Posts Tagged 'Seder'

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

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Lavan the Aramean: Our Seder and the Origins of White Supremacy

Every year in the traditional Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative if not normal?

I have thought about this question for years, but it takes on a whole new level of meaning on this our first Passover after the Tree of Life Shooting where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Long before Robert Gregory Bowers, Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan.

The spike in acts of hate speech and even hate crime against Jews over the last two years has made me ask the question about origin of Antisemitism. Why is there such a long history of people hating us? Where did that all start? That search brought me back to the Torah portion of Chaye Sara. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ran: Why did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is an obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance in the text Lavan is simply Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface based on his assumptions this does not seem so horrible. This is actually endearing and would not remotely make him an Antisemite, let alone the paradigm of it in our history.

And then I got to thinking about the meaning of his name. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

Image result for Jews will not replace us

Months ago my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are genetically related to White Europeasn just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi interpretation of Lavan, these Whites Supremacists are also in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and these rabbis’ reading of Lavan’s introduction might argue that hatred and violence could be painted as legitimate or even virtuous even if founded on bad information and a lack of desire to engage the “other”. And worse we see that White Supremacy origins might just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

As we get ready for Seder we should prepare to confront the Lavan of the Seder. What rituals and conversations will we have at our Seder to inspire us to confront White Supremacy today? Passover is not just celebration of our “freedom from” (e.g. reclining), but also our “freedom to” (e.g. opening our homes to guests). We desperately need now more than ever the Seder, itself as a ritual, that models the primacy of questions in engaging with different worldviews. We should be liberated to experience empathy of the “other”. We need to remember that even if we do not agree or get along, from its origins, like Rivka and Lavan, we are still family and we should strive to understand each other.

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

 

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

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.

When We Dip: Another Take on Karpas

We have finished the first of our four glasses of wine. We have just sat down after the first of the two hand washings. Now, we partake of a vegetable dipped in salt water or vinegar. With the blessing of borei pri ha’adamah on our lips and the first sign of spring in our hands, we eat our first food of the evening.  Like a reenactment of Persephone’s return from Hades, we connect to this first taste of spring. However, our excitement of this rite of spring is overshadowed by the salty taste reminding us of the sweaty, backbreaking labor of slavery.

But what of those who dip in vinegar? How are they to connect the vinegar to a deeper message about the day or the ritual of dipping? There is a story from the Talmud that seems pertinent to us in this moment. We learn:

Once, four hundred jars of wine belonging to Rav Huna turned sour. Rav Yehudah, the brother of Rav Sala the Pious, and the other scholars—some say: Rav Adda ben Ahava and the other scholars—went in to visit him [Rav Huna] and said to him: The master ought to examine his actions.

He [Rav Huna] said to them: Am I suspect in your eyes?

They replied: Is the Holy One, blessed be God, suspect of punishing without justice?

He [Rav Huna] said to them: If somebody has heard of anything against me, let him speak out.

They replied: We have heard that the master does not give his tenant his [lawful share in the] vine twigs [i.e., fair wages for his work].

He replied: Does he leave me any? He [the tenant farmer] steals them all!

They said to him: That is exactly what people say: If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!

He said to them: I pledge myself to give it to him [in the future]. Some report that thereupon the vinegar became wine again; others that the vinegar went up so high [in value] that it was sold for the same price as wine. (Berachot 5b)

Rav Huna, a third-century CE amora, was unwilling to see his misfortune as mere happenstance. As the head of the Academy in Sura, it is clear that Rav Huna wanted to improve himself. After some coaxing, his peers informed him that he was not providing the tenants of his vineyard what was perceived as a fair wage. So, instead of punishing the tenants for stealing from him, Rav Huna paid them a fair wage. The taste of the vinegar was a reminder to Rav Huna to be meticulous in his business dealings, and the ensuing miracle speaks to the significance of his redemptive act.

While there are profound demands on us to see to an end to dire poverty, the very same Rav Huna challenges us to say that this is not enough. We learn:

When he [Rav Huna] had a meal he would open the door wide and declare, “Whosoever is in need let him come and eat.” (Taanit 20b)

It was not just on Passover that Rav Huna opened up his home to the needy. Rav Huna also teaches us that we need to be punctilious in business dealings and not just focus on the most needy or impoverished. Every working person needs to be paid a fair wage, especially those responsible for bringing food to our tables. Rav Huna further teaches us to open our homes and our hearts not only to those who are starving, but to anyone in need. Passover is an occasion for us to reflect on our behavior throughout the whole year. If we allow ourselves to taste the vinegar of the karpas, we will come to taste freedom all year.


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