Shabbat HaGadol

Shabbat HaGadol
March 27, 1999
Newton Centre Minyan
Torah: Tzav: Levicitus IV
Haftorah: Malachai III, 4-24


Living in Orbit

Drash by Janna Kaplan.

When astronauts fly in space, the most memorable sight to them, invariably, is the sight of Earth from orbit; for the Apollo astronauts it was the sight of the Earth-rise over the Moon. Why, should we ask, those people whose very profession and calling is to look ahead, forward, into the future in space and time, why are they fascinated so deeply by the sight of what they left behind, their little and so imperfect planet, with its thin, fragile atmosphere, which has been -- until that moment -- their home for so long? Yet, they are. The awesome beauty of such sight notwithstanding, to see it, whole, from a distance is for them, I think, to comprehend something fundamental: that the past is only separated from the future by a fleeting moment of time; that moment is our life. Our life's destiny is to connect the past with the future. Orbital state, though stable, is the constant tension between the pull of gravity, the pull of the past, and the thrust of the forward motion, the call of the future. Our life will hang in the balance of that, and our knowledge, experience, and the ability to persevere.

Whether in space or on Earth, I see human life as an orbit. Back in the past are the joys and sorrows of childhood, youth, and maturity; opportunities taken or missed; dreams fulfilled or broken; people hurt or comforted; lessons learnt or wasted. In the future is the Day of Judgement. How we meet that day, and what would it mean to us depends, ultimately, on how we live our lives, now, on what we do, and how we do it, and who we really are.

* * *

That was just an introduction. I long wanted to give a drash on Shabbat HaGadol because of the very special and deeply personal meaning it had for me ever since my refusenik's past, in Russia, and the days of my emigration. I got an interesting insight into its biblical meaning while taking a Me'ah course last year with Rabbi Nehemia Pollen, particularly the class on Messianic Time. Additional insights I gained while preparing for the science enrichment class I am teaching to six-graders this year at our Schechter School, called The Right Stuff: Space Exploration Through Book and Film, and working with many of the astronauts' personal accounts of their flights. Then, of course, there is my Rosh Chodesh group, powerful and soothing presence in my life. Many thoughts reflected in my today's drash were first shared through the discipline and intensity of our monthly gatherings. To my Me'ah teachers and fellow students, to my Minyan Rosh Chodesh sisters, and to my wonderful and inspiring students at Schechter, I am deeply grateful.

* * *

After having been a refusenik for several years in Leningrad, I got my exit visa on Shabbat HaGadol of 1981. It was, if you remember those days, a particularly morbid period of the cold war: Russians invaded Afghanistan a year earlier, relations with the West were all but severed, and the Jewish emigration from Russia was at its all time low. So, it was no wonder that a single exit visa given out that month, to a refusenik, and on Shabbat HaGadol, acquired symbolic meaning and became, in my refuseniks' community, the cause for celebration and hope. Shabbat HaGadol became, forever, my personal connection between my past, and my future. My eyes were on the future, on the life that would now be sustained, on dreams of happiness and success. How little did I know . The life after my emigration was no less difficult, trying and painful to me and to my family who stayed behind. My roots were in the past.

Looking back on Russia, from a vast distance of my migrations, like the children of Israel who looked back on Egypt from their journeys in the desert, I drew strength from my memories and the sense of purpose from my sufferings. For not everything was bad there, in bondage. I had friends of the quality I would never find again; friendships of the intensity, which is unsurpassed. It was the only time in my life when I felt myself truly, fully, being a part of the community of equals, incredible group of people who inspired each other. Later, as immigrants, we would drift apart, become different, sometimes so different that when we meet, it is hard to connect. Some would be on the left, most - on the far right; some would become ultra-religious, most - totally indifferent to Judaism. Factions and fighting became signs of our life in emigration; but back in Egypt, back in Russia, we were one tight community, formed not for any ad hoc purpose, but evolving through joint history, united by shared danger, by common fate, by sense of roots, and purpose. Of course, life was difficult, humiliating mostly; I hated it, the every day life, with no choices, with constant lines, distrust, tension, absence of privacy, rudeness, and persecution. It was hell, but it was the hell we knew...

Now, we have to learn to make choices. Even simple ones are so hard to make. Now, we are grown-ups. We are "adult children of adults" [i], parents of our own children. We now have responsibility for our parents, and for our children, for our community, our country, for the world which desperately needs health, and peace, at home, abroad, in the Middle East. We have to find the way, each of us in her or his own way, to heal and repair the world. Where do I start? The world is so "out of joint," as prince Hamlet once said. I can work in weightlessness in an airplane in 10, 000 feet of free fall over the ocean, and know no fear. But I am scared to death of not knowing how to do the right thing when my child is unhappy, or my husband, or my parent, or my brother. These people are very few, but they are so dear to me that I would gladly give my life for them without even a micro-moment of hesitation, for their health, peace, and happiness.

And yet. How often I feel helpless, when I have nothing to give, or what I give is not enough, or does not work, or - the most frustrating and despairing situation of all - when I can help, and want to give, but they refuse to take. The agony of helplessness sometimes overwhelms me. I find that my greatest challenge of all is not to change the world, or discover how the brain works, or to fly in space. But it is to figure out how I can protect these precious people from pain, from wrong decisions, from despair and evil, and how we can all love each other. Ultimately, if I can achieve that, and if there were, for real life, the Day of Judgement, I would be fine then, I would be content. And that would be a blessing.

Which brings me, finally, to today's Haftorah portion, Malachai III, 4-24. In the whole Hebrew Bible, strangely enough, there is very little written about the Messianic times. There are references to the Messiah, and certain characteristics of her or his qualities and lineage, but only a precious little about what the time of the Messiah would look like, would feel like. What we know is that Elijah the prophet did not die, but, like Moses, was taken by God, and that in due time God would send Elijah back into the world to announce the coming of the Messiah. The only direct reference to the return of Elijah as the precursor of the Messianic time, is in this very reading, at the end of it (Malachai III, 24), and almost at the very end of the whole Hebrew Bible. What is said is extremely beautiful: After outlining all the horrors and struggles of the past, all the challenges and inadequacies of the present, and all the hopes and directives for the future, Malachai prophesizes the return of Elijah, the coming of the Messiah and the Day of Judgement (JPS Tanakh, p. 1105):

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. And He shall reconcile parents with children, and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.

I find this truly remarkable! Peace and harmony, which we are so desperately yearning to achieve, in the world and in our lives, the moment when our past and our future meet seamlessly, and connect without pain, without any tension or struggle, will come to us from our most intimate within. The time of the Messiah, in other words, would be such time when parents and children shall understand each other.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Passover.


i. Aliza Goldberg's phrase