This Shabbat is the first of the arba parshiyyot, the "four Torah portions." This Shabbat, right before Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) preceding Purim, is Shabbat Shekalim ("silver coins"). The Shabbat before Purim is Shabbat Zachor ("remember"). The third and fourth occur on the two weeks leading up to Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the beginning of the month in which Pesach occurs. These are Shabbat Parah ("red heifer") and Shabbat Hachodesh ("this new moon").
Sound strange enough?
The key into the period of the arba parshiyot is an insight that I first heard from my rabbi in St. Paul, Morris Allen. He mentioned that the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar have a certain resemblance. Baseball has spring training in late winter, leading to Opening Day in April -- culminating in the playoffs in the early fall, then a slow winter. So too, our calendar kicks off with the spring holidays, especially Pesach, and then there are the High Holy Days in the fall, and very little in the winter.
If Pesach is like Opening Day, then the weeks leading up to Pesach are like Spring Training. Spring Training in baseball is about forming the team, and getting ready to launch the season ready to perform. The arba parshyiot, the four special Shabbatot leading to Pesach, represent stages in forming our team, our community.
On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the passage in Exodus 30 that we recently read in Parashat Ki Tissa about the initial census of the Israelites. Each person was counted through their contribution of a half-shekel to the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary. This represents the most basic level of community. Who are we, in a literal sense? Who is here, and how many of us?
On Shabbat Zachor, we remember the conflict between Israel and Amalek. In the desert, Amalek attacked us in a particularly vicious way, picking off the weakest stragglers rather than fighting army to army. Amalek is the nation of Haman, the villain of Purim. Communities can easily define themselves by a common enemy, and find a source of cohesion by banding together against a threat. But this is only a second level of community.
Shabbat Parah focuses on the ritual of the "red heifer", which is a ceremony of purification after contact with death. To see ourselves as a community with a sacred mission, we have to look honesty at conflicts, with the outside and within. A true community needs to be rooted in pure motives, in the positive of its values and not the negative of who we are not.
Finally, Shabbat Hachodesh brings the instructions for the actual leaving from Egypt. The first sacred actions of moving forward are taken. The journey of the community into its future, into its purpose, begins.
These are the phases that a Jewish community must go through into to become what we are meant to be. Counting heads and definition-by-contrast are not enough. Between now and Pesach, as the weather thaws, we have many weeks to prepare ourselves to go forward together.