Framing the Passover Story

I hope that you are having a wonderful Passover. Lodged in between the first days of Passover commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the last days commemorating the division of the Red Sea I must ask what is the climax of the Passover Story? Having just sat through two wonderful Sederim at my Brother’s house I am left thinking that it must be the 10th Plague. It is clearly the highlight of God’s acting history that lead to their leaving Egypt. But, as we get closer to the end of Passover I am lead to believe that it might be the Splitting of the Sea. So which one is it? Looking at the Torah reading from  Shabbat of Passover (Exodus 33:12-34:26) you might be tempted to claim that it is neither. Maybe both are just warming up the crowd for  the main event of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. But before we give up let’s try to answer this question.

At the end of the Torah reading we read:

18 You shall keep the feast of unleavened bread.  Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Aviv, for in the month Aviv you came out from Egypt. 19 All that opened the womb is Mine; and of all of your cattle you shall sanctify the males, the first-lings of ox and sheep. 20 And the first-ling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. 22 And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of in-gathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man covet your and, when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year. 25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.  26 The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring unto the house of the Lord your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.’ ( Exodus 34:18-26)

The Torah is describing what Passover was to look like after the Exodus from Egypt. It is interesting in that it predicts a time when we have a land to call our own. It is additionally interesting in that it connects the ideas of the Exodus from Egypt, “All that opened the womb “, and “the choicest first-fruits of your land”.  This reminds me of  “arami oved avi” one of the most difficult texts in the Haggadah.  These verses from Deuteronomy 26 are part of the formula that was recited when the First Fruit offerings were brought to the Temple in ancient times. We learn in the Mishna that we need to learn this at the Seder. There we read:

They pour him a second cup, and here the child asks the parent [about what makes this night different]–and according to the child’s understanding, the parent teaches, beginning with shame and concluding with praise, interpreting from arami oved avi (‘My father was a wandering Aramean’) until he finishes the entire passage. (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4).

It is interesting that the main Rabbinic discourse on the Passover Seder is rereading the dialogue between the Priests and the Israelites bringing their First Fruit. In this respect we see through the lens of bringing  “the choicest first-fruits of your land” the connection between the Exodus from Egypt, the 10th Plague, the splitting of the Sea. and   “All that opened the womb “. The 10th plague shows God sparing the first-born Israelites. The Splitting of the Sea depicts the entire nation of Israel being born out of this miraculous birth canal. In both cases God demonstrates God’s connection to the People of Israel. Our response to God’s love is a ritualized giving of the First Animals and the First Fruit to God. In a world without a Temple to reciprocate this love the Rabbis ritualized the explication of this text .

And now back to the question as for which is the climax of the Passover story. With this ritual of the First Fruit in the middle it seems that 10th Plague and the Splitting of the Sea are quiet comparable and of similar significance. It seems that in fact they frame (or even give birth to) the entire Passover story. Yes, I realize that this is just another way of not answering the question.  Moadim L’Simcha V’Shabbat Shalom

Revealing Family Passover

We come together for Passover to celebrate our ongoing liberation from slavery. During the seder we will speak at length about the exodus from Egypt, but how did we, the descendants of Jacob, get there? Before we ask how did we end up as slaves we need to ask how did we end up in Egypt?

This story starts with Joseph and his brothers. Annoyed by his being different, they sell him into slavery. Through a turn of events Joseph ends up in a position of power in Egypt. Forced by the famine in the land of Canaan, his brothers unwittingly come before Joseph seeking sustenance. Sitting before them, he is faced with a choice as to whether or not he will keep his identity closeted. The text reads:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone in Egypt finds out about his identity. Through Joseph’s coming-out they were all witness to the unfolding of God’s plan.  What started off as a family tragedy was transformed into a divine national comedy.

In modern times we can hear resonance of the Passover cry for justice in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  He wrote that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). I believe that we can hear a corollary to this in the sound of Joseph’s tears. There is an inextricable connection between personal and national revelation. While Moses led us out of Egypt we were not truly free until we experienced God’s revelation at Sinai. Joseph’s personal revelation to his brothers was a precursor to God’s coming out to the nation at Sinai. While we need to seek justice for everyone, we should rise to the challenge of realizing that we will not understand the collective revelation until we are all free to express all of who we are as individuals.

A few months ago I went to a benefit hosted by Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the camp at which I grew up. There were some people there who I had not seen for 20 years. Stepping into that room it was as if we were all back at camp. One hug later it was as if no time had passed. We were family. For a moment there I had a sense of what Joseph and his brothers must have felt so many years ago. Camp avails us of the opportunity to expand our idea of family. There in the presence of our camp family we can give voice to hidden parts of ourselves. There we can start to articulate what we aspire to become in our lives. How can we provide our children with that safe place to reveal all of who they are and who they might become?

At your seder, as the Jewish world sits as equals sharing food, I hope that more of us find safe space to share ourselves with the collective. May you have a very revealing and meaningful Passover.

- Posted from the Canteen

Passover Selfie

I have noticed recently that we as a society have been talking a lot about the rise of the “selfie”. This is ironic in that we are talking about ourselves taking pictures of ourselves. It is as if we have ensnared ourselves in a viscous Narcissistic loop. And yes I mean that  literally and  literarily. It seems that with the advent of technology that allows us to capture our every move we are more interested in documenting the lives we are living then just living those lives. We are so busy preparing to remember the moment that we are never actually in the moment.

Recently I saw a wonderful campaign by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. On their website they wrote:

By now we’re sure you’ve heard of the selfie fad sweeping social media. Everyone from kids to celebrities are jumping in on the fun. This trend got The Fellowship wondering what it would look like if, instead of focusing on ourselves, the trend focused on the needs of others. We invite you to join us in our quest to reinvent the selfie and celebrate selflessness. We will be sharing images of people who help make the lives of others better, as well as those whose lives are forever changed by actions of love, kindness, and generosity.

 Simply put they want people to post their  own #Unselfie on Facebook or Twitter. While I think there is a lot to say in terms of advocating and educating people to be more altruistic, is the rise of the selfie synonymous with the rise of being more selfish.

I ask this because I just got a wonderful cute Holiday e-card from the good people over that the Schusterman Foundation.  Along with the following cartoons they were asking people to take Selfies of themselves doing Passover  to post their  own #PassoverSelfie on Facebook or Twitter. I have to admit that I did not get the top right picture right away, but then I realized it was a Selfie of Pharaoh during the plague of darkness.

Passover SelfieI particularly love the picture of the bottom left. It is funny to imagine Moshe taking a moment to take a selfie as he is going through the miraculous divided sea. But why is this so funny? Well it seems self-absorbed to not just take in the miracle as compared to the compulsion to capture and share this moment with others.

Then I got to thinking about the very enterprise of having a Seder and I started to reconsider my anti-Selfie judgement. What is driving us to have a Seder. We learn in the Talmud:

B’CHOL DOR VADOR CHAYAV ADAM LEEROT ET ATZMO K’EELU HU YATZA MEE-MITZRAYIM- In every generation one must look upon him/herself as if s/he personally had gone out of Egypt .” (Pesachim 116b)

To fulfill this we have a Seder every year to preserve/create this memory. We see in books like Prof Yershalmi’s Haggadah and History that every generation rewrote their Haggadot to speak to the very issues of their generation. I think this is easy to see through The Four Children by Noam Zion - There you can see artistic representations of the four children throughout history. How they depict the four children tells us a lot about how they see themselves. In this way the Haggadah itself is a pre-Techonologic Selfie which helped every generation take a picture of themselves and share it through the media of the time so that they could look upon themselves as if they personally had gone out of Egypt.  If you are so moved I wanted to encourage you to do the same. Go to and make your own Haggadah/Selfie. For some of use technology frees us from slavery and for others technology has become  the new slave master. We need to find a balance between living in the moment and reflecting on that moment. Have a liberating and meaningful Passover.

Plague of Permanence

My dad was an officer and a lawyer in the US Navy. Some of my earliest memories are of him dressing up and for reserve duty.  Growing up we would always take family trips on sail boats. I cherish those memories. There was something very special about all being together and moving at the same time. My dad would often quip, ” What is the difference between owning a house and owning a boat? A house is a hole in the ground that your pour money into, where a boat is a hole in the water that you pour money into.” Now a quarter century later as a home owner myself I see what he was saying. While it gives us a lot of joy to have a home of our own, there are huge ongoing and unexpected expenses in owning a home.

I was thinking about this when reading Metzora, this week’s Torah portion. The parasha deals with ritual impurities ranging from skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at), to houses with an eruptive plague, to male genital discharges, and to  menstruation. There we read:

When you are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession; then someone who owns a house shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘There seems to me to be as it were a plague in the house.’  And the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go in to see the plague, that all that is in the house be not made unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to see the house.  (Leviticus 14:34-36)

This brings up two questions. The first question is how could our houses have the same issues as our persons. The second one, why is this plague limited to “when you come into the land”. I think the answer to both are connected to my father’s comment about boats. The comfort we take in permanence of our buildings and bodies is illusory. The notion that we own anything in life is misguided. Tzara’at reminds us that we are but tenants for a short time in our homes and even in our bodies. At best they are like boats bringing us closer to the ones we love: moving us further in life’s journey.



Holy Evolution

A little girl asked her mother, “Where did human kind come from?’ The mother answered, ‘God made Adam and Eve and they had children and so the story goes. From them came the human race.” Two days later the girl asked her father the same question. The father answered, “Many years ago there were apes from which the human race evolved.” The confused girl returned to her mother and said, “Mom how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God, and Dad said they evolved from apes?” The mother answered, “Well, dear, it is very simple.I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his.”
This joke is funny for the very reason that it is important to give some thought to how we talk about the origin of our species to our children. Are we like Adam and Eve in that we too were created in the image of God? Are we arrested that we falling away from the greatness of Adam and Eve? Or alternatively is our origin the lowly ape? Are we progressing away from apes and our ancestors? Does either have an impact on how we treat our elders or ourselves? As a Modern Orthodox Jew I do not feel that I need to apologize for either my conviction in science or the Torah, both are true. But having a complex understanding of the world does not make it easier as a parent . I understand this issue is often framed as a zero sum, one is right or the other.  What will I tell my children about the narratives as to the origin of the human race? Or even more importantly, what values are communicated in the story ?
I was thinking about these questions when reading the transition from the end of Shmini, last week’s Torah portion, and the start of Tazria, this week’s Torah portion. At the end of Shmini we read all of the laws of Kashrut, what animals we can and cannot eat. At the start of Tazria we read:
Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. ( Leviticus 12:2-3)
On this Rashi quotes Midrash:
Rabbi Simlai said, ” Just as the fashioning of man came after all cattle, beast , and fowl  in the Torah’s account of the Myth of Creation so is the case with God’s law explaining [this] after the law of cattle, beast, and fowl.” (Vayikra Rabbah 14:1)

Might this narrative give us what we are looking for? A combination of divine dignity of all people coming down from Adam and Eve without the feeling that we are falling away from greatness. Might we actually couple the idea of human progress of evolution with the idea that we are but animals? We have a holy responsibility as the top of the evolutionary chain.

Checklist Manifesto

Just today it seems that they might have finally discovered some wreckage from the missing Malaysian Airlines, Flight 370. Over close to two weeks on every news outlet, every page, every website, people are talking about this flight. There has been an incredible amount of  ink  spilled on the reaction or lack of reaction by authorities, or on possible motives or explanations for its disappearance, but there has been comparatively little on the passengers, their families, or their communities. Why are we so focused on the  idea of a missing aircraft  to the exclusion of an actual missing aircraft? What about the people they left behind, the people waiting for them, and the people themselves who are missing?

This seems pretty straight forward; we are all self-interested. We are more concerned how this or something like this might impact us than what it means to people we do not know on the other side of the world. This got me thinking about Atul Gawande‘s 2009 The Checklist Manifesto .   Gawande points out that, while airplane pilots use checklists to ensure optimal outcomes, surgeons do not. While the surgeon might think that their education is beyond needing a remedial checklist, that is not the biggest difference. The biggest difference is if the surgeon fails the patient dies while if the airplane pilot fails he goes down with the ship. It is easy to distance yourself when you do not have as much invested in the outcomes. The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed check lists can improve outcomes.

This idea got me thinking about Shmini, this week’s Torah Portion. There we read:

And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which God had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moshe said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, [when God said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ “And Aaron was silent. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’  So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moshe had said. And Moshe said to Aaron, and to Eleazar and to Ithamar, his sons: ‘Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that God be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord has kindled. And you shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest you die; for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.’ And they did according to the word of Moses. ( Leviticus 10:1-7)

Similar to our silence around the missing passengers from the Malaysian Airlines, Flight 370, I have always felt Aron’s silence to be painful. How could a father stay quiet when faced with the death of his two sons? But I think it is also interesting to think about the role of the priest.  In Gawande’s terms is the priest more like a surgeon  or more like an airplane pilot?  You might think with their special status and their role in ancient society that they are like doctors, but Moshe treats him like an airplane pilot. In response to tragedy he does not join him in morning, but rather gives him checklist of what he and his sons need  to get done. The priest serves the entire nation and needs to understand that he is responsible for the patient on the table ( AKA the nation of Israel). But at the same time they need to know that they are flying the plane and are at risk. I think this has interesting implications for today’s Jewish communal professionals. We too need to understand our role. We cannot pretend to be removed surgeons operating the community at arm’s length. If we understand that we are flying the plane, we need to have our own checklist manifesto to ensure that we achieve optimal outcomes for our entire community.

And most importantly, may the friends and family of the pilots and passengers of  Malaysian Airlines, Flight 370 find a voice for their sorrow and comfort from their mourning.

- Thank you to Alon Meltzer for inspiring this post.


Mission Purim


Good morning Agent Shushanberg. The woman you are looking for is Esther Achoshveroshakov. She is known to be well positioned in the government. We have discovered through our sources in the capital that she has ties to the resistance. Upon learning this we had our man there Mordecai Benyamini on constant watch. Unfortunately he has not been able to make direct contact or turn her to support the opposition. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to make contact with Esther and encourage her to influence the King. To make contact with Esther you will need to use her code name Agent Hadassah. She will only talk to you if you have fasted for three days so you might want to eat the contents of this package before your mission. As always, should you or any of your Mission Purim Team be caught, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Good Luck. Tizku LaMitzvot and have a wonderful Purim.

Agents Adina, Avi, Yadid, Yishama, and Emunah

NOTE: STOLEN FROM Mishloach Manot

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