Posts Tagged 'Passover'

Dealing with Damocles

I few days before Passover I got a call from Yadid in the middle of the day. I was in the middle of a meeting, but it felt ominous so I picked it up. He was in a car accident. He hydroplaned on the Cross Country driving home from his last final. I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of his being hurt and I felt like I might vomit. He was worried to tell me because he totaled the car. I was thrilled to hear that he walked away from it unharmed and no one else was hurt. As they say, any issue that you can fix with money is not really broken. But the feeling in the my stomach lingered.

Clearly the Taanit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn, and the 10th plague at the Seder sat differently for Yadid and us this year. And as nice and sumptuous as the Sederim were I have to admit that his near death experience put a pall on the holiday.

I was reminded of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s corn beef was delicious, but I was much more aware of the fragility of life. Yadid’s experience put me in touch with the miracle of being alive. And even if we think we are free, life might be held together by a horse’s hair.

With the close of Passover I thought I could get past it, but then we had Yom HaShoah yesterday. If I felt so horrible about possibly losing my son, how does one begin to articulate the loss of 6 millions sons and daughters?

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose to live a life with meaning. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. To go back to the way things were before we saw the sword dangling overhead. One of Finland’s most popular writers V.A. Koskeniemi wrote:

Man <sic> is not free in life unless he is free from the fear of death too. We can certainly not be rid of it by not thinking of death, but on the contrary only by becoming accustomed to it, by learning to be at home in it. Thus we snatch from it its greatest advantage over us, its strangeness. In preparing ourselves for death, we prepare ourselves for freedom, and only he who has learned to die is free from life’s slavery…

There is no turning back. There is only the freedom to cherish every moment we have, the people in our lives, the work we get to do, and the meaning we get to make.

-related piece The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

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GOMO: Being Grateful for Missing Out

When I was younger I would always be overrun with FOMO, but living through Covid I see the wisdom of JOMO, the joy of missing out. Just because others are having an experience, it does not mean we should want that experience. We should bask in being present where ever we are.

You might think that the most obvious case of JOMO, is Pesach, or more accurately Passover. The english name of this holiday is taken from the plague of the death of the first born. There we read:

And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13

The nadir of the plagues for the Egyptians was the miracle of the death of the first born. The Jews put blood on the lintels to their doors and the Angel of death passed over their homes sparing their first born children.

But maybe that is a little bit of an oversell. Is the experince of Passover joy? We do say hallel, which is a good metric. But it does seem wierd that we would take joy in missing out on the death of our first born, maybe we should just be expressing gratitude. So in that case Passover is a holiday in which we celebrate GOMO, being grateful for missing out. I can deeply relate to this sense of gratitude. This makes the Charlton Heston line sound even better, “Let my People GOMO!”

Glasnost: A Word for Passover

As it was reported in the Guardian and Foreign Policy, on March 28, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, announced it was suspending operations until the conclusion of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the Russian government has blocked or shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, the television channel TV Rain, and the bilingual news website Meduza. This scene of a winnowing free press in Russia is reminiscent of the Soviet control of the media.

While there is nothing as bad as the horrors of war, this is scary. Without a free press, there is little hope for the future. Without any public accountability, how will Russians know the truth? They might not even know that they need to push their government to end this war.

Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy ushered in a new era of cooperation between media and government in the early 1990s. This policy opened the door to muckraking in the name of reform—after all, if problems cannot be named and openly discussed, how can they be solved? The last years before the Soviet collapse saw the rise of a new media that sought to critique, investigate, and, above all, tell the truth. Sadly with Putin and his way on Ukraine this has come to a stop.

What does the word glasnost means? In the Russian language, the word гласность means “openness and transparency”. It come from the word глас – the voice, or гла́сный -public, open” and‎ -ость -ness. This was a policy of opening up the voice of the Soviet Union.

This idea of glasnost finds a parallel to a playful Ukrainian Torah of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev . He 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.  Before we can become free we need to speak our truth.

This year as we prepare for Passover we need to speak the truth about the terror being perpetuated against Ukrainians. We cannot have a pehsach without glasnost. Liberation means having a voice. We need a free press.

Like a Reed: We Need Agility for Creativity

It is hard to be be creative when your world is falling a part. But in so many ways this is the story of Passover. In many ways when we think about creative breakthroughs we focus on the paradigm shifting moments like the splitting of the Red Sea, but for me I find a lot more inspiration from a different, more subtle, image by the water. I am very moved by the image of Miriam standing in the bulrushes. There we read:

When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”

Exodus 2: 3-7

It is noteworthy that it is Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and not Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who is waiting in the bulrushes. Miriam has an idea as to what might happen. She put that idea into the world. When she saw Batya come forward she jumped in and improvised and got her mother in to care for her brother.

People often talk about necessity being the mother of invention, but I believe it is the ability to take a risk and be creative that is actually the sister of invention. Miriam had an idea and then she shifted on the fly to meet the changing needs. If she were too committed to her plan it would have broken like a cedar. Indeed Miriam is not just standing among the reeds, but as a reed.

To be creative we do not need to split the Red Sea, we just need to put ideas out there with confidence without knowing how our offering will be received. We need to let go of our rigidity. If we are too close to ideas we will not be agile enough to allow the idea to morph and flex. To be creative we need to be flexible like a reed. As we learn in the Talmud, “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar.” (Ta’anit 20a-b)

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:

 


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