Monthly Archives: April 2016

Traveling Matzah Show

We are on the road with our youngest, touring colleges in the northeast during the few days between the Yom Tov celebrations that begin and end Passover. As strict Passover observers this is particularly challenging in terms of what and where to eat. 

When we pulled out of our driveway we had a small cooler packed with food. A bag of nuts and raisins. Baked salmon and white fish. And of course the obligatory box of matzah. This got us through our drive north and lunch. Yesterday we were lucky to be in NYC. On the upper West Side there is a kosher market that goes through the trouble of changing over to kosher for Passover. We found our dinner there, with prepared chicken and broccoli and decent salads with grilled chicken and kosher for Passover dressing.

After the vibrancy of the big city we drove north to beautiful upstate New York and the Hudson Valley. No kosher for Passover markets here! Our hotel did have yogurt that was properly certified. Regular coffee in paper cups should be fine. Apples, both red and green.

We may be tired of apples, nuts, raisins and matzah by the time we get back to Baltimore later tonight. But in a way traveling with these restrictions reinforces the essence of the holiday. Strip it down. Get to the essence. Clean out the hametz. You don’t actually need all that much to get by. In our world of luxury not a bad thing to remember.

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Seeing Ourselves as Slaves

My favorite line in the entire Haggadah comes just after the explanation of the 3 main ritual foods of the seder, the Pesah, the Matzah, and the Marror.  You may remember that section – we turn to each of the ritual foods, we explain that the Pesah sacrifice was eaten because?  God passed over the houses of the Israelites, and the offering harks back to the lamb’s blood that marked the Israelite homes as distinct from the Egyptian homes.  The matzah?  Matzah is explained as a symbol of leaving hurriedly, as Moses tells the people they must leave immediately and they don’t even have time to let their dough rise.  And Marror?  The bitterness of slavery – as it says in the Haggadah, שמיררו המצרים את חיי אבותינו – – the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors.

And the line that I love comes right after the marror section, where the Haggadah tells us that when we sit down at the seder table we have an obligation to see ourselves  – personally – חייב אדם לראות את עצמו – as if we had been slaves in Egypt, and we were actually redeemed from our slavery by God.

In many ways I feel that this is the most difficult of all the commandments we are supposed to fulfill at the seder table.  It is true that our patience may wear thin as we try to get through the telling of the story before we eat.  And if you have particularly hot horseradish for your HIllel sandwich that can be a difficult moment.  But these are things we can do if we choose to do them.  Being asked – for an evening -to actually believe that you were a slave and were given your freedom is far more difficult.  Forst of all it is a task of imagination, a task of the mind, which is hard to measure in and of itself.  We know if we’ve eaten the bitter herbs or not – but did we really feel like we were slaves?

And that difficulty is compounded by the fact that our experience, our lives, our day to day, is so far removed from the sense of oppression and persecution and degradation that marks the life of a slave.  When my grandparents sat at a seder table they at least had a sense of what that life feels like – they knew hardship, they were poor, they came from eastern Europe where they had been persecuted.  But the majority of Jews today have an entirely different experience – we’ve grown up in comfortable homes, many of us never needing to worry about money, let alone whether we would have food on our table or a roof over our heads.  And that I think is our challenge at the seder table – growing up in that kind of comfort and privilege, how are we to fulfill the command of tasting the experience of slavery?

And to try to answer that question I would like to turn for a moment to a theological conundrum that is tucked into the very end of the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals that is traditionally recited after the seder.  What is a theological conundrum?  Essentially a problem with God, or maybe better stated a problem with how God seems to work or not work.  The problem stems from a verse that actually comes from Psalms, the 37th Psalm if you are keeping track of these things, and it appears in the very last paragraph of the Grace After Meals, in fact it is the second to the last sentence.  Anyone know what it is?  נער הייתי גם זקנתי ולא ראיתי צדיק נעזב וזרעו מבקש לחם – I was young, and now am old, YET I have never seen a righteous person forsaken or his children  begging for bread.

So what is the theological problem here?  It is not true.  In fact, the opposite is true!  We have all seen a righteous person who has had terrible sadness and pain in their life, who had to struggle with illness, or loss, or failure, or poverty.  The list could go on and on.  The verse from the Psalm seems to indicate that if you are righteous your life will be good, but we know that there is not really a connection between those two things – a person might be righteous and have a difficult life.

Now I am not the first person to recognize this problem in the Grace After Meals, in fact a tradition developed over time to not even say that line out loud, or to whisper it when the Grace After Meals is being sung.  Because what if you are singing the prayer and right at your table is a righteous person who is poor?  You don’t want to throw this idea right in that person’s face.  You would be implying that maybe they aren’t righteous.  Maybe they’ve done something wrong to deserve their sorrow.  So you whisper.

But I would like to suggest a different way of understanding the problematic verse that may enable us to say it out loud without concern at our seders tonight, and also might help us in some way to reconnect with, or at least to remember in a more powerful way, the experience of slavery.  To arrive at that different understanding we have to redefine one word in the verse, the verb ראיתי which means ‘I saw.’   You remember the verse?  I was young, now am old, yet have never seen a righteous person forsaken – לא ראיתי I have never seen it!

That same word – raiti – is used in a very different way in the book of Esther.  You may remember the famous scene in Esther where she musters up her courage to enter the King’s throne room uninvited to plead for the Jewish people.  The King extends his scepter, and then Esther speaks so movingly to him he decides he will annul Haman’s decree, and the Jews will be spared.  At the very end of her speech she says this:  eichacha uchal v’raiti – how can I bear to see the destruction of my people.  And how can I bear to see the destruction of my family?  And in that verse, the verb raiti, repeated twice, has a very different meaning than it does in the Grace After Meals.  Esther is saying ‘how can I stand by, and watch, and NOT do anything?’  It is a rhetorical question – what she is really saying is I cannot stand by and see this, and not do something about it.  And with Esther’s understanding of the verb the problematic line from the Grace After Meals might be translated this way:  I was young, and now am old but I have done my best NOT to stand still and watch while others suffered.

That is not a bad message to bring in at the end of a seder.  Stuffed with food, grateful for our lives and our blessings, we say ‘yes, we’ve eaten, we have so much, but that has not made us insensitive to the suffering of others.’  I like this interpretation in part because it ties in to the beginning of the seder, when we say ‘ha lachma anya‘ – this is poor person’s bread.  We open the seder reminding ourselves of the needs of others, reminding ourselves that there are still poor people in this world, perhaps even in our community, perhaps even in our family.  And we conclude the Grace After Meals reminding ourselves of the same thing.  Maybe even more important at the end of the seder when we are full from the food we’ve eaten and might be tempted to forget that others don’t have what we do.

With this new understanding, the verse also reminds us that there is still suffering in the world.  Even if we don’t feel it or experience it in our own lives, it is all around us, and we have a responsibility to work to alleviate that suffering.  And in doing that work we are brought into closer contact with struggle and suffering, and that should help us remember what it feels like to be a slave, to experience bitterness and hardship  – and through that sense to be even more grateful for the freedom that this great holiday celebrates.

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Father and Son

IMG_3497 (1)It just happened to catch my eye. I was there to watch the synagogue’s Hebrew school choir. The children were performing at a nursing home (elderly care facility? supported living environment?). The residents gathered in the common room, eager for a change in their daily routine, happy to see the faces of children and to feel the energy and optimism of youth.

The children sang, so strikingly un-selfconcious. I stood at the back, leaning against the wall. Just in front of me was an old man sitting with his son. The ‘boy’ was probably in his mid 50s, gruff, tense, uncomfortable in his duty. He sat by his father’s side and his eyes darted around the room. I imagined he performs this task often, forces himself to walk through the doors, to find his father, to once again be confronted by the long years and inevitable wearing down of life, and perhaps even by his own future.

As the children sang the man reached over to take his father’s hand. There they sat, hand in hand, father and son. I was surprised by the tender gesture. What a powerful statement and striking promise! You are not alone. I am here with you, I care about you, I love you. I hope I can give you even a little bit of what you’ve given me all these long years.

Then another surprise. The children began to sing Oseh Shalom and I saw the man’s face soften. He held tighter to his father’s hand and his eyes moistened, just that welling up of some deep feeling made of memory and mystery. I turned away, not wanting him to suddenly realize a stranger was intruding on his private moment. The singing ended, the children said their goodbyes, giggling and smiling and shuffling their feet back and forth. As I turned to go I glanced one last time at the man. Still he held his father’s hand, and a sad smile rested on his lips. What the visit meant to his father. What the visit meant to him.

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Bruce Springsteen and Carolina’s ‘Bathroom Law’

This a text version of my sermon from 4/9/16

Bruce Springsteen is arguably the greatest rock and roll star of his generation, and he and his E Street band are currently touring the country, selling out arenas from coast to coast. In the course of his career Springsteen has not been shy about expressing his political views on a wide variety of issues, from which candidates he supports in elections to the way he believes union workers should be treated. So it really should have come as no surprise that yesterday he took a stand against legislation that was recently passed in North Carolina, deciding to cancel one of his concerts that was to be held there this Sunday. In a statement that Springsteen released to his fans he wrote this: “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.”

The legislation that has so troubled Bruce Springsteen is officially called the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. You may have heard it referred to as’ the bathroom law.’ It was passed just a couple of weeks ago, on March 23rd, and essentially contains two components. The first does have to do with bathrooms – it states that public bathroom use must be dictated by a person’s biological sex – that is, whether it says male or female on their birth certificate. And perhaps that sounds like nonsense to some of us, but gender equality is a big issue for young people today, in fact having just returned from a mini-college tour in the Boston area I can tell you every school we visited had just gone through the process of installing gender neutral bathrooms. And LGBT groups see this legislation as a direct attack on their civil rights.

Whatever you think about bathrooms and who should or should not be permitted to use them, in my mind it is the second half of the legislation that is more troubling. For all practical intents and purposes this section of the legislation takes away the right of minority groups to protect themselves with anti-discrimination laws. What exactly does that mean? In layman’s terms: it used to be in North Carolina that if you were a member of a minority group – handicapped, for example – and your employer fired you, and you thought it was because you were handicapped, you had a legal right, under anti-discrimination law, to bring a suit against that employer. But that is no longer the case. In North Carolina you can no longer protect yourself against that kind of discrimination – whether the discrimination comes from race, color, handicap, biological sex, national origin, or, by the way, religion. That means that potentially someone could be fired because they are a woman, or black, or handicapped, or gay, or Jewish – and they would have no legal recourse under the new law.

It is that last piece – the religious piece – that should especially raise the antennae in the Jewish community. We all know that anti-Semitism still exists, in fact we have been concerned over the last couple of years that it is actually on the rise. And in the Jewish community we do a good job of protecting ourselves, of raising awareness, of watching for anti-semitic rhetoric and action, and when we see it, of condemning it loudly. But what we sometimes forget in the Jewish community is this – where one minority group is discriminated against, other minority groups will often be included in that discrimination. It may be that the main target of the North Carolina legislation is the gay community, but the language of the bill throws in race and religious identification as well.

Unfortunately what we’ve seen in North Carolina is happening in other states in the union as well. In Tennessee right now there is a bill being considered that on the surface seems entirely innocuous. It has to do with official state symbols, something every state has. Lets actually do a quick quiz, our home state, Maryland – we’ll start with the easy ones – state bird? The Oriole! Crustacean? The blue crab of course. Flower? Black Eyed Susan. Fish? Rockfish. Reptile? A bit of a trick question – the Terrapin. So Tennessee, like every state, has its list. But sitting on the governor’s desk right now is a bill which would add an item to the list – somewhat unusual – and the item is? The Bible. They want to make the Bible an official symbol of the State of Tennessee. And I can tell you it is not the Jewish bible that bill is talking about.

Not that I have anything against the Christian Bible – it works terrifically well – for Christians. It is just that as a Jew it makes me uncomfortable when another faith’s sacred scripture becomes legally sanctioned as a symbol of a state. What does that say to me about my place in that state? What message does it give me about my own sacred scriptures? Or my own faith, for that matter?

It is a big day in shul today – as you saw, three Torahs, something that rarely happens. One of the extra Torahs and Hallel today was for Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month. The third Torah was for this special Shabbat, called HaHodesh, simply meaning THE month, the month of Nissan that Passover falls in. Two weeks from today it will be Passover. Those of us who are in shul will be slightly sleepy from late seders and 4 glasses of wine. But our minds will be filled with the themes of that great holiday, chief among them fundamental principles of equality, dignity, and freedom that should be extended to all people. To people of all races. Of all gender and sexual identities. Of all ages. Of all ethnicities. And of all faiths.

May those fundamental principles guide us, in our work and in our lives. And may they remind is that we all have a role to play in building a world where every person is treated with equal respect and dignity.

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