Puh Puh Puh: Bringing New Meaning to “B’Shaah Tovah”
This Shabbat is considered Shabbat HaGadol— the great Shabbat. The “big one” before Passover.
This special designation was, according to tradition because the 10th of Nisan in the year of the exodus was a Saturday. It was considered a great event, in fact a miracle, that the Israelites could on that day select a lamb for sacrifice without being molested by their Egyptian masters, who, at other times, would have stoned them for such daring.
A more modern interpretation was that Shabbat HaGadol was the “Big Shabbat” because it was the Shabbat when the rabbi would give the longest sermon of the year— which, we don’t have to worry about tonight.
Ma nishtana haShabbat hazeh?
So, what makes this Shabbat so great?
What’s so big about this Shabbat, from among all the other Shabbats that we have celebrated?
This Shabbat is a Shabbat for preparation: a Shabbat intended to direct us toward the festival of freedom; readying our hearts first, so that in the days ahead, we can ready our homes to celebrate Passover.
I think about the Israelites, tucked away in their homes, hoping and praying that the dash of red blood over their doors would save them from the lethal and mighty hand of that last plague.
And without lingering for too long in the parallel: it makes me wonder about the power of magical thinking— of the ways in which we lean more heavily into prayer and ritual in times of fear, or distress.
The experience of the last few weeks certainly proves that out for me, personally, and as we navigate this moment in community.
When we feel the constriction of being in Mitzrayim—of being in this particular narrow place: many of us have sought comfort in words, rituals, and even personal connections that just a month ago, would never have occurred to us.
A few examples:
Last Shabbat, no fewer than five separate members of our Hevreh community sent me pictures of the challah they were baking as they prepared for Shabbat—most of them noting that this was their first time baking challah. At least two of them captioned the photo, “well, no time like the present.”
In this period of isolation, they reached for Shabbat.
Then, last weekend, I received a message from a girl I grew up with- she and her family lived around the corner from me, and we had been friendly in elementary school before growing apart.
The message said “hi. I know we’re not in touch that much, but I know you’re a rabbi. If it’s ok, and it’s not inappropriate or anything, would you pray for my dad? He’s got the virus. I’m really scared.”. In this period of fear and isolation, she reached out to someone she hadn’t spoken with or seen face to face in about 20 years. But perhaps, just maybe, those prayers would help.
Even personally, I find myself looking for ways to make meaning, and perhaps do my small cosmic part to better this world: and so for the first time a couple of weeks ago, while baking challah with my kids, we tried out the custom of hafreshet challah: of separating the challah. The custom is an offering: a small sacrifice from that sweet dough, taken and burnt as a prayer. And I thought to myself: well, it couldn’t hurt.
If the question is, what makes this Shabbat different from all other Shabbats, then maybe all of these “well, it can’t hurts” , and “we thought we’d try it out” are part of the answer.
One possibility is that prayer and ritual and God do feel closer, and more accessible at this moment. And that would be a beautiful answer.
But, at the risk of sounding cynical: I don’t think it’s because we have all suddenly become more devout, or more confident in Divine intervention at this moment… rather, I think about the sense of “puh puh puh” that’s built into our tradition and our culture.
Like the bubbie spitting three times, those three words “puh puh puh” are breathed out as a prayer.
Bli ayin harah, puh puh puh. Or, in Yiddish, Keyna hora, we all say.
Let there be no evil eye.
As a people, we know from the narrow places— encoded in our DNA is the impulse to survive: to find ways to live through the night, with the proverbial red dash above our doorpost as a prayer that hardship should pass over our homes, allowing us to wake up another day to life renewed.
Built into our Passover celebration is the command to live “as if”— as the Haggadah implores each of to see our self k’ilu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim. To live as if we personally went forth from Egypt; to see ourselves as if we have already survived.
Our task, living in this reality today, is to strike a balance: to connect with the traditions and rituals that comfort us; to find words and prayers and new routines that maybe “couldn’t hurt”.
But also, to find new ways to live in the not knowing.
My teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen would always wrap up his last class with us on Thursday afternoons by saying “alright, I have a little Shabbas gift for you.”- before sharing some small gem of an idea or an image or a story that we could carry with us into Shabbat.
So, here’s my Shabbat gift for you all tonight:
If you’re not familiar with the phrase yet, here’s the phrase that has allowed me to look at time just a bit differently:
Literally— “at a good time”.
It’s the phrase that you might say upon learning of someone’s soon-to-be good news—most commonly, when we learn of a pregnancy.
We say “b’shaah tovah” as a way of acknowledging that there is so much out of our control: rather than Mazel tov, which might also come with a “puh puh puh”, B’shaah tovah is a wish for alignment, and ease, and a good outcome, which we know is never guaranteed.
And so, as we anticipate the festival of Freedom, and continue to await news about schools, and summer plans, and the possibility of travel— it has never felt like a better time to really embrace the “B’shaah tovah”: that we should all continue to stay home, caring for our community by caring for ourselves, so that
B’shaah tovah- at a good time, at the right time- we’ll be able to come back together in peace and in wholeness.