Archive for the '4.3 Passover' Category

Not Passing Over Empathy

The central commandment of  the Seder is to experience liberation from slavery in Egypt. We learn in the Talmud:

In each and every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they went out from Egypt, as it says “And you shall tell you child on that day, saying: Because of this, God did for me when I went out from Egypt.”(Exodus 13:8) Therefore we are obligated to offer effusive, beautiful praise and thanksgiving to the One who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and for us (Pesachim 116b)

But how could be ever experience something that happened to our ancestors thousands of years ago. Fundamentally this commandment is to experience. And if that was not hard enough we also have to find a way to communicate empathy to the next generation. 

When thinking about this commandment I see a real risk that we miss the mark on empathy and become satisfied with sympathy. What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? If you have not seen it I suggest watching this short and great video by Brené Brown on the distinction between empathy and sympathy

When you sympathize with someone you can take notice their pain, but you only empathize when you actually sit with people in their pain. You can never take away someone’s pain, but you can connect with them.

I think not as we start the last days of Passover I pause to realize that empathy is not just a lesson of the seder.  These last days commemorate 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 their elation. And actually it is our commandment to imagine that elation. On this the Gemara 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. Rejoicing in someone else’s suffering is just wrong. And on another level this Gemara is asking us to empathize with God as the Creator. On a deep level in its totality Passover is a process of growing in our capacity to empathize with others if not the Other.  In light of this it seems that empathy might be the key to getting a group of slave from Egypt to ascend to Sinai to receive the Torah. From start or finish the Torah is about doing gemilut hasadim– act of loving kindness (Sotah 14a). What is an act of loving kindness beyond sitting with someone and empathizing with them?

It is interesting in this context to realize that the purpose of Passover is to ensure that we sit with people in their situations and do not just pass over them.

 

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U’Rechatz: Our Matriarchs, #metoo, and Purification

Just after we start our Seder with Kiddush over the first cup of wine we do U’Reschatz– we wash our hands. While it is Jewish law to wash one’s hands and say a blessing before eating bread, or Matzah in our case, in this situation it is not the case. We are not about to eat the Matzah and we do not make a blessing. In the time of the Mishna it was common practice to wash one’s hands before eating moist food. That said, why should the Seder be different from all other nights that we would bring back this blessing-less hand washing?

I believe that on a mystical level the opening of the Seder is a reenactment of our entering the Temple to perform the Passover sacrifice. In some ways this hand washing speaks of this transition into holy time and space. Similarly in the time of the Mishkan when the Cohen would enter he would find the Kiyor, the Laver or Wash-basin, with which he would wash his hands and feet before performing the Service. At the end of the book of Exodus in Parshat Pekudei we learn about the construction of this Kiyor. There we read:

He made the Kiyor of copper and its copper stand from the mirrors of the women who gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” (Exodus 38:8)

What is with these mirrors? Why did it matter that it came from the women? Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma to answer both of these questions. There we read:

The Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moshe rejected them because they were made for sexual temptation. The Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, “Accept [their mirrors], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then the women would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5)…(Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9; Num. Rabbah 9:14)

In this magnificent Midrash Moshe objects to using mirrors to make the Kiyor because the mirrors  were lascivious. God responds that this is his most precious gift because it lead to making another generation. Amram and Yocheved are two of these slaves who conceive Moshe under the apple tree. The most fascinating part of this Midrash is that God does not deny that the mirrors are sexual. God just rejects Moshe’s premise that being sexual is a bad thing. Positive sexual encounters are the inception of liberation. These sex toys were exactly what God wanted him to make the implement that will be used to cleanse the Cohen as he prepares for the sacrifice.

In the era of #metoo it is important to pause at U’Reschatz. As we are entering into the conversation of liberation we need to think deeply about the misuse of power. Our society is long overdue a deep reflection on the insidious and nefarious use of power for sexual gratification. How might we cleanse ourselves of this evil?

If sex is about coercion, submission, and is not mutually enjoyable it is lascivious and dirty and has no place in the Mishkan. This kind of interaction seems like slavery. But if we learn the lessons of our matriarchs in Egypt sex can be mutual, consensual, sensual, and playful. Sex can be liberating, purifying, and take a central space in the Mishkan. Slavery made the Israelite slaves forget how to look at each other. Like the leaders of the #metoo movement, our matriarchs had to teach their partners how to engage as equals. This act of intimacy led to their liberation and ultimately to the divine encounter at Sinai. On a deep level revelation is the highest form of intimacy.

The central commandment of Passover is that in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt ( Pesachim 116b). This year when my children ask me about U’Reschatz I will not talk about sex toys in the Mishkan. And at the same time if I ignore the issues brought up by #metoo I will not fulfill my pascal obligation. Firstly I will take the time to share with them the wisdom of all of our matriarchs. When take the time to share stories of our male and female role models it is easier for the next generation to value  mutuality and respect. I will also take the time to talk about the centrality of consent and the importance of being playful with those you love. We all need to be liberated from unwanted touching and lascivious behavior. I have no doubt that this conversation will be a purifying.

-Inspired by article by Rabbi Tamara Cohen in EJP

 

Voices of Pesach

What does the word Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, mean? We read in Exodus:

And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:13

God passed over the Jewish houses, sparing their first born, and just like that a nation was born. In the moment of liberation, we celebrate God’s compassion over the afflicted slaves, but it does seem harsh that our own story of liberation should find its context in the pain and suffering of others.

While playful, perhaps a better translation comes to us from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who explained that Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of liberation. On the most fundamental level, our greatest freedom is using our voices.

In the past months, it has been powerful to witness the emergence of many mouths finding their voices and sharing their stories. From the recent momentum of the #metoo movement to the March for Our Lives, we are living at a time when voices that might have otherwise been silent are speaking up and creating platforms for change. And the Jewish community has heeded this call.

Camps, campers, counselors, and Jewish movements are showing up in leadership roles at rallies and marches. #GamAni (a platform for people to share experiences at the intersection of gender, power and culture) and community leaders are speaking truth to power in Jewish publications and on social media. The philanthropic community recently committed to join the fight for gender equality and creating safe spaces in Jewish life. The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Shmira Initiative brings together philanthropists, camp professionals and experts to examine camp culture around gender, sex, and power and explore how we might improve the field of Jewish camping. For so many, camp is where young people find their voices.

Perhaps it is the advent of spring, but this seems to be a unique moment of hope and optimism. There is much work to be done. How do we sustain and build on this surge positive energy? The Parkland students have chosen this moment to not only spread their message but to use their privilege to amplify the voices of people of color who live surrounded by constant gun violence, but who have received far less support and attention. How do we in the Jewish community similarly continue the much needed work around #metoo and ensure that all voices, and especially marginalized voices, are heard?

In the spirit of Pesach we must not shy away from confronting difficult realities in our own communities, and to speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalized among us. Among the most vulnerable, are the children in our midst who are being abused by the very people who are responsible for protecting them. The #metoo movement continues to gain momentum and generate change around issues of harassment and assault of adults in the workplace, but comparably little attention is being paid to children. Yet, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that two-thirds of all sexual assaults reported to law enforcement each year are perpetrated against children, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four women and one in six men report having been sexually abused before they turned 18 years old.

It is easy to sit at the Seder and listen as the youngest child asks the Four Questions, but it is far more difficult to ask the necessary questions to confront a silent epidemic of child maltreatment in our midst. On Pesach we have the sacred responsibility to liberate the voices of the oppressed. Let all those who have been silenced come and speak. Our community is listening. To learn more about work being done to prevent abuse of power in Jewish institutions we invite you to check out Sacred Spaces. When we look back on Pesach we could ask ourselves did we fulfill the obligation to tell our children the story of our Exodus from Egypt, but it might be even more important to ask: did we listen?

Posted in EJP

Written with Shira Berkovits, Esq., Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, a cross-denominational initiative to systemically address abuses of power in Jewish institutions.

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


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