Monthly Archives: March 2013

On Pesach, you are not alone.

wavesPassover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself -  a message that  speaks to people  of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.

And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that  the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that  all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not  simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.

But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on  other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts.  Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai).  I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.

And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would  only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times.  Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.

The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images.  And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images,  society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that  the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself,  can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.

I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.

Posted on March 28, 2013

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Wicked Son: “Because I knew you…”

imgresWe had reached one of those loaded moments in our family Passover seder where all my acumen as a parent, an educator, and as a rabbi are tested simultaneously. See, I have four sons, and hence a problem. We had already sung the Ballad of the Four Sons to the tune of My Darling Clementine, and it was now time to assign passages in the hagaddah to each of my boys, each of which, on any given day shows streaks of wisdom, wickedness, simpleness, and a lack of being able to ask a question much beyond “is dinner ready? (While technically a question, I refuse to count it). The danger in assigning parts is that I could unwittingly play into a fraternal competition of “See, Abba likes me best!” This is how I played it this year: I assigned the readings randomly, and before they could read into which part they were assigned (“Hey, why did I get the wicked one?”) I said the following:

Let’s read these straight through and as we read them pay attention to clues, I am going to ask you which child do you think I like best, and why (for a wonderful contemporary/traditional take on the Four Sons, check out this G-Dcast video).

marx-bros
The Wise Child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws, statues and customs which the Lord our God has commanded us?”

Answer him with all the laws, to the very last detail of the afikoman.

The Wicked Child asks, “What is the meaning of this to you?”

Answer him, “You have denied a principle of our faith. This was done for me, and not you!”

The Simple Child asks, “What is this about?”

Answer him, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched arm.”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”

To my delight, they gave me the answers I wanted.

“The wise child because he is wise.”

“The wicked child because he asks tough questions.”

“The simple son because he is open to anything you say. You said that last year.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you did,” two others guests at the table corroborated.

“I think it’s the One Who Doesn’t Know What to Ask, because he is polite and let’s you start the conversation.”

I know that each of us carries each of these traits within ourselves, and I pointed that out, with the use of a helpful and provocative paper-cut image in one of our haggadot (plural for haggadah)

69-ReisingerThis year I said that I preferred the wicked one – “He asks the best question,” I answered. And, I believe he does. I was also struck, more so than other years, that the Wicked son gets a bad rap, not only for asking a fair and pointed question – which we otherwise applaud (It is said that a Jewish parent does not ask a child, “what did you learn at school today,” but rather, “did you ask a good question today?”) The problem with the wicked child is that he has a crappy teacher, who slams him for showing up to the seder and being himself, for wanting some integrity in the system? “Do you believe this stuff?” “Is this still relevant?” “Why are you so Jewish all of a sudden?” The response to the Wicked child got me thinking about what I would say as a high school teacher, if I could say anything I wanted to these four archetypal students:

To the Wise son, “What are the statues, laws, and customs? Why are you asking me? Go read the Tenth Chapter of the Talmudic Tractate on Passover, and then we can discuss it, then you can explain about the Afikoman to your brothers.”

To the Wicked son, “What does this mean to me? Good question. I think it is an individual challenge to understand the duality of confinement and freedom. Ask yourself, what constraints on your life would you want to be free from? What obligations do you have to yourself and others as you exercise your freedom?”

To the Simple son, “Dig a little deeper. Yes we are commemorating an event that has long past, and whose memory still inspires us today, but go a little further – Why? Why should we bother with this? What lessons are we trying to hold on to? What implications does it have for the world we live in today?”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I want to answer along the lines of Sterns Professor Scott Galloway, in his “Get your S–t Together” email to a student a few years ago – here is an excerpt:

…Let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your s–t together.

Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades.

So To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I find myself wanting to say, “Hey, Judaism, like being part of this family around this table is not a pass/fail course in which you can just hide out in the back. We need your voice in the mix too. You can ask picayune questions about tiny details, you can ask pointed questions in an antagonistic tone, you can even ask a basic question that you think everyone but you must know the answer to, but passivity is never a substitute for actual learning – doing nothing, saying nothing doesn’t just hurt you. You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be witty, you don’t have to leave your skepticism at the door, or anything like that, but keeping your personal Torah, your deep inner wisdom to yourself, deprives us all of sparks of the divine that only you hold. We are not at the movies, silence is not golden.

The Four Sons by Eli Valley

The Four Sons by Eli Valley

The Four Sons by Eli Valley.Click to see the full-size image.

First posted on April 10, 2012

Posted on March 26, 2013

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Dayenu – You are enough

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The highlight of my Seder and of many I have attended is the singing of the “Dayenu” prayer. “dayenu” in Hebrew means “It was enough for us.” The song praises all of the things God does for the Israelites,

If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them Dayenu, it would have been enough for us! …
If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel Dayenu, it would have been enough for us!
If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and had not built for us the Temple Dayenu, it would have been enough for us! Passover

The message is that God is great and God did more than enough to take care of us. But there is another message in there for us as well. Most of us think that we are not doing enough. We are not working hard enough, earning enough, spending time with their children enough. You name it. It is on the list of not being “enough.” Part of what Passover calls us to do spiritually is to loosen the chains of bondage that we put on ourselves. Dayenu!

It is enough. YOU are enough. Whatever it is, let the anxiety go and realize that yes, dayenu, it is enough. You can even share at your Seder what anxiety you are letting go of this year. Ask others to share as well. Let us celebrate this feast of freedom by freeing ourselves. Bang on the table. Sing at the top of your lungs, and celebrate the things you have accomplished, the love you give to others, and the very fact that you exist. That is enough.

Happy Passover!

Posted on March 25, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Wicked Child

wicked childAll the Seder-goers I know love reading about the “four children” in the Passover Haggadah. But they all dislike the section about the “wicked child.” The traditional text of the Haggadah, they say, treats this child with harsh prejudice. And they are right!

Four times the Torah instructs the Israelites to teach their children about the Exodus from Egypt. But our Talmudic sages believed Torah was immaculately edited, and nothing was repeated without a good reason. Each repetition, they said, gives instructions for teaching a different type of child: wise, wicked, simple, and not ready to ask.

About the wicked child, the Haggadah says:

The wicked child asks, “What does this service mean to you?”

To me, this seems a straightforward enough question. Maybe everyone else seems to know what is going on. Maybe everyone else knows the symbolic meanings of things. Maybe everyone else has a deep emotional connection. Maybe the child is a social-science researcher.

But the narrator of the Haggadah is terribly triggered by the wording of the question.

To you?!? And not to the questioner? Just as he has taken himself out of the community, and committed essential heresy, so you should set his teeth on edge, and say to him, “Because of this service God acted for ME when I left Egypt.” For ME and not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Ouch!

Contemporary commentaries flare up in the child’s defence. “The wicked child is insulted.” “This is why so many people remember ritual as unpleasant.” “This illustrates the pitfalls of labelling people.” “Can you imagine God being so judgmental as to leave someone behind?”

This year, I am the wicked child. I am not in the mood for Passover, and don’t particularly feel like part of the community.

It’s not that I failed to try. I started cleaning, reviewed the Haggadah, planned a fun second Seder at the synagogue, studied new ideas and even gave a sermon about one of them. But I can’t conjure any connection between these activities and a holiday spirit.

It’s my first Passover without my wise Mom and my sensible Aunt Sylvia. During their last four years, I managed to travel 6,000 miles each Pesach just to spend part of the holiday with them. But this year, they are gone. My brother will spend the Seders with others who miss them, but I won’t be connected. No one can take their place. Perhaps friends have sensed this. For first Seder, I invited no one and no one invited me.

In Jewish symbolism, the Exodus is everything. We were slaves in mitzrayim, the narrow place, and God took us out. “Leaving the narrow place” is an archetypal pattern. Passover is zecher l’yitziat mitzrayim, commemoration of the Exodus. So, says Torah, is Shabbat. Sukkot. Financial responsibility. Kind speech. Jews also invoke the Exodus as a spiritual metaphor for just about any inner journey. National rejuvenation after acts of antisemitism. Community healing from illness and sorrow. Individual clarity after a time of confusion.

The metaphor even finds me in my lonely corner. Here I am, in the narrow place, not ready for Passover. This year, I look at others and wonder, “What does all this mean to you?” Because I don’t know what it means to me. Like the fictional wicked child, I will be at the Seder; I will even lead it. But in a personal way, I may not be redeemed.

The Haggadah’s negative reaction to the wicked child, however, has been redeemed for me. My own situation suggests a psycho-spiritual interpretation. Perhaps this child is in need of liberation. Perhaps the tools are set before her. But perhaps she is not ready yet to recognize them as her own. As long as she imagines they are only available to others, she will not be redeemed. But that is not the final word. When her attitude shifts, she too will leave the narrow place and enter a community of joy.

Commentaries: Israel Eldad, Ira Steingroot, Yaariv ben Aharon, Arthur Green. Image: morethanfour.org. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on March 24, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Spicing Up Your Seder

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As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.

The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!

  1. Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder.  So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
  2. Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked?  The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
  3. Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah.  Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
  4. Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
  5. Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus.  Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
  6. Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
  7. Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy.  There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
  8. We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
  9. Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom.  This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
  10. Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
  11. Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
  12. Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
  13. Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction.  We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
  14. Miriam’s Cup:  Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
  15. Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.

Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!

Posted on March 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

“As If”: The Two Little Words We Too Often Ignore

“Each generation, people must see themselves as if they themselves went forth from Egypt.”

That quote is the essence of why we celebrate Passover, read the Haggadah, and hold a Seder. When we think about that sentence, we naturally focus on how Passover should inspire us to work for freedom and justice. But often, we overlook two crucial words in that sentence: “as if.” And those two words may, in fact, be the most important ones.

As If PrincipleThe words “as if” inspired psychologist Richard Wiseman to write a new book called The As If Principle, based on William James’ idea that “if you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” Wiseman highlights some fascinating research that shows that change doesn’t always come from the inside out — sometimes, change comes from the outside in.

In other words, if we act “as if” we were trying to improve who we are and how we behave, we actually do improve who we are and how we behave.

One striking example he brings up was a method to get heavy smokers to give up cigarettes. There have been all sorts of attempts to get people to give up smoking over the years, and most have used the scare route, such as public service announcements featuring people who have lost their voice box or ever-increasingly-ominous warnings on cigarette packs. But John Mann, a researcher at Harvard, decided to try something different: role-playing.

Twenty-six very heavy smokers were randomly assigned to two different groups. One group was asked to behave “as if” they had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and even went into a room that looked like a doctor’s office, complete with an actor in a white coat, X-rays and medical charts. This group was asked to think about how they would behave now that they “had” cancer. In contrast, the control group simply were simply presented information about how awful it would be to have lung cancer, but didn’t do any role-playing.

What happened to the two groups? Before the study, all the participants were smoking about 25 cigarettes per day. At the end, the control group had cut back by five cigarettes. But the role-playing group had cut back by 10. Even years later, the group that had to act “as if” they needed to change their lives actually did. (Wiseman, 123)

Role-playing, acting “as if” we were someone else, changes our outlook and our behavior, and so that is why the Seder commands us to act “as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt” — because Passover, at its heart, is truly an act of role-playing. We have props (the seder plate, Elijah’s cup), stage directions (recline, drink wine) and a script (the Haggadah). And they are all designed to help us act as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt.

So what outlook or behavior is Passover trying to get us to change? Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who calls the Haggadah “the script for a sacred drama” in order to help us to role-play more effectively, argues that it’s to help us connect to our history, our community, and our obligations to others. As he says, when we host our Seder and act “as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt,”

[we] do not just “play” the roles, [we] are the roles, and [we] take the roles so seriously they [we] internalize them as [our] identities. When the actress playing Lady Macbeth leaves the theater, she is not expected to murder someone on the way home; when Jews put down their Haggadah, they are expected to have a heightened sense of Jewish identity and to be more attuned to their Jewish responsibilities. People, that is, who leave the Seder and ignore the plight of the homeless have missed the point. (Hoffman, My People’s Haggadah Vol. 1, 5-6)

The “as if” principle teaches us that “once you behave as if you were a type of person, you become that person.” So on this Passover, when we act “as if” we ourselves went out from Egypt, we are also leading ourselves to act like people who care deeply about the oppressed, who fight for justice, and who extend a hand to those less fortunate.

And when we act that way, we soon realize that we aren’t simply role-playing; we truly are changing ourselves and our world for the better. Indeed, those two little words that we too often ignore — “as if” — are truly what allows us to transform our hopes and dreams into our reality.

Posted on March 21, 2013

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One game-changing innovation for your Seder this year

Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home.  There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.

seder 2007 4

But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out.  This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial.  While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table.  Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too.  At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.

In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more.  In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies.  And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot.  In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience.  When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.

Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.

Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!

Posted on March 20, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Conflicted

Passover is coming and, as always, it is causing a certain amount of anxiety for certain members of the family. The issue? Kitniyot.

kitniyotLet’s take one step back and define chametz as understood by the rabbis. There are only five grains that according to Jewish law, can ferment and become chametz. These are wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. [Times have certainly changed. When I was young, I can't imagine where one might have found spelt. Today, spelt bread can be found in my neighborhood market.] It so happens that matzah can only be made using one of these five grains. Traditional Jewish law forbids eating, owning, or deriving benefit from these five grains in any amount and in any form throughout the holiday — with the obvious exception being when they are used to make matzah.

So far so good.

About seven hundred years ago, Ashkenazic practice began to forbid the consumption of rice, millet (yeah, I had to look up millet too), and legumes (e.g. peas, beans, alfalfa, lentils, carob, soy, and peanuts). Corn was added to the forbidden list at some point. These foodstuffs were termed kitniyot. Even before this practice, there were Talmudic discussions about the status of rice and millet, with a notable amount of disagreement.

Refraining from eating kitniyot during Passover used to fall strictly along ethnic lines. In the last several years, however, more and more Askenazic Jews have started to question and reject this practice.

I am conflicted. I didn’t used to be conflicted. That’s not to say I enjoyed abstaining from kitniyot or even that I agreed with the prohibition. I felt strongly, however, about upholding the culinary traditions that have been in my family for generations.

But life is more complicated when it’s touched by Asperger’s. Everything is affected by it. Eating habits are especially affected by it. For several years, I have been wondering if it is really worth it to engage in a practice that was described by several Rishonim, such as Rabbenu Yerucham (Beit Yosef OH 453), as “foolish.”

A couple of years ago, we decided to open up our food choices to include the consumption of kitniyot. And while this makes for more plentiful menu options with the prohibited foods being limited to the five grains (wheat, oats, barely, spelt, and rye), Passover has lost something for me. Maybe because it no longer feels like such a hardship. And while Passover is not intended to be an exercise in asceticim, there ought to be some sense of deprivation in order to have some understanding of our ancestors’ experience. Without the ban on kitniyot, it feels like a corn-filled free-for-all.

If corn is OK, what would be the reason for not eating corn tortillas? Regular chocolate? If rice is OK, are Rice Krispies forbidden? I worry that Pesach isreduced to abstention from bread and pasta. Nothing more.

And so I struggle in finding a way to honor the traditions of my ancestors while respecting my son’s challenges. Maybe that struggle is where I will find the most meaning this Passover.

Posted on March 19, 2013

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Why We Need “Obsolete” Ritual

“Habemus Papam!” — “We have a pope!” After days of breathless anticipation by Catholics around the world, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and uttered the words that precede the announcement of every new pope: “Habemus Papum!” The media has been abuzz ever since about the new Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina.  His selection has been considered noteworthy for being the first Jesuit priest to become pope, the first pope to choose the name Francis, and, most of all, for being the first pope from the Americas. What stood out to to me, though, was not the novelty of all these “firsts” but the relationship between this sense of newness and the role of Catholic ritual that permeated Francis’ selection: from the cardinals sequestering themselves in their conclave to the black and then white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to signify that a new pope had been elected. Ultimately, the appointment of the new pope was about this dynamic between tradition and change.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the pope was chosen at the same time Jews segue in our cycle of Torah reading to the Book of Leviticus/Sefer Vayikra. Leviticus takes us from the narrative of the Israelite exodus and the foundational moment of revelation at Sinai into the arcane, elaborate, and often hard to penetrate world of ritual sacrifice and impurity. The first two Torah portions in Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, offer extensive sacrificial taxonomies, describing with painstaking detail the rituals of the burnt, meal, sin, guilt, and well-being offerings. And the gory details would make even Quentin Tarantino blush: blood being sprinkled about the altar, entrails removed, and on and on. Let’s face it: Leviticus is hard to read and even harder to connect with. How are we to relate to these materials? Is Vayikra obsolete? Unapproachable to modern Jews?

Our Sages of old faced these same questions, but with a good deal more existential angst. Leviticus had served as a priestly manual, instructing the High Priest and his assistants how to perform sacrifices at the Temple. But once the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifice became impossible. How, then, were Jews supposed to remain Jews? The ancient rabbis, in a brilliant move, took sacrifice and transformed its function into two new modes that would come to define Judaism for the next 2000 years. First, they used the structure of the sacrificial system—its times for sacrifice (daily and holiday) and its liturgical accompaniments (such as the psalms that Levites recited)–to create a new system of daily and holiday fixed prayer. Instead of offering sacrifices as the medium for interacting with God, Jews could pray in synagogues and retain the same (or even better, according to the scholar Maimonides) ability to engage with the Divine.

Second, though there was no longer a need to know the ritual details of the sacrificial system for practical purposes, the rabbis insisted that Jews continue to study Leviticus because the act of studying itself became a proxy for the act of sacrifice. “One who occupies himself with the study of Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, nor the guilt offering.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate M’nachot 110a) Indeed, nearly the entirety of the Fifth Order of the Mishnah, entitled Kodashim, pertains to Temple worship even though it was redacted several hundred years after the Temple was destroyed.  Grappling with our textual tradition and seeking to derive wisdom from it became an end in itself as important as sacrifice was to our ancestors. What the rabbis did, in sum, was to innovate, to radically change Judaism, but to do so through a deep, organic connection to our tradition.

Tradition and change remains the dialectic through which we live our Judaism today. The challenge Judaism addresses, the challenge that faces each of us every day, is to live in the murky waters between tradition and change. If we change too much, giving up aspects of our religion that might not feel important anymore, we risk losing our connection to our heritage. But if we remain too rigid, holding on to rituals and practices just because that’s what our parents and grandparents did, then we risk creating future generations that will be disconnected from, and likely reject, our heritage. What we must do is to follow the lead of our Sages: to push ourselves to engage with our tradition’s rituals and sacred texts so that we can deduce new meanings and new contexts from them, meanings and contexts that will resonate for us in our contemporary lives.  It is worth noting that the term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.”  In Hebrew, the common biblical word for sacrifice is, “korban,” which means “something brought near.”  Through our modern-day “sacrifices” of prayer and engaging with our sacred texts, we have the opportunity to draw nearer to God and to embrace holiness.

In some ways, our Catholic friends have it easy. They can rely on a pope to lead them, to be the intermediary between God/tradition and their daily lives. We Jews, however, reject the idea of an intermediary.  We are all, in a sense, High Priests.  This gives us both the blessing of direct access to the Almighty but also the obligation to do what it takes to gain that direct access.  It is my hope and prayer that we will rise to this challenge, creating a vibrant, intelligent, and meaningful Judaism for the 21st century.

Posted on March 18, 2013

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When It Is Not Obvious

A couple weeks ago news stations around the country featured the story of an 87-year old woman, a resident of a nursing home in Bakersfield, California, who was denied CPR by a nurse even while the 9-1-1 operator pleaded with her to administer the life saving intervention. The audio recording of that 9-1-1 conversation sends chills down our spine as we listen knowing that her refusal to offer treatment results in that elderly woman’s death. The nurse claimed to the 9-1-1 operator that it was against the policy of the nursing home to attempt life saving intervention by any of the employees and her sole job was to only call for help and wait with the patient. The facility later confirmed that this is indeed their policy.

The response to this incident was an overwhelming display of horror and disgust. How could anyone sit idly by while a person quite literally dies in front of them? This is even more pronounced when the person who refuses to help is a nurse, a member of the medical profession. This case and the wrong committed is so clear and unequivocal that it requires little commentary, if any.

The situations that are obvious are not where the struggle lies. We are defined not by doing the right thing when it was obvious but by the times we navigated uncertainty and chose to act properly and justly. Life is made up more of the gray than the black and white. How do we navigate the uncharted? How do we find direction when there is no immediate and visceral reaction of what we should or should not do?

This is what placing oneself into the fabric of a religious tradition is all about. It is embracing the limits of the “I” and finding strength in shared wisdom and collective insight. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the sooner one can accept the boundaries of what they, alone, can decide or figure out — that not all situations are as obvious in what one should do as the case of the nursing home in California — the sooner one discovers real strength and moral bravery.

Oftentimes, our society’s stark individualism is traced back to the experience of the rugged Western frontier of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. A man or woman who decided to venture out and settle the front range of the Colorado Rockies or attempt to make a go of it in Southwestern Utah by themselves was not only doomed to failure but risked their very lives. The Western frontier would not have been transformed and struggling farms and communities in their infancy would not have overcome all obstacles and survived if not for the total embrace of the power of the “we” and the inter-dependence of one person to the other.

There are times where the decision to make is obvious. Those times we can act alone, confident in our course. The majority of our lives are not composed of such moments. A community of ideas and a faith tradition connect us to wisdom that has been forged through the test of time and hammered in the fires of experience that transcends the lifetime of any one person. Let us not abandon the the power of community and the teachings it offers in the absolute pursuit of the “I”.

Posted on March 15, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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