Listening To Survivors: Shemini and Yom HaShoa

Just about a week ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing songs. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. The death of the Egyptians seems to be a moment for silence, or at the least not a time for singing. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson of compassion. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the appropriate response for  the death of a friend or a loved one.

As a parent the voice of God admonishing the angels stings. It is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should silence, forget, or deny history for a moment the atrocities of the Holocaust. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell those stories. Sadly we are in the waning years of having survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone.

While we need to hear their stories about how they survived near death, it is even more important to learn how they lived. My friend Rav Josh Feigelson recently pointed out:

The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 73 percent of respondents said that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to being Jewish,” the highest item on a list that included “leading an ethical/moral life,” “caring about Israel,” “observing Jewish law,” and “eating traditional Jewish foods,” among others.

If we are blessed to hear their stories we need to hear their whole story. As Rav Josh pointed out we, “unwittingly brought about a Jewish self-image in which Auschwitz is not just on par with Sinai, but comes to displace it.”  We need humility and inner fortitude to hear the faint voice of Sinai. It takes a moment to learn how Jews have died, it takes a lifetime to learn how we should live.

In conclusion I want to point out the difference between what we want and what they the survivors need. We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by the presence of survivors. We are here to listen to anything they want to tell us.  We need to need to  give them that time and space to speak, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet.

Time to End the Hate Song: Thoughts on the End of Passover and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

We find ourselves living at an interesting time on a couple of levels. Having just participated in two wonderful Seders with my family commemorating the Exodus from Egypt we are getting ready for the last days of Passover commemorating our salvation at the Red Sea. Having just been liberated from slavery, our ancestors found themselves witness to the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. One can only imagine the elation. In response to this, Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in the two songs sung at the sea. This has become the gold standard of expressing gratitude and religious freedom.

On this the Talmud Sanhedrin says:

The Holy One, blessed be God, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked.  For Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Yonatan’s name: What is meant by, “And one approached not the other all night”? (Exodus 14:20)  In that hour [When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea ] the ministering angels wished to utter the song of praise  before the Holy One, blessed be God, but God rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me! (Sanhedrin 39b)

The Egyptians slavers are finally getting their just due, yet God experienced no pleasure in the process.  Why was the angels’ song censored, while the Israelites songs were not? A song of salvation is great, but rejoicing in someone else’s suffering is just wrong. Someone who truly cares for God’s honor would not rejoice when the wickedness of man gave God no choice but to blot it out. In the imagination of the Talmud from a divine perspective true freedom is only realized in a reconciliation process. It seems in light of their recent salvation the Israelite song might be explainable if not excusable. But the Talmud seems to pointing out that singing at this moment might be inappropriate.

Is the experience of happiness inherently contextual and only understood relative to others? What about our nature is so prone to take joy in others suffering as compared to our own happiness? While the freedom of religious expression is laudable and surely deserves praise and even song, why must it be coupled with reveling in the suffering of others let alone causing suffering?

These questions come to mind when thinking about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act which allows any individual or corporation to cite its religious beliefs as a defense when sued by a private party. In the guise of providing people the ability to express their religious freedom it seems to give legal protections to discriminate against LGBT people. It is clear we still have a lot of work to do regarding civil rights for everyone in the country, but the last thing we need is to roll our laws back to the 1960’s.  If you truly think people are acting against God, take comfort that God will deal with them. In the name of religion we should heed God’s call, enjoy our own salvation, and ensure that we do not cause any more tears. We are surely all God’s children. While they might be left with many questions after Passover, about this our children should have no doubts.

May we enjoy the time in our lives for joy– Moadim L’Simcha V’Shabbat Shalom

– Reposted from the Canteen

Starting Your Passover with Why: Sinek on the Seder

I have often shared the fact that I am a Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

In this video as in his book, Start With Why, Sinek has shared the simple charge to start with “why”. In the video  he said:

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. But why is it important to attract those who believe what you believe?

All to often people get lost in the “what” or the “how” and never get to the “why”.  If we do the heavy lifting of articulating our “why” the ” how” and the “what” come very easily for their personal, family, or organizational choices. When we build groups around a common “why” the sky is the limit.

I was thinking about Sinek again in preparation for Seder this year. The primary mitzvah of the Seder is,”And you shall relate to your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt’. “(Exodus 13:8). But, what story are we supposed to tell our children? But maybe this itself is the wrong question. In the Seder we read:

Rabban Gamliel says that “whoever does not explain the following three things at the Pesach festival has not fulfilled his obligation, namely: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror”.

It is not enough to eat the Pesach, Matzah, and Maror. It is also not enough to eat reclining as if we were free people. The “what” and the “how” are not enough. According to Rabban Gamliel we need to explain the “why” to fulfill the obligation. If we can come together around our collective “why” we will figure out the answers to rest of the questions from our Seder. I have to say getting in touch with my personal “why” is itself very liberating.

Have a wonderful Passover and please share your “why” in your comments below.

ProcrastiNation: Why We Eat Matzah on Passover

In preparation for Shabbat HaGadol I ask myself, why do we eat Matzah on Passover? As we read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

So when the time came for them to leave they did not delay, but that final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus. Moshe came and told the slaves of the plan to leave Egypt. It seems as though the Israelites were surprised by the exodus. Or is it that they doubted that it was possible? You would think that they would have prepared some provisions. Maybe some bagels for the trip, they travel quite well. Can you even imagine what our Passover brunch spread would have been like? But that is not the case. We are stuck eating Matzah.

It seems that Pharaoh was not alone in doubting that God would redeem the people from their bondage. While we call it the bread of affliction, the affliction in question seems to be procrastination. The slaves procrastinated in getting ready to leave the world they knew. We all can relate. On a mundane level we all run late and wait until the last-minute to get things done. But on a deeper level we are all a little slow in working to be the change that we want to see in the world. As the expression goes, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” we should liberate ourselves from habits of being a “ProcrastiNation”. As quoted by MLK in his moving Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We must believe, plan, and move swiftly to free our world from injustice. Eating Matzah reminds us not to delay.

Educational Philosophy: How Do We Start Learning Torah?

Earlier this year Yadid came home all excited that they were learning a Mishna at school that we learned together. Not shocking, it was from Elu Metziyot. There are a few reasons that it is customary to start learning Mishnah with Elu Metziyot, but one is assuming that teaching children the laws of lost and found will start them off with a real life application and lifelong framework of personal responsibility. I was thinking about that this week when we start reading Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding korbanot sacrifices. About Vayikra the Midrash shares it imagination of educational philosophy. There we read:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. When I add that to starting the Mishnah with  Elu Metziyot it starts to make real sense. Relationships and responsibility are the basic building blocks of  menschlichkeit. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

Multiple ID in Exile

With the close of VaYakel Pikkudei this week’s Torah portion we read about the completion and consecration of the Tabernacle and conclude reading the book of Exodus. We read:

So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle. And Moshe was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud was present, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.(Exodus 40:33-38)

Why does the book end with this image? What is the meaning behind Moshe not being able to enter the sacred space when the cloud is present?

To understand these questions we need to look at the whole book of Exodus. The protagonist of most of the book of Exodus is a Levite who is raised in the house of the Egyptians. Moshe spent his formative years as a shepherd for a Midianite priest. While Moshe is homeless and caught between many cultures, his charge is to bring the Israelites back home to the land of Canaan. Here we see the paradigm of Jewish history oscillating between survival and sovereignty. We struggle in the galut, exile, yearning to be at home in the Land of Israel. But, it is in the exile itself that Moshe is at home as a leader.

In our portion, at the end of Exodus, God periodically settles in their midst giving the Israelites a sense of what it will be like when they have a homeland and permanent residence for God in the Temple. Moshe’s exile from the tent of meeting when it is stationary foreshadows his not joining his people in the Promised Land. Ironically, Moshe, the leader, will not be able to join them when he has accomplished his/their mission. The text challenges our understanding of leadership. Is a good leader in center stage or does s/he know when s/he has to back off and let others take center stage.

The text also challenges the notions previous generations of Jews have had regarding their Jewish identity. For example a previous generation assumed that intermarriage meant leaving Jewish life behind. Today when everyone has multiple identities who you marry add complexity, but it does not necessarily mean the end of Jewish expression. We can all relate to Moshe finding a special role in exile in as much as this state of being in between things leaves room for our multiple identities.

Fifty Shades of Purim

In the Midrash we learn:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced or even elicit for a young child and their initiation to learning. But still my children come back from kindergarten telling me stories of the Garden of Eden and not the sacrifices of the Temple. I find it similarly interesting that my children are taught the story of Esther at such a young age. Like the successful Fifty Shades of Grey the story of Esther is basically pornography.

Beyond the obvious nudity and drunken debauchery at the start of the story, there is some material that I do not think my kids are ready for yet. We read:

And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight; and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter. (Esther 5:2)

As Freud is said to have said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes a scepter is not a scepter.  Please do tell me how you might put this on the big screen.

Even the whole ceremonial cookie is pretty elicit. Some times  Persian Fertility cookie is just a Persian fertility cookie. Have festive holiday.


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