Posts Tagged 'Passover'

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.

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

Awake Standing Guard: A Tune for the End of Sukkot

This past year I got hocked on this earworm by the Shira Choir. I dare you to listen to Im HaShem LoYivneh Bayit without singing it all week.

The lyrics come from two verse in Psalms. There we read:

אם-השם, לא-יבנה בית–    שוא עמלו בוניו בו
אם-השם לא-ישמור-עיר,    שוא שקד שומר

 הנה לא-ינום, ולא יישן–    שומר, ישראל
If the Lord did not build the house, they labor in vain that they build it
If the Lord did not keep the city, the watchman are awake in vain (Psalm 127:1)
Behold, God the protector of Israel does not rest or sleep  (Pslam 121:4)

Some say both these Psalms in their liturgy from Sukkot to Passover. I have been thinking about this recently with the rise of a third Intifada in Israel, Jews are experiencing a resurgence of Antisemitism in Europe, and the persistence of gun violence in America. These situations and this song both ask us to think about the need for a Divine Protector. To what do all of our efforts to build a safe environment for our children amount?

Since we have been blessed with Libi in our lives, I cannot utter her name without thinking about the current situation in Israel. As often Adina and sometimes I  get up in the middle of the night to deal with our children I can relate to God’s fatigue in God’s role as a protector who does not rest or sleep. At this time of the year as we say goodbye to the Sukkah and retract to the safety our homes for the winter I hope that we do not forget the truly precarious nature of our existence. I would love to take comfort that God is a protector and that all of our efforts are not in vain, but until that time we need to work for peace and safety and stay ever vigilant. At the least I have shared with you a nice tune to keep in your head as you are awake standing guard.

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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