Posts Tagged 'Passover'

Chatelaine: Keys, Access, and Power

When I was a kid having more keys translated into having more power. You only had access if you had the right key. As a kid at camp it always felt that other people had access and control. Having a large key ring was a status symbol.

Is Carrying Too Many Keys Bad For Your Ignition? | Pro Locksmith

As many of you know I am nudnik for Dictionary.com word of the day. Recently the word was Chatelaine ( SHAD-e-leyn). Coming from French it means a set of short chains attached to a woman’s belt, used for carrying keys or other items. A Chatelaine is also a woman in charge of a large house. This word captures this image of power, control, and easy access.

Curiosity du Jour: Inside Out Handbags of Yore

Clearly this all comes to mind this Shabbat just after Passover when it is customary to make Schlissel Challah. Shlissel is Yiddish for “key.” Many people make their challah e either in the shape of a key or with a key baked inside. The custom is popular in communities that descend or have traditions coming from Poland, Germany, and Lithuania.  The are a number of reasons given for making this particular shape or style of challah.

For me it has everything to do with the Chatelaine. There is a natural progression from slavery, to freedom, to being the hostess with the mostest. Like Chatelaine the Schlissel Challah represents access, control, and power.

Broken and Holy Remnant

This last week during the Seder right before we did Yachatz my mother shared an experience she had growing up. It was not clear if it happened once or if it was actually an regular ritual growing up, but her father should share the names of all of their family members who were killed in the Holocaust. I found that very moving to do ritualize this memory. And while I doubt it was on purpose it seems particularly compelling to connect this to the activity of Yachatz.

So what is Yachatz? During this ritual we break the middle matzah on our Seder plate. There is no prayer recited. We recognize that, like the broken matzah, we are incomplete, not whole, and in need of redemption. We take the larger portion of that matzah and hide it way for later to be found and eaten as the afikomen. For we recognize that parts of ourselves are yet unknown. We are still discovering what makes us whole. For we recognize that more is hidden than revealed.

This year Yachatz changed for me. First I started thinking about Anne Frank and what it means to be hidden away. But unlike years past where I focused on the afikomen, this year I really focused on the piece that was left. Does this left over piece from the middle matzah represent us as the Remnant of Israel– שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל?

This term denotes the belief that the future of Israel would be assured by the faithful remnant surviving the calamities that would befall the people as a result of their departing from the way of God. On the one hand the prophets foretold the forthcoming exile and destruction of Israel, and on the other they held forth the hope and promise of its survival and eternity. As Jeremiah said,

… and I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them and will bring them back to their folds, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. Jeremiah (23:3)

After World War II the phrase the “remnant which survives” (she’erit ha-peletah) was applied to the survivors of the Holocaust. As there are less and less survivors left, what changes for the rest of us? What is the responsibility we carry as those that remain after the remnant is gone? This week I got that list of family members who were killed from my mother was filled with a sense of survivors guilt. On Yom HaShoah through the lens of Yachatz I realize how truly broken and holy we are.

Passover: A Love Song

Over the last couple of years I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. It is not shocking that I love his music.

I still love listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart. Here is a live version he performed with Omer Adam. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics and music of this song. It seems appropriate on the occasion of the last days of Passover to share some more reflection of this song. In the middle of the song he sings:

My heart is split in two

Half of it is guilty, and half of it is for the sake of Heaven

Like a storm from the sea, it pounds

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world for the heart

Ribo masterfully weaves together language from BeShalach about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds to write a love song. The Israelites escape from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground.  After this miracle the people sing the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of Passover makes me ask a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a Mishnah from Yadaim. There we learn about what is and is not in the canon of the Bible. Contact with a scroll of something in the canon would make your hands impure. There we learn:

Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said, “I have a received tradition from the mouths of seventy-two elders, on the day they inducted Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria into his seat [as head] at the Academy, that The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes render the hands impure.” Rabbi Akiva said, “Mercy forbid! No one in Israel ever disputed that The Song of Songs renders the hands impure, since nothing in the entire world is worthy but for that day on which The Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Scriptures are holy, but The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies! And if they did dispute, there was only a dispute regarding Ecclesiastes.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5)

There was disagreement if Song of Songs was in the canon. Rabbi Akiva dismisses that debate. While some might think that Song of Songs is lascivious and a debase depiction of erotic love, Rabbi Akiva believes that it is the most holy.

Ribo’s Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. In Lev Sheli Ribo describes that moment when he realizes that he has found his match. That moment is overwhelming. That moment was as rare as splitting the Sea of Reeds. Like Lev Sheli, Song of Songs is a love song associated with Passover. For Ribo and Rabbi Akiva human love is by nature half guilty and half for the sake of Heaven. Like Lev Sheli, Song of Songs also blurs the line between expressing love for one’s partner and an aspiration of divine love.

It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song. You might even say that Lev Sheli is a song of songs.  

Harari Revisited: On Baking and Liberation

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. 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 my weight challenge. A few years ago 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.

The Historical Cooking Project : Ancient Egyptian Bread, by Miguel Esquirol  Rios

Recently I shared this idea with my friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg. He responded that one year he was with Rabbi Sperber for Passover. There he learned that in the ancient world Egypt was the source for luxury  baking and yeast. Bakery skill and ingenuity was born in service of the wealthy class of Egyptian society. If this is true, this disconnection from wheat might be part of a larger plan to depose despots who use their power to centralize control. And another good reason to cut out carbs. 

original post of Harari

 

 

Solemn Silence: In the Wake of the Splitting of the Sea, COVID-19, and the Holocaust

Just yesterday we celebrated our salvation at the splitting of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing a song. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson in compassion. There seems to be moments for silence, or at the least not singing. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the response for a friend of a loved one.

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

Silence LP by Hunter/Game @ Kompakt Shop

This year I think about the callous nature in which we looked at the suffering in Wuhan. It was too easy to see the suffering in China as far away on another shore. With every day I learn that someone else has been impacted directly and indirectly by COVID-19. And like Aaron, I have no words. But there is a world between ignoring and solemn silence.

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down or stop talking about this topic. And when I really think about the nature and scope of the Holocaust I feel speechless like Aaron.

When I pause to reflect I realize that the world is very crazy right now. We are all in the middle of many things. And from all of them we learn that we need to have compassion for all those who experienced and are experiencing pain and suffering. We need to treat everyone with respect and dignity. In the wake of the splitting of the Sear we need to remember that we can try to drown our sorrows, but never our memories.

-For similar post see Listening for Silence

No Need to Ask: On Love, Spring, Vulnerability, and the Splitting of the Sea

This year I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Most recently he released Keter Melukha, a stunning study of his life through this year of COVID-19 in light the Jewish calendar. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. I guess it is not shocking that I love his music.

In preparation for the last days of Passover I have been listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart. Here is a live version he performed recently under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics to this song. I am actually in a process of making another contemporary page of TalmudI am not done yet, but I just could not resist sharing a thought on this song for Passover. The song starts off:

My heart is split in two

What the maidservant did not perceive by the water

Like a storm from the sea, it throbs

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world

My heart hold hands up

I stumble, can no longer stand on my feet

Just a wreck with no purpose

And the skies are like a wall to me

How shall I pass through the sea on dry ground

Ribo masterfully weaves together the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea and a love song. On Passover we escaped from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground with the water on each side of us like walls.  After the miracle we hear the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of Passover I have a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a Mekhilta that Rashi points to in his commentary on the Song of there Sea in his explanation of the words “This is my God, and I will glorify God and I will extol God.” (Exodus 15:2). We we learn in the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael: 

Rabbi Eliezer says: Whence is it derived that a maid-servant beheld at the Red Sea what was not beheld by Ezekiel and the other prophets, of whom it is written (Hoshea 12:11) “And to the prophets I appeared (in various) guises,” and (Ezekiel 1:1) “The heavens opened and I saw visions of God”? An analogy: A king of flesh and blood comes to a province, a circle of guards around him, warriors at his right and at his left, armies before him and behind him — and all asking “Who is the king?” For he is flesh and blood as they are. But when the Holy One was revealed at the sea, there was no need for anyone to ask “Who is the King?” For when they saw God, they knew God, and they all opened and said “This is my God, and I will extol God (“ve’anvehu,” lit.: “I will ‘host’ Him”)!”(Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:2:2). 

Unlike the prophecy of Ezekiel that needed interpretation, what the maidservant perceived needed no framing. And yet Ribo’s love is beyond, “What the maidservant did not perceive by the water”. This love is so profound that he is open like the sea that is split open. This love is painfully obvious that everyone. When you see them in love there is really “no need for anyone to ask”.

As Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

Ribo is writing about vulnerability of being in love. Unmitigated love is an overwhelming and transformational experience. The holiday of Passover invites us to leave the darkness, hibernation, and solitude of winter to pursue the infinite light of spring. On Passover we own our story and lay our heart open to love again. Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, which we also read on Passover, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song.

-see earlier post on this long:  My Heart: A Different Love Song

-see other posts on Brené Brown and vulnerability:

 

Leaning in to Interdependence

We are instructed to lean during the Seder. But why?

My friend Gabe Miner put together a really interesting resource for Seder this year when so many people will need to do Seder by themselves due to COVID -19. Virtual Seder is library of short videos from 50+ educators, clergy, and scholars from around the world helping people use technology to bring learning and discussion to their Sederim this year. Check it out at tinyurl.com/VirtualSeder5780

There you will find my answer to the question as to why we are instructed to lean during the Seder ritual.

So my question for all of us for this Seder is how will we lean into being more interdependent this year?

Check out other ideas for your Seder at the Virtual Seder.

Have a wonderful Passover and remember to stay safe and connected.

The King is Listening: The New Year and COVID-19

How many new years do we have? As we learn in the Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah:

There are four new years:The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month. ( Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

It seems clear that Rosh Hodesh Tishre beat out the other three to be the Rosh HaShanah. Tishre is the ” new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables”, but what about Nisan and “the new year for kings and for festivals”? Maybe with all of the darkness I am searching for a new beginning, but I still think that there is something here to explore the New Year of Nisan. But to do this we need to explore the lead up to Tishre.

According to Hasidic thinking the days of Elul from the ” the new year for the tithe of beasts” are the time when “the King is in the field.” The metaphor follows that gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, these royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. According to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavicher Rebbe) during Elul “anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b) Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. This explains the shofar blowing throughout Elul. Here in the field the formality is transformed into familiarity. We the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive personalized blessings. During Elul, with limited effort, the King is accessible. We just need to go out and greet the King.

This idea that God is accessible during the month before Rosh HaShana got me thinking about the time we are in now. We know that on Passover God is passing over our homes, but where is the King  during the month leading up to Passover? We read in Exodus:

And the Lord continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

In this period God is up on high, but the King is not deaf to our collective suffering. The Prime Mover is moved by our crying and suffering. When we are preparing to “see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt”, God removes the barriers so that God can hear our crying.

Exactly a month prior to Passover we celebrate Purim. There the Megilah depicts Haman putting into motion a plan to kill all of the Jews. When hearing about the plan Mordechai is deeply saddened. There we read:

When Mordechai learned all that had happened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly,until he came in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth. ( Esther 4:1-2)

But who is there to hear his crying? In the story of Purim there is no God. The King is absent from this story. Interestingly,  later on we see the story shift when Ahashverosh cannot sleep in his castle. There we read:

That night, sleep deserted the king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals, to be brought; and it was read to the king. There it was found written that Mordecai had denounced Bigtana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, who had plotted to do away with King Ahashverosh. “What honor or advancement has been conferred on Mordecai for this?” the king inquired. “Nothing at all has been done for him,” replied the king’s servants who were in attendance on him. ( Esther 6:1-3)

In the story of Purim the King is hidden. But it seems that the King hears our crying via agency of  Ahashverosh.  While this king sleeps, we know from Psalms that the King does not. There we read:

Behold, God the protector of Israel does not rest or sleep  (Pslam 121:4)

It is not immediate, but the story shift from a tragedy to a comedy because Mordechai’s cries are answered.

While the month before Tishre is a time when “the King is in the field” , the month before Passover is a time when the King hears our crying. While playful, the Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev 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. But before we can experience liberation we need to be able to articulate our suffering and give voice to pain.  The lead up to the new year of Nisan and Pesach is God reminding us that God is open to hearing our pehsach- our voices crying.

We do not need the God of Elul now. Even if “the King is in the field”, most of us are stuck at home. We need the God from the run up to the new year of Nisan. This year more then ever in my life people around the world are crying, isolated, living with anxiety, or are suffering from being sick. We need liberation. We need to support the Moshes in the medical profession who are working non-stop to save us. We need to cry out for what is important and hope that God will be moved by our tears.  I hope that the King is listening.

-Drawn from a similar post from Elul

 

Cinderella Story: Liberation from COVID-19

Hodesh Tov. With the advent of Nissan many of us have Passover on the mind. I am sure we all are looking forward to a new month, new fortune, and getting one step closer to liberation from COVID-19. With this is mind I was excited today when I saw Dictionary.com’s word of the day. (Yes, I am a devotee of getting to learn a new word everyday. It is no daf yomi, but I like growing on the daily.)So today’s word is Cinderella which is a person or thing that achieves unexpected or sudden success or recognition, especially after obscurity, neglect, or misery. As I learned on Dictionary.com:

Cinderella is a partial translation of French Cendrillon “Little ashes,” from Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre “Cinderella or the Little Glass slipper” (1697). The story of Cinderella is ancient: The Greek geographer and historian Strabo tells the earliest recorded version of the folk tale in his Rhodopis (written between 7 b.c. and a.d. 24), the name of a Greek slave girl who married the King of Egypt. The first modern European version of the folk tale appears in Lo cunto de li cunti “The Tale of Tales” (also known as the Pentamerone), the collection of fairy tales written in Neapolitan dialect by the Neapolitan poet and fairy tale collector Giambattista Basile (1566-1632), from whom Charles Perrault and the German folklorists and philologists the Brothers Grimm later adapted material. Cinderella entered English in the 19th century.

The familiar plot of Disney’s Cinderella revolves around a girl deprived of her rightful station in the family by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into a life of domestic servitude, she is given the cruel nickname “Cinderella” as she is forced to tend the cinder from the fireplace. She accepts the help of her fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella so that she can attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince. But, the spell will only work until the first stroke of midnight. While at the party Cinderella loses track of the time and must flee the castle before she blows her cover. In her haste, she loses one of her glass slippers, which the prince finds. He declares that he will only marry the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper. Cinderella’s stepsisters conspire to win the princes’s hand for one of themselves, but in the end, Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper.

It seems that the story of Cinderella is very similar to the story of Passover. We were lowly slaves in Egypt and then out of nowhere Moses comes in as the fairy godmother to invite us to the big ball  ( insert 3 day holiday here). Pharaoh and his court play the role of the stepmother and stepsisters afflicting the Israelites with back-breaking work.  We were not prepared for this moment and at the first strike of midnight we had to run off (insert Matzah here). It is interesting how we commemorate this anxiety every year by mandating that we finish eating the Afikoman by midnight.

At this point in the yearly narrative, we have had our first encounter but still longing to rejoin God who is playing the role of the prince. While Cinderella was counting down to be discovered by the prince, the Jewish people are counting “up” to Shavuot. We are reminded that we are but slaves and we are on the march to complete freedom. It is understandable that we might get lost in the excitement of being asked to elope with God, but we are not yet secure that we will be discovered and ever escape our slavery. We are waiting for God to return to see if the slipper fits (slip on Torah here).

COVID-19 is a reminder that no matter our station, wealth, or class we are but human. Nissan and the word of the day are reminders that even a dirty human can ascend to great things. Ah, you got to love stories with happy endings. I hope that this COVID-19 story ends well and soon.

The Plague of Dark Money

One of the most memorable elements of the Seder is the recounting of the Ten Plagues. While all of them represent a level of pain or discomfort for the Egyptians, clearly the Death of the First Born seems categorically different. I cannot imagine the horror of the death of a child.  While slavery is horrible, the death of an innocent child seems not only harsh, but also unjust. We respond to the severity of this through the ritual observance of the Fast of the First Born the day before the first Seder commemorating when God passed over our homes untouched by death. This plague overshadows ( pun intended) the penultimate Plague of Darkness. While it is an annoyance, it does not seem like the rest of the Ten Plagues. There in Exodus we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. (Exodus 10: 21-23)

Egypt was paralyzed by terrifying fear and enveloped in thick darkness. In retrospect we can imagine their horror awaiting the death of their first-born children, but that was not the case. If Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go after the 9th Plague there would not have been a 10th Plague. Rashi interpreted “darkness that can be touched” (Ex. 10:21) through following the midrash: “It was doubled and redoubled, and so thick that it was palpable.” This makes senses in that for darkness to be a plague like the rest it has to be tangible and impact the bodies of the Egyptians oppressors.

Thinking about the idea of darkness as tangible gets me thinking about Quantum mechanics. If it is possible that light can behave simultaneously as a particle and as a wave, is the same possible for the absence of light? What does it mean that the darkness was behaving as a thick, doubled, redoubled particle, or the absence of that? This is already way beyond my understanding of physics.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his commentary Torah Temimah, offers us another way of understanding what was meant by this tangible darkness. There we read:

A darkness that can be touched—this indicates that those Egyptians who were standing could not sit down, and those who were sitting could not stand, because they were groping in the dark, as it is written: darkness that can be touched. The midrashim explain that the darkness was as thick as a dinar [a coin], and this is very strange, for what sense is there in giving a tangible dimension to darkness? This requires investigation also because, according to Rashi, throughout the duration of the plague there was only night and no day at all; therefore the order of the created world changed, but this is highly problematic insofar as the Holy One, blessed be God, promised Noah that “day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). (Mekhilta Be-Shalah 4)

While it is interesting to explore the subversion of the natural order of things, that is true for all of the Ten Plagues. They are all miracles meant to demonstrates God’s power over Pharaoh. This is not unique to the Plague of Darkness. It is also interesting to ponder the implications of God’s uprooting of God’s promise to Noah, but that I will have to address in a future post. For now I am more interested in this language of the darkness being “thick as a dinar.” Instead of understanding it as a plague of literal darkness, what might it mean that their vision was obscured by money?

When I look around the world I see so many interesting cases where people get blinded by money. In this context, the most obvious parallel to the Plague of Darkness comes from Dark Money in American politics. Dark Money first entered politics with Buckley v. Valeo (1976) when the United States Supreme Court laid out Eight Magic Words that defined the difference between electioneering and issue advocacy. This ruling lifted the requirement for nonprofit organizations (e.g. social welfare, unions, and trade association groups) to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing from where the money came. The New York Times editorial board has opined that the 2014 midterm elections were influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election.”(Editorial, Dark Money Helped Win the SenateNew York Times. November 8, 2014). Dark Money’s influence in politics has only grown in the last 5 years. It is painful to see how people are convinced to vote against their self-interest. They are in the dark as to the very process of democracy. This is pernicious in that the electorate has no idea who is pulling the strings.

Money is not only a plague in politics, it is also an issue in philanthropy. For years there has been so much “groping in the dark” with the misbehavior of investors. The heavy demands to raise money for good causes has silenced victims of predatory behavior. The #metoo movement has done a great deal to shed some light here, but we are still not out of the dark.

So what was the Plague of Darkness for the Egyptians? They were slave masters who were blinded by their desire to keep the status quo of having slaves. The release of the Israelite slaves would have meant an upheaval of the Egyptian economy and way of life. As they were getting closer to inevitable emancipation, their blindness to the suffering of the Israelite slaves was itself the Plague of Darkness. As my dear friend Shalom Orzach pointed out, look at the end of the description: “no one could see anyone else”( Exodus 10:23). The cause was not darkness. The darkness was a result of their avarice that blinded them from seeing the mistreatment of others.

We learn a similar lesson from Proverbs. There we read:

Whoever loves money shall not be satisfied with money; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. (Proverbs 5:9)

Avarice is a basic human problem. The love of money makes people blind to the wealth they already have. This blindness to the abundance in our lives can easily spread to how we look at people, power, sex, philanthropy, and politics. If we really could see the infinite potential of every human being in front of us, we could move beyond a culture of scarcity. But if we do not see our responsibility to work for the inalienable rights and basic human dignity of everyone, we are still living amidst a Plague of Darkness.

Image result for candle in darkness

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We pause on Passover to reflect on how we might shine a light on the people, families, companies, organizations, communities, and nations we want to be. We should all be liberated from a plague of scarcity. Freedom is realizing that the blessing of love is free, it does not cost a thing.


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