Posts Tagged 'Egypt'

Bone Breaking: Between Liberation and Apotheosis

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the peculiar commandment not to break any from all of the bones of the Passover sacrifice. We read:

The Lord said to Moshe and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No bound or hired laborer shall eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel shall offer it.(Exodus 12:43-47).

Clearly this commandment is connected to the general  commandment to remember the miracles of Egypt.  At most basic level we learn who gets to eat of the Passover sacrifice. This action very clearly helps us define the group and who is a part of our nation. But still what is the problem of breaking the bones?

About this the Sefer HaHinuch writes:

…it is not honorable for the sons of kings and the advisers of the land to drag the bones and break them like dogs. It is not a proper thing to do this, except for the impoverished among the people and the starving. And therefore, as we began to become the chosen of all nations, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and in each and every year at that time, it is proper for us to do acts that show in us the great stature which we achieved at that hour. (Sefer HaHinuch 16)

This argument suggests that breaking the bones on any day would be beneath us, but on Passover when we are reenacting our liberation and lounging ( leaning)  as kings, we should not gnaw at bones like slaves.  It seems that there is still more going on with this commandment.

I was thinking about this question a few months ago while reading up on my Norse mythology.  At the time I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok . As I learned Thor‘s chariot was pulled by two goats Tanngrisnir ( snarler) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder).

Thor (1910) by Johannes Gehrts

When Thor was hungry, as he had an epic appetite, he would kill and cook the goats. After eating them Thor resurrected them with his hammer and they would be brought back to life the next day. Once while on one of their many adventures Thor and Loki stayed a night at the home of peasant farmers. Thor invited them to share with them his goat meal. Despite Thor’s warning against it, Loki suggests to the son of the farmer that he should taste of the goat marrow because it will make him like a god. Sure enough the mortal follows the suggestion of the trickster and breaks one of the bones to taste of the divine marrow.  When Thor resurrects the goats the next morning, he finds that one of the goats is lame and becomes enraged. As a result, Thor maintains  the farmer’s son and his sister as his servants and join Thor and Loki on their adventures.

While I know that a lamb is not a goat, there is something interesting here between these two narratives. Many believe that the lamb was a god to the Egyptians. The act of sacrificing the Egyptian god was itself an act of defiance and demonstrated the Israelite commitment to leave and not return. In light of this story of  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, maybe the prohibition of breaking the bones is not that we are like dogs gnawing on bones. Maybe the prohibition is meant to stop us from listening to Loki the trickster. We might mistakenly think that we could become gods and ultimately just become servants. Our tradition is full of commandments that help us preserve the memory of our  exodus from Egypt. I believe this prohibition to breaking the bones of the Passover sacrifice is  to teach us humility. It is to remind us that this is a story of our liberation not our apotheosis.

-Also on Thor: Ragnarok: The Binding : Fenrir and Isaac  and Gog, Magog, & Ragnarök 

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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.

Divine Tension: Thoughts on the Parsha

In Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. After suffering the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally acquiesces to letting his slaves go free. It is strange that it does not say Pharaoh let them go. Instead we read:

Now when Pharaoh sent the people, God did not lead them by way of the land of Philistines, although it was closer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’(Exodus 13:17).

Was  does it mean that Pharoah sent the people? Was Pharaoh still in power? What are we to learn from this use of language Beshalach?

The text seems to suggest Pharaoh as the principle sending the Israelites on shlichut as his emissaries. This seems peculiar because the text clearly says that it was God alone who took them out of Egypt with a strong-arm. We see from the rest of the verse the psychological reality of the slaves. However bad it was being a slave, Egypt was familiar and would always be tempting to them when compared with the unknown. We see that even when the Israelites were free from Egypt, they were still slaves to Pharaoh. To receive the Torah they would need to understand that God alone was in power. Freedom would only be realized in their recognition of being a shaliach, an agent, of God.

In my life, it is hard to connect with the idea of being an agent of God. I hardly understand myself or my own motivations. How can I claim that a God, with whom I understand even less, is directing me? This claim of being an agent of God in the 21st century  is even harder to make against the backdrop of the horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated by people claiming to be enacting the will of God. So why do I keep my divine shackles on? Within the myth of divine direction, the circuitous path of my life has become more than just meaningless wandering. While few and far between from time to time I have experienced moments when it seems that water parts and my path is clear. This commitment has left me open to experience wonder. But in the end, I have found that I thrive in the tension between Judaism and the culture around me. This tension allows me to clarify my motives without being blinded by either.  Within this tension I have a sense of confidence, but hopeful a tempered arrogance. And some times even with this tension I can stop to sing along the way.

Black and White: Another Take on Wearing Tefilin in Public

Being over six feet tall it is no wonder that I hate traveling by plane, it seems that my legs are just too long. Being that tall and ritually observant does make traveling in the early part of the day interesting. Just this week I had to take six AM out of LGA to ORD. On these such occasions I find myself having to get my Jew on in public. For me that was next to the United help desk in Chicago. There is really nothing quite like having to suit up with my tallis and tefilin in flagrante in the terminal or even worse on a plane. While I might attract extra attention to my underpants with my head covering, my tefilin actually look like I am strapping a bomb to my arm and head.  What is my commitment to these rituals?

While I usually experience wearing tefilin with a deep sense of pride in our tradition, in the context of this week’s portion and recent events, it might actually be a little more complex. At the end of Bo,  this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And it happened when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to send us out, that God killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I offer to God all male first issue of the womb, and I shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons. And it shall be a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand God removed us from Egypt. (Exodus 13:15-16)

While they might ground a plane for my putting on tefilin, it seems that God is the terrorist killing all of the firstborns. What is the cost of our rituals? Did others need to be harmed for our nationalistic expression or religious freedom? I realize that most observant Jews take putting on tefilin for granted. We pray and often live amongst our own. We have  forgotten the significance of this symbol. It takes leaving our own little world to realize the meaning of content and context of our inner ritual lives.

This past week marked the celebration of the memory of  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To mark the occasion Adina and I went out this past Saturday night to watch Selma.  MLK taught the world the importance of seeing beyond the superficiality of race. In his unforgettable words, ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It is a sad truth that most observant Jews spend more time worrying that our tfilin are completely black then the racial inequality in this country. We have missed the forest for the trees. We have gone along with the narrative that the commitment to wear tefilin means you are an Orthodox Jew and the commitment to doing social justice means you are a Reform Jew. For all Jews the daily ritual of tefilin reminds us of our opportunities and responsibilities to help those who are less fortunate. We all have a responsibility in having been freed from slavery to work for liberation for all. I do not feel shame in wearing tefilin in public. I  wear my tefilin with pride, it creates accountability.

– See a similar piece on wearing a Kippah and a related one to this post on tefilin

Fire and Water: The Jewish Secret

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the plague of hail. Seeing that the wealth of Egypt came from Joseph being able to foresee the seven years of splendor followed by seven years of drought, this seems like an odd plague. In some way the Egyptians are being rewarded with rain (in another form) in an arid climate. It seems like more of a blessing then a curse. There we read:

So Moshe stretched forth his staff heavenward, and the Lord gave forth thunder and hail, and fire came down to the earth, and the Lord rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been throughout the entire land of Egypt since it had become a nation. ( Exodus 9:23-24)

What did it mean, “flaming within the hail”? On this Rashi writes:

This was a miracle within a miracle. The fire and hail intermingled. Although hail is water, to perform the will of their Maker they made peace between themselves [that the hail did not extinguish the fire nor did the fire melt the hail]. — [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]

It seems that while some of the plagues were punitive, this plague was really a sign. And not just any sign, but a miracle in a miracle. How much of the meaning of the plague about the media?

What is the meaning of the fire and the hail being “intermingled- M’Uravim”. We find the same root used in the Gemara we learn that “All Israel are responsible for another- Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’Zeh” (Shevuot 39a). At the outset of Moshe’s project to redeem the people of Israel, he had to unite a disparate group of slaves behind a common cause of their liberation. In this plague we see a miracle within a miracle. We see forging of the Jewish people into one unit.

In light of the ugly reemergence of antisemitism in Europe, it makes we pause and wonder if we need another plague of hail. Despite all of our differences throughout history, antisemitism has kept us all together. This reminds me of a famous quote by Mark Twain. He wrote:

”…If statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky way. properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and had done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (“Concerning The Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899)

Perhaps it is our ability to hold fire and water together that is the secret to our success.

Creating Memory – 9/11 for Another Generation

This week we commemorated the anniversary of 9/11. This was a transformational day for me personally. A the time of the event I was learning in yeshivah and living in Manhattan. There are so many memories I have from that time it is hard to imagine communicating them to someone who has not experienced it. I was shocked to realize that all of the Bnai Mitvah from now on were not even alive when 9/11 happened. I pause  to ask, how will we communicate the nature and gravity of this event to the next generation?

I was thinking about this when reading Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the ritual of Bikkurim, bringing the first fruit on Shavuot to the Temple. About this we read:

And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord your God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.’ And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.  ( Deuteronom7 26:3-8 )

The generation who entered the land of Israel did not have first hand experience of the slavery and redemption in Egypt. This ritual was a means for this next generation to preserve a memory they never had. It is interesting that this ritual had a script. We learn later that in order to make the script more accessible the priest would say it and the person coming would repeat it.

We have a crises in being Jewish today. How will we share our memories with the next generation? I think we can point out a few things from the ritual of Bikkurim. Like the priest repeating the words,  we need to find ways to make it more accessible to more people. We need to build this difficult memory into something festive and not let the next generation get stuck in the gloom We also need to find the balance between the script that they need to say and the innovation. The next generation needs to find a way to breathe their own imagination into the ritual in order create their own memories around the ritual.

The script from this Bikkurim ritual is the foundation for the Hagadah. The Hagadah is the model of balance between tradition and innovation in order to keep memories vital throughout history.  In every generation we are to see ourselves as having been redeemed from slavery in our own Egypt. I would venture to say it is the most rewritten book in history. In order to get my children to connect to Jewish History  or even 9/11 I need to give them the space to explore what these events mean to them in their lives without the full burden of my understanding of history and what it means to me in my life. Rituals help preserve a dynamic tension between tradition and innovation. Without this tension we will break the chain linking our past to our future and our future to our past.

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


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