Archive for the '4.3 Passover' Category

The Beaker of Privilege: A New Seder Ritual

For the last number of years my brother has been hosting Passover Seder at his home in Newton Massachusetts. His friend Jonny Garlick has joined us each of those years for seder. Jonny is a Professor of Oral Pathology at Tufts, absolutely fascinating, and an amazing educator.  It is a joy having a creative scientists that brings so much to the table. A few year’s ago he brought man-made tissue to the seder. As we passed it around and played with it we explored the flexibility and durability of our skin as compared to the rigidity and fragility of Matzah.

Having a hands on discussion seems to be the heart of the educational platform of the seder. Of course the seder is all about questions, but it is also all about staging a reenactment. If we have not experienced ourselves having been liberated from Egypt we will not have fulfilled the mitzvah of telling the Passover story.

So when Jonny showed up last year I was not surprised to see that he brought a bag with him to the seder. At first it seemed rather simple as he pulled two beakers out of his bags. In one of them there was purified water that his students had made for him. In the other was something much darker. Then he proceeded to explain how he got his students to facilitate the water coming out of the pipes in Flint Michigan. Jonny explained the horrible health impact of drinking water with all of this metal and other nasty stuff in it. Passing around this beaker all of us young and old had a discussion of what would we do if this kind of water was coming out of our facets. Would we stand for it? What kind of privilege do we take for granted that this is our response? What is the nature of slavery that you do not even feel empowered to advocate for yourself? What was the role of water in the life and liberation of Mosche and the Israelite people?

Jonny was really on to something here. If done correctly the Passover seder can be the best of experiential Jewish education. How do we make the seder relevant today for people of all ages? Should we have a beaker of dirty water on our seder table this year again? Maybe something else? What will we bring to the Seder this year that will make this night different then all other nights?

 

Let My People…Wait, What?

Of all of the thousands of things Moshe says in the Torah, his most line famous by far is, “Let my people go.” But when we look at the actual text of Exodus and read what Moshe says to Pharaoh, it surprising and complex:

Afterward Moshe and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:

‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness’… The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God…” (Exodus 5:1-3 )

Three days?! Why would Moshe ask for a three day holiday instead of liberation from slavery?  Besides being an easier pill for Pharaoh to swallow, what could he have been thinking?

Have you ever tried something new, only to discover that you didn’t realize the full potential of what you were missing?  Though I doubt the Israelites were enjoying their lives as slaves, it’s the only life they had ever known. No one but Moshe knew anything about a life of freedom. Before the Israelites had their first taste of actual freedom, Moshe understood the importance of helping them imagine what their new life would be like. Experiencing the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom would make it perfectly clear – their new life would be a utopia.

Anyone who has ever spent time at Jewish camp knows this to be true. Camp is truly a utopia – a place of ideal perfection. Camp is where many of us experience freedom on our own for the first time. After each summer, we return back to reality and wonder what life would be if we could spend every day of the year at camp with our friends laughing, singing, and dancing. But in reality, camp would not feel like the utopia it is if it were not for the ten other regular months of the year.

Jewish camp gave me that first taste of the way my life could be. This Passover, when I ask myself how am I doing at being the Moshe in my life, I think of how I can grant the gifts of camp – of freedom and discovery. This Passover, let’s all be grateful for the utopias we have in our lives.

– Also posted on Jewishcamp.org

Liberation from Domestication: Harari and Passover

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things:

Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah.(Avot 1:1)

What does it mean to create a fence around the Torah? I was thinking about this in the context of all of the laborious preparations and limitations that we observe on the holiday or Passover. There are so many

In the Torah we read:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. ( Exodus 12:15-20)

There seems to be a choice between cutting ourselves off from leavened bread or cutting ourselves off from the nation. To preserve our connection it makes sense to be extra stringent and put up fences.

This yearly activity of getting on the Atkins diet makes me rethink my relationship with wheat. Yes bread is the staff of life, but it is also part of the reason that I look like I am 4 months pregnant. Recently I was thinking about our relationship with wheat while reading Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. There Harari explores our relationship with wheat. On this he writes:

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens. (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind)

I share this image to help us reexamine the taste of Matzah on Passover. Is this the image of liberation? On Passover we are acutely aware of the fence around the Torah. But, every time I look at a fence, a door, or a gate I ask myself, what are we keeping out and what are we keeping in. Maybe the whole process of removing leaven products from our domiciles is to liberate us from the slavery of wheat.  There is no going back to the hunter gatherer lifestyles, but at least we get to recline at the Seder, stretch out our backs, and reevaluate our relationship with wheat once a year.

 

Bageling on Passover

Last year in preparation for Passover I was doing a last-minute grocery shop run with Yadid who was 11 at the time. Like many people I have a routine serpentine path through the store. As is often the case I run into people many times who have a different path through the store as we cycle through  the aisles. To this ends on that trip to the store it was not particularly noteworthy that we saw an individual woman a twice as we were making our way through the store. But when we ran into her for the third time in the bread aisle the women said, “It is a tough time of the year to be in the bread aisle.” I turned to Yadid and told him that women just bageled herself. Looking around and only seeing sliced loaves of bread, he was confused.

Clearly I was not talking about the noun bagel which comes from the Yiddish beygl, ultimately from a Germanic root for “bend” which is a tasty donut-shaped bread roll. Rather, I was talking about the verb. Bagel is defined by the trusted Urban Dictionary as:

When a secular Jew lets a religious Jew know he/she is Jewish through indirect means.When a religious Jew(beard, peyos, tzitzit etc…) is walking down the street, a secular Jew who was previously talking to his friend about something secular will suddenly switch the topic to keeping kosher or going to Shul to tell the religious Jew that he is Jewish as well. Hence, the religious Jew was bageled.

Seeing that Yadid wears a Kippah and Tzitzit it was important to explain to him how other Jews will seek to connect with him. In my experience this happens very often and speaks to some basic, tender, and lovely aspects of what it means to belong to the Jewish people.

With this situation in mind I read a great article in Newsweek last October.  The article tells the fascinating story of Dr. Joshua D. Schiffman a 41 years old who lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Maureen, and their three children. With his name alone my Jewdar was going off. He is the director of the pediatric cancer genetics clinic at Intermountain Primary Children’s Medical Center and the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. He treats children who are sick, frightened , and facing death. The article says:

A lot of his time, though, is spent trying to unravel the genetic and hereditary workings of cancer, figuring out how we inherit cancer risk, much like the chow chows marked for melanoma from birth. His only complaint about Salt Lake City is that the bagels are inedible. One can’t be much surprised about that. ( Newsweek 10/8/15)

So my Jewdar was spot on. But, what does it mean that he could not just say he is Jewish and that it is hard for him in Salt Lake City? Rather it is coded in his comment that he cannot find an edible bagel. Schiffman like the woman in the supermarket were outing themselves as Jews with declarations of their connection to bread. On Chag HaMatzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, it is fitting to take a moment and recognize that we are all bageling ourselves as a nation on Passover. Eating Matzah and not eating bread is a basic, tender, and lovely way to belong to the Jewish people.

Chag Kasher v Sameakh

Coming Home for Passover: LGBTQ Voices at the Seder

Charles Dickens was right, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ” For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, today’s legal and legislative landscape is a season of light and a season of darkness. While we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision guaranteeing same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry, we are seeing disgraceful efforts in more than three dozen states to enact laws, often under the guise of religion, suppressing people’s human rights. As a religious person, I take offence at these efforts that veil their homophobia, hatred, and bigotry behind faith claims. I believe that all people, without exception, are created in the image of God, are due basic rights and deserve a baseline of respect.

The Seder table

Szyk Haggadah, Lodz, 1936

The effects of LGBTQ discrimination are proven, and staggering. LGBTQ youth too often face family rejection, leading to homelessness, high levels of self-harm, and even suicide. LGBTQ people are often shunned by their communities of faith, or cast aside and made to feel ashamed about who they are and who they love. In many states, the impact of bad laws and ugly rhetoric is not abstract for LGBTQ people and their families. We must recognize the physical risk young LGBTQ members in our midst face when they are not afforded space in our community. I believe that while we need to think globally, we need to act locally. So, as an Orthodox Jew I think about how we might counter these efforts by rethinking how we discuss LGBTQ issues at our upcoming Passover Seder.

I am reminded of the story Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal told to explain the title of his moving book, Eim Habanim Semeichah. It was Passover in 1942 and the Nazis rounded up all the women age 16 and older in Slovakia. One man attempted to save his daughters by smuggling them over the border. But before they reached safety, the father and his daughters were captured and transported to a prison in a nearby village. But the brave actions of Rabbi Shmuel David Unger, who endangered his own life in a daring mission to rescue the captives, reunited the daughters with their mother, the husband with his wife and transformed the deep sorrow of Passover to joy.   Rabbi Teichtal writes:

He who did not witness this  reunion – the mother reunited with her daughters after such a dreadful captivity, the tears of the mother when she saw that her daughters had returned to their borders (Jeremiah 31:16), the joy of the joyous mother of children (Psalms 113:9)– has never witnessed true feelings of joy. This is what I know about this incident which transpired in our days.(Eim Habanim Semeichah–  A Joyous Mother of Children Translated by Moshe Lichtman, 58)

As Rabbi Teichtal teaches us, the ultimate joy is in welcoming our children as they come home.  That is as a lesson we must exemplify this passover. Welcoming our LGBTQ children, brothers, sisters, parents, and friends to our Seder, and back into our community cannot wait. For our communities to experience the joy and fulfillment of this prophetic vision, we must ensure that we are there, with open arms to welcome all of our children home.

I was thrilled to see a recent article reporting a more inclusive stance being taken by some Orthodox organizations toward LGBTQ members of our community. I am also pleased to see the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s release of the new guide, “Coming Home to Judaism and to Self,” which supports LGBTQ people and communities of faith seeking to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment. The guide highlights the advances of the Jewish community in embracing LGBTQ people, and the challenges that we as a community still face.

In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as slaves who have been liberated from slavery. In this generation, especially in the Orthodox community, we must find a way to include the hidden and marginalized voices at our Seder tables. By opening our homes and our tables to LGBTQ stories, we allow ourselves to come home and to experience liberation. Only in these moments will we experience true feelings of joy.  

Hag Kasher V’Sameah

-reposted from Huffington Post

Big Choices: The Chosen People and Shabbat HaGadol

While the first mitzvah – commandment given to the Jewish people was to designate the new month, but according to the Peri Hadash it was actually Shabbat HaGadol. He writes: On this day the Jewish people were commanded to fulfill their first mitzvah which was to set aside the lamb as a sacrifice. The reason that this day was called Gadol- large, because this itself was a significant and great achievement. By fulfilling this first mitzvah they became like a child maturing into adulthood – they celebrated their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In this light, the name Shabbat HaGadol would translate: The Shabbat the Jews became gadol/mature adults.

According to the Tur it was commonly understood that the lamb was the Egyptian deity. Many Jews, after 210 years of immersion within Egyptian civilization, had also adopted this animal as their god. When God commanded that a lamb be set aside and tied to the bed for four days in anticipation of sacrifice, the Jewish people abandoned their idolatrous practice and courageously fulfilled this mitzvah in the eyes of the Egyptian people, thereby demonstrating their complete trust and faith in God. The choice to sacrifice this lamb was in no ways trivial.

This helps deepen our understanding of the Peri Hadash. We the Jewish people only become the Chosen People when we make this choice. In a time when we could all opt out of being Jewish, the choice to live a Jewish life itself makes us Chosen.

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


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