Tag Archives: Passover

Imagination

a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –

As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are.  On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work.  In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago.  The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then.  But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.

It is an astonishing thing to think about.  Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics.  Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments.  He would, for example – in his mind! –  put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light.  And then he asked himself questions.  If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space?  How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things?  And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.

These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time.  His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in.  It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.

It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work.  Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures.  To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown.  But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination.  Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone.  But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure.  In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.

Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education.  But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people.  Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’

This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well.  Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods.  But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God.  And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.

It was the same for Moses.  Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life.  But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free.  And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.

And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel.  Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being.  And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility.  The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew.  But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey.  And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards.  And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.

Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world.  On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves.  On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation.  And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.

In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly –  but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be.  And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all.  As Einstein himself said:  “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”

Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach

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Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

This a text version of my sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

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Bringing the Dead to Life

A couple of days ago the Wall Street Journal published an article by R. R. Reno entitled ‘the Profound Connection Between Easter and Passover.’  In the piece the author discusses the parallels between the two spring holidays, with their focus on new life, renewal, and resurrection.  For Christians these themes are explored through the lens of Jesus and the Gospel’s narrative of his life, death, and rising to life anew.  In Judaism for the most part the the hints are subtler – an egg and green vegetable on the seder plate, or the Haggadah’s introduction of Elijah, the figure Jewish tradition understands as the precursor to the messianic era.

But there is one Passover text that directly confronts the idea of resurrection.  On the intermediate Shabbat of the festival Jews around the world read the 37th chapter of Ezekiel, the well known narrative of the so called ‘dry bones.’  In one of the Hebrew Bible’s strangest narratives, the prophet is whisked away by God to a valley that is filled with desiccated human bones.  At God’s instruction Ezekiel speaks over the bones, and watches as they reconstitute, first bone to bone, forming intact skeletons, and then sinew, muscle, and flesh.  The last, and most important touch, is the breath of God.  “God said to me, prophesy, son of man, prophesy to the wind, say to the wind, ‘Thus said the Lord God:  Come, wind, from all four directions, and breathe into these slain ones, so that they might live.’”  Ezekiel proclaims God’s message.  The wind/breath fills the reformed bodies, and ‘they were alive, and they stood upon their feet, and exceedingly vast army!’

What are we to do with such material?  Certainly as modern, educated people living in the 21st century we are not expected to believe it literally.  A valley of bones coming back to life?  How can this be?  So we reject the plain meaning of the text, and instead read Ezekiel’s vision as a metaphor.  It is about the people Israel, during one of the most difficult and dangerous moments of its existence, when many believed the ancient covenant with God had been shattered.  In this context Ezekiel’s message is clear:  Israel as a nation will survive, will come back to life, will be rebuilt, and will once again be vital and strong.  Like the bones in the valley, the Jewish people will be reconstituted and God’s ancient covenant will survive.  With this understanding we can comfortably read the text as parable, draw meaning from it, and at the same time satisfy our modern intellectual sensibilities.

That is the way I’ve always read the Ezekiel dry bones passage.  Passover does focus on themes of renewal and resurrection, and the holiday is tied into the coming of spring and the rebirth of the world, the growth of crops, the blooming of flowers and blossoming of trees.  The Ezekiel text is chosen for Passover not because it is about bones coming back to life, individuals being revivified, but because it reminds us that the potential for life is locked into everything around us, and the coming of spring releases that potential.  And in general when I encounter Jewish texts about resurrection I read them as metaphor or parable.  So for example in the opening paragraphs of the amidah, when we sing about מחיה המתים , about bringing the dead back to life, I’ve always understood that to be a reminder of the work I have to do in my life to make the world the kind of place the Messiah would want to come to.  But I’ve never believed that one day actual bodies would come back to life.

All that being said, as they say live and learn, and this morning I would like to suggest another way that we might think about these resurrection texts in our tradition, where we don’t have to use metaphor to find meaning in them.  And by way of introducing that idea I would like to tell you a story about a famous baseball player, one of the all time greats, named Rod Carew.  I am sure many of you remember him – he played 19 years in the majors, mostly at 2nd base, and 18 of those 19 years he was an all star.  He retired with a career batting average of .328, and in 1991 he was elected to the baseball hall of fame.

About a year and a half ago Rod Carew had a major heart attack.  He survived, but his heart was damaged to the point where he had only a limited time to live, unless he could receive a heart transplant.  And as his heart got worse, his kidney started to fail.  Doctors told him he would need a new heart – and a new kidney – in order to survive.  He was put on the transplant list, fairly high priority, and he waited.

Three months ago Carew got a call.  A young man – 29 year old – had died suddenly, of a brain aneurism, and he was a match.  Carew went in for the surgery – double transplant!  Heart and kidney.  He did well, recovered his strength, left the hospital, and is getting stronger and stronger at 71.

Carew wanted to know who the young man was who had saved his life.  He was able to track down the man’s name – Konrad Reuland.  Those of you who are very, very devoted Ravens fans might recognize that name – he was a professional football player, and on the Ravens practice squad in 2014.  Just this week Carew met Konrad Reuland’s mother, he wanted to express his gratitude for what her son had done in saving his life.  She brought a stethoscope with her to the meeting, asked Carew if it would be OK, she placed it on his chest, and for a few precious seconds listened once again to her son’s heart beat.  Think of that story for a moment –  Rod Carew on the verge of death, saved by a young man’s heart and kidney, and then the mother of that boy, still grieving from his loss, and yet able to hear her son’s heart beat, and knowing that another person was alive because of what her son chose to do, to be an organ donor – and maybe in all of that, in some way, מחיה המתים – the dead do come back to life.

Of course one moral of the story is that we should all be organ donors.  There was a time when this was frowned upon in the Jewish community, but a few years ago the Conservative Movement came out to say not only are Jews permitted to be organ donors, it is in fact a mitzvah – a commandment – that a Jew should be an organ donor, because it is an opportunity to save another human being’s life.  So if you are not an organ donor, make that change on your driver’s license the next time you have the opportunity and become one.

But also the story reminds us that there are more mysteries in this universe, even in our own world, than we could ever count or understand.  Many of those mysteries come at the precise intersection of life and death, and whether we understand them or not, we do know that we all share in them, and we know they unite us in a common humanity, and in our search for what is holy in our world and in our lives.

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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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Moving Forward While Looking Back

this the text version of a sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

We are in a period of our calendar that we call the ‘sefirat ha’omer’ – the counting of the omer.  The counting comes from the an ancient agricultural ritual described in the Torah, in Leviticus 23, where the very first sheaf of grain that was harvested was brought to the priest on the day after Passover, marking the beginning of the harvest season.  The Torah commands that we count seven times seven days to link this first sheaf to the fuller barley crop that would grow throughout the spring.

Over time the 49 days of the counting came to be understood as a period of sadness and mourning.  This is the reason why the tradition asks us to not hold weddings during the sefira – it is not considered appropriate during a time of sadness for the Jewish people to hold festive celebrations.  I’ve learned over the years that people are aware of this tradition, so that each year I get phone calls from families trying to plan weddings and worrying that their chosen date will fall during the omer period.  The truth is there is a wide variety in terms of how that tradition is observed.  At one time there was a split in the Sephardic and Ashkanazic communities, so that Ashkenazic Jews would have weddings at the beginning of the period, from Passover to Rosh Hodesh Iyar, but then stop for the rest of the time, while Sephardic Jews would do the opposite – have no weddings from Pesah until the 33rd day of the counting, known as ‘lag b’omer’, but then permit weddings during the rest of the counting.

The strange thing about this association of the omer counting and sadness its that we are not really sure where it comes from.  Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law the Mishnah Torah, does not even mention it.  The only hint of it we have from early sources is a strange passage in the Talmud, which tells us that thousands of Torah students were killed by a plague between Passover and Shavuot during the time of Rabbi Akiva.  Even so the Talmud does not suggest that the period be observed as one of mourning moving forward, and it does not attempt to create any type of day that commemorates the student’s deaths.  And it wasn’t until hundreds of years later – probably 800 or so the common era – that Jewish sources begin to shape the omer counting into a time of communal sadness.  Why did the tradition make that decision, and make it so difficult for us to plan our spring weddings?

One answer to that question may be found in an examination of Jewish history.  We know we don’t have to look too hard to find tragedy in our past, but the period of the omer counting seems to be particularly full of it.  It was during this time in the year 135 that the Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kochba was brutally put down by the Romans.  Ultimately killed thousands upon thousands of Jews, destroyed Jewish cities, and by the way changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria-Palestine.  The famous story of the 10 martyrs, recited during the Eila Ezkara on Yom Kippur comes from this time, so we have a sense that the physical destruction of the Jewish people was only part of the Roman agenda – they also wanted to destroy the sprit of the Jewish people.  Torah study was banned upon pain of death, Jews were not allowed to assemble publicly, to gather in synagogues, to hold worship services or classes.  It was without question one of the darkest and most dangerous times in Jewish history.  When you think about it that way it begins to make sense that the tradition wants us to mark the period as one of tragedy and sadness, in the same way that we mark the Holocaust with a specific day of commemoration in modern times.

But the strange thing about it to me is this:  during the entire period of the counting there is not a single word said about any of these historical memories of sadness.  It is on Yom Kippur the we read the story of the 10 martyrs.  It is on Tisha B’Av in the summer when we recall the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is not like the tradition is shy in terms of including these memories in our liturgy, or choosing scriptural readings that in some way reflect the historical memory.  So why didn’t the tradition do anything to reflect the historical memory of sadness that we say this period is about?

To try to answer that question for a moment I’ll turn to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations.  You may remember the story – it is a coming of age tale about a young man named – Pip – who learns in the course of the novel about his origins, and also about what is truly most important about life.  Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is an old dowager named – Ms Havisham.  She was left on the altar as a young woman, and since that day she has dedicated herself to  mourning that moment in her life.  Years later she still wears the wedding dress she had on that day.  She keeps the clocks throughout her home set to the exact time when the wedding was supposed to begin and didn’t.  Even the wedding cake that was prepared for the celebration sits on her dining room table, decaying slowly into dust.  Ms. Havisham is the paradigmatic example of a person who cannot leave her grief behind, whose entire life is defined by one great loss.  She lives only in the past, and is unable to move forward into the future.

Judaism has always rejected this idea.  In Jewish life grief is taken seriously, it is confronted head on, it is experienced deeply.  But it is also limited by the tradition.  There is a powerful moment at the end of shiva when the mourners are asked to leave the shiva house, to physically walk out of the door and to close it behind them.  This is a symbolic moment – I will not spend the rest of my life in a shiva house, I will not let mourning define my life – I will not only live in the past, I will not only look backwards.  In fact, the tradition demands of me that I look forward, into the future.  Not that I leave the past behind – I will always carry it.  But the Jewish way is to look forward, to affirm life, to survive, and to search for hope.  Even in the darkest times.

And I wonder if that is why the sages decided not to included any specific prayers or readings that remind us of why the omer counting is supposed to be a period of sadness.  In a sense we carry the past with us – we remember it, acknowledge it, it even affects our behavior – we don’t have the weddings.  But at the same time by leaving the past in the past we are better able to walk forward into the future with hope and faith, better prepared, perhaps, to receive the Torah at the end of the road that the counting also represents.

May we all find the strength and courage we need to bear our burdens from the past, but at the same time to walk forward into a new spring with hopeful hearts for what a new day – and a new season – can bring –

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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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