A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son. It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.
It’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.
That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about …second chances. Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus, to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.
They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)
Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because there isn’t really anything to observe – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.
What is that all about?
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!” and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”
“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”
So, two things:
First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.
I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday. It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation. In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters, the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that these two cases are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”
IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.
A number of years ago, I was at a Purim party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry. Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear. Why a story? Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?
He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me. It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me. Who I really am. Without it being a big deal. Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’
I understood what he was saying. For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender. And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way. But that’s not how my friend was dressed. His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.
Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self. Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life. So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?
In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’. The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head. Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “Kli gever, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man! We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.
But, more to the point, what both the Torah and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural context. We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?
We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female. From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’ In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another. As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.
But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion. What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around. So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity. For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty. We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.
In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting. If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.
And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition. Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves. Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day. When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes. If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.
What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?
A professor friend of mine has been thinking about moments of interruption. How do we cope when they intrude upon our lives? Death is perhaps the most extreme example of this as in many ways our lives come to screeching halt in order to bury and mourn our loved ones. Jewish tradition has a number of rules as to when someone can interrupt their prayers to greet someone or remove their screaming baby in the middle of silent prayer. When can one interrupt performing one mitzvah if another one beckons as well?
But we know that the most interruptions occur when we are in conversation. Sometimes we assume that the person interrupting is simply rude, while the interrupter may feel that it is crucial to the moment. Universities have to make rules about when it is or is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker.
Circulating on the web now is an extraordinary talk by MK Ruth Calderon in her first Knesset speech. It can be viewed here in Hebrew and it is translated here. Aside from the content and the reclaiming of Jewish tradition and text for all Jews, there are two moments that stand out for me. One is her acknowledgement of Rabbi David Hartman who had just passed away. Secondly is when Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) interrupts her presentation:
Rabbi Rechumei – a rabbi, a rav, a whole lot of man [“rav” can mean “rabbi” or “much”]. “Rechumei” in Aramaic means “love”. Rechumei is derived from the word “rechem”, womb, someone who knows how to include, how to completely accept, just as a woman’s womb contains the baby. This choice of word for “love” is quite beautiful. We know that the Greek word for “womb” gives us the word “hysteria”. The Aramaic choice to take the womb and turn it into love is a feminist gesture by the Sages.
He was constantly, he could be found before Rava, the head of the yeshiva at Mechoza…
Chairman Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas):
Rechem also [has a numerologically significant value of] 248.(the number of positive commandments out of 613)
Thank you. Yasher koach.
Thank you for participating. I am happy…
I think the idea she is saying is wonderful…
I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.
What is lost in this moment of the English translation is that as Vaknin adds his thought, there are sounds from the Knesset of what appear to be some protesting his interruption of Calderon’s speech. However, she apparently does not see it as a rude interruption, but rather a genuine moment of Torah study. In that short exchange a woman who is self-described as “very Jewish, very Zionist, secular-traditional-religious home that combined Ashkenaz and Sepharad, [Revisionist] Betar and [Socialist] Hashomer Hatzair,” has a brief exchange of Torah with a member of Shas. For those few seconds Ruth has transformed the Knesset into a Beit Midrash, a place while still filled with conflicting voices, but now for the sake of Torah. It was a brief, but real moment of a shared religious passion. Although Torah study is generally not the agenda of the Knesset, may more interruptions for the Sake of Heaven be found.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
Is it kosher to listen to Neshama Carlebach in concert? Go to an opera where women are singing solos? Enjoy the latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof“?
Based on traditional rabbinic law, the prohibition known as kol isha (literally, “a woman’s voice”) is based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14: “For your voice is sweet (arev) – and your appearance pleasant (naveh).” It has had the Orthodox world in yet another gender-driven debate.
Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the men from the allure of a female voice and the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.
The essence behind hearing a woman’s voice is not solely its intrinsic sensuality, as many halachic authorities have indicated, but the functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study.
Although liberal Jewish communities around the world do not adhere to the strict interpretations of kol isha, in Israel it has become an issue of religious rights for men and women on both sides of the debate.
Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the Kol Isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training course because it included women’s singing.
An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and make a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of this religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.
The religious authorities who have jurisdiction over the Kotel have framed their opposition to women publicly praying at the Western Wall around the kol isha prohibition. Since 1967, women’s collective voices at the Kotel have been silenced. In December 1988, Women of the Wall was founded to secure women’s rights to hold and read the Torah in public in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Each month on rosh hodesh, the group meets and prays at Robinson’s Arch, the place designated by the authorities in 2003 for women’s public prayer.
The Psalmist encouarges us to “lift our voices” (Pslam 147) and to “open our mouths” (Psalm 144) to declare God’s glory. Our voices are our instruments towards religious freedoms. Let us find the path together as we sing God’s praises, male and female in one united voice.
There is an old joke about the itinerant maggid (preacher) who would go from town to town and give a public sermon. He was a passionate speaker and developed quite a reputation. The only problem was that he had only one good sermon for Parashat (Torah portion of) Korach. This was quite troubling as he was asked to speak in many towns on different weeks of the year and the expectation was he would speak on the weekly Parashah.
So what would he do? As he began his talk, he would “accidentally” knock his Bible off the lectern, bend down to retrieve it and declare, “Oy, the earth has swallowed up the book which reminds me of when Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the earth”, and proceed to give his Korach sermon.
To rehash the role and importance of memory in Judaism is not needed. However, there is a quality of “which reminds me” that is a staple of traditional Jewish life. This is true of our sacred texts. It is quite common in Talmudic literature to see later debates being described as manifestations of earlier ones. Debates about particular issues are analyzed in what might first appear as not easily related other debates. There is a mode of thinking that draws on the tradition and earlier contexts. While you are a voice in the discussion, you are only a voice. The conversation requires many voices over time. Your creative input is welcomed and desired in the broader context.
When stories are told, we sometimes see them through the lens of the characters, sometimes from the vantage point of the omniscient narrator, and often from a combination of the above. This week’s Torah reading presents a fine example of this. This is shaped in part by a Midrash, the result being of that which looks on the surface as a laudatory moment contains within it much greater moral complexity.
26. Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. 27. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” 28. Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!” 29. Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”
There are many questions here including the identity of the lad and the sudden appearance of Eldad and Medad. This passage and its larger context deserve much study.
There is a powerful contrast between Joshua and Moses. What Joshua sees as a threat to Moses by Eldad and Medad, Moses views as a cause for celebration. The capacity of Eldad and Medad to prophesize is a sign of their greatness and is not to be viewed as an act of rebellion against Moses. Moses is happy for others to share the spirit of God.
But the story does not end here. The Midrash picked up by Rashi describes the following scenario. “R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah (Moses’s wife) when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.”
For Moses’s wife, the achievement of prophecy is a tragedy. Her fear is for the wives of Eldad and Medad. To be the wife of a prophet as great as Moses is to be abandoned by her husband. Moses has experienced so much of the presence of God that he can never return to his tent and be intimate with his wife. Zipporah understands that Eldad and Medad are indeed a threat, but not to Moses, but rather to their families and wives in particular.
It is this very complexity and mixture of viewpoints that draws me to Torah. However the attraction cannot only be to the pleasure of reading the text. Rather moral questions must emerge from Torah as well. Who suffers for my spiritual success? As I strive for meaning and purpose do I leave anyone behind in the wake? Through whose lens do I properly judge a situation? Torah calls me to face these questions. And rabbis should ask them on a regular basis.
An Orthodox rabbinic colleague Rabbi Zev Farber recently posted on Morethodoxy a piece on the experience of place women have in Orthodox synagogues. He concludes his post with: “Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakhah and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.”
In response to this, I posted a comment to him “While I share the sentiments here, I am wondering why Rabbi Farber has written what is essentially a thirty or forty year old dated post, including the Flintstone and Ozick references. My fifty two year old wife would vigorously nod in agreement and my age seventeen and twenty seven daughters’ eyes would glaze over and say deal with it”. (My twenty four year old is a less frequent synagogue attendee, but the one she attends less frequently would be Orthodox.)
It is interesting where we draw our lines in the sand. My daughters would never put up with being denied equal access to Jewish text, but are more at peace with ritual inequality or difference. They do not harbor a secret desire to put on tefillen. As my daughter put it “Why would I? Nobody in my community does”.
I am left to wonder why this is the case. What changed between my wife’s generation and my daughters’? I think part of the answer is that my daughters are the beneficiaries of those women and men who came before them and fought the battles, created the learning environments and opened up the doors of the Beit Midrash. What is striking is that the ritual practices per se are not the issue. The fact that their voices can now be heard appears to be critical. They are not silent but engaged participants in the debates of Jewish life. If they are not bothered by not being able to read Torah, it is because their voices can still be heard in the Beit Midrash actively engaging our sacred texts.
In a different vein, but I think not unrelated, I see a liberal approach to social issues. On the one hand they are committed to Taharat Hamishpacha (family purity laws) and there was no question my daughter would cover her hair after her wedding. However my sense is that on issues confronting their gay friends, my daughters simply want their friends to be happy in whatever relationship they are in.
In acquiring a voice and becoming active learners, these young Orthodox women are at peace with their place in the synagogue. They love the best of the Orthodox community, but they retain their moral voice. As committed to halakhah as they are, they retain their sovereign self.
A few days ago I was on my way home from work on my bike when a passenger in a passing car yelled to me, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” It was jarring. I was obeying traffic laws and being as hyper-careful and thoughtful as possible. I have learned that when you are cycling on the suburban New Jersey roads near my home, anything less is very risky and foolish. So what was this guy’s problem? He was more than just an obnoxious North Jersey driver. He was a member of a more selective club – offensive, selfish drivers who put the lives of cyclists at risk.
Once spring weather settles in, I tune up my bike and use it as a primary means of transportation, weather permitting. I not only love the experience of a good ride, but I feel that cycling helps me to live my values. While getting great exercise I am also taking my car off the road – burning less fossil fuel and doing my own little part in relieving the traffic that plagues our New York metropolitan area. The least I would expect from the motorists who pass me is that they allow me to share the road.
This morning I took advantage of beautiful weather and set out early for an extra long ride. Riding on the quieter, beautiful roads away from the main town roads, I was sad when an ambulance sped past. I said a prayer for the person who needed to be whisked so quickly to the hospital. A little while later, as I passed another ambulance, I worried once again for the wounded or sick person whose morning was broken with their emergency. But when I passed a third ambulance a while later, my imagination kicked in. I prayed that the person inside was not a cyclist.
Our rabbis taught that we must not say that we are relieved that we are not the victims in an emergency, since that implies that we are not sympathetic to the person who is truly suffering. So I rebuked myself for such a selfish thought. I prayed once again for healing for whomever was in the ambulance.
But I came by this fear honestly. Just a couple of weeks ago a 25-year-old man was critically injured while cycling (hit by a car) just a mile from my house on a road I often need to travel. We live in an area that lacks shoulders on many of the roads, and harried drivers speed by, sometimes carelessly. A distracted driver can, God forbid, be a disaster for a cyclist. Even as it has become more and more common to see bicycle commuters all over the area, motorists are no more sensitive to our experience.
Last year I was coming to a stop at a light near my house, along with a few other cars. Suddenly, a large rock landed in front of my bike. It had come from one of the cars stopping at the light, from which a guy whom I never saw shouted at me. Luckily it didn’t hit me and, since I was stopped, the rock didn’t obstruct my travel. This was the worst of what I have experienced, thankfully! But it is very common to be jarred by passing motorists who honk or yell because they don’t like sharing the road with a bike (even though the road is not blocked — as I ride far to the right.)
What values are they living? Surely, they lack an appreciation for the need to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (as we learn from this week’s Torah portion in Leviticus 19.) They are too self-absorbed to realize that the best way to build a peaceful, caring society is to “stand in each other’s shoes” and respect each other’s needs. I can only pray that these lessons aren’t learned through tragedy.
A local group is sponsoring the second annual “Bike to Work Challenge.” I proudly display my certificate from last year’s challenge on the wall in my office. Thankfully, there is activism for raising cycling awareness. But the power to change our society resides with everyone. Some kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness and patience would go a long way toward helping all of us.
To all of the motorists who give us space and share the road – Thank You! We are all doing our part in making our world better.
A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.
To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.
Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard, I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”
Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.
I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom, the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.
Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover, whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.
Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.
But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point. If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud. We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.
The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.
In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,” there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.
Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.
This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.