Category Archives: ritual

Three (unheralded!) Heroes of the Haggadah

This a text version of my sermon from the first day of Passover, 5777 – enjoy the holiday!!

It is an often remarked upon oddity that Moses’ name does not appear anywhere in the traditional text of the Haggadah.   I don’t know whether you realized it as you read the retelling of the exodus story last night.  Pharaoh is mentioned, great talmudic sages like Rabbi Akiva are mentioned, even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, are referred to in the text.  But Moses, who worked harder than anyone to bring about the redemption of the Israelites, who bravely walked into Pharaoh’s throne room to demand that the Israelites be let go, who raised his staff and split the waters at the sea – Moses gets not one single mention.  It is strange to say the least, and clearly intentional.  The authors, the creators of the Haggadah, did not want Moses’ name to appear. (*see the note at the end of the text for a full explanation)

Over the years many reasons have been proposed as to why this is the case.  The most common explanation is that the sages who wrote the text of the Haggadah wanted to emphasize the Divine role in the redemption from Egypt, not a human’s role – not even Moses’.  It has also been said that Moses’ absence is yet another indication of his extreme sense of humility, and that he himself had a hand in making sure his name did not appear on the night of the seder.

But I would like to suggest another reason today.  I think the Haggadah authors may have left Moses out because his presence in the text would have overshadowed  – not God – but the other people in the Haggadah that we’ve come to know so well over the years.  If Moses appeared on every page – and he would be on virtually every page – we wouldn’t pay much attention to the story of the Sages in B’nei Barak, or Rabban Gamliel’s description’s of the Pesah, Matzah, and Marror.  I would even argue were Moses the focus of the Haggadah, even Elijah the prophet might get lost in the shuffle.  So by eliminating Moses, the Haggadah democratizes the events of the Exodus, showing us that this was something that came about – and in a way continues to come about – through the efforts of many, not just one man.   And as important as Moses was, we also needed all of the other contributors to make our way from slavery to freedom.

Moses’ absence on the seder nights also gives us an opportunity to search for other heroes in the Haggadah that we might not otherwise see.  And this morning I would like to tell you about three heroes of mine who appear in the pages of the Haggadah, on the surface perhaps minor characters in the great drama of the seder, often overlooked of dismissed, but characters who play crucial roles in our understanding the meaning of Passover.

The first is Ben Zoma.  Does that name sound familiar?  Do you remember where he appears?  Just after the story of the 5 Sages staying up all night and telling the Passover story, there is a short and also strange paragraph.  It is about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, where he says – הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה –  ‘I am like a man of 70 years.’  And he is struggling to understand a verse from the Torah – anyone remember what it is?  It has to do with mentioning the Exodus from Egypt ALL the days of your life.  And Rabbi Elazar – one of the great talmudic sages of all time – says that he never understood that verse until it was explained to him by a lesser sage named Ben Zoma.  Anyone remember Ben Zoma’s answer?  He says ALL the days of your life includes not only the days, when it is actually daylight outside, but also the nights.  This is actually one of the reasons we say the third paragraph of the shema not only in the morning, but also at night, during evening services.

But what I love about Ben Zoma, the reason he is one of my three unheralded Haggadah heroes, is that he reminds us that Judaism is something that has to be practiced every day in order to be truly meaningful.  It can’t just be about the seder night, it can’t just be abut Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  Those are the big, dramatic moments.  But the real beauty of Judaism is in the quiet moments, even the mundane moments, the ebb and flow of everyday life.  It is easy to lose track of that, especially on a seder night when we put so much effort into telling the Passover story.  Ben Zoma reminds us that the true power of Judaism is not found in a single night, but instead in כל ימי חייך – in ALL the days of your life.  That is why he is my first Haggadah hero.

The next is a surprise choice, a character you probably would not expect to make my list – the Rasha.  Who is that?  Right, the wicked child (son), in the four sons section the one son who is considered to be excluded from the community.  You remember his question – מה העבודה הזה לכם – what does this ritual mean to YOU.  And we say since he said ‘you’ and not ‘us’ he implied that he wants nothing to do with Jewish life.  The Rasha is the great villain of the Haggadah.  Pharaoh is bad enough, but we’re used to dealing with outsiders who are after us.  But to be rejected by someone in our own community is painful.

But without the Rasha we might experience the seder night as a perfect narrative, almost a fairy tale.  The evil King is defeated in the person of Pharaoh.  The people are released from their slavery.  Those who subjected them – the Egyptians – are punished by the plagues.  Without the Rasha it would all be a nice, neat package.  And that is precisely why we need the Rasha in the Haggadah.  We don’t live in a fairy tale world, we live in the real world, a world that badly needs fixing, a world that sometimes seems it is filled with wicked people.  The Rasha reminds us that although we might step out of reality when we sit down at the seder table, when the seder ends, and Elijah leaves, and the last morsel of afikoman is eaten, we return to a world that badly needs fixing, and we have a role to play in that process.

My last Haggadah hero is the mystery man of the seder.  You remember the passage ‘my father was a wandering Aramean?’  It is never quite clear who exactly that person is.  Some commentators suggest it is Abraham, the first wandering Jew.  Others think it is Jacob, who did in his life wander to Egypt.  Some even say it is Laban, Jacob’s uncle.  The bottom line is the text is ambiguous, and the figure remains unidentified.

I’ve always imagined that figure as my Zaydie, my dad’s father.  He was a quiet, soft spoken, and largely reserved man, very mild mannered.  I think he had to be that way given my Bubbe’s strong personality.  But as mild mannered as he was, he was a wanderer.  He made a choice when he was about 16 or 17 years old to undertake a journey, to leave the small village he lived in in eastern Europe, and to come here to the United States with the hopes of creating a new life.  In that moment he joined in the age old Jewish story of diaspora, of the constant and restless search for freedom and dignity and tolerance.  And I remember many a seder from my childhood when I watched my Zaydie, quietly sitting at a table surrounded by his children and grandchildren, the generations of his family, and I think in those moments he was reflecting – with gratitude –  on how successful his search had been.

So there you have it.  My three unheralded Haggadah heroes.   Perhaps you have some of you own.  If you don’t, you might spend a few moments at your seder tonight considering who they might be.  Because each character in the text has a crucial role to play in the story of our freedom, in the journeys we undertake in our own lives.

 

  • Moses’ name and the Haggadah text – It is true that some contemporary haggadot will use Moses’ name, either in commentary, or in a new version of the main text.  Also, some traditional haggadot include the text of a midrash brought in the name of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili that includes Moses’ name.  Here is a note from my friend Dr. Josh Kulp’s ‘Historical Haggadah’ regarding that midrash:  “The section with the derash of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili is found in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (an early midrasnhic collection on Exodus).  That this text is missing from many medieval Haggadot and from all early Israeli versions of the Haggadah indicates that this was a late edition to the Haggadah, and that the Rabbi Yosi HaGlili text (with its inclusion of Moses’ name) was certainly not originally composed as a liturgical piece to be recited at the seder.”  All of this is to say that the original authors of the Haggadah text intended that Moses’s name not appear.zaydiestone

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A Seder of (In)Convenience

This a text version of my Shabbat morning sermon from 4/1/17

In my very first year of rabbinical school, in one of my classes, one of our assignments was to read the weekly Torah portion and to be prepared to discuss it.   This was the first time in my life I had ever read through the entire Torah week by week, and everything was going along very smoothly.  Genesis was wonderful, all of the great stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs, their various trials and tribulations.  Exodus was terrific, with the Passover narrative, and Moses, and Pharaoh, and the plagues, even if it bogged down a little bit at the end with all of the information about the tabernacle.  Then we got to Leviticus.  And I began to read this morning’s Torah portion, Vayikra, with its descriptions of the various animal sacrifices, and how the animals were killed, what was done with parts of their bodies, how the blood was sprinkled, and I had no access to it.  There was no narrative at all, but even worse the material was so obscure and arcane, there was no way for me to feel any connection to it.

So I went to a young rabbi who was teaching at the time at the University of Judaism where I was studying, and I told him there seemed to be no way for me to connect to Leviticus at all.  And this is what he said to me – “Think of the most valuable thing you own.  Something that is important to you, something you need in your day to day life, maybe even rely on.  Maybe your car.  Now imagine this – you’ve got a nice new Lexus.  But you feel that maybe you’ve done something wrong.  So you go to the rabbi in your neighborhood, and the rabbi says ‘here is what you are going to do.  Take your new Lexus, and offer it up as a sacrifice to God.  Take it to the local junk yard, hand it over to the worker there, and watch as the car is put into one of those car compactors, and crushed to bits.’”

Then my teacher said “that is probably the best way for us to get into the mind of an Israelite who brought an animal to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice it as an offering to God.  That animal was the most valuable thing that Israelite owned.  By far.  It was something he relied on, maybe every day, for food, or plowing his field, or both.  And yet he was willing to take that thing, as valuable as it was, as important as it was to him, and to hand it to the priest, watch the priest slaughter the animal, and in his mind give that animal over to God.”

Now I didn’t have a new Lexus back in those days – but the idea –  the image – helped me understand the book of Leviticus, helped me connect to it – and also gave me a powerful insight into what our ancestors experienced as they approached the Temple, the Priest, and they believed God’s presence, willing to sacrifice something that was enormously valuable to them for a chance to feel closer to that Divine Presence.

So with that sense of sacrifice as context, I would like to think with you for a moment about a growing trend I see in the community today, and about how maybe we should be willing to make some sacrifices – not talking about your car! – relatively small sacrifices – sacrifices of time, maybe of inconvenience, maybe travel – so that this trend does not continue to grow.

The trend itself I would guess you probably have all heard about, maybe even experienced.  I’ve seen it with Hanukkah, and it is happening now with Pesah – where a family will decide to take their celebration of the holiday and move it to the closest convenient weekend evening – even thought that is not the actual holiday.  So for example people will have their Hanukkah dinner and party on a Saturday or Sunday evening before the holiday starts, because it is more convenient for members of the family.  This in my mind was not ideal, but Hanukkah at the end of the day is not one of our major holidays.  And by the way, even if people move their Hanukkah dinners, they still seem to light the menorah on the right nights.

But now people are starting to do it with Pesah.  So for example this year the seders are held on Monday and Tuesday evening, the 10th and 11th of April.  And I know there are some people who are planning to have the seders on the weekend before, say on Saturday night the 8th.  And I understand how much easier it makes the holiday!  First of all you don’t have to worry about getting up for work on Sunday, like you do on Tuesday or Wednesday.  On Saturday people don’t have to rush to get home from work to make it to the beginning of the seder.  If people want to travel from out of town, it is much easier and much less disruptive to travel for the weekend, and not miss work.  I get it!   And if you push me, and say is it better to do it on Saturday night than to not do it at all, I would probably say yes.

But I would ask you to keep the following things in mind.  The first is there are a series of commandments that each Jew is supposed to fulfill on the evening of Passover at the seder.  The eating of matzah is only one, but also the eating of bitter herbs, the 4 cups of wine, even the telling of the story at the seder table is considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  And the tradition is very clear – if you don’t do those things on the night of the seder you have not fulfilled the commandments.  The only way you can is by doing it on the right nights.

The second thing is I think it is an important lesson to teach our children and grandchildren by saying this takes priority.  The Passover seder takes priority.  It takes priority over work, or inconvenience, or time or travel issues.  And if you take children out of school to travel to get to the Passover seder on the right night, or if they miss school the next day, or if you take a half a day off of work, it shows your children and grandchildren how important this is.  And they will remember that – they will remember “my family put everything else aside so we could come together for the seder.”  It was that important.  It is a great lesson to teach our kids.

And the last thing is this.  Sometimes to live a full and meaningful Jewish life, you have to make some sacrifices.  In fact I would argue that sometimes making sacrifices helps us to live a full and meaningful Jewish life.  We are not talking about sacrificing the most valuable object that we own, something our ancestors were willing to do for God and for the tradition.  But if our ancestors were willing to do that, shouldn’t we be willing to make some small sacrifices here and there to give our Judaism the respect and honor it deserves?

Having the seder on the right night may require some sacrifice.  It may be inconvenient, it may create logistical difficulties or travel problems.  But it is the right  thing to do.  For us, for the tradition, maybe most importantly of all for our children and grandchildren.  May we all be blessed to sit with the generations of our family at the seder table – on the eve of Pesah – for many, many years to come.

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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S.Q.N

It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.

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Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Rolling Clouds

The great clouds rolled back reluctantly, west to east, slowly giving way to blue skies and a gently setting sun.  It was the first glimmer of sunshine we had seen in some time.  Days for sure.  Maybe even weeks?  Some vast storm front had blanketed the northeast, stretching from Maryland to Maine.  Rain every day.  Grey skies.  Starless nights and an ever dimming daylight.  At first it was daunting, tiring, people kvetched and fretted, it dampened our spirits, wearied out souls.  But then it went on for so long it almost became  the new normal.

I watched the clouds as they moved.  It seemed to me they cast dark glances back towards the light that defiantly rose, illuminating almost as if for the first time newly grown flowers, blossoming trees, thick grass, all the promise of spring.  The clouds would be back no doubt, but for those few hours they were banished.  My dog craned his head slightly higher, pointing his snout into the wind, sensing the change, picking up the scents that told him of growth, warm days, fertile soil, the summer to come.  We paused together and a soft wind rustled the tree tops, leaves magically springing to life, sharp and verdant greens highlighted against the sky’s deep blue.

There is a favorite scene of mine from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The Lady Eowyn has been grievously injured in battle.  In due time she recovers from her physical injuries, but she also suffers from a broken heart.  And this, as we all know, is more difficult to mend.  The gentle and courageous Faramir, a warrior who is also filled with deep wisdom, visits her daily.  Together they stand on the ramparts of the great city of Gondor, looking to the east.  Then there is a moment where Eowyn understands that she feels love again, that she can again become whole:  “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

Perhaps it is not change so much as understanding that enables our hearts to open up again, to be healed.

A last vignette.  Morning minyan.  I am sitting in my regular spot, at the back.  Two widows who have just recently lost their beloved husbands sit together, searching for hope and healing in the context of ancient words and rituals.  They silently share their burden.  Then I see one of the women lean closer to the other, whisper a few words.  They smile, one to the other, in that private moment.  There is just a bit more light in the sanctuary.  And, I hope, in their wounded hearts.

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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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