The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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As we approach the winter holidays, one thing will likely dominate our minds: doors.
What? Doors weren’t the first thing on your mind? Come on! We just had the ringing of doorbells on Halloween; next up is the opening of doors to family and friends on Thanksgiving; and this year, that occasion will coincide with the rededication of the Temple’s doors, as we celebrate Hanukkah (and the mash-up “Thanksgivukkah” we keep hearing about).
Understanding that doors play a central place in our secular and religious lives, as the threshold to meaning and community, I wanted to share with you something interesting that I observed while visiting Temple Emanuel in Longview, Texas. There, the mezuzot are affixed to the left side of the doors, not the right; and, they lean outward as opposed to inward.
When I asked the co-president of this Reform congregation how they got into this “unorthodox” position, I was told a fascinating story. Originally, the mezuzot were on correctly. The doors, however, were not, as they opened inwards as opposed to outwards, which is the standard for all public buildings. Thus, the congregation was forced to turn the entire door frame around.
“But, what difference does the door’s direction really make?” I wondered. Then, it hit me! In cases of emergency, the doors in a public building need to open outward as to manage the rapid flow of people exiting. Go ahead. Look around you. I promise that you’ll notice that just about all public buildings’ doors open outward.
“So, where,” you may ask, “do they open inward?”
And here is where we find a powerful message. In outward-opening doors, a public space unconsciously imparts the message of departure and exclusion; whereas, our homes – through their inward opening doors – relates welcoming and inclusion. Likely, that was the original intent behind Emanuel’s construction: to be an extension of home, wherein all would be welcomed.
So as friends and family, neighbors and strangers, get poised to go from door to door this winter holiday season, let us keep in mind that every knock is a knock of opportunity. And, whether the door opens inward or outward, let’s just be mindful to keep it open to all.
As the only Jewish kid in his middle school in suburban Mississippi, my youngest son Eric will be telling his friends why he won’t be at school Monday. He’ll say he won’t be there “because it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
And inevitably, the follow up question from his fellow 6th graders will be: “What’s that?”
I can just imagine the conversation continuing from there…
Well, it’s the Jewish New Year.
New Year? So does that mean it’s like New Year’s Eve, and you stay up late, and at midnight say ‘Happy New Year!’?
Well, no, not really.
Does it have anything to do with Chanukah? Oooh! Do you play the dreidel game? Do you eat those good chocolate coins?
No, it has nothing to do with that.
I thought about how to respond. The questions were about to hit hard and fast, and as his mom, it’s my job to coach Eric and make sure he knows what to say. I want him to be prepared. Which meant I needed to be prepared, and I am embarrassed to say… I had to look it up.
I mean, of course I know what Rosh Hashanah is. I certainly know how to prepare the holiday dinner. I know what to say and do during services. I know the prayers, I know about saying I’m sorry, I know about the reflection … but I guess I was looking for the Cliff notes (Sparknotes?) version for what Rosh Hashanah “is”.
So at first, I went to my go-to reference guide, Joseph Telushkin’s wonderful Jewish Literacy book, and discovered the following information: “On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are instructed to scrupulously examine their deeds and more significantly their misdeeds during the preceding year. During these days, Jewish tradition teaches, God decides who shall live and who shall die during the coming year. The prayers that we say attempt to influence God’s decisions.”
This is pretty heavy stuff. Who shall live and who shall die. I have said those words every year since I began attending the adult service (let’s just say it’s been more than 30 years) and I never internalized those words – who shall live and who shall die.
Hmmm. Meaningful, yes, but not necessarily what I would advise Eric to tell his peers. “What’s Rosh Hoshanah? Oh, okay. Well. It’s basically when God decides who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die.”
So I went to the next great resource I had on hand – the ISJL pre-K curriculum. And you know what? In this particular situation, I think I prefer the early-childhood explanation: “During Rosh Hashanah, we think about how we want the new year to be better. We reflect on the past year – at both the good things and the bad things. At the new year we get a chance to start over fresh and make every effort to be a better person.”
As Telushkin admits, the theme of life and death could easily have turned Rosh Hashanah into two days of utter morbidity. To prevent this, the rabbis encouraged Jews to observe Rosh Hashanah in a spirit of optimism, confident that God will accept their repentance and extend their lives. For example, they ordained that honey be served at all Rosh Hashanah meals and that slices of apple be dipped into it. A special prayer is then recited: May it be Thy will, O Lord, Our God, to grant us a year that is good and is sweet.
That’s more in line with what I hope Eric’s classmates will learn when they ask him about our holiday. It’s a day of fresh starts. A season when we ask for a good and sweet year to come. (And if you need more resources on what Rosh Hashanah is, there are plenty of great ones here, too!)