Posts Tagged 'Pesach'

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

 

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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.

Starting Your Passover with Why: Sinek on the Seder

I have often shared the fact that I am a Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

In this video as in his book, Start With Why, Sinek has shared the simple charge to start with “why”. In the video  he said:

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. But why is it important to attract those who believe what you believe?

All to often people get lost in the “what” or the “how” and never get to the “why”.  If we do the heavy lifting of articulating our “why” the ” how” and the “what” come very easily for their personal, family, or organizational choices. When we build groups around a common “why” the sky is the limit.

I was thinking about Sinek again in preparation for Seder this year. The primary mitzvah of the Seder is,”And you shall relate to your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt’. “(Exodus 13:8). But, what story are we supposed to tell our children? But maybe this itself is the wrong question. In the Seder we read:

Rabban Gamliel says that “whoever does not explain the following three things at the Pesach festival has not fulfilled his obligation, namely: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror”.

It is not enough to eat the Pesach, Matzah, and Maror. It is also not enough to eat reclining as if we were free people. The “what” and the “how” are not enough. According to Rabban Gamliel we need to explain the “why” to fulfill the obligation. If we can come together around our collective “why” we will figure out the answers to rest of the questions from our Seder. I have to say getting in touch with my personal “why” is itself very liberating.

Have a wonderful Passover and please share your “why” in your comments below.

ProcrastiNation: Why We Eat Matzah on Passover

In preparation for Shabbat HaGadol I ask myself, why do we eat Matzah on Passover? As we read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

So when the time came for them to leave they did not delay, but that final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus. Moshe came and told the slaves of the plan to leave Egypt. It seems as though the Israelites were surprised by the exodus. Or is it that they doubted that it was possible? You would think that they would have prepared some provisions. Maybe some bagels for the trip, they travel quite well. Can you even imagine what our Passover brunch spread would have been like? But that is not the case. We are stuck eating Matzah.

It seems that Pharaoh was not alone in doubting that God would redeem the people from their bondage. While we call it the bread of affliction, the affliction in question seems to be procrastination. The slaves procrastinated in getting ready to leave the world they knew. We all can relate. On a mundane level we all run late and wait until the last-minute to get things done. But on a deeper level we are all a little slow in working to be the change that we want to see in the world. As the expression goes, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” we should liberate ourselves from habits of being a “ProcrastiNation”. As quoted by MLK in his moving Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We must believe, plan, and move swiftly to free our world from injustice. Eating Matzah reminds us not to delay.

Framing the Passover Story

I hope that you are having a wonderful Passover. Lodged in between the first days of Passover commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the last days commemorating the division of the Red Sea I must ask what is the climax of the Passover Story? Having just sat through two wonderful Sederim at my Brother’s house I am left thinking that it must be the 10th Plague. It is clearly the highlight of God’s acting history that lead to their leaving Egypt. But, as we get closer to the end of Passover I am lead to believe that it might be the Splitting of the Sea. So which one is it? Looking at the Torah reading from  Shabbat of Passover (Exodus 33:12-34:26) you might be tempted to claim that it is neither. Maybe both are just warming up the crowd for  the main event of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. But before we give up let’s try to answer this question.

At the end of the Torah reading we read:

18 You shall keep the feast of unleavened bread.  Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Aviv, for in the month Aviv you came out from Egypt. 19 All that opened the womb is Mine; and of all of your cattle you shall sanctify the males, the first-lings of ox and sheep. 20 And the first-ling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. 21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. 22 And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of in-gathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man covet your and, when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year. 25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.  26 The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring unto the house of the Lord your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.’ ( Exodus 34:18-26)

The Torah is describing what Passover was to look like after the Exodus from Egypt. It is interesting in that it predicts a time when we have a land to call our own. It is additionally interesting in that it connects the ideas of the Exodus from Egypt, “All that opened the womb “, and “the choicest first-fruits of your land”.  This reminds me of  “arami oved avi” one of the most difficult texts in the Haggadah.  These verses from Deuteronomy 26 are part of the formula that was recited when the First Fruit offerings were brought to the Temple in ancient times. We learn in the Mishna that we need to learn this at the Seder. There we read:

They pour him a second cup, and here the child asks the parent [about what makes this night different]–and according to the child’s understanding, the parent teaches, beginning with shame and concluding with praise, interpreting from arami oved avi (‘My father was a wandering Aramean’) until he finishes the entire passage. (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4).

It is interesting that the main Rabbinic discourse on the Passover Seder is rereading the dialogue between the Priests and the Israelites bringing their First Fruit. In this respect we see through the lens of bringing  “the choicest first-fruits of your land” the connection between the Exodus from Egypt, the 10th Plague, the splitting of the Sea. and   “All that opened the womb “. The 10th plague shows God sparing the first-born Israelites. The Splitting of the Sea depicts the entire nation of Israel being born out of this miraculous birth canal. In both cases God demonstrates God’s connection to the People of Israel. Our response to God’s love is a ritualized giving of the First Animals and the First Fruit to God. In a world without a Temple to reciprocate this love the Rabbis ritualized the explication of this text .

And now back to the question as for which is the climax of the Passover story. With this ritual of the First Fruit in the middle it seems that 10th Plague and the Splitting of the Sea are quiet comparable and of similar significance. It seems that in fact they frame (or even give birth to) the entire Passover story. Yes, I realize that this is just another way of not answering the question.  Moadim L’Simcha V’Shabbat Shalom

Timely Growth

I am excited. Tonight we will begin celebrating Chag Ha Aviv – Passover, our spring holiday – also named Chag HaMatzot the holiday of unleavened bread. But why do we eat unleavened bread –matzah –  on Passover? We read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

aviSo yes, as the Haggadah says, when the time came for the Jews to finally leave, they did not delay. Yet, the final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus.  Moses came and told the slaves long in advance that they would be leaving. While they did not have Ziplocs and Tupperware to pack provisions for the trip, I still think they could have done a better job preparing for this arduous journey. They weathered the elements so well before that you’d assume they would have prepared some bagels for the trip.  Now wouldn’t a holiday where we just needed to eat a lot of bagels be a great one? So,why matzah?

It is understandable that the slaves would be reticent to leave the only world they knew, could it be that was not the only reason that they were not well prepared for their trip? We all run late, waiting until the last-minute to get things done. Even when  we are told that something is going to happen, or that we have an assignment, we can be surprised and unprepared when it comes to pass or be due. While completely natural and common place, this procrastination comes from an interesting lapse of faith. Maybe Pharaoh was not alone in doubting the God of the Israelites. While we call matzah “the bread of affliction,” it appears that the affliction itself is procrastination.

So we have Chag HaMatzot a holiday that you cannot do last-minute. We actually start to prepare for Passover a month in advance. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” it is a time to reflect on our faith. When I am running late or procrastinating, I assume that other people will understand because I am doing God’s work, but God forbid someone wastes my time… We all have ways we can grow; matzah is there to flatten us out and remind us that this growth might not fit neatly into our schedule.  Which is why I am excited, because after spring comes summer and with summer comes … camp a time for growth for so many of our children!

– As seen on the FJC Canteen on My Jewish Learning

Always End It

A few days before Passover I was talking with Yadid and Yishama at dinner about school.  I am not sure how it came up or even what it means for a 5-year-0ld, but it became apparent that Yishama had been fighting on the bus.  I immediately launch into one of  my Opa‘s maxims. As my grandfather Alfred Katz was reported to say, ” You never start a fight, but you always end it.” This was a conversation I have had a number of times with Yadid, but I realized that I had not yet shared this pearl of wisdom with Yishama. So I went on to explain who my mother’s father was. I tread carefully in that I have not wanted to tell my children too much about the Holocaust. I tell Yishama, that as the story goes, during WWII my Opa bought a farm in Venlo just across the German boarder in the Netherlands. He would drive a wagon back and forth over the boarder smuggling Jewish children under the hay out of German to  safety. As I am telling the story Yadid and I trade knowing glances teeming with pride of our lineage.

I want my children to understand that we never start fights. It is just something we do not do. But that does not mean that we are to be treated as a shmata– rag.  We cannot let ourselves get pushed around. Jews are not destined to be the doormat of history. When the situation calls for it we need to be ready to risk our own safety and security to stand up for those who need our help. We must be brave enough to end fights. But even in those situations we need to know when to call it quits and move on.

I have very few memories of my Opa. I think I was about Yadid’s age when he passed away. From every thing I have ever learned about him Alfred  Katz was a noble, wise,  and loved man. I would have loved to learn about the children he saved. I would have loved to hear from him what compelled him to be so brave. I also would have loved to learn when he knew that it was time to move on.  I feel that much of my life I have spent striving to live up to his example.  I also know that I would not be alive if he had not made that choice to leave when he did.

So a few days later we were at the Seder.  With a little help from me and his cousins Yishama got up and asked the Four Questions. And then with a little push from me he asked his Oma a fifth question. What did his great-grandfather do during the War? On Passover we commemorate the redemption of our people from Slavery. We were led to freedom by a man (Moses) who had escaped being killed as a child because his sister (Miriam) hid  him away in an ark of hay. There we were, descendents of Alfred Katz, realizing our own redemption by paying tribute to a man who quietly saved children’s lives.

Tonight we  commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For most of us this is a commemoration of the horror of the Nazi effort to exterminate 12 million people. Or worse it is day in which we are reminded how our people were led like lambs to slaughter. But that is not the real story of the day. This day is the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today’s story is the story of our standing up for ourselves. Freedom will never be given, it needs to be taken. In the spirit of Mordechai Anielewicz and in words of my Opa today we can say, “You never start a fight, but you always end it.” Over the course of my children’s lives I look forward to see where they take today’s and my Opa’s  lesson.


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