourselves that our liberation had a heavy price.

The Torah reading for Shabbat Pesach comes from Parshat Ki Tissa. It begins shortly after Moshe, coming down the mountain with the tablets of stone on which G-d had inscribed the Ten Commandments, saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf. Moshe, of course, hurled the tablets down and shattered them. G-d didn’t punish Moshe or even rebuke him for his action. In fact, just after our reading begins, G-d agrees to Moshe’s request to have G-d’s presence pass by Moshe. This is the most intimate encounter any human being has ever had with G-d.

There is a midrash that teaches that the broken pieces of the tablets were placed side by side in the ark, in the Mishkan. What was holy yesterday must still be treated with reverence today, as the Etz Chaim commentary says, explaining why the Kohanim (high priests) had to exercise such care with the ashes left after sacrifices were burned upon the altar. And from this, the rabbis teach that similarly, we must respect our elders even if they are “broken” because they’ve forgotten what they once knew.

The death of an enemy is not something to be celebrated. Our enemies, like us, were created B’tzelem Elokim, in the Divine image. They, too, have a Divinen spark within them; they, too, are G-d’s creation. There is holiness all around us, even in things that appear mundane, broken, or inimical to us. This Shabbat of Pesach, let us try to recognize that which is holy, and treat it with the reverence it deserves.

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