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Dvar Torah - Metzora

What is in a beginning? We start things with so much excitement. And then we end with a bang. Why is it so important to mark beginnings and ends?

Humans need boundaries. We need to mark the borders of events so that they can be meaningful for us. Time is continuous, with no beginnings, separations, or ends. And yet, we mark each beginning and each transition as something new, something different.

As humans, we love new beginnings. We celebrate transitions like graduations and milestones because they mark an opportunity to reflect on the past or look forward to a new future. We get together to celebrate birthdays because they remind us of how much we love to be a part of this world and how much we hope to build ourselves in the coming year.

Pesach is the Jewish birthday. On Pesach, something extraordinary happened. After over two hundred years of subjugation, the Israelites took control of their lives. They bought lambs and sheep and placed them in front of their houses. They slaughtered the animal in public, even though it was holy to their taskmasters, and then they ate it and painted the doorframes with the blood. This very public rejection of Egyptian religious ideas must have been terrifying. Yet, rather than kowtow to the demands of the nation which had enslaved them, they chose to rebel. That is Chag HaPesach.

However, there is another miracle we celebrate on Pesach. The Jews also changed the way that they spoke about and saw themselves. Our ancestors took the bread of affliction, the tasteless, joyless bread of slaves, and remade it as a symbol of freedom. We ate matzot with our Pesach sacrifice, not bread. And then, because we were leaving, we took matzot with us. We took something we had eaten for hundreds of years because we had to and turned it into a monument to heroism and the rejection of the mastery of the flesh. We took something we could not enjoy because of its association with slavery and made it into a joyful symbol of freedom. Chag HaMatzot, unlike Chag HaPesach, is not an externally facing holiday. It's a holiday about how we tell our story and see ourselves.

Pesach, our national birthday, encapsulates these two aspects. It symbolizes our self-perception, the narrative we tell ourselves, and the external perception of others. It is a beacon of Jewish identity, a testament to our resilience and faith. Like any birthday, it has a beginning and an end. The entire event is significant, but it's crucial to mark these points to fully immerse ourselves in the unique essence of these days.

Why does the Torah separate the Yom Tovs, which frame Pesach (the first and last days) and Chol HaMoed (the days between)? Why give the first and last days a particular prohibition of work (similar to Shabbat), special holiness, and the mitzvah of festive meals, including bread (Matzah)? To truly celebrate our national birthday, boundaries have to be established. We can't mark the time properly if it fades into the next thing. Instead, we set it apart in time with clear boundaries so that we know that Pesach is our designated time to celebrate who we are.

In the Temple, each week, a different family of kohanim was in charge of the sacrifices. They would change over on a Shabbat afternoon, and the families had a schedule to know who was in that week. Only Pesach and Sukkot were different. Those weeks were set apart in time, and any Kohen could come and serve then. The reason is that these days function on other rules. They're not part of our routine, so they don't work based on routine. They are set apart for unique celebrations and reflections.

We are in the mood after getting together to read and tell the Pesach story at the beginning of the chag. We feel our special bond with Hashem and our national unique mission. Let's use the rest of the chag to revel in that intense joy and set the time aside. Too soon, routine will return, but if we've celebrated properly, the joy can tide us over until the next reason to celebrate. 

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