Posts Tagged 'Passover'

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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Liberation from Lockdown

From Friday night Kiddush to the daily donning of Tfillin , we have rituals throughout the course of our a week and the entire year to remember our Exodus from Egypt.  The Seder goes a step beyond insisting that we remember the experience of slavery, the Hagaddah demands that “in each generation, each person is obligated lirot et atzmo, to see himself or herself, as though s/he  personally came forth from Egypt.” It is not enough simply to remember or even to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must imagine ourselves in the story in order personally to experience the move from slavery to liberation.  It seems nearly impossible to fulfill this commandment. It is hard to imagine what slavery looked like thousands of years ago, so what are we to do?

It seem that the best thing we can do is to connect with a contemporary experience of slavery in order to empathize with those who are being oppressed, and from there we can imagine our working toward our collective liberation. It seems like a noble idea, but how might I do that in a way that includes anyone from 8 to 80 years old at my Seder?

For me the gold standard for this is something my brother’s friend Jonny Garlick did at Seder a couple of years ago. Jonny is a Professor of Oral Pathology at Tufts, absolutely fascinating, and an amazing educator.  Jonny brought to our table two beakers of water. One was clear and filled with purified water. In the other he had yellow sticky water that was his students best approximation of the contaminated water coming out of the pipes in Flint Michigan.  With those two simple props he enjoined many generations to discuss the water crisis in Flint encrusted in the ritual of the day.

So as Shabbat HaGadol arrives I pause to think what will try to bring to life through ritual this year. I was thinking about this Jonny Garlick challenge when I got to thinking about the debate that my brother and I have every year regarding Sh’foch HaMatcha, opening the door for Elijah. We disagree if we should keep saying this at our Seder.  That debate always concludes that we should keep the ritual so we can have the debate the following year. For this and other reasons I am not interested in changing that, but I got to thinking about the moment right after this ritual when we close the door.

This year is our first Passover after the Tree of Life Shooting where a White Supremacist went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. All of us, including our children, have had to become familiar with emergency lockdown protocols. The Parkland Shooting is still pretty fresh on our minds. Sadly we all need to know what to do in the case of an active shooter. In the case of a partial lockdown the doors leading outside are locked such that no person may enter or exit. In the case of a  full lockdown people must stay where they are and may not enter or exit a building or rooms within said building. If people are in a hallway, they should go to the nearest safe, enclosed room. When we lock the door after we open it for Elijah I want to let that moment linger for a minute.  After this I want to invite everyone to share their experience and how this makes us feel.

 

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Are we slaves to guns in this country? I appreciate that for a small group of people in this country understand that their freedom means an absence of subjection to despotic government, which is directly connected to their inalienable right to have guns. For a vast majority of us freedom means the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. We cannot allow the freedom of this fringe group, based on a the misreading of the Second Amendment, to impinge on the freedom of the majority of us. One person’s right to have a gun cannot outweigh the demand for public safety. None of us should be slaves in lockdown. What would it take to liberate us the from the grips of the NRA?

-Check out Full of It: Rethinking the Second Amendment

-Check out The Beaker of Privilege: A New Seder Ritual

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.

 

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


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