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Our Stories

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat and the first day of Passover, 4/20/19 –

     I am sure you’ve all known someone who is famous for telling stories.  Almost every family has that person.  Maybe an uncle or grandfather or grandmother, maybe a friend.  You can see them getting amped up, getting into story telling mode, their hands start to wave around, their voices rise in excitement.  Often their stories are repeated – you’ve heard them more than a few times over the years.  In fact, we can often repeat the stories ourselves, even finish the sentences, because we’ve heard them so often, and we know all of the punch lines.

     But we love those stories.  As much as we laugh about them, as much as we might roll our eyes, or glance across the table at one another when they are being told, those stories are part of our lives, they are about our families, they reflect our history, our origins, our understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from.  We Jews are story tellers, it is part of our DNA.  Every holiday has its story.  On Purim we tell the tale of Esther and Mordecai and Haman.  On Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the top of the mountain.  On Hanukkah we tell our children and grandchildren about the brave Maccabees and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for 8 days.    

     But the story telling holiday par excellence in Judaism in Passover.  Passover is the only holiday where the telling of a story is actually considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  The text of the Haggadah itself makes that clear – “even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders, all expert in Torah, מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצראים – we are still commanded to tell the story of the Exodus.  That is the Magid section of the Haggadah, Magid a word that actually means ‘telling.’  It is the core of the Haggadah, beginning with the הא לחמא עניא, including the four questions, the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak, and the extended midrash on the passage ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’  And even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, even if we know the passages by heart, we are still commanded to tell that story at the seder.

      And we have a particular way of telling the story.  A Jewish way.  If you think for a moment about the old fairy tales, the old stories we heard growing up, they all began and ended in the same way.  The beginning was always what?  ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.’  And what is always the last line of those classic stories?  ‘And they lived happily ever after.’  In between that beginning and ending you will always find, in one form or an other, a prince and a princess, an evil witch or a dangerous dragon, and in the course of the story the dragon is slain, or the witch is defeated, the prince and the princess find one another, fall in love, get married, move to a beautiful castle, and then that last sentence  – ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ 

    But the Jewish story is told differently.  We don’t begin our stories by saying ‘once upon a time in a land far away.’  Instead we begin our stories by talking about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.  Last night we said ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’  An actual time, a real place – Egypt; the villain is a real person, Pharaoh; and the story is about real people – in fact, our ancestors.  That is how a Jewish story begins!

     But we also end our stories differently.  If the fairy tale ends with ‘they lived happily ever after,’ how did we end the seder last night?  Next year in Jerusalem!  What do we mean when we say that?  We talked about this at our seder last night.  What happens if you are celebrating Passover in Jerusalem?  You’ve completed the seder, and you are ready to go to bed, everyone is full and tired, let alone that they’ve had four cups of wine, but you need that last sentence, you need to conclude your story.  It wouldn’t make sense to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when you are actually sitting in Jerusalem having your seder.  So what do you say?  Next year in a rebuilt  Jerusalem!  The last line of the seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ isn’t about an actual place, it is about a spiritual place and a future time, when one day the Messiah will come, and the world will be healed, and Jerusalem will a symbol of hope and healing and faith.  We don’t end our stories by tying everything up into that neat box.  Instead, we end our stories by looking to the future, with caution, but also with hope.  Next year in Jerusalem isn’t really an ending.  It is a pause, but more than anything else it is an acknowledgement that the story continues.  Today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond.  

     And I think there are two reasons we end the seder that way.  The first is that it reminds us of our responsibility in terms of making the world the way it should be.  When you say ‘they lived happily ever after’ it means they went to their castle, and the story was over.  They were done with their work.  They were no longer interested in changing the world.  But when you say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ it means there is much work to be done, it means that the world needs to be changed, and it reminds you that you have a role in making that happen.  

     But the other thing next year in Jerusalem does is remind you of your role in the telling of the story.  In a story that doesn’t end, someone needs to pick it up, someone needs to carry the thread of the narrative, and bring it to the next generation and the next and the next.  That is what happens at the seder table.  

     There is a scene in the Return of the King, the last volume of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of my favorites.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo have completed their quest, and against all odds managed to destroy the magic ring of the enemy.  They have played their role in the great drama of their time, as we all do in our own way.  And Sam pauses, thinking about all that they’ve seen, all that they’ve been through, and he says this:  “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told!  And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

     At the seder table we both tell the tale, and acknowledge our role in it.  We look to the past, our past, and recount great deeds and momentous events that miraculously still to this very day continue to shape our lives.  But we also understand on Passover that we have each played a part in this great story, and God willing we should continue to do so for many years, and many seders, to come.

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Elijah the Reconciler

Here is a text version of my sermon from 4/13/19 –

     It may be hard to believe, but one week from today seder #1 will already be over.  This coming Friday night Jews around the world will gather with family and friends, recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, eat their matzah and maror, drink their wine, and celebrate their freedom.  The seder is a series wonderful rituals, from the symbolic foods that we eat, to the four questions that we ask, to the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak that we tell.  

     Were you to ask me what my favorite moment in the seder is it would be hard for me to choose, but if you pressed me I would probably say the moment when we welcome Elijah the Prophet to our seder table.  I have vivid memories from my childhood of intently staring at Elijah’s cup after the opening of the door, always astonished when somehow, seemingly by magic, the wine filled kiddish cup set aside for the Prophet began to shake.  It wasn’t until I was around the age of bar mitzvah that I learned the cup shook because my Uncle Marvin would bump the edge of the table with his thigh.

     At our seders I try to recreate that sense of mystery for the young children who are with us, although our niece Lily, now 9, long ago learned about the thigh bumping trick.   And the truth is my interest in Elijah and my fascination with the idea of the Prophet coming to the seder has stayed with me all these years.  Elijah’s arrival at the seder is a turning point in the ritual, redirecting us from the past we’ve been remembering – the Exodus events, the plagues, the experience of slavery – and pointing us to the future, the potential of a messianic era when pain and suffering will no longer be a part of the human experience.  

     The old joke is how does Elijah manage to get to all of those seders?  He must use the same Uber driver as Santa Clause.  But the truth is Elijah appears in the course of the Jewish year at three liturgical moments – the seder is one – what are the other two?  One is havdallah, and those of you who have come for Saturday evening services know that at the end of havdallah it is traditional to sing the song we’ll sing about Elijah at our seders – Eliyahu HaNavi!  So Elijah’s presence is invoked at every havdallah ceremony.  And when else?  The bris!  According to tradition Elijah is present at every bris, and if you’ve been to a bris recently you may remember that just before the circumcision the baby is placed in a special chair, referred to as Kisai Shel Eliyahu – the Chair of Elijah.  

     The question is why does Elijah appear at these three moments, what is it that they have in common, and the answer is each is a moment of transition.  On Pesah we transition from slavery to freedom.  At havdallah we transition from the end of Shabbat to the work day week.  And at the bris the baby transitions from being outside of the covenant to being on the inside.  And Elijah is the symbolic figure of transition in Judaism, because Elijah, according to the tradition, is the one who will announce the coming of the messiah, and that will be the ultimate transition.

     But if Elijah is the figure of transition in the tradition, he is also a symbol of resolution.  I imagine you know that the Talmud is filled with debate after debate, about just about anything you could imagine under the sun, from dates to rituals to the meaning of biblical text.  And sometimes, in the course of talmudic discourse, the debate is left without any kind of resolution, without any kind of decision being made as to which opinion is right and which is wrong.  When that happens in the Talmud – when there is an unresolved dispute –  you will often find the following word written at the end of the debate: Teiku.  That is actually an acronym in Hebrew – ת – י – ק – ו and those letters stand for Tishbi – Yitareitz – Kushiyot – u’Ba’ayot – which means:  the Tishabite will resolve the talmudic debates and other problems.  Who is the Tishabaite?  Who is the Tishbi?  Elijah!  And the tradition believes that when that day comes, and Elijah arrives to announce the Messiah’s imminence, he will also resolve all of those talmudic debates, telling us which opinion was right, and which one was wrong. 

  That idea of Elijah as the one who resolves debates and fixes problems also has something to do with Passover.  If you were following along with Ben’s chanting of this morning’s haftara, special for this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, you may have noticed that in the last lines of the text Elijah is mentioned.  Here are the verses:  “Behold I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great, awe filled day.  והישיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם – and he will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

     In other words, Elijah, at least according to this text, will be the reconciler, the one who restores broken relationships in families, who heals the rifts that all too often develop over time between us and those we love.  And so we need Elijah to appear, not only on the night of the seder, but also on this Shabbat, almost a week before Passover, because we know when the holiday comes our family will be gathering.  And we know how painful it is to sit at the seder table with someone with whom we feel distant.  Or how even more painful it is to sit at the seder table without someone who should be there, because of some old, unresolved dispute.

     But it is here where I would differ with the tradition.  Don’t wait for Elijah to come to resolve those disagreements and divisions.  In the seders of my childhood Elijah’s cup moved not because the great Prophet had arrived and somehow sipped the wine.  Instead, as I learned when I got older – that cup was shaking because of human action.  So it is in our own lives and our own families.  When we want to heal a division – in our world, in our families, even in our own hearts – we are the ones who must, to use the words of this morning’s haftara, heishiv lev – we are the ones who must turn our hearts.  That internal turning is the only thing I know of that can lead to the external actions – the call, the conversation, the apology, the decision – that can make the difference between the world we live in now, and the world we want to live in one day.

     May Passover this year bring that spirit into our hearts and into our world – 

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Taking Out the Garbage

This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way.  I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation.  I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’

I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’  She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’  Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit.  One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!?  How was this possible?  After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize.  I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said.  ‘Just wanted to say hello.  Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’

Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes.  She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head.  And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi.  So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.

But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.  That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place?  Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am?  What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality.  I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.

So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night.  Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead.  First of all, the Torah portion.

There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife.  One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home.  The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong.  The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage.  Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’  The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’

The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door.  Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in.  When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street.  When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.”  By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw.  We can only imagine.

But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom.  And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service.  One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare.  After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.

But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside.  So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage.  And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.

Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence.  When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect.  And believe me it is very much appreciated.  But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi.  I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad.  I am Becky’s husband.  I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law.  My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing)  Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services.  Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when.  My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when.  I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful.  Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.

Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from.  Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility.  Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage.  Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC.  But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.

The question, of course, is where does that dose come from?  For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family.  My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am.  My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.

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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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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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Again, Goodbye

a text version of comments from yesterday’s Yizkor introduction –

Each year when I sit down to seder with my family I feel that my bubbie and zayde and there at the table with me. Not physically – at this point they’ve been gone for many years. My zayde died in 1976, and my bubbie just after we came to Baltimore, in 1999. But there is a powerful sense of their presence, the product of so many shared seders over the years, of particular memories from those nights in Baltimore, my father’s extended family all gathered around, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents. My bubbie was relatively quiet at those seders of my youth, involved with the cooking and cleaning, making her famous mundle bread, always eaten right after the fruit and chocolate covered nuts and just before the afikoman, and truth be told sometimes even after. She was a strong willed woman, never one to mince words, who in her own very particular and unmistakable way challenged the generations of her family – her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – with the importance of living a meaningful Jewish life.
My zaydie was a very different person. Soft spoken and gentle of spirit, he was a kind hearted soul from the old country. I remember him always in a white button down shirt, slightly rumpled, with pressed trousers, and often a straw hat perched on his head, thick glasses slightly obscuring his eyes. He was not the fighter my bubbie was, more accepting of modern life, and yet proud of his Judaism and the family he watched grow around him over the years. I have a distinct memory to this day of the very first time I chanted the four questions. My father is the youngest of four brothers, I was the youngest of the children ready to tackle the task. I had practiced in Hebrew school, and when the time came I was called to the head of the table where my bubbie and zayde sat together. My zayde had the haggadah open in front of him, and with one hand he pointed to the text on the page, while with the other he put his arm around my shoulders as I began the Mah Nishtana.
These are the family memories the seder table evokes. Where a grandparent sat, what a cousin always said, how an uncle said the kiddish every year, the chocolate cake recipe of an aunt that no one can make in quite exactly the same way. Of course it isn’t just Passover that brings these memories to our minds. There are Rosh Hashanah dinners, and Yom Kippur break-fasts, recollections of playing with the fringes of someone’s tallit, of sitting in particular seats each year, of how someone sang a part of the service with gusto. The sense in the tradition is that the holidays are moments of sanctified time, but over the years part of their sacred quality comes from the time that has been spent on those days with the people most important to us in our lives, with whom we have most intimately shared the journey of our own years. On the other days of the year they are in our minds, always a part of our day to day lives. But during the holidays we feel as if we are sharing time with them again, as if in some way this world and the world to come touch, and we can reach from one to the other.
I suspect that is why we are asked to say yizkor precisely at the moments when the holidays are coming to an end. Here it is, the very last day of Pesah – thank goodness! – and we gather for yizkor. But it is the same for every yizkor service. On Yom Kippur, the day that concludes the 10 days of repentance. On Shemini Atzeret, that last day of the Sukkoth festival cycle. Not the first day, but the second and last day of Shavuot. Cynics might say this was done because these would be days of light shul attendance, and so the yizkor service was put in on these days to bring Jews to the synagogue. As Rabbi Loeb used to say, the dead bring out the living. But the custom of reciting yizkor prayers is now almost a thousand years old, and back in those days my guess is most folks went to services. So there must be another reason why the end of each holiday period was chosen for yizkor.
And I believe that reason is so that we can say goodbye, once again. When the holidays end we go back to our regular lives, to the secular world with its concerns and worries, its distractions and the sense it contains of time passing so quickly. We lose the sense of timelessness that the holidays give us, of connection to things past, great events that shaped our people, but also the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters, the aunts, uncles, and friends who have shaped our lives, and helped to form our characters. May they rest in peace. And may we honor their memories by the way we live our own lives.

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A Single Seder, and Around the World

Last night I had the privilege of conducting a ‘learning’ seder at St. Timothy’s School, a 182 year old local prep-boarding school for girls.  We’ve been doing this pre-Passover seder for many years now.  It gives the girls, many of whom are not Jewish, a chance to experience the Passover rituals.  Each table has a seder plate, complete with bitter herbs, haroset, a roasted bone (OK, they use a chicken wing bone!), an egg, and matzah.  We go through the ’30 minute Haggadah’ in about 20 minutes, and then the school serves the girls a fairly traditional Passover dinner, to included brisket and matzah stuffing.  The school does a fabulous job of promoting religious pluralism, and there is a genuine respect for different faith traditions and perspectives.

This was clearly evident just from the table I was sitting at.  I shared my meal with a Christian girl from Nebraska, a Buddhist girl from Vietnam, a Muslim girl from Afghanistan, and a Jewish girl from Pikesville, and the school’s Episcopalian pastor.  Talk about ecumenical!  The girl from Nebraska told me she had known only one Jewish family before coming to Baltimore for school.  It went without saying that the girls from Vietnam and Afghanistan had never met Jews in their lives before their St. Tim’s experience.  And here we all were, sitting at the same table, and sharing a seder meal!  The girls were deeply interested in the Passover story and the various and sundry customs of the holiday.  They asked questions, they offered thoughtful responses.  They were clearly close.  As seniors, they had roomed together, studied together, cheered for each other on the athletic field.  Kudos to St. Timothy’s for fostering such a caring, welcoming, tolerant, and genuinely respectful environment.  It was one of those moments that brings hope to a rabbi’s heart – maybe one day we really will all get along.

Of course the Passover story works perfectly with this ultimate hope and dream.  It is the most particular of our narratives, recalling the moment when God took US from slavery to freedom.  The Haggadah text reminds us that on the night of Passover each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she had actually been a slave and personally redeemed by God.  Yet at the same time it is the most universalistic of our stories.  After all, doesn’t every person yearn to be free?  Isn’t freedom the most fundamental human right?  And doesn’t each person – regardless of faith, color, country, gender – deserve to be free, treated with dignity and respect, and seen as a creature created in the image of God?  

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