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.

Fifty Shades of Anti-Semitism: Talking with Our Children About Purim

When my children were in Kindergarten they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. Five years ago, at the Purim Seudah, or festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim in school.  He learned that, Haman’s punishment (for attempting genocide) was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story. This year at Purim, like every other year, I will try to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman. It struck me this year that I have been acculturated to expect Haman. He is a stock character in our history. As the adage goes, “What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than you are supposed to.” I am thankful that Yadid was not taught of Haman and his sons being put to death, but I realize that in retelling the story of Purim, we have normalized anti-Semitism. From a young age Haman is not excused but he is to be expected.

I was reminded of a Sarah Silverman piece in which she corrects her niece who was astounded that 60 Million Jews died in the Holocaust. After correcting her that it is 6 million Jews, not 60 million, her niece responds “What is the difference?” There is a difference, “Because 60 million would have been unforgivable.” We make fun, but it is astounding to realize that the expectation of anti-Semitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long. As if anti-Semitism is normative, if not normal. That’s black and white.

You might argue that the hatred of Jews is a central theme of Jewish history. You would be correct. But when is it appropriate to share this with our children? Why would you want to raise your children to think that being hated is expected? Isn’t it black and white?

It is particularly scary raising Jewish children in a world in which there is a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, ISIS is on the rise, and Iran is inching closer to having weapons of mass destruction to aim at Israel. In my mind part of the problem is that we have made it normal to hate the Jews. In each story in our history, we are left trying to figure out who loves us and who hates us. It is a sort of pornographic horror- we hate it, but we just cannot pull ourselves away from it. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, the global audience enjoys watching anti-Semitism. Purim is a time of grey, not black and white.  Esther is the queen and also the object of hate. It is the time when we confuse Haman for Mordechai and blessings for curses.

The rest of the year we need to know what is good and what is evil- black and white. Hating people for their religion, racial identity, gender identity, orientation, or ethnic identity is simply wrong and there is nothing normal about it. How will our children understand the horrors of anti-Semitism without trivializing it? We need to confront evil beyond making bad people “pick up the poop.”

-reposted from the Canteen

Live Long and Prosper

As I was preparing for Shabbat I heard the sad news of the passing of Leonard Nemoy z”l. He was an icon of an actor breathing life into the character of Spock from Star Trek. In is memory I suggest seeing this worthy commercial:

As an actor he never shied away from his Jewish identity. Quiet the opposite is true. Nemoy brought Judaism to the masses with the character of Spock. Tonight and forever when I bless my children with the priestly blessing it will carry the connotations of Spock’s blessing to “Live Long and Prosper”. May his memory be for a blessing.

 

To understand the origin of this check out this interview (around 11:30 minute mark).

– Of all the souls I have met in my travels his was the most human.

From Continuity to Contribution: Beyond Antisemitism

It is astounding to me how much money we spend as a community on Holocaust education. Particularly now with the recent spike in antisemitism in Europe I am sensitive to the need to “never forget”, but do we need to pay for other people to remember?  Let them pay for their own crimes and their feeling of guilt. The Holocaust is clearly part of our memory and history, but so too is the breadth and depth of Jewish literate, art, and culture. No matter what we teach our neighbors they will have to decide for themselves how they want to live. Our primary concern should be how we educate our children. My fear is that we spend more time teaching our children about how we died over and above teaching them how we lived let alone how we might live as Jews. You can disagree with me, but I doubt that a discourse of survival will be compelling to the next generation of North Americans who are growing up in affluence and safely.  So what are we left with?

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read that God tells Moshe to tell the Israelites, “Let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivated him you shall take My portion“(Exodus 25:1). The Israelites who had only recently escaped slavery do not limit their expression to preserving the memory of the experience they had in Egypt as we see in the Seder. They communicate their devotion to the Jewish project by making a contribution. Instead of continuity for the sake of continuity they throw themselves into the project of building the Mishkan, Tabernacle. In the contribution we create community. Does God really need a Mishkan? Clearly we did.

There is a certain sanctity in inviting and trusting  people to join the Jewish project. We must throw off the helicopter parent’s urge to prepare the way for the child as compared to preparing the child for the way. Do we trust the next generation to do their part? We need to be open to the fact that there are many ways for people to contribute. While we must stay vigilant about antisemitism we must stay on message and give the next generation the gift of allowing them to contribute in their own way.

 


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